The of the Middle East. A Migrating People

The Persian Empire was one of the first major empires in the ancient world. Meet major leaders and explore the history and culture of the Persian Empire in this lesson.

A Major Empire

The Persian Empire was an empire that stretched from India to Europe from 550 B.

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C.E. to 331 B.C.E. It was ruled by a series of monarchs. An empire is defined as a geographically extensive set of states or peoples that are ruled either by a monarch or by an oligarchy, a small group of ruling elites.

Although they gained power by conquering local people, the Persian Empire marked a period of peaceful rule and extensive trading for much of the Middle East.

A Migrating People

The Persian Empire began with the migration of Iranians, a group of Indo-Europeans out of central Europe and southern Russia around 1,000 B.C.E.

Persia is now part of the modern country of Iran, hence the name ‘Iranians’ for the larger migratory group that lived in this area. The Iranians who migrated to Persia were horse breeders and traveled with large herds of livestock. Their movement into the region was gradual and took part over several generations.

Throughout their migration, the Iranians came into frequent contact with nomadic tribes who also lived in the territory.

A Growing Society

The Iranians slowly settled into specific regions and began establishing their own societies. Eventually, two groups established themselves as leaders in the region. In the South, the Persians governed the area between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf and began establishing their own society.

In the North, the Medes formed a state called Media and united themselves under one king in 710 B.C.E.

Once the Medes had established the rule of a central government authority in the form of a monarchy, they began to expand into Persian territory while at the same time allying with the neighboring Babylonian Empire to overthrow the Assyrian Empire in 612 B.C.E.

An Empire Begins

In 550 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, successfully conquered the Medes and united the Iranian people together for the first time.

Cyrus continued to expand the Persian territory to the west and to gain control of vital trade routes that crossed modern Iran. Persia was a land of towering mountains and flaming-hot deserts with a broad central plateau between the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley and the Indus River Valley. The high mountain peaks cut off the Persians from the sea and limited their ability to trade with neighboring states. Gaining access to seaports was of crucial importance to Cyrus and the development of the Persian Empire.Cyrus’ armies swept along the coast of Anatolia, securing both ports for trading and subduing nomadic tribes who lived in the area.

When Cyrus moved his troops into the Babylonian Empire, the people of Babylon welcomed him as a liberator. Cyrus was an astute and benevolent conqueror. He allowed the people he conquered to continue to live according to their customs and restored sacred objects to religious minorities like the Jews, who had been treated cruelly under the Babylonians. Cyrus also spared the life of Croesus, the king of one of the states he conquered, and asked him to serve as a close friend and adviser.

An Empire Expands

Cyrus’ son Cambyses continued his father’s method of benevolent conquest and expanded the Persian Empire into Egypt. Darius, Cambyses’ successor, conquered Western India and created the Persian satrapy, or governorship, of the valley of the Indus River. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who unsuccessfully invaded Greece in 480 B.

C.E. Xerxes’ invasion of Greece was the subject of a popular graphic novel and film called 300.

The End of an Empire

After the reign of Darius, the Persian Empire faced increasing rebellions by its citizens.

The Persians and the Greeks battled over territory throughout this period. Their Egyptian lands were in rebellion for several years before being reintegrated into the empire. The Persian Empire eventually fell before the armies of a new empire builder, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire in 331 B.C.E.

Culture in the Persian Empire

The Persian Empire was one of the first empires to practice religious and cultural tolerance to the people they conquered.

Despite their reputation as conquerors, life under the Persian Empire was typically characterized by peaceful trading and economic prosperity. The Persian rulers were quick to re-establish government in areas they invaded and did not use terror to keep their subjects in line. Instead, the Persians set up an efficient administrative system. From their capitol, Persepolis, they sent directions to the provinces and received regular reports regarding the activities of their subjects.They also built and maintained a system of trade routes that stretched across the empire. One of the main highways was called the Royal Road.

It allowed people and their trade goods to travel a total of 1,677 miles. This system of roads made it easier for the king of the Persian Empire to issue instructions and receive reports from every corner of the empire. The roads also allowed the king to move troops quickly to any area in need of defense or to territories in rebellion. The use of a government-mandated roadway allowed for increased trade and, thus, increased prosperity for many Persian subjects.

Religious Life

Around 600 B.C.E., Zoroaster, a religious thinker and preacher, introduced a new form of religious thought to the Persians.

Zoroaster believed that life was a constant battle between good and evil. Ahuramazda embodied goodness and truth against Ahriman, a spirit who embodied evil and lies. Zoroaster emphasized that each individual needed to choose between Ahuramazda and Ahriman, or between good and evil.

He also taught people to rely on their own consciences to make the choice between good and evil. At the end of days, Zoroaster’s followers believed that Ahuramazda would judge individuals to determine their eternal fate.The most important person to convert to the religion of Zoroaster was King Darius. Although Darius refused to force people to convert, many Persians became Zoroastrians. Their faith went on to influence other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Lesson Summary

The Persian Empire was an empire that stretched from India to Europe from 550 B.C.

E. to 331 B.C.E. It was ruled by a series of monarchs. The Persian King Cyrus united the Mede and Persian people and established the beginnings of the Persian Empire.

Cyrus’ successors expanded the empire until it stretched from India to Europe. The Persian Empire was characterized by the establishment of extensive trading networks and the emergence of a new religion, Zoroastrianism. Finally, in 331 B.C.E., a new empire builder, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian Empire.

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Describe the Persian Empire
  • Illustrate how the Persian Empire was established
  • Outline the expansion and fall of the Persian Empire
  • Discuss Persian culture and religion
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