The World of the Ancient Persians
Median Empire (728 BC-559 BC)
The Medes are credited with the foundation of the first Iranian empire, the largest of its day until Cyrus the Great established a unified Iranian empire of the Medes and Persians, often referred to as the Achaemenid Persian Empire, by defeating his grandfather and overlord, Astyages the shah of Media. The Median capital was Ecbatana, the modern day Iranian city of Hamedan. Ectbatana was preserved as one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Empire, which succeeded the Median Empire.
According to Herodotus, the conquests of Cyaxares the Mede were preceded by a Scythian invasion and domination lasting twenty-eight years (under Madius the Scythian, 653-625 BC). The Mede tribes seem to have come into immediate conflict with a settled state to the West known as Mannae, allied with Assyria. Assyrian inscriptions state that the early Mede rulers, who had attempted rebellions against the Assyrians in the time of Esarhaddon and Assur-bani-pal, were allied with chieftains of the Ashguza (Scythians) and other tribes - who had come from the northern shore of the Black Sea and invaded Armenia and Asia Minor; and Jeremiah and Zephaniah in the Old Testament agree with Herodotus that a massive invasion of Syria and Philistia by northern barbarians took place in 626 BC. The state of Mannae was finally conquered and assimilated by the Medes in the year 616 BC.
In 612 BC, Cyaxares conquered Urartu, and with the alliance of Nabopolassar the Chaldean, succeeded in destroying the Assyrian capital, Nineveh; and by 606 BC, the remaining vestiges of Assyrian control. From then on, the Mede king ruled over much of Iran, Assyria and northern Mesopotamia, Armenia and Cappadocia. His power was very dangerous to his neighbors, and the exiled Jews expected the destruction of Babylonia by the Medes (Isaiah 13, 14m 21; Jerem. 1, 51.).
When Cyaxares attacked Lydia, the kings of Cilicia and Babylon intervened and negotiated a peace in 585 BC, whereby the Halys was established as the Medes' frontier with Lydia. Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon married a daughter of Cyaxares, and an equilibrium of the great powers was maintained until the rise of the Persians under Cyrus.
The Achaemenid Empire (550 BC–330 BC)
The earliest known record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the Parsu (Parsuaš, Parsumaš) and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside another group, the Mādāyu (Medes). For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. The region of Parsuash was annexed by Sargon of Assyria around 719 BC. Eventually the Medes came to rule an independent Median Empire, and the Persians were subject to them.
The Achaemenids were the first to create a centralized state in Persia, founded by Achaemenes (Haxamaniš), chieftain of the Persians around 700 BC.
Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and Teispes (Cišpiš), the son of Achaemenes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around this time — eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anšan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC). The kingdom of Anšan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasts spoke Persian, an Indo-Iranian tongue.
Teispes' descendants may have branched off into two lines, one line ruling in Anshan, while the other ruled the rest of Persia. Cyrus II the Great (Kuruš) united the separate kingdoms around 559 BC. At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BC defeated the forces of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Shah of a unified Persian kingdom. As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large empire, Cyrus led the united Medes and Persians to still more conquest. He took Lydia in Asia Minor, and carried his arms eastward into central Asia. Finally in 539 BC, Cyrus marched triumphantly into the ancient city of Babylon. After this victory, he issued the declaration recorded in the Cyrus cylinder, which portrayed him as a benevolent conqueror welcomed by the local inhabitants and their gods. Cyrus was killed in 530 BC during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.
Cyrus's son, Cambyses II (Kambūjiya), annexed Egypt to the Achaemenid Empire. The empire then reached its greatest extent under Darius I (Dāryavuš). He led conquering armies into the Indus River valley and into Thrace in Europe. A punitive raid against Greece was halted at the Battle of Marathon. A larger invasion by his son, Xerxes I (Xšayārša), would have initial success at the Battle of Thermopylae. Following the destruction of his navy at the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes would withdraw most of his forces from Greece. The remnant of his army in Greece commanded by General Mardonius was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.
Darius improved the famous Royal Road and other ancient trade routes, thereby connecting far reaches of the empire. He may have moved the administration center from Fars itself to Susa, near Babylon and closer to the center of the realm. The Persians allowed local cultures to survive, following the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. This was not only good for the empire's subjects, but ultimately benefited the Achaemenids, because the conquered peoples felt no need to revolt.
It may have been during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional (Indo-)Iranian pantheon, but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will, which is arguably Zoroaster's greatest contribution to religious philosophy. Under the patronage of the Achaemenid kings, and later as the de-facto religion of the state, Zoroastrianism would reach all corners of the empire. In turn, Zoroastrianism would be subject to the first syncretic influences, in particular from the Semitic lands to the west, from which the divinities of the religion would gain astral and planetary aspects and from where the temple cult originates. It was also during the Achaemenid era that the sacerdotal Magi would exert their influence on the religion, introducing many of the practices that are today identified as typically Zoroastrian, but also introducing doctrinal modifications that are today considered to be revocations of the original teachings of the prophet.
The Achaemenid Empire united people and kingdoms from every major civilization in south West Asia and North East Africa. It was overthrown during the Wars of Alexander the Great.
The Seleucid Empire (312 BC–63 BC)
The Seleucid Empire /sə'lusɪd/ (312 - 63 BC) was a Hellenistic empire, i.e. a successor state of Alexander the Great's empire. The Seleucid Empire was centered in the near East and at the height of its power included central Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, today's Turkmenistan, Pamir and parts of Pakistan. It was a major centre of Hellenistic culture which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and where a Greek-speaking Macedonian elite dominated, mostly in the urban areas.
Alexander had conquered the Achaemenid Empire within a short time-frame and died young, leaving an expansive empire of partly Hellenised culture without an adult heir. The empire was put under the authority of a regent in the person of Perdiccas in 323 BC, and the territories were divided between Alexander's generals, who thereby became satraps, at the Partition of Babylon in 323 BC.
Alexander's generals (the Diadochi) jostled for supremacy over parts of his empire, and Ptolemy, one of his generals and satrap of Egypt, was the first to challenge the new rule, leading to the demise of Perdiccas. His revolt led to a new partition of the empire with the Partition of Triparadisus in 320 BC. Seleucus, who had been "Commander-in-Chief of the camp" under Perdiccas since 323 BC but helped to assassinate the latter, received Babylonia, and from that point continued to expand his dominions ruthlessly. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312 BC, used as the foundation date of the Seleucid Empire.
The Parthian Empire (250 BC–AD 226)
The Parthian Empire or Arsacid Empire (Persian: اشکانیان),is the name used for the third imperial Iranian dynasty (250 BCE - 226 CE).The Parthian dynasty was founded by Arsaces I(Persian: اشک Ashk) and ended when the last parthian Shahanshah (King of Kings), Artabanus IV defeated by Ardashir I who later founded The Sassanid Empire.
Its rulers, the Arsacid dynasty, belonged to an Iranian tribe that had settled there during the time of Alexander. They declared their independence from the Seleucids in 238 BC, but their attempts to unify Iran were thwarted until after the advent of Mithridates I to the Parthian throne in about 170 BC.
The Parthian Confederacy shared a border with Rome along the upper Euphrates River. The two polities became major rivals, especially over control of Armenia. Heavily-armoured Parthian cavalry (cataphracts) supported by mounted archers proved a match for Roman legions, as in the Battle of Carrhae in which the Parthian General Surena defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus of Rome. Wars were very frequent, with Mesopotamia serving as the battleground.
During the Parthian period, Hellenistic customs partially gave way to a resurgence of Iranian culture. However, the area lacked political unity, and the vassalary structure that the Arsacids had adopted from the Seleucids left the Parthians in a constant state of war with one seceding vassal or the other. By the 1st century BC, Parthia was decentralized, ruled by feudal nobles. Wars with Romans to the west and the Kushan Empire to the northeast drained the country's resources.
Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope of recovering its lost territories, was demoralized. The kings had to give more concessions to the nobility, and the vassal kings sometimes refused to obey. Parthia's last ruler Artabanus IV had an initial success in putting together the crumbling state. However, the fate of the Arsacid Dynasty was doomed when in AD 224, the Persian vassal king Ardashir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also meant the beginning of the second Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings. Sassanids were from the province of Persis, native to the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids.
The Sassanid Empire (226–651)
The Sassanid Empire or Sassanian Dynasty (Persian: ساسانیان) is the name used for the fourth imperial Iranian dynasty, and the second Persian Empire (226–651). The Sassanid dynasty was founded by Ardashir I (Persian: اردشیر یکم) after defeating the last Parthian (Arsacid) king, Artabanus V (Persian: اردوان پنجم Ardavan) and ended when the last Sassanid Shahanshah (King of Kings), Yazdegerd III (632–651), lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the early Islamic Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires.
Ardashir I led a rebellion against the Parthian Confederacy in an attempt to revive the glory of the previous empire and to legitimize the Hellenized form of Zoroastrianism practised in southwestern Iran. In two years he was the Shah of a new Persian Empire.
The Sassanid dynasty (also Sassanian, named for Ardashir's grandfather) was the first dynasty native to the Pars province since the Achaemenids; thus they saw themselves as the successors of Darius and Cyrus. They pursued an aggressive expansionist policy. They recovered much of the eastern lands that the Kushans had taken in the Parthian period. The Sassanids continued to make war against Rome; a Persian army even captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260.
The Sassanid Empire, unlike Parthia, was a highly centralized state. The people were rigidly organized into a caste system: Priests, Soldiers, Scribes, and Commoners. Zoroastrianism was finally made the official state religion, and spread outside Persia proper and out into the provinces. There was sporadic persecution of other religions. The Eastern Orthodox Church was particularly persecuted, but this was in part due to its ties to the Roman Empire. The Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and sometimes even favored by the Sassanids.