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The Achaemenians

With the rise of the Achaemenian Dynasty, Iran came to play a strategic role in the global politics of those times. Achaemenes (Hakhamanesh), the great grandfather of Cyrus, had established a small local kingdom in Anshān in c. 700 BC. His son, Chishpish (ruled 675-645 BC) expanded his kingdom and besides Anshān also gained dominion over Persia. After him, his empire came to be divided between his two sons. Pars fell into the hands of Aryāramnah while Anshān was bequeathed to Cyrus I. From then on, the Achaemenian Dynasty got divided into two main branches that divided the rule between themselves throughout the history of this dynasty.

Cyrus II, popular as “Cyrus the Great”, was the son of Cambyses I and hailed from the Anshān branch of the Achaemenids and was, in fact, the founder of a global rule. His local rule in Anshān began in the year 559 BC. However, by uniting all the Persian tribes he managed to wrest the power out the hands of the Medians throughout the Iranian plateau. With the downfall of Hamadān, the independent rule of Cyrus began. Thereafter the Persian army attacked Sārd and brought about the downfall of the Lydian empire in 547 BC. Gradually, all of Asia Minor as well as the Greek colonies in Anatolia fell into the hands of the Achaemenians (546 BC). This was the first direct encounter between the Greeks and Achaemenians that turned into a permanent state of rivalry and conflict. Cyrus succeeded in adding the eastern parts of Iran and parts of Central Asia to his empire in the next few years, and after a few short battles, captured Babylonia despite its strong fortresses in the year 539 BC. Cyrus proclaimed himself also as the “King of Babylonia” and after stressing upon peace and harmony ordered the reconstruction of the places of worship. Following the conquest of Babylonia, all of the Syrian, Palestinian, and Phoenician territories fell into the hands of the Achemenians after 539 BC. Apparently, Cyrus was killed during a battle with one of the nomad Sakan tribes but his end is, however, shrouded in mystery and many various narrations are to be found in this regard.

Cyrus’s kingdom was so vast that it was unprecedented in human history. He named his capital as “Pāsārgād” in honor of his tribe. As a great ruler and a conqueror, Cyrus was not only very popular during his lifetime but also for centuries after his death. In times during which murder, plunder, bloodshed, and religious fanaticism were the trend of the day and the traditions of the kings, Cyrus introduced a fresh system of rulership to the world by refraining from such customary traditions.

After Cyrus, his son Cambyses (ruled 530-522 BC) materialized his father’s plans of the conquest of Egypt in the year 525 BC and annexed a part of northern Africa to the Achaemenian Empire. In the absence of Cambyses from Iran, a Magi by the name “Gaumata” (Greek: Comates) claimed to be “Bardiyah” (Greek: Smerdis), the slain brother of Cambyses and seized the throne of Persia. Cambyses who was returning to Iran to quell this rebellion died under mysterious circumstances on his way back. Ultimately, Darius I who hailed from the Persian branch of the Achaemenian tribe gained dominion by slaying Gaumata in 522 BC.

As per the proclamations of Darius I recorded in the Behistun inscriptions (column 4, paras 52, 56, 57, 59, and 62), until one year after ascending to the throne, Darius was occupied in crushing the various rebellions throughout the Achaemenian Empire. Nevertheless, skepticism has been raised about the authenticity of Darius’s claims recorded in the Behistun inscriptions, particularly those concerning the Gaumata episode. The Achaemenian Empire gained extraordinary expansion during the reign of Darius I. Darius’s sagacity and resolution brought about the establishment of security throughout the empire. By establishing a skillfully organized administrative, economic, and military system, he fortified the power of the Achaemenian Empire. Grand architectural structures were erected under his command in Persepolis and Shush, gold coins were minted, the royal roadway connecting Shush to Sārd (Sardis) in Lydia, and the “Sepāh Jāvidān” (lit. “The Everlasting Army”) was formed, and thus, Darius came to be known as the “Architect of the Persian Empire” and gained the title of “Darius the Great”. However, his army faced difficulty in the western parts of his empire and his forces were defeated by the Greeks in the historic Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. This unexpected incident encouraged the Greeks to indulge in amplification and exaggeration over the outcome of this battle. Shortly later, Darius I who was perhaps the most powerful ruler of the East in the ancient world died in the year 486 BC.

His son and successor, Xerxes I, lacked the resolution of his father. After violently suppressing the rebellions of Egypt and Babylonia, he led an expedition to Greece and conquered Athens. However, the Achaemenian navy faced great damage in the Strait of Salamis (480 BC). The Greeks hastened in their exaggerated claims over this battle and especially indulged in making legendary claims about the size of the Achaemenian naval fleets and the number of their troops. There is no doubt that this defeat was most unexpected by Xerxes even though it was publicized only as an ordinary incident and a temporary defeat in Iran.

With the murder of Xerxes, who was killed as the result of a conspiracy in the year 465 BC, gradually the Achaemenian court came to be plunged into the internal intrigues of the harems and the political games of the harem officials. Most of the successors of Darius I lacked his competence and skills and the only reason why the Achaemenian Empire did not face any major instability was because of the well-organized administrative system and the powerful rule that Darius I had left behind. Moreover, despite the fact that Egypt had separated from the Achaemenian kingdom towards the end of the reign of Darius II (ruled 423-404 BC), and notwithstanding the revolt of his son Cyrus against his elder brother Ardeshir II (ruled 404-359 BC) in the year 401 BC as well as the return of ten thousand Greek warriors from the heart of the Achaemenian Empire to their own lands – in fact indicating the military deterioration of the Achaemenians – the Achaemenian Empire almost remained untouched, and a few years later, in 342 BC and during the reign of Ardeshir III (ruled 359-338 BC) Egypt once again came to be annexed to the Persian Empire. Darius I had divided his kingdom into various provinces or satrapies and this division continued to prevail until the downfall of the Achaemenian Empire with slight changes. Although the account of Herodotus of the division of the Achaemenian Empire differs from what has been recorded in the inscriptions left behind by the Achaemenian kings, it provides interesting information of the extent of the taxes collected from these regions. Despite his political and military achievements, Ardeshir III practically pushed the Achaemenian Empire towards its downfall by killing his brothers and close relatives. Ultimately, the last Achaemenian king, Darius III (ruled 336-330 BC) was forced to encounter Alexander, the King of Macedonia. The first battle between the two armies took place on the banks of river Granicus, east of Asia Minor, which resulted in the defeat of the Achaemenian army (334 BC). Following Alexander’s other victory at Issus, near the Gulf of Eskandarun (Alexandretta) in northeastern Syria in 333 BC, Darius’s family along with large amounts of booty fell into the hands of the invaders. After conquering Egypt in 332 BC Alexander headed for Babylonia and in Gaugamela, near present-day Mosul, encountered the well-organized Achaemenian army for the last time and as a result of his victory in the battle, Shush and Persepolis, too, were captured by him in 331 BC. Alexander chased Darius III and finally found his dead body near the present-day Dāmghān in 330 BC said to have been killed by his own companions.

* source: Zarrinkoob ,Roozbeh "Iran Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V. 10 , pp. 525 - 526

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