Achaemenid Empire
550 BC–50 BC

Standard of Cyrus the Great (Achaemenid Empire).svg
Standard of Cyrus the Great

The First Persian Empire at its greatest territorial extent,
under the rule of Darius I
Capital Babylon


Languages Persian
Religion Zoroastrianism
Government Monarchy
 •  550–529 BC Cyrus the Great
 • 336–330 BC Darius III
Historical Era Age of the Ancients
 •  Persian Revolt 550 BC
 • Conquest of Lydia 547 BC
 • Conquest of Babylon 539 BC
 • Conquest of Egypt 525 BC
 • Greco-Persian Wars 499–449 BC
 • Battle of Taxila 300 BC
 •  Disestablished 50 BC
 •  500 BC 8,500,000 km² (3,281,868 sq mi)
 •  500 BC est. 35 Million 
Currency Daric
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Armenia (Alexandros) Artaxiad.svg
Kingdom of Babylon (Alexandros) 20px
Parthian Empire (Alexandros) 3by2white.svg
Kingdom of the Medes (Alexandros) 3by2white.svg
Kingdom of Lydia (Alexandros) 3by2white.svg
Kingdom of Egypt (Alexandros) 3by2white.svg

The First Persian Empire (Old Persian: Haxāmanišiya), also called the Achaemenid Empire, after their only reigning dynasty, was an empire based in Western Asia. Founded by Cyrus the Great, the empire included various major civilizations and became one of the largest empires in history, spanning at its maximum extent from the Balkans to the Indus Valley in the east. It was equally notable for its successful model of a centralized, bureaucratic administration, through satrapies. The empire had a specific postal system and road system. Along with this, it was one of the first nations to have the use of an official language across its territories and a large professional army and civil services, inspiring other empires all across the world to copy its design. It is noted in history as the antagonists of the Greek city states during the Greco-Persian Wars and for the emancipation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon.

By the 7th century BC, the Persians had settled in the southwestern portion of the Iranian Plateau in the region of Parsis, which came to be their homeland From this region, Cyrus the Great advanced to defeat the Medes, Lydia, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and established this same empire. Encompassing around 8 million square kilometers across three sub-continents, making it the largest empire in the ancient world. With population estimates of 50 million in 480 BC, the Persian Empire at its peak was one of the empires with the highest share of the global population, nearly half.

The delegation of power to local governments is thought to have eventually weakened the king's authority, causing resources to be expended in attempts to subdue local rebellions, and leading to the disunity of the region at the time of Alexander III's invasion. Many modern historians think that if Alexander were not killed at the Battle of the Granicus, he would have went on to end and conquer the rest of the Persian Empire. However, many this is also just viewed as rampant speculation. However, when Egypt successfully pushed out the Persians at the Second Battle of Pelusium, Emperor Xerxes III attempts to prove himself an able ruler and attempts to conquer the Magadha. After heading off to siege Taxila, Xerxes is killed at the Taxila. After word spreads quickly west, no doubt perpetuated by the Magadhans, the Persian Empire collapsed into chaos. Tired of petty dynastic feuding, several major satraps in the west asserted their independence, led by Spithridates II, satrap of Kingdom of Lydia. It would take three years for a new Emperor to be widely accepted, Artaxerxes V. Although Artaxerxes would temporarily save the Empire from complete collapse, the western territories had been severed from the Persian Empire, and he did not try to reconquer those lands. The Empire's fate became clear when the Persians lost the Battle of Ecbatana versus a group of combined Parthian-Mede rebels. The importance of Persia gradually diminished with the rise of numerous states in the west once again, and the rump state of the once great Empire was annexed by the encroaching Parthian hordes by 50 BC.



    Main Article: Origin of the Persian Empire


    Main Article: Formation and Expansion of the Persian Empire

Greco-Persian wars

    Main Article: Greco-Persian Wars


    Main Article: Peace in the First Persian Empire

Renewed War

    Main Article: Second Conquest of Egypt



Cyrus the Great founded the empire as a multi-state empire, governed by four capital states; Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ecbatana. The Persians allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in the form of the satrapy system. A satrapy was an administrative unit, usually organized on a geographical basis. At differing times, there were between 20 and 30 satrapies. Cyrus also formed an innovative postal system throughout the empire, based on several relay stations called Chapar Khaneh.

Darius the Great reinforced the empire and expanded Persepolis as a ceremonial capital; he revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage and introducing a regulated and sustainable tax system that was precisely tailored to each satrapy, based on their supposed productivity and their economic potential. For instance, Babylon was assessed for the highest amount and for a startling mixture of commodities – 1000 silver talents, four months supply of food for the army. India was clearly already fabled for its gold; Egypt was known for the wealth of its crops; it was to be the granary of the Persian Empire and was required to provide 120,000 measures of grain in addition to 700 talents of silver. This was exclusively a tax levied on subject peoples. Other accomplishments of Darius' reign included codification of the data, a universal legal system, and construction of a new capital at Persepolis.

Under the Persians, the trade was extensive and there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire. Tariffs on trade were one of the empire's main sources of revenue, along with agriculture and tribute.

The satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive stretch being the Royal Road from Susa to Sardis, built by command of Darius. The relays of mounted couriers could reach the remotest of areas in two weeks. Herodotus observes that:

There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

The practice of slavery in the Empire was generally banned, due to Zoroastrianism, although there is evidence that conquered or rebellious armies were sold into captivity. The emperors of Persia, especially the founder Cyrus the Great, approached slavery to varying degrees, as evidenced by the freeing of the Jews at Babylon, and the construction of Persepolis by paid workers.


Despite its humble origins in Persis, the empire reached an enormous size under the leadership of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus created a multi-state empire where he allowed regional rulers, called the 'satrap' to rule as his proxy over a certain designated area of his empire called the satrapy. The basic rule of governance was based upon loyalty and obedience of each satrapy to the central power, or the emperor, and compliance with tax laws. Due to the ethnocultural diversity of the subject nations under the rule of Persia, its enormous geographic size, and the constant struggle for power by regional competitors, the creation of a professional army was necessary for both maintenance of the peace, and also to enforce the authority of the emperor in cases of rebellion and foreign threat. Cyrus managed to create a strong land army, using it to advance in his campaigns in Babylonia, Lydia, and Anatolia, which after his death was used by his son Cambyses II. Cyrus would die battling a local Iranian insurgency in the empire, before he could have a chance to develop a naval force. That task however would fall to Darius the Great, who would officially give Persians their own royal navy to allow them to engage their enemies on multiple seas of this vast empire. The empire's great armies were, like the empire itself, very diverse, comprising of nearly every ethnic and cultural group conquered by the Persians.


The Persian infantry consisted of three groups: the Immortals, Sparabara, and the Takabara, though in the later years of the Empire, Greek mercenaries, were introduced en masse.

The Immortals as described by Herodotus as being heavy infantry, that were kept constantly at a strength of exactly 10,000 men. He claimed that the unit's name stemmed from the custom that every killed, wounded, or sick member of the Immortals was immediately replaced with a new one, maintaining the numbers and cohesion of the unit. They were equiped with wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, bow and arrow. Underneath their long robes, they wore scale armor coats. The spear counterbalances of the common soldiery were of silver, to differentiate commanding ranks, the officers' spears butt-spikes were golden. The Immortals wore elaborate robes and gold jewelry, although these articles of clothing were only used for ceremonial occasions.

The Sparabara were usually the first to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. They were the backbone of the Persian army who formed a shieldwall and used their seven feet-long spears to protect vulnerable troops, such as archers, from the enemy. The Sparabara were taken from the full members of Persian society, and were trained from childhood to be soldiers. When not at war, they would be the ones hunting in the vast plains of Persia. However, when the Persians were at peace, they were simple farmers. Because of this they lacked true professional quality on the battlefield, yet they were well trained and courageous to the point of holding the line in most situations long enough for a counterattack. They were armored with quilted linen and carried large rectangular wicker shields as a form of light maneuverable defense. This, however, left them at a severe disadvantage against heavily armored opponents such as the Greek hoplite, and his seven feet long spear was not able to give the Sparabara ample range to plausibly engage a trained phalanx. The wicker shields were able to effectively stop arrows but not strong enough to protect the soldier from spears. However, the Sparabara could deal with most other infantry, including trained units from other nations in the east.

The Takabara were a rare unit who were a tough type of skirmishers. Takabara nevertheless were more garrison warriors than front line fighters as proved against the well-armed Hoplites of Greece where they were easily defeated in hand to hand conflict. They tended to fight with their own native weapons which would have included a crescent-shaped light wickerwork shield and axes as well as light linen cloth and leather.


The armoured Persian horsemen and their death dealing chariots were invincible. No man dared face them


The Persian Cavalry was crucial for conquering nations, and had maintained its importance in the army to the last days of the Empire. The cavalry were separated into four groups. The Chariot Archers, Horse cavalry, the Camel cavalry, and the Elephant Cavalry.

In the later years of the Persian Empire, the Chariot archer had become merely a ceremonial part of the Persian army, yet in the early years of the Empire, their use was widespread. The Chariot archers were armed with Spears, Bows, Arrows, Swords, and scale armor. The horses were also suited with scale armor. The Chariots would contain imperial symbols and Decorations. The Horses used by the Persians for Cavalry were often suited with scale armor, like most cavalry units. The riders often had the same armor as Infantry units, wicker shields, short spears, swords or large daggers, bow and arrow and scale armor coats. The Camel cavalry was different, because the Camels and sometimes the riders, were provided little protection against enemies, yet when they were offered protection, they would have Spears, Swords, Bow, Arrow, and scale armor. The Persian Camel Cavalry was first introduced into the Persian army by Cyrus the Great. The Persian war elephant was most likely introduced into the Persian army by Darius I after his conquest of the Indus Valley.


Since its foundation by Cyrus, the Persian empire had been primarily a land empire with a strong army, but void of any actual naval forces. By the 5th century BC, this was to change, as the empire came across Greek, and Egyptian forces, each with their own maritime traditions and capabilities. Darius the Great is to be credited as the first Persian emperor to invest in a Persian fleet. Even by then no true "imperial navy" had existed either in Greece or Egypt. Persia would become the first empire, under Darius, to inaugurate and deploy the first regular imperial navy. Despite this achievement, the personnel for the imperial navy would not come from Iran, but were often Phoenicians, the most renowned sailors in the Old World. Egyptians and Greeks chosen by Darius the Great to operate the empire's combat vessels.

At first the ships were built in Sidon by the Phoenicians; the first Persian ships measured about 40 meters in length and 6 meters in width, able to transport up to 300 Persian troops at any one trip. Despite origin of the technique of the arsenal and ship construction in Sidon, soon other states of the empire were constructing their own ships each incorporating slight local preferences. The ships eventually found their way to the Persian Gulf. Persian naval forces laid the foundation for a strong Persian maritime presence in the Persian Gulf. Persians were not only stationed on islands in the Persian Gulf, but also had ships often of 100 to 200 capacity patrolling the empire's various rivers.

The construction material of choice was wood, but some armored Persian ships had metallic blades on the front, often meant to slice enemy ships using the ship's momentum. Naval ships were also equipped with hooks on the side to grab enemy ships, or to negotiate their position. The ships were propelled by sails or manpower. The ships the Persians created were unique. As far as maritime engagement, the ships were equipped with two catapults that would launch projectiles such as stones, or flammable substances.


Morals and Ethics

Herodotus, in his mid-5th century BC account of Persian residents of the Pontus, when the region was still under Persian dominion, reports that Persian youths, from their fifth year to their twentieth year, were instructed in three things – to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the truth. He further notes that:

the most disgraceful thing in the world the Persians think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies.

In the early Persian Empire, lying was a cardinal sin, and was punishable by death in some extreme cases. In fact, tablets were kept in Persepolis that contained the name of ordinary Persians: traders, merchants, and warehouse-keepers. These people were ones who had stayed true to the truth. This value of truth would carry onto the modern day, and was treasured by every Persian Empire throughout history.


During the reign of Cyrus and Darius, and as long as the seat of government was still at Susa in Elam, the language of the chancellory was Elamite. However, this was only used when Susa was the capital of the Empire. It is then likely that although Elamite was used by the capital government in Susa, which ended in 458 BC.

Following the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Aramaic language was adopted as a "vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. The use of a single official language, which modern scholarship has dubbed "Official Aramaic" or "Imperial Aramaic", can be assumed to have greatly contributed to the astonishing success of the Persiansin holding their far-flung empire together for as long as they did.

Although Old Persian also appears on some seals and art objects, that language is attested primarily in the Persian inscriptions of Western Iran, suggesting then that Old Persian was the common language of the Empire east of Babylon.

When the occasion demanded, Persian administrative correspondence was conducted in Greek, making it a widely used bureaucratic language. Even though the Persians had extensive contacts with the Greeks and vice versa


The Persians were invited to great birthday feasts, which would be followed by many desserts. The Persians drank wine in large quantities and used it even for counsel, deliberating on important affairs when drunk, and deciding the next day, when sober, whether to act on the decision or set it aside. Bowing to superiors was originally a Persian custom in the region, which many nations in the east adopted.


It was during this period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional Iranian pantheon but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will. Under the patronage of the Persian emperors, and by the 5th century BC as the de facto religion of the state, Zoroastrianism reached all corners of the empire.

Art and Architecture

Persian architecture includes large cities, temples, palaces, and mausoleums such as the Tomb of Cyrus. The quintessential feature of Persian architecture was its eclectic nature with elements of almost every culture surrounding it, yet maintaining a unique Persian identity seen in the finished products.[152]

Persian art includes frieze reliefs, Metalwork such as the Oxus Treasure, decoration of palaces, glazed brick masonry, fine craftsmanship (masonry, carpentry, etc.), and gardening. Although the Persians took artists, with their styles and techniques, from all corners of their empire, they produced not simply a combination of styles, but a synthesis of a new unique Persian style.

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