Ancient Persia: 12 Major Events

What was referred to as ancient Persia is estimated to have stretched from the Persian Gulf all the way to the Euphrates River. The empire ranks up there as one of the greatest empires in history, as it could boast of powerful leaders like Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Established around the mid-6th century BC, ancient Persia, which is also known as the Achaemenid Empire, became the dominant power in the region following the demise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. At its peak in the 5th century BC, ancient Persia spanned more than 2 million square miles and had a population of at least 20 million people.

How large was Ancient Persia?

Ancient Persia at its height around 500 BC

Ancient Persia is said to have reached its peak around the early part of the 5th century BC, when the Persian king controlled not just the entirety of the Persian Plateau but all the areas that were under the Assyrian Empire, territories in Anatolia, the Caucasus, coastal regions on the Black Sea, parts of Central Asia, Thrace, Macedonia, Eastern Europe, the western Indus basin, northern Arabia, parts of China, Oman, and some parts of eastern Libya.

Persian Empire: Fast Facts

Ancient Persia events

  • Capital: Babylon, Persepolis (ceremonial)
  • Other important cities: Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana, Sardis
  • Major languages: Old Persian, Aramaic, Babylonian, Median, Greek, Elamite, Egyptian, Sumerian
  • Religion: Zoroastrianism, Babylonian religion
  • Most famous rulers: Cyrus the Great, Darius I, Xerxes I
  • Land area: 2.1 million square miles (5.5 million square kilometers)
  • Estimated population: 20-30 million
  • Major events: Conquest of Lydia in 547 BC; Conquest of Babylon in 539 BC; Conquest of Egypt in 525 BC; Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BC); Fall to Alexander the Great around 330 BC

Meaning and origin story

The name ‘Achaemenid’ is said to mean “of the dynasty of the Achaemenis/Achaemenes”. Achaemenes was a 7th-century chief who ruled the ancient Persian city of Anshan in present-day southwestern Iran. The Anshans were a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire.

What used to be Anshan is located in modern day Tall-e Malyan in the Zagros Mountains. The city is about 43 kilometers (29 miles) west of Persepolis, the capital city of the Achaemenid Empire.

The early inhabitants of the Persian Empire called themselves the Parsa. The word “Persia” is in fact the name the Greeks used to refer to those people, i.e. Persis.

The ruling dynasty, the Achaemenids, was a clan that emerged from a very influential Persian tribe named Pasargadae.

12 Most Important Events in Ancient Persia

Ancient Persia events

Delve into the 12 major events that occurred in ancient Persia.

A revolt by Cyrus II of the Ashan against the Median Empire

The early nomadic Persians first arrived in what is today’s Iran around c. 1000 BC. For several millennia, many of them scattered into areas in north-western Iran and the Zagros Mountains. Between the 10th century BC and the 7th century BC, those nomadic Persians were ruled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

As the centuries rolled by, the Achaemenids became more prominent in their position as the rulers of the Elamite city of Anshan. Some of the earliest kings of Anshan include Teispes, Cyrus I, and Cambyses I. It is commonly held that King Achaemenes was the apical ancestor of all those kings. However, some historians beg to differ, stating that Achaemenes was instead a mythical figure the early Persian kings used to describe their origin story. Persian King Darius the Great noted in the Behistun Inscription that Achaemenes was the father of Teispes. Darius also stated that he descended from King Teispes.

Beginning around 553 BC, Cyrus II, a local leader of the Ashan people, mounted a massive rebellion against the Median Empire, toppling King Astyages of Media. What is interesting about this revolt is that Cyrus toppled his own grandfather, as Astyages was the father of Cyrus’ mother Mandane of Media.

In his book Histories – Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus II, was the son of King Cambyses I and Queen Mandane of Media. His mother was the daughter of Astyages, the king of the Median Empire. Image: Cyrus the Great (center) with his General Harpagus behind him, as he receives the submission of Astyages (18th century tapestry)

Cyrus the Great establishes the Persian Empire in 550 BC

The Medians held vast territories mainly in Eastern Anatolia and Iran. By 550 BC, Cyrus had successfully gotten his hands on the Median capital city of Ecbatana. Being the grandson of the deposed Median king Astyages, Cyrus did not struggle that much to establish himself as the rightful heir to the throne. Cyrus also inherited all the swathe of land that was under the rule of the Median kings.

Not only did Cyrus inherit the lands and vast wealth of the Median Empire, but he also inherited the wars that Media was waging against Lydia and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Around 550 BC, the Median capital city Ecbatana gets overran by Cyrus’ forces. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, Cyrus’s efforts were bolstered by the defection of Harpagus, a trusted official of King Astyages.

Following the demise of the Median Empire, Cyrus had to put down quite a number of rebellions from former Median vassals and tributaries. Some of those places that rebelled include Bactria (or Bactriana) and Saka in Central Asia.

Following his death in 530 BC, Cyrus was succeeded by his eldest son and crown prince Cambyses II (r. 525-522 BC). Cyrus died during a military campaign against Eastern Iranian nomadic group of tribes in Central Asia. | Image: Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, or four-winged Cherub tutelary divinity, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasagardae

Lydia falls into the hands of the Persians

Located in western Asia Minor (present day provinces in western Turkey), the Kingdom of Lydia thought it could take some of the lands that were held by the deposed Median king Astyages. To Lydian King Croesus’ surprise, the new ruler of the Medians, Cyrus the Great, mounted a strong offensive to repel Lydian forces. King Cyrus marched his army into Lydian territories until he finally captured Sardis, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. By 546 BC, the Kingdom of Lydia had capitulated to Cyrus’ growing Persian Empire.

According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus installed a Lydian named Pactyes to administer Sardis as well as collect all of King Croesus’ gold. Pactyes ended up revolting against Tabalus, the Persian official in Sardis, as well as Cyrus’ rule. Pactyes was eventually apprehended by Persian officials while trying to flee the empire.

Neo-Babylonian Empire is conquered by the Achaemenid Empire

Sometimes called the Liberation of Babylonia, the fall of Babylon occurred in 539 BC, about 11 years after the establishment of the Persian Empire. With several cracks appearing in the Babylonian Empire, the Babylonians were there for the taking by Cyrus’ Persian army.

Babylonia had seen Nabonidus, son of the Assyrian priestess Adda-Guppi, remove King Labashi-Marduk from power. Nabonidus then put his son Crown Prince Belshazzar in charge of much of the empire’s affairs. However, Belshazzar’s poor political skills caused a lot of influential Babylonians to despise him. Therefore, when Cyrus’ ever-expanding empire turned its attention to the Babylonian Empire, many Babylonian politicians were more than happy to see Prince Belshazzar removed from power.

By the year 539 BC, the Persian Empire had successfully brought Babylonia into its growing empire. According to the Cyrus Cylinder – an ancient clay cylinder with Akkadian cuneiform script, Cyrus did not to impose Persian culture and religious beliefs on the Babylonians. He also came to the rescue of the Jewish community in Babylonia, who had for many years being persecuted. He is said to have let the Jews return to their home in Jerusalem.

The deposed Babylonian king Nabonidus was imprisoned, and Cyrus restored the Babylonian god Marduk as the city’s patron god. During Nabonidus’ reign, the moon god Sin was promoted at the expense of Marduk. By drawing similarities to famous Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, Cyrus gained more legitimacy among the Babylonians, who came to love him for his efforts to restore the values and culture of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Following his death in 530 BC, Cyrus was succeeded by his eldest son and crown prince Cambyses II (r. 525-522 BC). Cyrus died during a military campaign against Eastern Iranian nomadic group of tribes in Central Asia. | Image: Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, or four-winged Cherub tutelary divinity, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasagardae

The land of Egypt falls into the hands of King Cambyses II

After securing victories over Cyprus and Phoenicia, Cambyses II, Cyrus the Great’s successor, turned his attention to Egypt. The Persian king attacked Egypt, which was by then ruled by Pharaoh Psamtik III. Worsened by the defections of some of his key officials, Psamtik suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Cambyses II in the Battle of Pelusim. The king of Egypt was subsequently captured and the imprisoned.

Unlike his father Cyrus the Great, Cambyses II did not let the territories he conquered continue practicing the religions. He was said to be very hostile towards Egyptians, their culture and religion. In a sacrilegious act, he ordered the slaughtering of the sacred bull called Apis in the city of Memphis.

According to some accounts, Cambyses II had a mental illness, which explains why he ordered the murder of his younger brother Bardiya.

In 526 BC, Persian King Cambyses II defeated Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik III. Cambyses II then crowns himself pharaoh of Egypt. Shortly after, many minor rulers in the region surrendered to Cambyses II without a fight. Some examples of those territories are the Libyans. Imaginary 19th-century illustration of Cambyses II meeting Psamtik III.

Darius the Great becomes king of the Persian Empire

Image: Detail of Darius, with a label in Greek (ΔΑΡΕΙΟΣ, top right) giving his name.

After the death of Cambyses II in 522 BC, a Magus (priest in Zoroastrianism), Gaumata, who had been for a number of years impersonating Cambyses II’s brother Bardiya, inherited the Persian throne. It is possible Darius the Great spread the story of the alleged imposter in order to find enough grounds to usurp the throne. It comes as no surprise that the story features in the Behistun Inscription which was written by Darius himself. Darius stated in the inscription that the impersonator, i.e. Gaumata, ruled the empire for about seven months until he was overthrown in 522 BC by Darius himself.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Darius the Great expands the boundary of the Persian Empire as more and more territories fall under Persia’s rule. In 511 BC, King Amyntas I of Macedonia handed his country to Darius the Great. This allowed Persia to gain a reasonable foothold in the Mediterrenean region. He then used Macedonia as a launching pad to invade the Balkans. He brought many territories in along the Black Sea to their knees. Similarly, the Thracian people, and Indo-European people (present-day Eastern and Southeastern Europe), fell to the might of Darius the Great. After some time, the Greek cities on the coast and the Paeonians (today’s North Macedonia), became part of the Persian Empire.

Conquering the Balkans proved extremely advantageous for Darius, as he sourced an incredible number of soldiers for his army from that region.

The Ionian Revolt (499 BC- 493 BC)

Ionian Revolt in the early 5th century ushered the Greco-Persian wars | Image: The burning of Sardis by the Greeks during the Ionian Revolt in 498 BC.

Although Persia enjoyed very friendly relations with conquered territories for some time, there were some places that could not wait to drive their Persian overlords out of their lands. At the start of the 5th century BC, rebellions broke out in Cyprus, Caria (in western Anatolia), Doris (in southwest Asia Minor), and Aeolis (in northwestern Asia Minor) against Persian rule. Historians state that the revolts spanned from 499 BC to 493 BC.

The administrators employed by the Persian kings had incurred the fury of the Greek cities in Asia Minor, with many describing them as tyrants. The rebellion was championed by Greek tyrants Aristagoras and Histiaue, both of Miletus. In 498 BC, The Ionian Rebellion against the Persians, which received the support of the Eretrians and Athenians, resulted in the burning of the city of Sardis, an important city in the Persian Empire. The Persians gave the Ionian forces a good chase and then defeated them at the Battle of Ephesus.

Two years later, the Persians went on the offensive to take back rebel-held areas in Ionia. After regaining territories on the west coast of Anatolia, Darius the Great forced the Greeks into a peace deal. Darius was still very sour about the Greeks’ and Eretrian’s support given to the Ionian Revolt. Darius sought out revenge; his ambition was take over all of Greece.

Battle of Marathon in 490 BC

Ancient Persia

1900 depiction of the Battle of Marathon

An alliance of Greek city states handed the Persians a defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The defeat caused Darius’ health to get worse until he died in 486 BC. Darius’ son Xerxes I (reign – 485 – 465 BC) vowed to avenge his father’s defeat and see through the conquest of all of Greece. This ushered in the second Persian invasion of Greece, which began around 480 BC.

King Xerxes the Great assembled a large army and navy and went on the offensive against Greece, whose forces were significantly outnumbered by the Persians. Allied Greek forces, which included Spartans, Thebans, Thespians, and Lakedemonians, blocked the  narrow coastal pass of Themopylae, also known as the “the place of hot springs” or “the Hot Gates”. Over the course of three days, the Greeks, led by King Leonidas I of Sparta, engaged fiercely with Xerxes I’s forces.

Read More: 15 Important Facts about the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC

The Battles of Thermopylae, Artemisium and Salamis

Second Persian invasion of Greece came after the Persians were defeated by an Athenian led forces at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The goal of the second invasion of Greece was to conquer all of Greece. Greek hoplite and Persian warrior depicted fighting, on an ancient kylix, 5th century BC

Athenian general Themistocles managed to convince the Allied Greek forces to simultaneously take on the Persians at the pass of Tehmopylae and the straits of Artemisium. At the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians outnumbered the Greek forces significantly. At the time, it was claimed that the Persians had more than one million soldiers. The size of the Persian army was outrageously exaggerated by both ancient Greek historian Herodotus and lyric poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 556–468 BC), with the latter going as far as saying that the Persians had more than three million soldiers. Modern scholars and historians put the figure at around 90 to 150 thousand Persian soldiers.

Ancient Persia

Taking place at the pass of Thermopylae, which was known at the time as the “Cavernous entrance to Hades”, the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC saw Persian King Xerxes defeat the Greek alliance. Xerxes then proceeded to sack the city of Athens. Image: 19th-century painting by John Steeple Davis, depicting combat during the battle

The vastly outnumbered Allied Greek forces showed nerves of steel and held the Persians off for about a week a so until the Persians completely destroyed the rear-guard of the Greek forces. In what was an obvious betrayal by a Greek named Ephialtes, the Persians were able to find a small path, which allowed them to outflank King Leonidas and his forces at the pass of Thermopylae. The Persians then went on to slaughter every one of those Greek soldiers, including Leonidas.

At the Battle of Artemisium, the Greek general and politician Themistocles took charge of the Greek navy. However, upon hearing of the tragic demise of all Greek forces at at the pass at Thermopylae, Themistocles ordered his navy to withdraw to Salamis. The Persians took Attica, Euboea and Boeotia, and Phocis. The city of Athens also fell into the hands of the Persians.

At the Battle of Artemisium in 480 BC, the Persian navy forced an Athenian-dominated Allied navy to retreat. However, a year later, the Greek fleet mounted another challenge against the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Greek city-states were led by the general Themistocles and Spartan commander Eurybiades while the Persians were under King Xerxes, with support from King of Sidon Tetramnestos, Artemisia I of Caria, his son Ariabignes, and General Achaemenes. | Image: Rock relief of an Achaemenid king, most likely Xerxes, located in the National Museum of Iran

Staring a possible defeat in the face, the Greeks assembled a fleet that mounted one final attack against the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis in late autumn of 480 BC. Taking place in the Straits of Salamis – the straits between the mainland of Piraeus and the island of Salamis, an island in the Saronic Gulf near Athens – the Battle of Salamis saw the Persians raise about 900 to 1100 ships, which outnumbered that of the Greeks by about 2 or 3 times. The Greek fleet formed a straight line to counteract the blockage placed by the Persian fleet at both entrances of the strait. In what was absolutely shocking to Xerxes, the Persian navy suffered defeat at the hands of the Greeks. The Persians lost about 300 ships, compared to the meager 40 that was lost by the Greeks.

Following the defeat at Salamis, King Xerxes took a bold decision and pulled out much of his forces from Europe and headed to Asia. Along the way, his army suffered further losses to diseases and starvation.

Greek ships against Achaemenid ships at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC

Xerxes left some number of forces in Europe under the command of Mardonius. In 479 BC, the Persians were handed another crippling defeat at the Battle of Plataea and then a navy battle at Mycale that same year. Those battles in effect brought an end to the Second Persian invasion of mainland Greece.

The Persian Empire loses all of its territories in Europe

That same year, the Persians suffer a naval defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes then returned to Sardis. He left his general Mardonius, who took back Athens. However, Athenians were able to come back strong at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.

By 466 BC, the Athenian coalition had successfully secured victory over the Persians. This caused many territories in Europe to revolt against the Persians, including the Macedonians. Persian therefore lost all of its territories in Europe.

In addition to the Greco-Persian Wars weakening the Persian Empire, King Xerxes I’s cruel rule contributed in so many ways to the decline of the Persian Empire. The empire’s social structure had fractured as agitations from the lower and middle classes increased with every passing year. Infighting among the satraps (governors) across the Empire also compounded the problem, which in turn devastated the Persian economy.

The Peace of Callias (449 BC)

Following the assassination of Xerxes I in 465 BC, his eldest son Artaxerxes I (reign – 465- 424 BC) succeeded the throne. The Persians and the Greeks will continue to lock horns until 449, when the Peace of Callias was signed between Argos, Athens and Persia.

Upon Artaxerxes I’s death in 424 BC, his eldest son Xerxes II inherited the Persian throne. Shockingly, Xerxes II was assassinated just a few days into his rule. His illegitimate brother Sogdianus was said to be the one who ordered the assassination. Sogdianus inherited the throne and went on to rule for about six months before he too was overthrown by his half-brother Ochus. In honor of Darius the Great, Ochus became Darius II (reign – 423-404 BC).

Ancient Persia reconquers Egypt

The death of Darius II in 404 BC emboldened an Egyptian leader named Amyrtaeus of Sais to rebel against Persian rule in Egypt. Amyrtaeus reigned as pharaoh from 404 to 399 BC. Egypt would remain independent until 340 BC, when it was again conquered by the Persians under Artaxerxes III (reign- 358-338 BC), son of Artaxerxes II. Egypt at the time was under the rule of Pharaoh Nectanebo II (reign – 360 BC – 342 BC), who fled to Memphis after his army was defeated by the Persians.

Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia

Between 334-331, Alexander the Great fought and defeated the Persians. |Image: Alexander fighting Persian king Darius III.

In 338 BC, Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his Vizier Bagoas and a royal physician. Artaxerxes III’s son Artaxerxes IV (Arses) inherited the throne. Two years into Artaxerxes IV’s reign, he was poisoned by Bagoas, who picked Artaxerxes IV’s cousin, Darius III, to inherit the throne.

Darius III set out to build his army in order to completely bring Egypt under his control. It was around this time that a young general and king Alexander the Great of Macedon began to emerge.

Alexander the Great laid waste to the Persian forces during the Battle of Granicus in 334 BC. A year later, in 333 BC, Alexander defeated the Persians again; this time it was at Issus. Then there was another historic win by Alexander over the Persians at Issus in 333 BC.

In 330 BC, there was nothing that Darius III of Persia could do to stop the advances of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king took the city of Susa and later Persepolis. With Darius III out of the picture, Alexander the Great became king of the Persian Empire.

More ancient Persia facts

Ancient Persia

Achaemenid Empire, also known as the Persian Empire, under different kings. The Empire reached its greatest height during the reign of Darius I (also known as Darius the Great)

  • The Medes, an ancient Iranian people, set up their empire before the Persians did. The Medes were key in bringing down the Assyrian rulers in the region.
  • To this day, archaeologists are yet to unearth any ruin to suggest that Achaemenes existed.
  • Herodotus, a 5th-century ancient Greek historian and geographer, stated that the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, was the son of King Cambyses I of the Ashan.
  • Cyrus the Great (c. 600 BC-530 BC) founded a garrison city called Cyropolis in 544 BC to help him quell rebellions against his rule in the northwestern border of the empire.
  • Artaxerxes II, son of Darius II and Queen Parysatis, reigned for 46 years, from 404 to 358 BC. His 46-year reign makes him the longest-reigning Persian king.

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