Achaemenid Persian
Krzysztof Nawotka
Persian empire
Rise of Persia 1
• Indoeuropean Aryans formed in stepps to
the north of Black Sea and Caspian Sea
• Ca. 2000 BC: conquest of India and Iran
• In Iran:
- nomadic and semi-nomadic society
- 3 classes: priests, warriors, producers (i.e.
- Clans, tribes and countries (dahyu)
Rise of Persia 2
• Various Iranian states: Manna, Medes,
Parsua (Zagros and Fars)
• Trade with Babylonia and Assyria (Great
Khorasan Road: forrunner of Silk Road)
• From 9th c. BC Assyrian inroads in Zagros
• 7th-mid 6th c. BC Media
• 615-605 Kyaxares (Umakištar/ Huvaχštra)
conquest of Assyria
Cyrus II (the Great)
• Kurush king of Anshan (Elamite city in
• Achaemenian dynasty: Hakhamanich
(Achaemenes), Chishpish (Teispes),
Kurush I, Kambujiya (Cambyses)
• Allied with Nabonidus of Babylon,
defeated and conquered Media 550
• Conquered Lydia 546 (?) or after 539
• Conquered Babylon 539
Persian empire
Cambyses II: conquered Egypt 525
Fiscal crisis, rebellion of Gaumata 522
Darius I (the Great):
Persian aristocrat, allegedly from collateral
branch of Achaemenians
- Supported by Persian aristocracy and
army of Cyrus the Great
- Reconquest of all provinces
- Reorganization of empire
Persian Empire under Darius I
Persian empire (of Darius I the
First universal empire
Area: from Thrace to Indus valey
Population: 30-50 million
Divided into ca. 26 satrapies
Four capital cities: Persepolis, Susa,
Ecbatana, Babylon
• Itinerant court: tradition of nomadic
lifestyle, necessity to feed court and army
Persia of Darius I: Susa palace
Persia of Darius I: Persepolis
Great King and his country 1
• Monarchy: Great King, King of Asia
• King: elaborate costume, strict ritual,
• POWs at Damascus (331 BC): 329 female
musicians, 46 wreath makers, 277 cooks,
29 cooking specialists, 13 dairy specialists,
17 drinks specialists, 70 pourers of wine
and 40 perfumers
Great King
Great King and his country 2
King’s banquets:
1000 animals slaughtered every day
PF: food for 12,000 people
Luxury of King:
to Greeks: unmanly decadence
in fact: demonstration of King’s wealth,
happiness and grace of gods,
redistribution of wealth among courtiers
and soldiers
Persepolis - servants of the Great
Perisan servant on a Greek vase
Great King and his country 3
• Roads: King’s Road Susa to Sardis (2400
km), good surface, postal stations, security
• Elaborate administration:
- known from Fars (PF, PT), to a lesser
degree from Egypt, Palestine, Bactria
- collecting taxes (mostly in kind)
- issuing rations to aristocrats, officials,
- gift based economy
Great King and his country 4
To Greeks: King/ despot and slaves
To Persians: King and bandaka (vasals)
King: warrior, hunter, builder
Monarchy based on feudal principles of
loyalty and life-long service for land grants
• Satraps:
- Iranian aristocrats with full power
- Imitating King’s court and behaviour
Persian army
• 10,000 immortals (companions)
• Garrisons in a few major fortresses
• Mercenary force: superior Greek infantry,
commanded by Persians, Greek officers
incorporated to Persian nobility
• Iranian: military settlers, aristocratic
• Navy: Phoenician, Cypriot, Greek
• War: mostly fought by satraps
Persepolis – guard soldiers
Persian religion 1
• Two epochs of Aryan religion : pagan (before
Zarathustra) and Zarathushtrian
• Pagan Iranian religion:
- gods: of nature (e.g. Vata – brought rain), of cult (e.g.
Fire - Atar, Water - Apo, Haoma)
- Ritual purity
- Cult of Fire: yasna with animal sacrifice, zaorta 3 times a
day fuel added to fire
• Mithra and Varuna
- Hyposthases (personified abstracts) linked with Asha
- Two types of obligation: *mithra – covenent, *varuna –
solemn oath
Persian religion 2
Law of nature: „truth”, righteuosness”
Sustained by prayer and sacrifice
Should guide our behaviour
Virtue: fundament of normal world order
Social virtues: truth, loyalty, courage
Druj (lie) – opposite of asha
People: ashavan (righteous), drujvant
(base, liers)
Persian religion 3
• Aryan religion reformed by Zaratushtra c.
10th c. BC following revelation by Vohu
• Holy book Avesta (6th c. AD)
• Cosmic conflict between aša (truth) and
druj (lie); aim of life: to sustain aša through
good thoughts, words and deeds
• Religion of choice and responsibility
Persian religion 4
• Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom): creator, god
of aša, light, good, assisted by Amesha
Spentas ("Bounteous Immortals") and by
• Cosmic conflict with Angra Mainyu
• King by grace of Ahura Mazda
• Fire (atar): not god but agent of ritual
purity, worshipped (fire altars and temples)
• Priests – magi
• Corpses exposed in towers of silence
Fire worshippers in a relief of Gandhara
Yazd: fire temple
Ateshkade-e Ardashir:
Sassanian fire temple
Persian wars
• Rebellion of Greek cities in Asia Minor
499-494 BC
• Invasion of Greece by Xerxes 480-479
• Great battles: Thermopylae, Salamis,
Plataea, Mycale
• End in 447: Greeks of Asia Minor free
• Tradition of Persian barbarity (destruction
of Greek temples) and superior Greek
military prowess
Persian empire of the late 5th-4th
c. BC
• Successful Persian envolvement in
Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars:
restoring Persian rule in Asia Minor
• Independence of Egypt and great satrap
revolt of 1st half of 4th c. BC
• Artaxerxes III (358-338): suppresion of
revolt of Phoenicia, pacification of Asia
Minor, reconquest of Egypt
Iranians in Asia Minor
• Numerous aristocratic families endowed by the
Great King with land for their services
• Some gave origin to royal families in Hellenistic
times: Pontus, Cappadocia, Commagene
• Military colonists, e.g. in Cappadocia
• Iranian cults:
- Zaratushtrians well into 3rd c. AD
- Iranian deities assimilated with indigenous gods of
Asia Minor, especially Anahita with local
- Mithra

Achaemenid Persian Empire