The First Persian Empire
Episode #1 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”
The First Persian Empire included 49.4 million people at its height, which was approximately 44% of the world’s population at the time. It lasted from roughly 550 B.C. to about 330 B.C., extending from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and Egypt to northern India and Central Asia. It also included the great trade region of Mesopotamia. The First Persian Empire is also known as the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
The Persians are the predecessors of modern-day Iranian people. Originally they were nomadic tribes, and it was only when Cyrus II appeared that these loose groups of people joined to form a federation of sorts. Standing together, they overtook the shah (king) of Persia, Astyages of Media. King Astyages controlled most of Iran and eastern Anatolia, and when he faced Cyrus in battle and lost, the balance of power in the Near East took a sudden shift.
Shortly after, the Lydians of Western Anatolia attempted to take advantage of this swing in power to conquer the new land that the Persians had just acquired. King Croesus of Anatolia pushed east toward the Persians in the fall, but then fell back in the winter. Apparently, there was a custom that fighting stopped during the winter. So when an indecisive battle along the Halys river (in modern-day Turkey) occurred in the fall and didn’t provide a conclusive end to the conflict, King Croesus returned home to the Lydian capital at Sardis and planned to resume the battle in the spring.
Cyrus, however, did not adhere to these traditional rules. Instead, he followed the king back to Sardis and sacked the unsuspecting city. Sardis was the richest of the Ionian cities—the area had minted the first coins just a few years prior. Now, all of this was under Persian control. Cyrus may have spared Croesus’s life, but then again, Cyrus had a reputation of sparing leaders so that he could ask them for their advice in running their own countries.
The Persians captured Babylon as well, but not by force. They used a campaign to turn the citizens against their current king, and when Cyrus appeared to take the city, the city welcomed him with open arms. This type of warfare characterized the empire as a whole, because even after the Persians captured lands and people, they allowed the people to basically keep living their lives as they were. They did not impose Persian rulers upon them and were very accepting of their customs. They did, however, impose taxes on the people. This is likely one of the major reasons that the Persian Empire was so successful and became so large and powerful. The Persian government also used a loose network of appointed governors to run their extensive land, and spies were very helpful as well. Eventually, however, they were overcome by the forces of Alexander the Great in 324. Alexander used this governing model for his own lands.
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