Cyrus to Alexander, rise and fall of Achaemenid Empire
What is known to us is that the Achaemenians rose to eminence in the time of Korosh II or Cyrus II, who belonged to the Pasargadae clan of the Persians, and came one of the royal lines. He was son of Kambujiya I and grandson of Cyrus I. when Cyrus II ascended the throne about 559 BC, he was evidently a vassal of the Median King, Astyages, whom some sources say was his maternal grandfather. Cyrus must have been a very remarkable, very ambitious person, unquestionably deserving his later title, Cyrus the Great. Very soon Cyrus ruled over a vast domain, but he aspired to nothing less than the conquest of the entire known world. In 546 B, he reached Croesus in Sardis and after a short siege, made him surrender. Then he appointed his generals to crush the opposition of the Greek city-states along the western coast of Asia Minor and himself returned to control the eastern borders of his state. Next act of Cyrus was the conquest of Babylon. The priest of Marduk, the principal god of the city, promised Cyrus the surrender of Babylon if he would grant them special privileges in return. Cyrus entered the city of Babylon without a battle in 539 BC and other cities submitted without resistance. After realizing the Jews and rebuilding the Solomon’s temple, he issued what many call the first declaration of Human rights. This remarkable document is now in London’s British Museum and there is a replica in the United Nations Building in New York. Anyway, when death came, the king was buried in the capital he had found, Pasargadae.
After a few years war, unsolved assassinating and claiming throne, Darius started his reign with help of seven noble Persian families. Darius proved to be another “Great” of the Achaemenid dynasty. Darius was most certainly the greatest of politicians, and managed to consolidate the empire through efficient governorship. He completed the organization of the country into Satrapies, “the eyes and the ears of the king”. On the whole, Achaemenid rule sat lightly on the subject people. As long as they obeyed the central authority and paid their taxes, they were free to follow their own laws, pursue their artistic and religious traditions, and retain their own languages, writing system and social orders.
Achaemenid economy was based mainly on agriculture and trade. Darius took care of both. He encouraged agriculture by investing in irrigation and land improvement. The Qanats were developed on a great scale (in the future, we’ll tell more stories about the qanat and explain how it work). Darius revolutionized trade by placing it on a silver and gold coinage system. As a result of the commercial activities, Persian words for typical items of trade became prevalent throughout the Middle East and eventually entered Western languages. Examples in English are Bazaar, Sugar, Shawl, Orange, Lemon, Peach, Pistachio, Spinach and many more.
Darius founded his capital, magnificent Persepolis which it was greatly expanded by Khashayarsha or Xerxes, son of Darius. After Xerxes, Ardashir I the Long-Armed ascended the throne. His reign was relatively calm after signed a peace treaty with the Greeks. It was during his reign that Herodotus was able to travel freely throughout the region, gathering information for his History. The rule of Ardashir or Artaxerxes is also remembered for the introduction of the Zoroastrian Calendar as the official calendar of the empire. But everything was changed. After his death in 424 BC, the imperial court was beset by the splitting of the lateral family branches into factions.
After several kings, at the end, throne was reached to Darius III. However, Darius was not destined to rule for long. It was the beginning of Alexander’s reign in Macedonia. In less than 5 years, after two major battles, Alexander conquered all of the Persian Empire.
Darius, in hiding, was killed by one of his own officials, and the new Macedonian Emperor burned down Persepolis to symbolize the passing of the old order and the introduction of Greek civilization into Western Asia.
However, the Achaemenid heritage could not be easily destroyed. In a sense, the Achaemenians passed on a concept of empire that, much modified by others, has come down through history as a model demonstrating the possibility for diverse people having a multiplicity of customs, languages, religions, laws, and economic systems to flourish under a central government for the mutual benefit of all concerned.
The Achaemenid Empire was the beginning of their nation and history, and still constitutes one of the most glorious chapters of the Iranian past.