“Persia” is a conventional European designation of the country now known as Iran. This name was in general use in the West until 1935; although, the Iranians themselves had long called their country “Iran”. For convention's sake the name of Persia is here kept for that part of the country's history concerned with the ancient Persian Empire until the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD. For later history, as well as other information on the modern country, see Iran.

Imam / dhyaum / aurmzda / paTuv / hCa / hinaya / hCa / ?uSiyara / hCa / druga

(imām : dahyāum : Auramazdā : pātuv : hačā : haināyā : hačā : dušiyārā : hačā : draugā)

خداوند این کشور را از ســـــپاه دشمن، از خشـــــــــــــکسالی و از دروغ پاس دارد...

May God protect this country from a hostile army, from famine and from the lie...

Darius the Great in Persepolis

Why Persia is important?

The empire established by the Persians in the 500s BC was as powerful and as brilliant as it was short-lived. The early Persian Empire was known for its religious tolerance. Unlike most invaders before or afterward, the Persians respected the traditions of the people they conquered. For instance, they allowed the Jews to rebuild their city of Jerusalem. Another important aspect of Persian rule was their system of organisation, which allowed them to build what was then the largest empire in history. The Persians built roads, dug canals, and established the first important postal system in history to maintain communications between the emperor and his satraps, or governors. They also brought about advancements in law. Among their most notable contributions to civilisation was a religion few people in modern times have ever heard of, i.e. Zoroastrianism. Certainly, people have heard of the Devil, however, and of the idea that good and evil, symbolised by God and Satan, are continually at war with one another—all these were Zoroastrian beliefs that greatly influenced Christianity.

The first empire

The Iranian plateau was settled about 1500 BC by Aryan tribes (or as currently known as Indo-Europeans), the most important of which were the Medes, who occupied the north-western portion, and the Persians, who emigrated from Parsua, a land west of Lake Urmia, into the southern region of the plateau, which they named Parsamash or Parsumash. The first prominent leader of the Persians was the warrior chief Hakhamanish, or Achaemenes, who lived about 681 BC. The Persians were dominated by the Medes until the accession to the Persian throne in 550 BC of Cyrus the Great. He overthrew the Median rulers, conquered the Kingdom of Lydia in about 546 BC, Babylonia in 539 BC and established the Persian Empire as the preeminent power of the world. His son and successor, Cambyses II, extended the Persian realm even further by conquering the Egyptians in 525 BC. Darius I, who ascended the throne in 522 BC, pushed the Persian borders as far eastward as the Indus River, had a canal constructed from the Nile to the Red Sea, and reorganised the entire empire, earning the title Darius the Great. From 499 to 494 BC, he engaged in crushing a revolt of the Ionian Greeks living under Persian rule in Asia, and then launched a punitive campaign against the European Greeks for supporting the rebels. His forces were deemed to be defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC when they left the battlefield. Darius died while preparing a new expedition against the Greeks; his son and successor, Xerxes I, attempted to fulfil his plan; but, met defeat in a great sea engagement, the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BC and in two successive land battles in the following year.

The forays of Xerxes were the last notable attempt at expansion of the Persian Empire. During the reign of Artaxerxes I, the second son of Xerxes, the Egyptians revolted, aided by the Greeks; although the revolt was finally suppressed in 446 BC, it signalled the first major assault against, and the beginning of the decline of the Persian Empire.

View of Palace of Persepolis from North West View of Palace of Persepolis from North West An illustration from Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture (Courtesy of University of Michigan Library Digital Collections)

The “Royal Road” and the Persian postal system

Under the emperor Cyrus the Great, the Persians built a 2,400 km (1,500 mile) road from Sardis in Asia Minor to the Persian capital at Susa. At the time of its building, the “Royal Road” was the longest in the world. Even compared with the interstate highways of the United States today, it is impressive. Interstate 75, which runs from the Canadian border in Michigan all the way to the southern end of Florida, is barely as long. One of the few US interstates longer than the Royal Road is I-80, which runs for nearly 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from New York City to San Francisco, California.

The Royal Road made possible one of the world’s first postal systems. Along it lay some 80 stations, where one horsebound mail carrier could pass the mail on to another, a system not unlike the Pony Express used in the American West during the 1860s.

Mail in the Persian Empire, however, was not just for anyone. Only the king and important leaders such as the satraps could use the postal system. The idea of ordinary people being able to mail letters did not take hold until the 1600s in England.

Nonetheless, the Persian messenger system was so efficient—the mail carriers did their job so well—that the Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote of them, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night prevents these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” These lines are inscribed on the front of the central post office building in New York City.

Alexander of Macedonia and the Seleucids

Many revolts took place under the first Persian Empire; the final blow was struck by Alexander of Macedonia (known in the west as “Alexander the Great”!), who added the Persian Empire to his own Mediterranean realm by defeating the troops of Darius III in a series of battles between 334 and 331 BC. Alexander effected a temporary integration of the Persians into his empire by enlisting large numbers of Persian soldiers in his armies and by causing all his high officers, who were Macedonians, to wed Persian wives. His death in 323 BC was followed by a long struggle among his generals for the Persian throne. The victor in this contest was Seleucus I, who, after conquering the rich kingdom of Babylon in 312 BC, annexed thereto all the former Persian realm as far east as the Indus River, as well as Syria and Asia Minor, and founded the Seleucid dynasty. For more than five centuries thereafter, Persia remained a subordinate unit within this great realm, which, after the overthrow of the Seleucids in the 2nd century bc, became the Parthian Empire.

The Sassanids

In 224 AD, Ardashir I, a Persian vassal-king, rebelled against the Parthians, defeated them in the Battle of Hormuz, and founded a new Persian dynasty, that of the Sassanids. He then conquered several minor neighbouring kingdoms, invaded India, levying heavy tribute from the rulers of the Punjab, and conquered Armenia. A particularly significant accomplishment of his reign was the establishment of Zoroastrianism as the official religion of Persia. Ardashir was succeeded in 241 by his son Shapur I, who waged two successive wars against the Roman Empire, conquering territories in Mesopotamia and Syria and a large area in Asia Minor. Between 260 and 263 he lost his conquests to Odenathus, ruler of Palmyra, and ally of Rome. War with Rome was renewed by Narses; his army was almost annihilated by Roman forces in 297, and he was compelled to conclude peace terms whereby the western boundary of Persia was moved from the Euphrates River to the Tigris River and much additional territory was lost. Shapur II (ruled 309-379) regained the lost territories, however, in three successive wars with the Romans.

The next ruler of note was Yazdegerd I, who reigned in peace from 399 to 420; he at first allowed the Persian Christians freedom of worship and may even have contemplated becoming a Christian himself, but he later returned to the Zoroastrianism of his forebears and launched a 4-year campaign of ruthless persecution against the Christians. The persecution was continued by his son and successor, Bahram V, who declared war on Rome in 420. The Romans defeated Bahram in 422; by the terms of the peace treaty the Romans promised toleration for the Zoroastrians within their realm in return for similar treatment of Christians in Persia. Two years later, at the Council of Dad-Ishu, the Eastern church declared its independence of the Western church.

Near the end of the 5th century a new enemy, the barbaric Hephthalites, or “White Huns,” attacked Persia; they defeated the Persian king Firuz II in 483 and for some years thereafter exacted heavy tribute. In the same year Nestorianism was made the official faith of the Persian Christians. Kavadh I favoured the communistic teachings of Mazdak (flourished 5th century), a Zoroastrian high priest, and in 498 was deposed by his orthodox brother Jamasp. With the aid of the Hephthalites, Kavadh was restored to the throne in 501. He fought two inconclusive wars against Rome, and in 523 he withdrew his support of Mazdak and caused a great massacre of Mazdak's followers. His son and successor, Khosrow I, in two wars with the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, extended his sway to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, becoming the most powerful of all Sassanid kings. He reformed the administration of the empire and restored Zoroastrianism as the state religion. His grandson Khosrow II reigned from 590 to 628; in 602 he began a long war against the Byzantine Empire and by 619 had conquered almost all southwestern Asia Minor and Egypt. Further expansion was prevented by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, who between 622 and 627 drove the Persians back within their original borders. The last of the Sassanid kings was Yazdegerd III, during whose reign (632-651) the Arabs invaded Persia, destroyed all resistance, gradually replaced Zoroastrianism with Islam, and incorporated Persia into the caliphate.

References and further sources

This article is sourced from:

  • Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2004 © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation
  • Judson Knight (2000); “Ancient Civilizations: Almanac”, Vol 1, U.X.L
  • Persian Empire” on Harvard College's WorldMap website by ashannon, last visited on 19 June 2019

The following further online sources on the subject are also recommended:

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