Home / Early Civilizations 400,000 B.C - 648 B. C. / A New People, a New Faith 650 B. C. – 330 B. C

A New People, a New Faith 650 B. C. – 330 B. C

BABYLON, the final capital of Mesopotamia civilization, had fallen to warrior tribesmen from the east, the Medes and Persians. The Medes and Persians were descended from the Aryan peoples who for centuries had been moving out of the grasslands of central Asia with their horses and herds. Some of the Aryans settled in the valleys and slopes of the mountains surrounding the great arid plateau between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. From them the region took its name, Iran, or Land of the Aryans.

The Aryans who lived in the mountains northeast of Mesopotamia were the Medes, familiar to their prosperous neighbours as breeders of horses and as raiders of cities and trade caravans. Other Aryans settled south of the Medes, in the region of Parsa along the valleys, foothills and plains of the Zagros Mountains and these people became known as Persians. About 650 B. C., one of the Persian chieftains, Achaemenes, organized a small kingdom. His descendant, Cyrus, later brought the various tribes of Persians and Medes under his rule and led the united forces into Babylon.

Before Cyrus formed the Persian nation, a man appeared who would influence the Persians in another way. He was Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who around 600 B. C. began to preach a new religion to the people of Iran. The Aryans had always worshipped many gods, especially Mithra the sun god and they often sacrificed animals. The priests who supervised the many rituals became a privileged group. Among the Medes, these priests were known as the Magi. Zoroaster introduced no new rituals and started no new priesthood; he was a prophet and reformer.

Zoroaster was most active in eastern Iran, perhaps as a priest of the old Aryan religion, but he soon withdrew from society and went to live on a mountain. According to legend the mountain burned up, but Zoroaster escaped unharmed and began preaching his new faith. At first he was rejected by the priests and people, but finally he converted the prince Vishtaspa, who became his disciple and protector. From then on, Zoroaster attracted more and more followers.


For many years after his death, Zoroaster’s wise sayings were memorized and passed on by word of mouth. Then they were written down as the sacred verses that made up the Gathas. Later came the sacred writings of the Avesta, but these were set down by priests who introduced new elements, such as miraculous tales about Zoroaster and all kinds of rules and rituals.

The teachings of Zoroaster himself had been much more simple. He had spoken of Ahura Mazda, the god of light and truth and goodness. Ahura Mazda was engaged in a struggle with  Ahriman, the god of darkness, falsehood and evil. The struggle went on everywhere in the world and within all men. Zoroaster appealed to all men to help Ahura Mazda by their good thoughts, good words and good deeds. In that  way Ahriman would be destroyed; evil and falsehood would be wiped out.

In asking all men to choose and act for good, Zoroaster introduced a new force into the religion of Iran but the old gods and rituals did not disappear. Infact, the priests adapted many of Zoroaster’s teachings to the old ways. At the same time, although Ahura Mazda was not the only god, he was the one the Persians were to honour above all others.

Until Cyrus appeared, the peoples of Persia were united by little more than their religion.  Cyrus himself, so the legends went was strongly influenced by the gods. A king of the Medes tried to kill his as a baby, but Cyrus was given to a shepherd couple who raised him until he was able to revolt and claim the throne. After uniting the Medes and Persians about 550 B. C., he went off to fight Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia in western Turkey. A Greek oracle had told Croesus, “If you fight, a kingdom will fall.” Confident, Croesus fought Cyrus and indeed, a kingdom did fall – but it was his own kingdom of Lydia. Cyrus captured its capital, Sardis and took control of Turkey, including the many Greek colonies along its coast. Before long Cyrus took more territories in Assyria and on the eastern frontiers of Iran.

Cyrus was a brave warrior who led his troops into battle, but he was no Assyrian tyrant, slaughtering and boasting. Instead, he was kind to the defeated enemy and word of his generous ways soon spread. When he decided to take Babylon, many of its citizens, angry at their king’s actions, welcomed his as a liberator. Rather than risk a battle at the great walls, Cyrus went to the side bounded by the Euphrates River. He had the water drained off into a ditch, so that his troops could walk across the riverbed and into the city.

Cyrus Conquers Babylon

Cyrus lived up to his reputation; he did not allow his soldiers to loot Babylon. His finest act was to free the Jews in Babylon from their long captivity and see that they were safely conducted back to Jerusalem. By combining statesmanship with his conquests, he brought most of the old Babylonian empire under Persian control. He allowed the various people – Jews, Greeks, Babylonians and others – to keep their own gods, customs and local government and these people repaid him with respect. His own Persians called him “father” and they honoured him with a great tomb after he died fighting at the eastern borders in 530 B. C.

Cyrus’s son, Cambyses, fought many campaigns to hold the empire together and even conquered Egypt, but he was a much more severe ruler than his father. Even many of his own people were discontented and before he died, a Mede by the name of Gaumata had set himself up as king. Gaumata pretended to be the brother of Cambyses and no one dared protest. Then Darius a true relative of the royal family claimed the throne. He killed Gaumata and put down various rebellions throughout his kingdom.

Darius claimed that he had been inspired to seize power by Ahura Mazda and to let everyone know of this miraculous event he decided to have a monument. He chose a great cliff on the road that ran from the Iranian plains to Mesopotamia and there he had gigantic figures carved in the stone. Darius was represented standing with his foot on Gaumata, while facing him were the other rebel leaders, their hands bound behind them. above them all was the sign of Ahura Mazda and to make sure that all people would understand, Darius had the story inscribed in three languages.

The inscription on the cliff began: “I am Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of lands peopled by all races, for long kings of this earth.” This may have been an exaggeration when the carving was made, but it was certainly true before his reign ended. Through conquests and alliances, Darius built up a vast empire. In the north it extended from the Danube River in Bulgaria, across Turkey and into the mountains and plains of central Asia. In the south it stretched from Egypt and the Mediterranean coast all the way to the Indus River in India.

Darius and the Persians managed all these lands with great skills. True the Persians had taken over much from their subjects – great cities, fertile farmlands, roads, trade routes, business and administrative practices, laws, scribes, the cuneiform script. At the same time, the Persians were wise enough to encourage local customs, religions, languages and officials. They knew how to borrow the best from the peoples and how to keep all peoples working together. Although the Persians had built up their empire by conquest, they ruled it with the law and order, not force and terror.


The empire was divided into 20 satrapies or provinces. Each was administered by a satrap or governor, usually a Persian noble who could expect to pass on his position to his heirs if all went well. Judges, military commanders and tax collectors were appointed by the emperor. To keep all the officials alert, the ‘king’s eye,” or inspector general, made unannounced visits to the satrapies and reported back to the emperor.

Linking the empire was a network of roads, many of them well paved. One road, which ran from Susa to the Mediterranean, was about 1,600 miles long. Along the main routes were post stations, with horses and riders waiting to relay messages. Herodotus, a Greek who travelled through the empire, reported that the riders “are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed”.

Trade was international, with caravans bringing bringing products to and from the widely scattered provinces. Business flourished and there were even banks that made loans, but farming was still the most important occupation. The Iranian plateau was so dry that the farmers had to use a system of underground canals to irrigate their fields and the Persians always depended on their provinces for many foods. Darius himself tried to introduce different plants and animals into various parts of the empire.

Each satrapy paid taxes or tribute, but for the most part the amounts demanded were reasonable. People were expected to give some work to public projects, such as roads, but there was no brutal slavery. Besides, there were no laws to protect all men. Punishments could be severe, but everyone respected the laws of the Medes and the Persians.


The Lydians had invented coinage, but the Persians were the first to put it to wide use. While various local officials had the right to issue copper and silver coins, only the emperor could issue gold coins. Darius organized the economic affairs of the empire so well that some of his people secretly called him “the merchant”.

To keep order, there were troops stationed throughout the empire. Originally the army had been made up entirely of Persians and Medes, but gradually it came to have mostly paid soldiers from its subject peoples. The Persians’ navy was almost completely made up of Phoenicians and Greeks from the Mediterranean coast ports. Only Persians, however, could belong to the special royal guard, whose 10,000 members were known as “The immortals”. Trained from youth, the Persian archers mounted on horses could shoot arrows as they charged the enemy and keep shooting as they rode off. Sometimes the Persians used elephants and in desperate situations they attached sharp blades to their chariots and rode through the enemy’s ranks.

Darius, King of Kings

At the centre of his great empire was Darius, king of kings. He knew his power, he used it and he did not hesitate to remind his subjects of what they owed him. Yet Darius could hardly forget the ceremony by which he had been crowned emperor. As Pasargadai, a former capital under Cyrus, the priests presented him with the robe of Cyrus; after that he ate a peasant’s meal, to remind him that he was a man like any other. This custom was followed by all the Persian emperors.


As his first capital, Darius had chosen Susa, the old capital of the Elamites and there he built a great city with a citadel and palace. The materials came from all over the empire – timber from Lebanon, silver and ebony from Egypt, ivory from Ethiopia. Then Darius decided to build a capital that would be most magnificent in the world. He chose the site of Persepolis and there craftsmen from many lands worked during his reign. The project was so ambitious that work continued during the reigns of the emperors who followed.

On a great terrace, made of huge stones held by iron clamps, rose various buildings with dozens of tall, slim columns. On the walls were stone carvings that depicted long processions of people bringing tribute. Carvings lined many of the fine stairways. Other sculptures represented great winged and human-headed beasts like those in the Assyrian palaces. No other city of the time had such a handsome set of buildings and Persepolis remained a special city for the Persian emperors. Religious rites and the work of government were carried on in other cities, but Persepolis was a ceremonial centre for the emperors. There, too, they were buried.


As he sat in his magnificent palace at Persepolis in the closing year of his reign, Darius may well have thought that his empire would last forever. True, there were some minor disturbances, such as the revolt of the Greek cities along the Turkish coast, but he soon crushed them. then, to show that the Persians intended to be masters of their world, he sent land and sea forces to punish the Greek mainland cities, Athens and Eretria, which had aided the revolt, but storms wrecked the fleet and all the army could do was campaign in the north of Greece.

Two years later, in 490 B, C., Darius still felt that the mainland Greeks were his empire’s greatest threat and he sent a great fleet with troops across the Aegean Sea. The Persians took islands along the way, captured Eretria and then landed at Marathon, north of Athens. There the Persian soldiers were defeated in battle by a force of Athenians only about half their number. The Persians retreated to their ships and after attempting some attacks along the Greek coast, sailed back to Asia.


To Darius and his Persians, Marathon was nothing but a minor battle they had lost. They did not realize that it was the defeat of an imperial army from the East by a group of free men defending their homeland. Within a few years after Marathon, the great Darius died. He had been all-powerful, but he had remained “a friend to his friends”. To the Persians he left an empire and a pride in themselves as a people.

Darius’s son Xerxes was a far more cruel warrior and a far less able leader. Some of his counsellors persuaded him to renew the campaign against Greece, but first he had to put down revolts in Egypt and Babylon. Meanwhile, his armed forces made preparations for a major expedition. Supply depots were set up in northern Greece and a pontoon bridge was laid across the Hellespont where the Persian army had to cross from  Asia into Europe. Finally, with a fleet of 1,000 ships and an army of about 100,000 men, the Persians set forth to show the Greeks who was master.

Xerxes himself led the Persian forces as they moved down through northern Greece. By 480 B. c., they were at the pass of Thermopylae, which led to the south; although thousands of Persians were by a heroic band of Greeks, the Persians continued to advance. They captured and burned Athens, but the Athenians had escaped to the islands and cities to the south.

The Defeat of Persia

Now only the Greek fleet stood between the Persians and total victory. Xerxes sat on a chair on shore to watch the battle off the island of Salamis, but the Persian navy was out-manoeuvred and beaten. Xerxes was so furious that he had his admiral executed; when the other Persian sailors heard this, many of them fled with their ships. Xerxes hurried back to Persia by land, leaving most of his army in Greece. The next summer, this Persian army was defeated at Plateau in Greece, while at the same time a Greek fleet defeated the Persians off the Turkish coast. This was followed by the loss of the Greek cities in Turkey and all of Persia’s European territories. Having failed at building his empire, Xerxes turned to building colossal monuments at Susa and Persepolis.

In 465 B. C., Xerxes was assassinated, an event that signalled the breakdown of order throughout the empire. Satraps rebelled against the authority of the king of kings; Egypt revolted and broke free. Persia became involved with Athens and Sparta in a series of wars and shifting alliances, but lacked the energy to take command. Persia no longer depended on its archers riding into battle. Instead it depended on gold coins to bribe various cities and armies to fight each other.

The weakness of the Persian empire was reflected in the quarrels within the royal circle. Once, the youngest brother of an emperor tried to seize the throne and to do so he hired an army of Greek soldiers. The younger brother was killed in battle, but the Greeks reorganized themselves and made their way through Persian territory back to Greece. Imperial Persia could not contain the disciplined Greeks.

In 359 B. C., Artaxerxes III came to the throne. For a while he seemed to be reviewing the old Persian empire by his reconquest of Egypt and many of the old provinces. But Artaxerxes, who had murdered to seize power, was himself poisoned, at the very time that Philip of Macedon was taking command of the Greeks. It was Philip’s son, Alexander, who finally defeated the Persians in a series of battles across western Asia. One by one the great cities fell, until even Persepolis was in flames, Darius III, the last king of the dynasty founded by Achaemenes, was killed by his own men after fleeing from Alexander’s triumphant army.

Alexander never lived to see his dream of a united Greek and Persian world and on his death the Persian empire was divided among his generals. The peoples of Iran would help to build other empires and take part in their civilizations. However the Persian emperors, for all their greatness, had failed to show their people how to govern themselves.

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