Human Legacy Course/The Persian Empire

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Human Legacy Course I
The Persian Empire

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Hello and welcome to the fourth and final lecture of Week 2. In this lecture, we will be discussing the Persian Empire. Now, our question for the day is:

Could a newborn infant be a threat to a king? According to an ancient legend, the baby who grew up to be King Cyrus the Great of Persia was indeed a threat. Cyrus, the legend says, was the grandson of Astyages, king of the Medes. The king’s daughter had married a prince of the Persians, a people the Medes had conquered. Shortly after the couple’s first son, Cyrus, was born, the king had a dream that the baby would grow up to overthrow him. Afraid the dream would come true, he ordered his servants to kill young Cyrus.

Not wanting to kill a helpless baby, one of the servants took Cyrus out of the city and gave him to an old shepherd to raise. Under the shepherd’s care, Cyrus grew to be a clever and capable leader who wanted to free his people from rule by the Medes. When he reached adulthood, Cyrus led a rebellion, overthrew his grandfather, and made himself the new king.

Growth & Organization

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Legends about the rise to power of Cyrus the Great have grown over time. Historians are not sure which of the legends’ details are accurate. For example, they question whether Cyrus was really Astyages’s grandson. What they do not question, however, is the greatness of his achievements. Cyrus conquered the Medes and established one of the largest empires of the ancient world, the Persian Empire.

Persia Under the Medes

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The Persians and the Medes were both Indo-European tribes originally from Central Asia. Over time, both tribes settled on the plateaus of what is now Iran. There, the Medes created a new kingdom, Media, and set out to conquer their neighbors.

Among those conquered by the Medes were the Persians. The Medes allowed the conquered Persians to keep their own leaders as long as they did not rebel. In this way, the Persians remained subject to the Medes for centuries.

Cyrus the Great

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A new leader arose among the Persians in 559 BC, though, who would change everything. His name was Cyrus II, better known as Cyrus the Great. About 10 years after becoming the Persian king, Cyrus led a revolt against the Medes. He defeated the Median army and united the Persians and the Medes under his rule.

Once Cyrus had taken control of Media, he set out to expand his lands. He marched into Asia Minor and conquered the fabulously wealthy kingdom of Lydia. He also captured several Greek cities in Ionia, a region of Asia Minor along the Aegean Sea. From there, Cyrus moved south into Mesopotamia, where he defeated the Chaldeans and captured the city of Babylon.

When Cyrus conquered a region, he allowed people to keep their own customs rather than forcing them to adopt Persian ones. This tolerance for other people’s customs won Cyrus the respect of those he conquered. The Jews, for example, admired Cyrus and considered him a hero. When he conquered Babylon, Cyrus freed the Jews from slavery and allowed them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.

Cyrus died in 530 BC while fighting in Central Asia. At the time of his death, he ruled the largest empire in the world. According to a Greek historian, the Persians summed up Cyrus’s achievements with this inscription carved on his tomb:

"O man, I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, who founded the empire of the Persians and was king of Asia. Do not therefore grudge me this monument."

After Cyrus died, his son Cambyses II became emperor. Building on a plan first designed by his father, Cambyses invaded Egypt and added it to the Persian Empire. Unlike Cyrus, who was admired for his tolerance, Cambyses was described as a tyrant and a madman. While in Egypt, he received word of a rebellion in Persia. On his way back home to crush the rebellion, Cambyses died and Persia was left without a ruler.

Darius I

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Out of the confusion surrounding the rebellion and the death of Cambyses rose a new leader for Persia. His name was Darius I. For the first year of his reign, Darius had to fight to restore order in Persia. Many Persians did not like him and fought to keep him off the throne. Once he had extinguished the last flames of rebellion, Darius began a program to reorganize and strengthen his empire.

The first step Darius took to strengthen the empire was reforming the army. Under Cyrus, the Persians had had no permanent army. The emperor called people to fight for him when he went into battle, and they returned home when the fighting was done. Darius changed that system by creating a permanent army made up of paid soldiers. He also instituted a new training system for the army.

At the heart of Darius’s army was a group of highly trained soldiers called the Ten Thousand Immortals. Hand picked for their skills and dedication, these soldiers often acted as a bodyguard for the emperor. In battle, they were supported by cavalry soldiers mounted on horses or camels and by chariots. The Persian chariots sometimes carried archers, who pelted their foes with arrows from a distance. With this army, Darius won new lands in the east and tried—but failed—to conquer Greece.

Darius also made changes to the Persian government. For example, he surrounded the kingship with ceremony and ritual. As king, Darius was all powerful, and he wanted to demonstrate that power to everyone. Calling himself the Great King and the King of Kings, Darius surrounded himself with symbols of power. He wore embroidered robes and jewelry decorated with gold and gems. Anyone who came into his presence had to bow low to the ground, never looking directly at the king.

Powerful as Darius was, he could not personally control everything that happened in the empire. Persia was simply too large. To help him rule, Darius chose governors called satraps. Each satrap governed a region, or satrapy, in the emperor’s name.

Although satraps had considerable local authority, they had to obey the wishes of the king. To ensure that the satraps remained loyal, Darius sent officials called the king’s eyes and king’s ears on inspection tours. Satraps who received unfavorable reports from these inspectors were punished or replaced.

Darius’s reforms also strengthened the Persian economy. Under his rule, the first coins ever minted in Persia were issued. He also encouraged trade by building roads throughout the Persian Empire. As a result of this increased trade, the empire grew richer.

Persia In Decline

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Most historians consider Darius’s reign the high point of Persian culture. The emperors who followed never achieved the level of power and prestige he enjoyed.

Emperor Xerxes, the son of Darius I, tried to expand upon his father’s success. Like Darius, he invaded Greece, hoping to succeed where his father had failed. His attempt failed, however, and Xerxes returned to Persia in defeat.

Xerxes was the last strong ruler of ancient Persia. Later emperors were mostly weak and could not maintain order. Rebellions were common, and trade slowed. Greatly weakened, the Persian Empire nonetheless survived for about 150 years after the death of Darius I. In the 330s BC, however, a Greek king named Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the course of building an empire of his own.


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During the reigns of Cyrus and Darius, a new religion took hold in parts of Persia. It was called Zoroastrianism and was based on the teachings of a man named Zoroaster.


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Zoroaster taught that the world had been created by a god named Ahura Mazda. To Zoroaster, the god was the source of everything good, true, and pure in the world. He was, therefore, the only god that people should worship.

Opposing Ahura Mazda, however, was an evil spirit named Ahriman. The forces of Ahura Mazda were locked in an eternal struggle against the forces of Ahriman. Zoroastrianism was one of the first religions to teach dualism, the belief that the world is controlled by two opposing forces, good and evil.

Zoroaster believed that people had free will and could act as they chose. He encouraged people to join the forces of Ahura Mazda and to fight evil by telling the truth and avoiding bad deeds. Zoroaster’s teachings on how people should best serve the god were eventually compiled and recorded in the Avesta, the sacred text of Zoroastrianism.

The Avesta says that people who live good lives in the service of Ahura Mazda will be rewarded after death. They will enter a heaven filled with pleasures. Those who are wicked will be punished for their sins. However, the Avesta continues, at the end of time Ahura Mazda will defeat Ahriman and drive all evil from the world. When that happens, the wicked will be purified, and all souls will be restored to life to live happily together.


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By the time Darius I took the throne, Zoroastrianism had spread through much of the Persian Empire. The emperor himself worshipped Ahura Mazda, as did many of the emperors who followed him. Some emperors discouraged the practice of other religions.

When the Persian Empire fell to the Greeks, Zoroastrianism almost disappeared. The Greeks built temples to their gods and convinced many Persians to convert. The teachings of Zoroaster never completely disappeared, though, and gradually they began to spread again, both in Persia and to other parts of the world.

Persian Achievements

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The Persian Empire was huge, stretching across most of Asia. Dozens of peoples with their own customs and traditions lived within that vast area. When they became part of the empire, their diverse customs gradually blended into a single Persian culture. Leaders like Cyrus and Darius encouraged this blending, because they knew the importance of cultural unity.

One advantage of this shared culture was peace. For most of its early history, the Persian Empire was relatively peaceful. There were no major conflicts between peoples. Instead, they worked together to improve their empire. Together, the peoples of Persia made some amazing cultural achievements.


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Good communication was essential to ruling the Persian Empire. Rulers in the capital needed to know what was happening elsewhere in the empire in order to make decisions.

The heart of the Persian communication network was its high quality roads, which linked every part of the empire. The longest of these roads was the Royal Road, the world’s first long highway. It stretched more than 1,500 miles and linked the major cities of Susa and Sardis. Smaller roads branched off the Royal Road to connect other key cities.

Following these roads, messengers on horseback could travel across the entire Persian Empire in a matter of days. To deliver urgent messages, the messengers worked in shifts. Like runners in a relay race, each one would travel only a short distance before passing the message to a partner with a fresh horse. After seeing this system in action, one Greek historian recorded his amazement:

"Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers…these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night."

Art & Architecture

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The Persians were also widely admired for their art. Many of the objects their artists created were used in the royal court. For example, they crafted delicate drinking vessels out of gold set with precious gems. Many of these golden objects are shaped like animals, such as lions and bulls. Animals were a common subject in Persian art.

Animals were also common decorations in Persian architecture. The walls of the great palace in the capital city of Susa, for example, sported lions, bulls, and giraffes made of painted brick. Lions and bulls also appeared on the gates and columns of Persepolis, another of the empire’s capitals.

Many archaeologists consider Persepolis the greatest example of Persian architecture. Designed as a ceremonial city by Darius I, the entire city of Persepolis was a monument to Persia’s glory. At the center of the city was a high-ceilinged audience hall unlike anything else in the Ancient Near East. Larger than any other structure in the city, the hall was highly decorated. The columns that supported the ceiling were brightly painted and topped with stone figures. Carved soldiers and royal officials lined the walls, all bearing gifts for the mighty emperor in whose hall they stood.

Their achievements cannot be all listed because there are too many.


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That was your lecture. Here is your assignment:

  • Question #1: For what is Cyrus the Great best known?
  • Question #2: Why did Darius I appoint satraps to help rule his empire?
  • Question #3: Why do you think the Persian Empire never again regained the heights it had reached under Darius I?
  • Question #4: What is dualism? How is Zoroastrianism an example of a dualistic religion?
  • Question #5: How did Zoroaster say people should act? Why did he think they should act this way?
  • Question #6: What were two features that made Persepolis an impressive city?
  • Question #7: Why did Darius I have the Royal Road built?
  • Question #8: What might the Greek historian’s amazement about the Persian messenger system tell you about communication in Greece?

Thank you very much for listening to this lecture and please send me a message regarding taking the Week 2 test. Thank you very much and I look forward to seeing you in Week 3. Goodbye.

Helpful Resources

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