Rulers of the Achaemenid Empire: From Cyrus the Great to Artaxerxes V

King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire

King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, was one of the largest and most significant empires in ancient history. Founded around the mid-6th century BC by Cyrus the Great, the empire went on to encompass a vast territory that stretched from present-day Iran to Egypt and parts of Central Asia and Europe.

Ruled by a series of Persian monarchs from the Achaemenid dynasty, the empire was at some point the largest the ancient world had ever seen.

The time when Athenians prayed to Boreas to deliver them from the Persians

But have you ever wondered how many rulers the Achaemenid Empire had? And who were they and what were their major accomplishments?

Below, World History Edu presents the lives, reign and major accomplishments of all the Achaemenid rulers, who were known as the King of Kings.

Cyrus the Great (reign: 550–530 BC): Founder of the Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus the Great (reign: 550–530 BC) founded the empire and established the foundation for its expansion. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in ancient history. He was praised by many ancient historians as one who respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. He did not deny the local customs after conquering the Neo-Babylonian Empire; rather he adhered to them. Image: Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasargadae

Cyrus the Great was born around 600 BC in Anshan, a region in present-day Iran. Under his leadership, the Persian Empire expanded significantly, eventually encompassing a vast territory that stretched from Asia Minor to the Indus River. Cyrus was known for his military prowess and his diplomatic skills, employing a strategy of tolerance and respect for local customs to maintain stability in the conquered regions.

One of Cyrus’s most notable achievements was the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which led to the liberation of the Jewish people from Babylonian captivity. Cyrus is mentioned in the Bible as the liberator and is praised for his decree allowing the exiled Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Reigning from around 550 to 530 BC, the Persian king was known for his benevolent rule. He implemented policies that promoted religious and cultural tolerance, allowing conquered peoples to practice their own customs and beliefs. Historians opine that Cyrus the Great’s reputation as a fair and just ruler earned him the respect and admiration of his subjects.

Upon his death around 530 BC, he was succeeded to the throne by his son, Cambyses II, who as we shall see below extended the empire’s dominion into Egypt, Cyrenaica (i.e. the eastern region of present-day Libya) and Nubia.

Under the rule of Cyrus the Great’s successors, the Achaemenid Empire reached its peak extent, spanning from regions in the Balkans such as Eastern Bulgaria, Paeonia, Thrace, and Macedonia, to Southeast Europe proper in the west, and all the way to the Indus Valley in the east.

Read More: Greatest Achievements of Cyrus the Great

Cambyses II: First Persian to become pharaoh of Egypt

Rulers of the Achaemenid Empire

Cambyses II (530–522 BC): Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus, expanded the empire further, including the conquest of Egypt. Image: Imaginary 19th-century illustration of Cambyses II meeting Psamtik III.

As stated above, one of the notable achievements of the Persian King Cambyses II was the annexation of Egypt into the Persian Empire. In the summer of 525 BC, he led a successful military campaign that resulted in the defeat of the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik III (reign: 526-525 BC) at the Battle of Pelusium, bringing Egypt under Persian control. He thus became the first Persian pharaoh.

From then onward, he would continue his father’s military campaigns and expand the empire’s territories through conquests, moving further into Cyrenaica and Nubia.

However, Cambyses II’s reign ended abruptly in 522 BC under controversial circumstances. Accounts vary, but it is believed that he either died from an accident or committed suicide.

The childless Persian ruler was succeeded by his younger brother Bardiya.

What is even more interesting is that his death triggered a succession crisis and marked a turning point in the history of the Achaemenid Empire.

Cambyses II was the first Persian to become pharaoh of Egypt

Bardiya (reign: 522 BC): The Persian ruler who had one of the shortest reigns

Bardiya, also known as Smerdis, had a brief and controversial reign in 522 BC. He was a son of Cyrus the Great and the younger brother of Cambyses II, the previous ruler of the Achaemenid Empire.

Following the unexpected death of Cambyses II in 522 while campaigning in Syria, Bardiya, the younger brother of the king, was proclaimed as the new Persian ruler by certain individuals who claimed he was the rightful heir.

However, there were suspicions among some influential Persians that Bardiya was an imposter, not the real son of Cyrus the Great. These suspicions led to a conspiracy against him.

Darius, a prominent Persian noble, took advantage of the situation and successfully overthrew Bardiya, assuming the throne for himself. The exact details of Bardiya’s reign and the circumstances surrounding his downfall remain somewhat unclear due to conflicting historical accounts.

It is believed that Darius sought to legitimize his own claim to the throne by presenting Bardiya as an imposter, and thus he portrayed his actions as a rightful restoration of the legitimate line of Cyrus the Great. This event, commonly known as the “False Smerdis” episode, had a significant impact on the Achaemenid Empire and marked the ascension of Darius to power.

Darius I, also known as Darius the Great (reign: 522-486 BC)

One of the most notable achievements of Darius the Great was the construction of the Royal Road, an extensive network of roads that facilitated trade and communication throughout the empire. This infrastructure project played a vital role in the empire’s administration and economic development. Image: The relief stone of Darius the Great in the Behistun Inscription

Darius I (522–486 BC), also known as Darius the Great, implemented administrative reforms, standardized coinage, and organized the empire into satrapies (provinces). He is considered one of the most notable emperors of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Darius I embarked on various military campaigns to consolidate and expand the empire. One of his significant accomplishments was the suppression of rebellions that had erupted in different parts of the empire following the death of Cambyses II. He successfully quelled these uprisings and solidified his authority over the vast territories of the empire.

Under Darius I’s rule, which was from 522 to 486 BC, the Achaemenid Empire reached its peak in terms of territorial expansion. He conducted military expeditions into regions such as Egypt, Thrace, and Scythia, expanding Persian influence and bringing these territories under Persian control.

He was also known for his administrative reforms and innovations. He implemented a system of satrapies (provinces) with appointed governors known as satraps, creating a centralized administration to govern the diverse regions of the empire more effectively. Darius I also standardized coinage, introduced a postal system, and initiated numerous construction projects, including the construction of grand palaces and roads. For example, the Royal Road he constructed was meant to facilitate trade and communication throughout the empire. This infrastructure project played a vital role in the empire’s administration and economic development.

It must be noted that between 499 and 493 BC, Darius had to contend with the Ionian Revolt, a series of military rebellions initiated by several Greek regions in Asia Minor against Persian domination. Central to the uprising was the discontent of the Greek cities in Asia Minor with the tyrannical rule imposed by Persia, alongside the actions of two Milesian tyrants, Histiaeus and Aristagoras.

Darius managed to crush the revolt and restore Persian control over the Ionians. Regardless, the Ionian Revolt would go on to trigger the Greco-Persian Wars (499 – 449 BC) because Darius vowed to punish mainland Greek city-states like Athens and Eretria for aiding the Ionians during the revolt. However, he never really got the chance to go to war against the Greeks as he died in 486.

Upon his death, his eldest son Xerxes ascended the throne.

Xerxes I (485-465 BC)

Xerxes I (reign: 486–465 BC), also known as Xerxes the Great, was an influential ruler of the Achaemenid Empire who reigned from 486 to 465 BC. He succeeded his father, Darius I, and played a significant role in both military and administrative affairs. Image: Rock relief of a Achaemenid king, most likely Xerxes, located in the National Museum of Iran

It is said that before Xerxes I ascended the throne in 485 BC, he had to fend off fierce competition from his elder half-brother Artobarzanes, who was Darius the Great’s eldest son.

More importantly, Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great, is known for his ambitious military campaigns, particularly his invasion of Greece. He led a massive expedition against the Greek city-states in 480 BC, which resulted in notable battles such as the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) and the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). Despite initial victories at Thermopylae, the Persian forces were ultimately defeated at Salamis in 480 BC, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.

In addition to his military ventures, Xerxes I undertook notable construction projects. He oversaw the completion of the grand palace complex (i.e. the Tachara or the Palace of Darius the Great) at Persepolis, which showcased the empire’s wealth and power. He also initiated the construction of the “Xerxes Canal” (also known as the Canal of Xerxes) in Egypt, aiming to connect the Nile River to the Red Sea.

He is also credited with the construction of the Gate of All Nations, a massive gateway adorned with intricate carvings and decorations. It was situated at the base of the ceremonial staircase leading to the royal audience hall, known as the Apadana. The gateway was designed to represent the empire’s inclusivity and the diverse nations that were part of the Achaemenid Empire.

Xerxes the Great is praised for maintaining and expanding the administrative systems put in place by his predecessors. He divided the empire into satrapies, each governed by satraps who collected taxes and maintained order. He also continued the use of standardized coinage and promoted cultural exchanges within the empire.

In 465 BC, Xerxes I, the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, fell victim to an assassination plot orchestrated by Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard. Both Xerxes and his heir were killed in the plot. Artabanus gained support from influential figures within the harem and religious leaders at the court, enabling him to carry out the assassination. As part of his bid to overthrow the Achaemenids, Artabanus strategically placed his seven sons in key positions across the empire.

However, the plot ultimately failed when General Megabyzus marched his forces and installed Xerxes I’s third son, Arses, king of Persia. Megabyzus’s allegiance to the rightful heir disrupted Artabanus’s plans and prevented the overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Artaxerxes I (reign: 465 – 424 BC)

Artaxerxes I of the Achaemenid Empire

Persian King Artaxerxes I faced numerous revolts and conflicts during his reign, including the revolt of the satraps. Image: Relief of Artaxerxes I, from his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam

One of the notable events during Artaxerxes I’s reign was the suppression of rebellions and revolts that erupted in various parts of the empire. He successfully quelled uprisings in Egypt and Babylon, securing Persian control over these regions. He engaged in conflicts such as the Peloponnesian War, providing support to different factions and playing a significant role in Greek affairs.

Artaxerxes I is also known for his patronage of the arts and literature. He supported scholars and poets, fostering cultural development within the empire. He was particularly fond of Greek culture and maintained a friendly relationship with the Greek city-states.

The Persian ruler was also known for his administrative reforms, including the reorganization of the satrapies (provinces) and the appointment of loyal satraps to maintain order and collect taxes. He aimed to centralize and strengthen the administration of the empire.

One of the notable architectural projects initiated by Artaxerxes I was the construction of the Palace at Susa, which served as one of the empire’s administrative and ceremonial centers.

Artaxerxes I died in 424 BC and was succeeded by his son, Xerxes II.

Xerxes II: The Persian ruler whose reign lasted for just a few weeks

King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire

Xerxes II was a short-lived ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, who reigned for a brief period in 424 BC. He was the son of Artaxerxes I and the grandson of Xerxes I. Image: Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite. c. 500 BC–475 BC, at the time of Xerxes I. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Xerxes II’s ascension to the throne followed the death of his father, Artaxerxes I. However, his reign was cut short as he was assassinated (possibly by his half-brother Sogdianus) after only 45 days in power. The circumstances surrounding his assassination remain unclear, and historical records provide limited details about his brief rule.

A few months into Sogdianus’ reign, he was murdered by his half-brother, Ochus, the governor (satrap) of Hyrcania. Ochus consolidated his power, which meant killing his half-brother Arsites. He then became the next ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, taking the name Darius II.

Due to the brevity of Xerxes II’s reign, his impact on the Achaemenid Empire was limited, and his historical significance is overshadowed by the events that followed his assassination.

Darius II (reign: 423 – 404 BC)

One of the key events during Darius II’s reign was the continuation of conflicts with the Greek city-states. He faced the repercussions of the Peloponnesian War and dealt with various factions within Greece. He provided support to different Greek city-states, seeking to maintain influence and stability in the region.

Darius II also had to contend with internal challenges within the empire. He faced rebellions and revolts from various satrapies, particularly Egypt, where the native Egyptians sought independence from Persian rule. He employed military campaigns to suppress these uprisings and maintain control over the empire’s territories.

In the nutshell, Darius II’s reign marked a period of relative stability for the Achaemenid Empire, albeit with ongoing challenges.

Upon his death in 404 BC, he was succeeded to the throne by his son Artaxerxes II, whose reign saw a resurgence of internal conflicts and power struggles within the empire.

Darius II, also known as Darius II Ochus, was ruler of the Achaemenid Empire from 423 to 404 BC. He succeeded his half-brother Xerxes II and played a significant role in the empire’s affairs during a period of political and military challenges. Image: Ruins of Throne Hall, Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BC)

Artaxerxes II (reign: 404 – 358 BC)

Artaxerxes II of the Achaemenid Empire

Relief of Artaxerxes II on his tomb at Persepolis, Iran

Artaxerxes II, also known as Artaxerxes II Mnemon, was ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. After succeeding his father Darius II, He reigned from 404 to 358 BC. Darius II, and played a crucial role in the empire’s affairs during a period of territorial conflicts and power struggles.

One of the notable events during Artaxerxes II’s reign was the ongoing conflicts with the Greek city-states. He faced numerous challenges from rebellious Greek factions, including the famous Corinthian War. Artaxerxes II employed military campaigns and diplomatic strategies to assert Persian influence and maintain control over the Greek territories.

Internally, Artaxerxes II faced power struggles and revolts from various satraps (governors) within the empire. Notable among these was the rebellion of his younger brother, Cyrus the Younger, who sought to overthrow Artaxerxes II and claim the throne. The conflict culminated in the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, where Cyrus the Younger was killed.

Artaxerxes II’s reign also saw significant administrative and economic reforms. He aimed to strengthen the central administration and maintain stability within the empire’s vast territories. Additionally, he promoted infrastructure projects, such as the construction of royal palaces and roads, contributing to the empire’s development.

As a patron of the arts and culture, Artaxerxes II supported poets, writers, and artists, fostering a flourishing intellectual and artistic environment within the empire.

After his death in 358 BC, he was succeeded to the throne by his son, Ataxerxes III.

Artaxerxes III (reign: 359 – 338 BC)

Artaxerxes III of Persia

Artaxerxes III reasserted Persian control over Egypt and dealt with rebellions and invasions. Image: Rock relief of Artaxerxes III of Persia in Persepolis

Artaxerxes III was one of the numerous sons of Artaxerxes II. His mother, Stateira, was his father’s chief royal wife. Reigning from 359 to 338 BC, Artaxerxes III played a crucial role in restoring stability and reclaiming Persian territories.

One of the major accomplishments of Artaxerxes III was his successful military campaigns to regain control over rebellious satrapies and expand the empire’s borders. He confronted numerous revolts and uprisings within the empire, particularly in Egypt, where the native Egyptians sought independence. Artaxerxes III led military expeditions, recaptured Egypt, and reestablished Persian rule over the region.

Artaxerxes III also faced external threats, including the incursions of the Macedonian king, Philip II. He engaged in conflicts with Philip II and sought to maintain Persian influence in Greece and Asia Minor.

During his reign, he implemented administrative reforms to strengthen the empire’s governance. He introduced measures to curb corruption and reorganize the administrative structures, aiming to improve the efficiency of the empire’s bureaucracy.

However, Artaxerxes III’s reign ended abruptly. According to historical accounts, he was assassinated (via poison) in 338 BC, possibly as a result of a conspiracy within the palace. The plot was likely orchestrated by the court eunuch Bagoas. It’s said that the plotters also murdered the majority of Artaxerxes III’s sons.

Bagoas then proceeded to install Arses (Artaxerxes III’s son with Atossa) King of Persia.

Basically the death of Artaxerxes III marked the beginning of the end of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Artaxerxes IV (reign: 338-336 BC)

No sooner had Arses (also known as Artaxerxes IV) inherited the throne than did the Greek league wage war against the Persians.

Also, during his brief rule, Arses faced challenges from various factions and individuals seeking to gain influence and control over the empire. Notably, Bagoas, a powerful court official, played a significant role in manipulating the affairs of the empire during this period.

Arses’s reign came to an abrupt end when he was overthrown and killed by Bagoas in a palace coup. Bagoas then placed Darius III on the Persian throne, marking the beginning of Darius III’s reign as the last ruler of the Achaemenid Empire.

Due to the brevity of Arses’s reign and the limited historical information available, his impact on the Achaemenid Empire and Persian history as a whole is relatively minor.

Arses of Persia

Darius III (reign: 380 – 330 BC): The last ruler of the Achaemenid Empire

Darius III of the Achaemenid Empire

Darius III, the last Achaemenid King of Kings of Persia. Image: Depiction of Darius III during the Battle of Issus (333 BC) in the Alexander Mosaic (c. 100 BCE), ancient Roman floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy

Darius III, also known as Darius Codomannus, was the last ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, reigning from 336 to 330 BC. He ascended to the throne following the overthrow and assassination of his predecessor and cousin, Arses.

Darius III faced significant challenges during his reign, particularly in the form of external invasions by the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great. The clash between Darius III and Alexander the Great became a defining chapter in ancient history, known as the Wars of Alexander the Great. Darius III led his forces against Alexander’s Macedonian army in several major battles, including the Battle of Issus in 333 BC, and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, but ultimately proved unsuccessful in halting Alexander’s advance.

Throughout his rule, Darius III struggled to maintain unity within the empire, as various satraps (governors) and factions vied for power and independence. Internal conflicts further weakened the Achaemenid Empire, making it more vulnerable to Alexander’s military campaigns.

Following his defeat at the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius III fled eastward, hoping to rally additional forces and regroup. However, he was eventually betrayed by one of his own satraps, Bessus, who usurped his authority and had him captured. Darius III was subsequently executed, marking the end of the Achaemenid Empire and the demise of its last ruler.

Although Darius III faced significant challenges and ultimately met a tragic end, his reign marked the final chapter of the Achaemenid Empire and played a crucial role in the context of Alexander the Great’s conquests. His legacy serves as a reminder of the empire’s decline and the significant impact of Alexander’s campaigns on ancient history.

The Battle of the Granicus River: Alexander the Great’s First Major Success Against the Persians

Artaxerxes V (reign: 330 – 329 BC): A self-proclaimed King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire

Alexander the Great executes Bessus of Persia

Bessus, also known as Artaxerxes V or Artaxerxes IV, was a Persian noble and satrap who played a significant role during the chaotic period following the defeat of Darius III at the hands of Alexander the Great. He is known for his involvement in the events that led to the downfall of the Achaemenid Empire. Image: “Alexander executes Janushyar and Mahiyar, the slayers of Darius.” Folio from a manuscript of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), created in Shiraz, dated 1482.

A satrap of Bactria and one of Darius III’s trusted allies, Bessus betrayed Darius by having the Persian king killed as he fled Alexander the Great’s army. Thus, after the capture of Darius III by Bessus and his co-conspirators, they sought to maintain Persian resistance against Alexander’s advancing forces. Bessus declared himself the legitimate successor to Darius III and assumed the name Artaxerxes V, aiming to rally support and continue the Persian resistance.

However, Bessus’ attempts to establish himself as a leader were met with limited success. He faced internal opposition from other Persian nobles and satraps who sought to forge their own alliances with Alexander.

Ultimately, Bessus’ authority was undermined, and he was captured by a rival Persian noble named Spitamenes. In an attempt to win favor with Alexander, Spitamenes handed Bessus over to the Macedonian conqueror.

Alexander the Great regarded Bessus as a traitor and a usurper, and he was subjected to a brutal punishment. Bessus was accused of regicide for his involvement in the capture and execution of Darius III. He was publicly flogged and later executed, marking the end of his role in the political turmoil that followed the fall of the Achaemenid Empire.

Alexander the Great punishes Bessus of the Persian Empire

The Punishment of Bessus by French artist and engraver André Castaigne, 1899.

Did you know…?

Cyrus the Great was born as the son of the Persian king and the grandson of the king of the Median Empire. After his father’s passing, he initiated a rebellion against the Medes and successfully toppled their rule.

Some accounts maintain that Cambyses II suffered a leg injury on his way to confront a rebellion in Syria. The injury was either from an accident while whittling or mounting his horse or from an assassination attempt by supporters of his younger brother Bardiya or the future Darius I. In any case, the wound became infected, leading to gangrene, and Cambyses II succumbed to the infection a few weeks later.

According to historical accounts, it is said that out of jealousy, Cambyses II ordered the execution of Bardiya (also known as Smerdis) shortly before his own demise. However, Cambyses II kept this execution a secret. While Cambyses II was away leading a campaign in Egypt, a revolt erupted in Media. It was led either by the real Bardiya or by a Median Magi named Gaumata who posed as Bardiya. This rebellion quickly spread throughout the empire. Tragically, before Cambyses II could take action against the revolt, he passed away due to an infected wound. With Cambyses II’s death, Bardiya (or the imposter Gaumata) was crowned King of Persia.

Artaxerxes II, the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, is known to have had multiple wives. His primary wife was Stateira until her untimely death, allegedly due to poisoning by Artaxerxes’ mother, Parysatis, around 400 BC. It is reported that Artaxerxes II had an extensive harem, with more than 300 wives, from which he fathered over 110 sons.

The Achaemenid rulers held several titles that symbolized their authority, supremacy, and divine association to the gods. Some of the titles used by Achaemenid rulers include:

  1. King of Kings: This was the most prestigious title held by the Achaemenid rulers, signifying their status as the supreme ruler over multiple territories and peoples.
  2. Great King: The Achaemenid monarchs were often referred to as the Great King, emphasizing their grandeur and power.
  3. Shahanshah: This title, meaning “King of Kings” in Persian, was used to denote the highest rank of authority and sovereignty.
  4. Pharaoh: When Egypt was incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire, the rulers took on the title of Pharaoh, adopting the Egyptian royal tradition.
  5. Satrap: While not a title specific to the kings, the Achaemenid Empire was divided into satrapies or provinces, each governed by a satrap who acted as a local representative of the king’s authority.
  6. Ahura Mazda’s Viceregent: Achaemenid rulers, particularly Cyrus the Great, emphasized their connection to the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda and claimed to rule as his chosen representatives.

Gaumata under Darius I’s boot engraved at Behistun Inscription in Kermanshah.

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