Achaemenid Empire

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Achaemenid Empire
Ancient Empire of Western Asia
Gold Standard Standard of Cyrus the Great (Achaemenid Empire) and Military Flag.png
LocationWestern Asia
Near East, Central Asia
Western South Asia
North Africa
Southeast Europe
State existed550-330 BC
CapitalBabylon (Main Capital)
Ecbatana, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Susa
GovernmentMonarchy (1430-1178 BC)
Head of GovernmentKing
LegislatureCouncil of Nobles
Major CitiesByzantium, Cyrene, Damascus, Gordium, Halikarnassos, Sardis, Sais, Tarsus, Tyre
Population49.4 million or
44% of world total of
112.4 million c. 480 BC
Area8,000,000 km2
(3,100,000 sq mi)
Preceded byMedian Empire
Succeeded byMacedonian Empire

The Achaemenid Empire, or Achaemenid Persian Empire, (550–330 BC) was the first of the Persian Empires to rule over significant portions of Greater Persia (or Iran). It followed the Median Empire as the second great empire of the Iranian peoples. At the height of its power in 550 BC, the Achaemenid Empire covered about 8.0 million km2 or 3.1 million sq mi and was territoriality the largest empire of classical antiquity.

The British historian Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire has described it as the First World Empire.


The Persians were one of several Indo-Iranian cultures originating in the Eurasian Steppe. Referring to themselves as “Pārsa,” the Persian nomads migrated to the area of what is present-day Iran and settled (c. 7th century BCE) the southwest corner of the Iranian Plateau (the ancient region of Persis), on the north shore of the Persian Gulf, forcing the Elamites—an ancient pre-Iranian culture—to abandon their territories. Persians spoke a branch of the Indo-European language that evolved into what scholars classify as Old Persian. The Persians also utilized the Elamite and Akkadian (Babylonian) languages in their cuneiform inscriptions.

At the beginning of the Achaemenid rule, the Persians were buffered from the great civilisations of Mesopotamia by the Zagros Mountains—a range corresponding approximately to present-day Iran’s western border. Eventually, the Persians conquered the territories west of this natural barrier. At its peak, the Achaemenid Persian Empire stretched from the Indus River across the Near East to the eastern Mediterranean coast, south into Egypt along the Nile to Sudan, across Anatolia, and into Thrace and Macedonia.


The Persians were unlikely empire builders but in a relatively short span of years they conquered most of the Near East. They benefited from the leadership of a series of strong kings and from a lack of competent leaders among their neighbors. They expanded very quickly, stood on shaky ground for a few hundred years under internal and external pressures, and then collapsed suddenly and utterly. Despite their accomplishments and the breadth of their influence, our knowledge of the Persians is surprisingly limited.

The Persians settled on relatively poor and remote lands where they were seldom troubled by first the Elamites to their west; then the Assyrians (who destroyed the Elamites around 640 BCE); then the Medes (to their north); and finally the resurgent Babylonians who conquered Assyria in 609 BCE. Throughout this period, the various petty Persian kings were vassals of the richer and more advanced Medes—another ancient Iranian people. Cyrus II became king of the small Persian Kingdom of Anshan in 559 BCE. Within ten years he had subjugated the eastern part of Persia and established a reputation among even his rivals as a natural leader to whom men gravitated. When the Median king attempted to reassert control over Persia around 550 BCE, the Median army revolted on the battlefield, handing over their king to Cyrus and surrendering their own capital at Ecbatana. The Median Empire, stretching across northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia, underwent a nearly bloodless change of management. Cyrus II was now Cyrus the Great, the first monarch of the Achaemenid Empire, named after Achaemenes (the legendary first ruler of what is referred to as the Achaemenid Kingdom dating back to circa 700 BCE). In quick succession, Cyrus then conquered the Lydians of Asia Minor (led by the King Croesus of legendary wealth who was said to have invented coins), Greek colonies on the Aegean coast, the Parthians, and the Hyrcanians to the north. In 541 BCE, he marched into the steppes of Central Asia, establishing a fortified border along the Jaxartes River.

In 540 BCE, his 19th year as king, Cyrus turned on his onetime ally, Babylon. After one battle, the army and people of Babylon surrendered (in 539 BCE) their king, city, and empire that stretched from southern Mesopotamia to the Phoenician city-states of the Levant. Before Cyrus could expand into Egypt or toward Greece, however, he was killed fighting nomadic tribesmen who were threatening his eastern provinces. The first successors to Cyrus conquered Egypt, gathered new provinces in North Africa, and extended the empire into India up to the banks of the Indus River. They turned next against the Greeks, who were commercial rivals of Persian Phoenicia. In 513 BCE, a huge floating bridge was built across the Bosporus Strait, linking Asia and Europe. The Persian army took Thrace and Macedonia in an effort to cut off the Greek city-states in Attica and the Peloponnese from access to northern grain; but the Persians could not subjugate the elusive Scythians (the vast empire of nomadic warriors to Persia’s north in the central Eurasian steppes). The start of the 5th century BCE was the peak of the Persian Empire—an empire containing nearly 50 million subjects (approximately 44% of the world’s total population at that time). The stage was set for the mighty struggle with the comparatively much smaller city-states of Greece. (To learn about the Battle of Plataea—the epic showdown between the Persian Empire and the allied Greek city-states—watch the Age Up video The Man In The High City.)

The empire began as the Kingdom of Persia a tributary state of the Medes but ended up conquering and enlarging the Median empire to include Egypt and Asia Minor. Under Xerxes, it came very close to conquering Ancient Greece. The Achaemenids were overthrown by the conquest of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

The empire was forged by Cyrus the Great. It spanned three continents, including parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan; parts of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace; much of the Black Sea coastal regions; Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria; and all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya. The empire was the foe of the Greek city-states in the Greco-Persian Wars. It freed the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity, and instituted Aramaic as the empire's official language. Because of the Empire's vast extent and long endurance, Persian influence upon the language, religion, architecture, philosophy, law and government of nations around the world lasts to this day.


During the history of the Persian Empire, five cities served as the royal capital. The first was Pasargadae, built by Cyrus to commemorate his victory over the Medes. It was remote and impractical as an administrative capital. Cyrus rebuilt Babylon as the main royal capital for his use when affairs brought him to Mesopotamia. Darius I moved the administration of the empire to Susa, the old Elamite capital, perhaps for efficiency. It was well located at the hub of a road and water transport network.

The extreme summer heat of Susa drove the Persian court first to the higher altitudes of Ecbatana, the old Median capital in the Zagros Mountains. In c. 518 BCE, Darius began building the greatest of the Persian capitals at Persepolis (literally “City of the Persians”). The construction of Persepolis (540 miles/870km south of the present-day Iranian capital of Tehran) was interrupted for long periods and was still not completed nearly 200 years later when the city was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great.


The head of the Persian government was the king, whose word was law. His authority was extended by a bureaucracy led by Persian nobles, scribes who kept the records, a treasury that collected taxes and funded building projects and armies, and a system of roads, couriers, and signal stations that facilitated mail and trade. In the early years when the army was predominately Persian, it capably preserved the internal and external peace. Much of the empire was divided into provinces called satrapies, ruled by a governor called a satrap. All of Egypt was usually a single satrapy, for example. The satraps were normally Persians or Medes to help ensure their loyalty. They ruled and lived like minor kings in their own palaces. Some satraps became strong enough to threaten the king. Strong kings kept their satraps in check by holding close the reins of the armies and the treasury. The Persian kings were able to communicate very quickly across their empire using a highway called The Royal Road. Riders could make the entire journey—from one end of this 1,600-mile-long highway to the other—in a mere week.

Head of State

Administrative Divisions

Map of the Achaemenid Empire at peak 500 BC, image by Ivor Mladjov.


The Provinces of the Achaemenid Empire were called Satrapies that were administrative units or provinces of the Achaemenid empire. They were administered by a Satrap or colonial governor of the rank of a Viceroy thus describes an administrator as the “protector of empire” or “protector of sovereignty” The satrapies formed a system which made it possible to rule over the whole Achaemenid territory, to raise and forward taxes, to recruit military forces, and to control local bureaucracies. Dealing with crises and uprisings was also the responsibility of satraps, as was defense against external threats.

In order to guarantee control over an empire which expanded rapidly between 550 and 522 BCE, Cyrus the Great (559-530) and his son Cambyses (530-522) adapted the existing structures of predecessor empires on a large scale. These structures in turn determined the hierarchical construction of the satrapal system which, remaining essentially unchanged, proved a successful instrument of administration throughout the entire Achaemenid period. The Empire was divided into large regional great satrapies consiting of a central main satrapy, these were subdivided into were main satrapies and below them minor satrapies

There were a total 45 provinces which included:

Akaufaka, Amyrgoi, Arabia, Arachosia, Aria, Armenia, Assyria, Babylonia, Bactria, Cappadocia, Caria, Carmania, Caucasian Albania, Chorasmia, Cilicia, Colchis, Dahae, Drangiana, Egypt, Eber-Nari (Levant), Elam, Kush (Nubia), Gandāra, Gedrosia, Hyrcania, Ionia, Hindush (India), Libya, Lydia, Maka, Margiana, Media Lesser, Media ,Massagetae, Parthia, Persia, Phoenicia, Phrygia Hellespontine, Phrygia, Greater Phrygia, Saka ,Samaritan Province, Sattagydia, Sogdia, Thrace.


Persian Army

Army Command

A Persian army was usually, though not always, placed under a single commander. This commander was the monarch, if he was present; if not, it was a Persian, or a Mede, nominated by him. Under the commander-in-chief were a number of general officers, heads of corps or divisions, of whom we find, in one instance, as many as nine. Next in rank to these were the chiefs of the various ethnic contingents composing the army, who were, probably, in general the satraps of the different provinces.

Thus far appointments were held directly from the crown; but beyond this the system was changed. The ethnic or satrapial commanders appointed the officers next below themselves, the captains over a thousand, and (if their contingent was large enough to admit it) the captains over ten thousand; who, again, nominated their subordinates, commanders of a hundred, and commanders of ten. Thus, in the main, a decimal scale prevailed. The lowest rank of officers commanded each ten men, the next lowest a hundred, the next to that a thousand, the next ten thousand. The officer over ten thousand was sometimes a divisional chief; sometimes he was subject to the commander of an ethnic contingent, who was himself under the orders of the head of a division. Altogether there were six ranks of officers, exclusive of the commander-in-chief.

The proper position of the commander-in-chief was considered to be the centre of the line of battle. He was regarded as safer there than he would have been on either wing; and it was seen that, from such a position, his orders would be most rapidly conveyed to all parts of the battlefield. It was not, however, thought to be honorable that he should keep aloof from the fight, or avoid risking his own person. On the contrary, he was expected to take an active part in the combat; and therefore, though his place was not exactly in the very foremost ranks, it was towards the front, and the result followed that he was often exposed to imminent danger. The consequences of this arrangement were frequently disastrous in the extreme, the death or flight of the commander producing universal panic, stopping the further issue of any general order, and thus paralyzing the whole army.

The Persian army was organized into regiments of 10,000 men a ' hazarabam ' each regiment was commanded by a 'hazarapatis' or a commander of a thousand and each was divided into ten sataba of a hundred dathabam of ten bow and falchion ( curved sword ) .

Persian Infantry

All Persian men to the age of 50 years were obligated to serve in the armies of the Persian Empire. Ancient Greek accounts state that Persian boys were trained in riding, archery, hand-to-hand combat, and mounted combat. At the age of 20 they were eligible for military service. The army consisted mainly of four types of units: spearmen for infantry shock combat; foot archers to act as skirmishers; light cavalry armed mainly with bows; and heavy cavalry that wore some armor and carried spears. In the early years of the empire, the predominately Persian army was highly motivated and responsive on the battlefield, making it a dangerous foe.

The Persian Military was modelled by Cyrus the Great intiially on that of the of the Assyrian Empire, although he modified and improved it. The elite of the Persian army was the Ten Thousand Immortals, so called because the unit was always kept at a full strength of 10,000 men. The loss of any man to death or incapacitation was immediately addressed by the promotion of a soldier from another unit. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the Immortals went to battle glittering with gold, and even took covered carriages filled with their women and servants on campaigns. One thousand of the Immortals were the personal bodyguards of the king. In its later years, the ratio of Persians to provincial levies declined. A mixture of constituent peoples, weapons, and methods replaced the standardized, hardened army of well-trained Persians. These troops lacked the discipline of the Persians and proved difficult to maneuver and employ on the battlefield.

The elite of the Persian army was the Ten Thousand Immortals, so called because the unit was always kept at a full strength of 10,000 men. The loss of any man to death or incapacitation was immediately addressed by the promotion of a soldier from another unit. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the Immortals went to battle glittering with gold, and even took covered carriages filled with their women and servants on campaigns. One thousand of the Immortals were the personal bodyguards of the king. In its later years, the ratio of Persians to provincial levies declined. A mixture of constituent peoples, weapons, and methods replaced the standardized, hardened army of well-trained Persians. These troops lacked the discipline of the Persians and proved difficult to maneuver and employ on the battlefield.

Persian Archers

Archers were an important core of the Persian army .The Persian bow, according to Herodotus and Xenophon, was of unusual size. According to the sculptures, it was rather short, certainly not exceeding four feet. It seems to have been carried strung, either on the left shoulder, with the arm passed through it, or in a bow-case slung at the left side. It was considerably bent in the middle, and had the ends slightly turned back. The arrows, which were of reed, tipped with metal, and feathered, were carried in a quiver, which hung at the back near the left shoulder. To judge from the sculptures, their length must have been about two feet and a half. The arrow-heads, which were either of bronze or iron, seem to have been of various shapes, the most common closely resembling the arrow-heads of the Assyrians.

The Persian Cavalry

The Persian cavalry was armed, in the early times of the monarchy, almost exactly in the same manner as their infantry. Afterwards, however a considerable change seems to have been made. In the time of the younger Cyrus cavalry soldiers were very fully protected. They wore helmets on their heads, coats of mail about their bodies, and greaves on their legs. Their chief offensive arms seem, then, to have been the short sword, the javelin, and the knife. It is probable that they were without shields, being sufficiently defended by their armor, which (as we have seen) was almost complete.

Persian Chariot

Though the Persians did not set any great store by chariots, as an arm of the military service, they nevertheless made occasional use of them. Not only were their kings and princes, when they commanded their troops in person, accustomed to direct their movements, both on the march and even inaction, from the elevation of a war-chariot, but now and then, in great battles, a considerable force of them was brought into the field, and important consequences were expected from their employment.

War Elephants

The later Persians made use also of elephants in battle, but to a very small extent . Unlike Hannibal, the Persians were not able to use their elephants to good effect .

War Tactics

The chief points of Persian tactics were the following. The army was organized into three distinct services—those of the chariots, the horse, and the foot. In drawing up the line of battle, it was usual, where chariots were employed, to place them in the front rank, in front of the rest of the army. Behind the chariots were stationed the horse and the foot; the former generally massed upon the wings; the latter placed in the middle, drawn up according to nations, in a number of oblong squares, which touched, or nearly touched, one another. The bravest and best armed troops were placed in front; the ranks towards the rear being occupied by those of inferior quality.

Size of the Army

The numbers of a Persian army, though no doubt exaggerated by the Greeks, must have been very great, amounting, probably, on occasions, to more than a million of combatants. Troops were drawn from the entire empire, and were marshaled in the field according to nations, each tribe accoutered in its own fashion. Here were seen the gilded breastplates and scarlet kilts of the Persians and Medes; there the woolen shirt of the Arab, the leathern jerkin of the Berber, or the cotton dress of the native of Hindustan. Swart savage Ethiopians from the Upper Nile, adorned with a war-paint of white and red, and scantily clad with the skins of leopards or lions, fought in one place with huge clubs, arrows tipped with stone, and spears terminating in the horn of an antelope.

Persian Navy

The Persians were quite aware of the great importance of a navy, and spared no pains to provide themselves with an efficient one. The conquests of Phoenicia, Cyprus, Egypt, and the Greek islands were undertaken, it is probable, mainly with this object; and these parts of the Empire were always valued chiefly as possessing skilled seamen, vessels, and dockyards, from which the Great King could draw an almost inexhaustible supply of war-ships and transports. The Persian Navy or the Imperial Persian Navy in one form or another has existed since the 6th century BC and was the main naval force of the Achaemenid Empire. The navy played an important role in the military efforts of the Persians in late antiquity in protecting and expanding trade routes along the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean and at times had the complete command of the Mediterranean Sea, and bore undisputed sway in the Levant during almost the whole period of her existence as an empire.


The early Persian economy was based on herding because the land was so poor for agriculture. The Persians attributed their toughness to the meager lifestyle to which they had been acclimated for generations. The sudden acquisition of the Median Empire, Lydia, Babylon, Egypt, and gold-rich areas in India made Persia an economic powerhouse. It controlled the rich agricultural areas of Mesopotamia, the grasslands of Anatolia, the trade routes in every direction, and rich deposits of metals and other resources.

King Darius the Great instituted many economic innovations and reforms: systematized taxation; standardized weights, measures, and monetary units (the first successful widespread use of coins); improved transportation routes, including the 1600-mile-long Royal Road from Susa to Sardis; improvements to an early version of the Suez Canal; royal trading ships; promotion of agriculture; a banking system; and the promotion of international trade.

Religion and Culture

The Persian kings and nobility were Zoroastrians, a religion named after its founder, Zarathustra (called Zoroaster in Greek). Zoroastrianism was monotheistic centering on Ahura Mazda—one supreme god who created everything material and spiritual. The powers of good and evil worked on humans, who had to choose constantly between the two. An eternal afterlife, either of pleasure or torment, was the possible result of Ahura Mazda’s judgment after death. These concepts of monotheism, good versus evil, free will, and posthumous reward or punishment were a departure from the polytheistic religions prominent in the area previously.

Decline and End of Empire

The Persian Empire peaked around 500 BCE, although the seeds of its decline were planted earlier. A recurring problem was court intrigue and ill-defined rules for succession. The death of a king often triggered a scramble for the throne that exhausted the treasury, eroded morale, and loosened the governmental hold on the provinces. Wasteful spending led to inflation and unpopular tax increases. Disputes in the provinces, usually over taxes, were often settled brutally, further increasing dissatisfaction. Five of the six kings who followed Xerxes (died: 464 BCE) were weak leaders who held the empire together only by increasingly harsh measures. The Greeks and Persians had been on a collision course for many years. The two cultures came into conflict in 499 BCE with the revolt of many Greek city-states in Ionia (present-day Turkey) against Persian control. Despite having what appeared to be overwhelming strength and economic resources, the Persians failed to defeat the allied Greek forces over the next 50 years of war on land and sea. The Greeks, though victorious, were not capable immediately of carrying the war into Persia.

Following the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BCE), the weak Persian kings concentrated on maintaining their increasingly tenuous hold on the empire. Recurring revolts in outlying provinces, especially Parthia, Lydia, and Egypt, weakened the economy and military. Before the empire could dissolve from within, Alexander the Great dispatched it in an amazingly short period of time. Alexander invaded in 334 BCE, captured Lydia by 333, took Egypt in 332, and became King of Persia in 331 (destroying Persepolis in 330)