21. The Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BCE)

Summary The Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), also known as the first Persian Empire, was centered in Iran and founded by Cyrus the Great. It was the greatest empire which the world had ever seen till then, and at its peak it stretched from Asia Minor and the Cyrenaika in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. About two centuries later it was conquered by the Greeks and their Macedonian leader Alexander the Great, after which it split up into several successor states during the Hellenistic period.

Keywords Alexander the Great; Ancient Greeks; Cyrus the Great; History of Southwest Asia

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A map of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 500 BCE. It was centered in Iran and stretched from Asia Minor and the Cyrenaika in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. Its administrative capital was Babylon in Mesopotamia. (© User:Anton Gutsunaev, User:Uirauna / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The Persians, together with other Indo-European peoples such as the Medes and the Parthians, moved onto the western Iranian plateau around 800 BCE in the context of the Indo-European migrations. The Persians settled in a region called Persis, which is today’s Fars Province in south-western Iran. They were initially subjects of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the capital of which was first Nimrud and later Nineveh – both in upper Mesopotamia –, and from about 612 BCE they were ruled by the Median Empire, the capital of which was Ecbatana in western Iran. The Persians gained their independence from the Median Empire in 550 BCE when they were freed by their ruler – also known as the King of Kings or Shahanshah – Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BCE), and they subsequently erected the greatest empire which the world had ever seen till then.

This was the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the first Persian Empire, which is named after its ruling dynasty. The Achaemenid dynasty was founded by Cyrus the Great and owes its name to his ancestor Achaemenes, who had lived around 700 BCE. The Persians conquered the Kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor in 547 BCE and then the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. When conquering Babylon, Cyrus the Great ended the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, as he allowed them to return to Judea (today’s southern Palestine) and to build their second temple in Jerusalem, events which are described in the Old Testament. From 535 BCE on the first regions of the Indus Valley in the east were conquered, and in 525 BCE the conquest of Egypt in the west by the Achaemenid Empire followed. The Achaemenid Empire failed, however, to conquer the Greek city-states in the west during the Greco-Persian Wars 499-449 BCE, such as Athens and Sparta.

The Achaemenid King of Kings Darius the Great (r. 522-486 BCE) introduced a bimetallic gold-silver currency standard in the empire – following the former practice of coinage in the Kingdom of Lydia –, he built Persepolis in Persis which became one of the Achaemenid capitals, and he built the Royal Road from Susa in western Iran to Sardis in western Asia Minor. Infrastructure projects like the Royal Road enabled the Achaemenid Empire to maintain a good postal system, which was praised by Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) for its efficiency. The administrative capital of the Achaemenids was in Babylon located in Mesopotamia, while other capitals were Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Susa and the newly-built Persepolis. The provinces of the empire were ruled by satraps. One religion which was supported by the Achaemenid Empire was the dualist religion Zoroastrianism, which had been founded by the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster (also called Zarathustra) and is centered around the creator god Ahura Mazda and his evil opponent Ahriman. Another religion which enjoyed support was the polytheistic Babylonian religion with its supreme god Marduk, who was similar to the Greek supreme god Zeus and the Roman supreme god Jupiter. Generally the Achaemenid rulers were very tolerant towards other religions.

Valenciennes, Pierre-Henri de - Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great - 1796

A painting of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE), conqueror of the Achaemenid Empire, visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great (r. 559-550 BCE), founder of the Achaemenid Empire (© Painted by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in 1796 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Over time the Achaemenid Empire became unstable, which became evident during the Great Satrap’s Revolt (366-360 BCE). It was finally overthrown by the Macedonians and Greeks under Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE), who conquered the entire Achaemenid Empire from Asia Minor and Egypt in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. After the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon at a young age of 32 years his empire was divided into several successor states which were ruled by his former generals, also called the Diadochi. Two important ones were Seleucus I Nicator who founded the Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE) between the eastern Mediterranean shore and the Indus Valley and Ptolemy I Soter who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BCE) in Egypt. The time from Alexander’s death in 323 BCE to the conquest of Egypt by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE is called the Hellenistic period. During this time Greek rulers were influential in the region between Egypt and the Indus Valley, as well as in Greece itself and in the Mediterranean Basin in general, and scholars such as Euclid, Aristarchus of Samos and Eratosthenes advanced the sciences.

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