Achaemenid Empire

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The Persian Empire around 500 BC Chr.

The Achaemenid Empire (also known as the Old Persian Empire ) was the first great Persian empire . It stretched from the late 6th century BC. . BC to the late 4th century BC. BC over the areas of today's states Turkey , Cyprus , Iran , Iraq , Afghanistan , Uzbekistan , Tajikistan , Turkmenistan , Syria , Lebanon , Israel , Palestine and Egypt . The Achaemenid Empire, made famous by Herodotus and other ancient Greek historians, expanded for the first time in 550 BC. BC under Cyrus II (who, however, was not an Achaemenid) through the annexation of the Mede Empire . Under the successors, the continuation took place until the later largest expansion, which culminated around 500 BC. Under Darius I , the first Achaemenid great king, and at that time also included parts of today's states Libya , Greece , Bulgaria , Pakistan as well as areas in the Caucasus , Sudan and Central Asia . In 330 BC BC ended. Alexander the Great , the reign of the Achaemenids.

The name of the empire is derived from the Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. This dynasty, which replaced the legendary earlier rulers (as they are described in the Schahname, for example), is named after the progenitor Achaimenes, who, according to legend, the Persians from a settlement area in the area around Lake Urmia to the land of Persis (today Fars ) is said to have led. The name Achaimenes is the Greek form of the name Hachamanian .

In Western history, the Achaemenid Empire appears primarily as an opponent of the Greeks . The key dates are 490 or 480 BC. BC (battles at Marathon and Salamis ) and the years 334 to 330 BC BC (conquest by Alexander the great). From this perspective, the prominent role of the empire with regard to the history of the Near East and, as recent research has shown, also to the development of ancient Greece , was largely misunderstood. In the Bible the image of the Persians is positive; here they appear as liberators of the Jews and promoters of their religious and cultural needs. However, the historical role that the Achaemenid Empire played in the 220 years of its history is much more significant. For the first time in history, the entire Middle East was united under one rule. Cultural, scientific and economic achievements shaped the interior of the empire to a much greater extent than the wars with the Greeks or rebellions in the individual provinces.

The Guinness Book of Records shows the Achaemenid Empire to be the greatest empire of all time, with a share of around 44% of the world's population around 500 BC. BC (49 million out of 112 million). Other sources assume a population of 17 to 35 million people.

Historical sources

Tomb of Cyrus II.

The variety of sources about the Achaemenid Empire is limited. It can be roughly divided into three main groups: archaeological evidence, epigraphic evidence and the transmission of Greek historiography. The archaeological and epigraphic evidence is close to one another, as many texts and inscriptions only came to light through excavations. With a few exceptions, the archaeological record is limited to the large royal residences or royal palaces of Susa , Persepolis and Pasargadai ; Ekbatana is largely overbuilt by today's Hamadan . There are also isolated finds from Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the eastern parts of the empire. First of all, the palace complexes are to be mentioned, most of which have been developed, as well as numerous small objects.

The epigraphic sources are limited in their expressiveness, as they are mainly formulaic royal inscriptions, some of which are the same. The only withdrawal is the Behistun Inscription , which a detailed report acts of Darius I 's. There are also the administrative records from Persepolis , which give a vivid impression of economic and everyday life in Persis itself, but have not yet been fully developed.

By far the best-known and best-known group of sources are the Greek historians. First of all, Herodotus should be mentioned here, who in his histories a comprehensive description of the shape and history of the Achaemenid Empire up to the early 5th century BC. BC, whose information is to be read with a certain degree of caution. There are also Xenophon ( Anabasis , Hellenika and Kyroupaideia ), Plutarch (Vita Artaxerxes II. ) , The Alexander historians (especially Quintus Curtius Rufus and Arrian ) and the universal stories of Junianus Justin (an excerpt from the work of Pompeius Trogus ) and Diodorus significant. We also owe Strabo some details about the interior of the empire. In addition, the Achaemenid Empire appears in many texts by other writers (see also the quotations from Athenaios ). Several works that dealt explicitly with the Achaemenid Empire ( Persika ) , such as the Persika of Ktesias of Knidos (although not always reliable, but important for the Greek image of Persia conveyed there), of Herakleides of Kyme (who provides important information about life at court hat) and the Dinon von Kolophon , have only survived to us as fragments, although they have served as a source for several of the authors mentioned above.

Before the comprehensive archaeological development of the Achaemenid Empire in the 19th and especially in the 20th century, the Greek texts, together with the Bible, were the only known genus of sources. Extensive research has shown that much of what has been described by historians is distorted or incorrect, so that today it is no longer possible to evaluate the Greek texts without comparing them with the "new" Persian sources. The same applies to the Bible, which speaks of the Persians in the Book of Daniel , Book of Esra and Book of Esther . To what extent these finds contradict the Greek sources, is controversial; compare the research of the Achaemenid workshop ( Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg , Amélie Kuhrt and others) with critical voices (e.g. Prof. Thomas Harrison, who argues for the reliability of Herodotus).


The climb

The grave of Cyrus II in Pasargadai.

The exact origin of the Persian people is still unclear today. It is assumed that in the course of a larger migration movement of Iranian peoples , which also included the Medes and Bactrians , in the 2nd millennium BC. Immigrated to the Iranian highlands . The assumption that the Parsua people in the area of ​​Lake Urmia, which is attested by an Assyrian inscription, are identical to the Persian, is rarely disputed in modern research, since the existence of two states with the same name and the same political formation within the same epoch is considered by most researchers to be very unlikely and the migration movements can be easily traced chronologically. In any case, the Persians in the Persis in the 7th century BC can be sure. Be localized by Elamite records. It is unlikely that this was a unified Persian kingdom. Rather, the area was inhabited by Persian hill tribe, some of which were under Elamite, partly under Medi sovereignty.

The Median Empire - in the opinion of many researchers more of a loosely structured confederation - extended from a flowing border in the east of the Iranian highlands to the borders of Mesopotamia and the Halys (today Kızılırmak ), where since 580 BC. There was an official border with the Lydian Empire . Something like a local predominance of the Persians seems to have arisen under Cambyses I , on which Cyrus II built when he started from 553 BC. Was openly active against the Medes. The Medes were defeated by the Persians in a battle near Pasargadai . 550 BC Cyrus, who did not call himself an Achaemenid but a Teispide , took the Median capital Ekbatana , where he proclaimed himself King of the Medes in personal union with the Persian title of king .

The regional rulers of the Lydian king Kroisos were asked by Cyrus to submit to his country, which was rejected by a majority. Kroisos, who apparently wanted to profit from the collapse of the Median rule, crossed the Halys with his army and fought against the Persian king in the subsequent battle at Pteria . Since this dispute did not bring a decision and the winter was on the horizon, Kroisos moved back to the capital Sardis , which was suddenly besieged by the Persians a short time later and (probably) 541 BC. BC (or as early as 546) was taken. The fate of Kroisos is uncertain; there are contradicting accounts among the Greek historians. He probably met his death, and later reports that Cyrus pardoned him are inventions of scholars.

The Greek settlements on the west coast of Asia Minor, among which Miletus held a prominent position, also belonged to the Lydian rule . These "Ionian" cities had a privileged position under the Lydians, which was not least reflected in the fact that the Lydian civilization was approaching the Greek. According to Herodotus , Kroisos had consulted the oracle of Delphi in the run-up to his campaign against the Persians (this message may be true in essence, even if the story in the form in which Herodotus wrote it a good 100 years later is hardly credible). When the Lydian Empire was then destroyed by the Persians, the Greeks saw this special position in danger and, with the exception of Milets, often opposed the Persians. But they were not up to the overwhelming power and the individual cities fell either through siege or bribery to the Persians, who often used Greeks they trusted as tyrants there .

After Asia Minor was secured for the Persians within a few years, Cyrus turned his main attention to the Babylonian Empire . Cyrus decided in 539 BC BC, now to go to the field against the Babylonians. The ruling king Nabu-na'id (Nabonid) fell victim to the intrigues of the hostile Marduk priesthood , which in turn had established connections with Cyrus. So it was not surprising that Cyrus encountered military resistance only from Grandpas . He fulfilled the expectations of the priesthood by officially professing the leadership deity Marduk, who had been deposed from Nabu-na'id, and was then crowned King of Babylon. The Persian king united the Babylonian empire in personal union with those of the Medes and Persians. The rest of the empire joined at first without resistance, as the Babylonian army no longer existed.

On the eastern border of the empire, the Saks remained a constant threat, as they did in Medieval times. How far the Medes' domain extended to the east is unknown. Under Cyrus the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) became the northern border, which was secured with a series of border fortresses. Despite these massive successes, Cyrus was established in 530 BC. BC killed in a battle against these steppe peoples.

Cambyses II and the crisis of the empire

His son Cambyses II presumably took revenge shortly afterwards and secured the north-eastern part of the empire. The entire eastern part of the empire was already handed over by Cyrus to the care of Cambyses' brother Bardiya . When Cambyses in 526/25 BC BC undertook a campaign against Egypt , the entire administration of the empire was presumably given into its hands. The later Great King Dareios I , however, had it announced after Cambyses death that he had secretly murdered Bardiya and transferred the administration of the empire to a skinny named Gaumata , who had assumed the appearance of Bardiyas and deceived the court. This story has been increasingly doubted in recent research. One of the main arguments of these researchers is that Bardiya held a central position of power, but that his assassination is said to have gone unnoticed; In addition, Dareios himself had only a weak or no claim to the throne and, as a usurper, would therefore have had good reason to declare the prince he murdered a con man (see below).

In any case, Cambyses' campaign against Egypt was probably already planned under Cyrus. In support of its justification, it can be said that Egypt was the last independent empire of the ancient Orient and, due to its wealth, was presumably viewed by the Persians as desirable on the one hand, and a potential source of danger on the other. At that time there was a turmoil of the throne in Egypt, which was very convenient for the Persian enterprises; only at Pelusium was there any resistance worth mentioning. In Memphis , Pharaoh Psammetich III was born. captured and named Cambyses the rightful successor of Amasis and crowned Pharaoh. The neighboring desert peoples submitted without resistance. According to Herodotus, a campaign to Nubia seems to have been unsuccessful, but archaeological findings indicate that the Persians had some successes, at least in northern Nubia. A campaign against Carthage , however, did not take place, supposedly because the Phoenician fleet refused to take part. Meanwhile, in the heart of the Bardiya Empire, with the support of the population, Cambyses rose up against him. This was possibly mainly due to the fact that the campaign in Egypt made far too high demands on people and material. Cambyses immediately decided to put down this usurpation . However, he died on the retreat in Syria.

Dareios, who had accompanied Cambyses as a lance-bearer to Egypt, came from the Persian nobility and was therefore perhaps obliged to avenge the betrayal of Cambyses. According to his justification in the Behistun inscription , as mentioned, Cambyses had Bardiya murdered a long time ago anyway. The magician Gaumata usurped the throne and claimed to be Bardiya. Dareios murdered him along with six co-conspirators and then ascended the throne himself.

As I said, this version of events is now widely questioned. There are many indications that Dareios was in truth the first Achaemenid on the Persian throne, while his two predecessors had always referred to themselves as Teispiden (inscriptions in which Cyrus apparently referred to himself as Achaemenid are clear forgeries from the time of Darius) . Other scholars assume that Gaumata really existed, that he was the leader of a religiously motivated movement; but this thesis is very controversial. In any case, many peoples of the empire used the time of turmoil to fight for their independence again, while other groups obviously did not want to accept Darius as the new great king . This resistance could only be broken by Dareios with extreme severity.

Dareios I and his successors

After the end of 521 BC When peace in the empire was restored, Dareios I devoted himself above all to the internal renewal of the empire, above all to rule out a situation like the one that had just been overcome in the future. The empire was divided into uniform provinces, so-called satrapies , which were hardly based on the previously incorporated empires, but were primarily tailored to the individual peoples. In addition, numerous other reforms were carried out in administration, economy, society and the army.

The northern border of the empire was still threatened by the Saks. After several large-scale military actions in Central Asia failed to bring a decision, a campaign was started against the Scythians living on the Black Sea coast, perhaps with the aim of stabbing the Central Asian Saks in the back.

Although the Scythian War was a failure, a new satrapy - Thrace - could be won in Europe and the border of the empire pushed forward to the Danube . This brought the empire into direct neighborhood with the European Greeks. In particular, the Persian advances in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea and the subjugation of Macedonia are likely to have caused concern in Greece. An alliance offer by Athens in 507 BC Was taken by the Persians as a formal submission of the city-state. In 499 BC Finally, a revolt broke out in the Greek areas of Asia Minor against Persian rule, which was supported by Athens and Eretria , even if only with limited resources. Greek rebels took part in 498 BC. BC even Sardis and incinerated the city. This Ionian uprising , which temporarily extended to Cyprus and also caused the fall of Thrace, took place in 494 BC. And the leading city, Miletus, was destroyed. In the following years there were two Persian punitive expeditions in the Aegean region (beginning of the so-called Persian Wars ). 492 BC BC Thrace was again subjected. 490 BC The city of Eretria, allied with Athens, was captured and destroyed; a Persian army finally landed in Attica with the intention of taking Athens. But this was thwarted by the Battle of Marathon , whereby the Persian enterprise is to be judged more as a punitive expedition than as a regular invasion, and subsequent Athenian military operations. According to Greek sources, for the years 486/85 BC. A new campaign against Greece was planned, but it did not materialize because of an uprising in Egypt and the death of Darius.

The successor of Darius, Xerxes I (486 to 465 BC), initially neglected the western frontier of Greece, but then decided in the years 481/80 BC. To undertake another campaign. After initial successes - Athens, evacuated by the inhabitants, was taken, the Acropolis was destroyed as an act of revenge for shrines destroyed in Sardis - this undertaking also failed in the battles of Salamis (480 BC) and Plataiai (479 BC). . The Greeks, led by the Athenians, went on the offensive themselves and in the following decades liberated almost all Greek cities in the territory of the empire (i.e. especially on the west coast of Asia Minor) from Persian rule; Sparta , up until then the leading Greek power in the Persian War, was not interested in operations in Asia Minor, so that Athens now assumed the sole leading role in the fight against the Persians. Athens finally organized a regular system of alliances, which soon afterwards turned into an instrument for the preservation of Athenian hegemony, the so-called Attic League . The Persians themselves remained defensive and limited themselves to trying to keep the Greeks out of the territory of the empire. It wasn't until 449 BC. A peace was concluded with Athens, the so-called Callias Peace (whether there really was a real treaty has long been disputed in research).

In the empire itself, things remained largely quiet under Xerxes and his successor Artaxerxes I (465 to 424 BC). There were only notable uprisings in Babylon, the 479 BC. Chr. Was exposed to great destruction. In addition, under Artaxerxes, there was gradually a widespread dissatisfaction of the Egyptians with the Persian rule, which Athens in the fifties of the fifth century BC. Tried to exploit to bring the country under his influence. These attempts failed and Egypt remained under Persian rule. After the death of Artaxerxes I, there were disputes over the throne. His successor Xerxes II was shortly murdered by his half-brother Sogdianos , who usurped the throne, but was murdered by Darius II himself a short time later . Under Darius II the empire re-entered the Greek world by entering the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) on the side of Sparta , but only participating passively. In return for the Persian subsidies , the Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor were supposed to fall back to Persia, which Sparta refused to do after the end of the war, whereupon the war broke out.

The later Achaemenids and the fall of the empire

In 404 BC Darius II died and the throne passed to Artaxerxes II (404 to 359 BC). 402 BC BC Egypt fell away from the kingdom. Shortly thereafter, Artaxerxes' younger brother Cyrus rose against him, with Cyrus supported by Sparta. The uprising failed after Cyrus was killed in the Battle of Kunaxa ; the campaign that Xenophon recorded in his anabasis also showed how susceptible the Persian Empire was to attacks by a well-trained and tightly managed army. In the Corinthian War (399 to 386 BC) the Persian Empire entered on the side of Athens and Thebes . The war ended in 386 BC. With a victory of the anti-Spartan coalition. In the King's Peace it was stipulated that the Greek cities of Asia Minor belong to the Persian Empire and that all other Greek cities should be independent. The Persian great king stepped in as a guarantor. Thus the Persians had formally gained supremacy over Greece; In fact, however, the hegemony passed to Sparta, which supervised the observance of the conditions of the royal peace on behalf of the great king.

In the sixties of the 4th century BC Several uprisings broke out in Asia Minor, earlier known as the "Great Satrap Revolt" and viewed as directly threatening the existence of the empire. However, this has been found wrong in recent research. It was not a coordinated uprising by a satrap coalition, but rather independent and presumably temporally separated revolts. Nevertheless, this meant that the Persians temporarily had little or no real power over certain areas in the west of the empire; local rulers like the Karier Maussollos thus gained considerable power. These unrest shaped the last years of Artaxerxes' II reign and could only be under his successor Artaxerxes III. (359–338 BC) should be brought back under control.

Rock graves of great Achaemenid kings in Naqsch-e Rostam

The situation in the east of the empire is largely unknown at the time. The Indus Valley , which was subjugated under Darius I, broke away from Persian rule, as did the Saki areas in Central Asia. In the interior of the empire there were also isolated uprisings, of which the Kadusier is probably the best known.

Artaxerxes III. introduced a tougher policy aimed primarily at restoring Persian power in lost or endangered areas. After Persian supremacy in Asia Minor was restored, there was a campaign against Egypt, in the course of which the country was subjected to extreme severity (343 BC). Before Artaxerxes could tackle any further goals, however, he was murdered by the eunuch Bagoas , who raised his favorite Arses to the rank of great king, but who also murdered him shortly afterwards. His successor was Darius III. (336-330 BC). During his reign, the invasion of Alexander the Great fell , in the course of which the kingdom of the Achaemenids was destroyed until 330. Alexander appeared as the Achaemenid ruler, but it is beyond doubt that the Achaemenid Empire came to an end with the murder of Darius by the satrap Bessus (330 BC).

At the time of its destruction by Alexander, the Achaemenid Empire was still a perfectly intact state body. The administrative structures introduced by Dareios I still existed and had proven themselves time and again up to this point. The easy victory of Alexander over the Persians can be explained much more by the military skill of Alexander and his generals as well as by the better training and effectiveness of the Macedonian army . The Persian-friendly demeanor of Alexander and later of the governor of Persis, Peukestas , on the other hand, guaranteed that there was no attempt at restoration of the Achaemenid Empire.

internal structure

Royalty and administration

Under Cyrus II and Cambyses II, the empire was a structure based on the personal union of the Persian king with the crown of other kingdoms (Media, Babylon, later Egypt). In other areas of the empire (e.g. Lydia) kingship was abolished, but the structures were retained, and a Persian governor took the place of the ruler. One can hardly speak of a unified empire, but rather of a kind of federation of ancient oriental states. After the untimely death of Cambyses or the assassination of Bardiya, this led to usurpers appearing in areas such as Babylonia, who claimed the local kingship, but not the rule over the entire Persian Empire. Darius I responded by taking the action to split up these individual empires and integrate them into the entire Persian Empire in a uniform manner. This was achieved through the creation of new provinces, known as satrapies , which seldom adhered to historical boundaries. At the head of every satrapy was a governor (satrap) who was appointed by the great king himself and often came from his family. However, some traditions were retained. Thus the title of King of Babylon only gradually fell out of use, the titles of King of Media and Pharaoh of Egypt were carried on by all the great kings. In addition, local rulers remained in office in smaller areas and dynasties continued. In this way, the Achaemenid rulers always followed the tradition of local states.

Main lines and extension of the Achaemenid Empire at the time of Darius I and Xerxes I

The administrative structures were supported by an unprecedented infrastructure, the best-known representative of which is Königsstrasse. The most important traffic routes were built into a fixed road network, which spanned the entire empire and also connected the most remote provinces. A good example of this is the road that led from Sardis to Susa (actually from Ephesus to Persepolis ), and which was described in detail by the Greek historian Herodotus . The road network was particularly conducive to correspondence and trade. There were hostels along the streets that provided fresh horses for messengers. In addition, there were garrisons at regular intervals to ensure safety along the entire road network.

Since Darius I there was also a single currency, the Dareikos . The chancellery language of the empire was Elamite until the time of Artaxerxes I , but was then replaced by the much more common Aramaic . This was also a relief for correspondence, as Aramaic could be written on papyrus , while Elamite cuneiform could only be used on clay tablets.

Letter from Darius I to a satrap (Greek copy from Roman times)

Although there was a largely decentralized system of government with the satrapies and their administration, the great king was a despot who had absolute power over everything in the empire. He appointed satraps and was able to remove them again. In an emergency, he had or was able to give supreme command over the army. Nevertheless, the satraps had extensive freedoms, so that they ruled, often in agreement with the great king, like local kings or vassals of the great king. In royal inscriptions the great king referred to himself as the "king of kings" and represented a universal claim to rule by calling himself the "king of countries and peoples". However, this claim was put into perspective, especially in the grave inscriptions, by naming the peoples of the empire. This list has not changed since Dareios I, so that it is obvious that the later great kings expressed their claim to rule over the areas of the empire under Dareios I, but not over other areas.

The right of the purple birth repeatedly caused chaos to the throne . It was Persian custom that kingship passed to the ruler's son, who was the first to be born in the reign, and that all previously born sons were disregarded. In fact, this right was only explicitly applied once after the founding of the great empire, when Xerxes I was given preference over his half-brother Artobazanes . Other sons of the king, namely Bardiya and Cyrus the Younger , tried in vain to assert this right and subsequently rose up against their brothers. Artaxerxes III. eliminated these claims from the start by murdering his siblings.

Culture and society

Gold bowl from the Achaemenid period

In the individual parts of the empire, the cultural traditions of the time before the Persian conquest were preserved. The pre-Amenid structures remained intact, and the practice of local traditions, such as religious cults, was tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged. The best-known examples of this are the reports from the Bible that the Persians appear as mild and tolerant rulers. A large Persian population appears to have settled in Babylon; In addition, major resettlement campaigns took place - especially after uprisings - which Herodotus in particular, but also the Alexander historians, can tell. At best, the uppermost strata of society were influenced by Persian, but these were also persistently. After the collapse of the Alexander Empire, local principalities continued to exist in some areas, such as the Atropatene , which continued to cultivate Achaemenid-Persian traditions.

The social order was generally strictly hierarchical in the tradition of oriental despotism, but at least formally a greater mixing of the individual social classes was possible. While the slave economy continued, there seems to be at least a temporary emphasis on employing free and paid workers. The palaces of Persepolis were demonstratively created by freelance specialists from all parts of the empire, probably also to achieve the propaganda effect of an imperial unit. It is also worth mentioning the position of women, who had extensive rights in the Achaemenid Empire. Whether this is total equality, as parts of modern research believe, is doubtful. What is certain, however, is that at least in the areas of the empire that were directly under the power of the great king, women were in high positions with the same wages as men.


Relief of a winged sphinx made of glazed bricks from the palace of Darius I in Susa, now in the Louvre

The development of Persian art at that time should also be understood in this context. As originally nomadic mountain people, the Persians had no specially developed artistic traditions. In the early days they mainly used Elamite models; After the expansion of the empire, Mesopotamian, Asian Minor, Greek and Egyptian influences were added. The palaces from and after Darius I show themselves as a mixture of the various art forms of the empire. Reliefs and sculptures are strongly influenced by Mesopotamia and Egypt, the architecture makes use of Egyptian and Greek models.

The relief is the most famous art form of the Achaemenid Empire. Nevertheless, the distribution is limited to the heartland of the empire, and here in particular to palaces and royal tombs. As a rule, scenes and people from the royal court or mythological figures and scenes are depicted. The reliefs mainly served to depict the power of the great king. Therefore, representatives of the most important peoples of the empire often appear in his entourage. In these representations they either pay tribute to the great king or appear as the king's bearer on the throne. In other depictions the great king defeats lions or human enemies himself. The epitome of this glorification of the great king are the relief and inscription from Behistun , in which Darius I depicts the victories over his enemies.

The reliefs were often refined with valuable materials such as lapis lazuli and painted in color. At the palaces in Susa they were made of glazed bricks, probably based on the Babylonian model, so that the original painting has been preserved.

Persian gold bracelet

The art form of sculpture was also widespread . Smaller works made of valuable material such as ivory, lapis lazuli or gold are particularly well known. Like jewelry, crockery and other smaller items, they are characterized by extremely elaborate and detailed workmanship and decoration. Noble people, animals or mythical creatures are mostly represented in the sculpture. Other objects mostly do without concrete representations and are decorated with ornaments. It is not known how widespread carpet weaving was at that time. On the reliefs there are isolated depictions of carpets with elaborate patterns. However, such carpets have rarely been found because of the limited durability of the material.

The architecture is best known for the palace buildings in Persepolis , Susa and Pasargadai . These are monumental structures in which many architectural and artistic elements from all areas of the Achaemenid Empire can be found. The large pillared halls are reminiscent of Egyptian buildings or the relief art of Mesopotamia. The plastic sculpture may show Greek influences. These buildings were built primarily for the purpose of demonstrating power; embassies from many countries inside and outside the Achaemenid area were received here.

Worth mentioning in this area are the rock tombs of the great kings, which were first built in Naqsch-e Rostam and later in Persepolis. Similar rock tombs are mainly known from Asia Minor.


There was no uniform religion in the early Achaemenid Empire. Rather, the various religions and cults of the various peoples were generally tolerated, if only to facilitate their integration into the empire. Only in the event of a conflict did this sometimes change, such as the destruction of the temples on the Acropolis of Athens by Xerxes in 480 BC. Chr. Attested. The great kings from Darius I adhered to Zoroastrianism or a religion related to it: on the inscriptions of the great kings from 522 BC onwards. Ahura Mazda is always invoked as the supreme deity. It is known that other deities such as Anahita and Mithras were also worshiped by the kings. What is certain is that Ahura Mazda was already worshiped as one deity among several in pre-Zoroastrian times, which is why the assumption that the great kings were Zoroastrians, which has long been considered certain in older research, is now doubted by many scholars.

There are isolated temple complexes that contain fire altars, as they are known from later times. The best known is the complex in Pasargadai, which presumably held the rank of the ceremonial and religious capital of the empire. Small fire altars are also depicted on the reliefs of the royal tombs. Also omnipresent is the figure of Faravahar , often (and incorrectly) identified with Ahura Mazda , who possibly represents the ancestors of the great king or the "lucky shine" of the ruler and hands over power to him in the form of a ring.


Since most of the Achaemenid Empire was still rural, agriculture was the basis of the economy, as it was at all times in ancient times. Agricultural areas are also known from dry areas that were irrigated with so-called qanats . In the border zones of the empire, especially in Central Asia, the nomadic way of life, which was based on cattle breeding, was decisive. The relatively uniform economic regulations also facilitated trade, which flowed in and out of the empire from all sides. The Silk Road probably already existed. Greek sources speak of the "Persian fruit", the peach , which, however, comes from China . It is also speculated whether the 500 BC In China, iron processing started suddenly from the Near East.

As in pre-Amenid times, trading centers were the big cities like Babylon , Susa or Tire . In Babylon there is evidence of lively commercial activity through several banking houses. Sciences such as astronomy and mathematics were also practiced here. Tire acted as a gateway to the Mediterranean, especially through the lively contact with the Phoenician colonies. Economic life has been precisely recorded and can in part be reconstructed from the thousands of clay tablets found in Persepolis. In addition, the depictions of the tribute-bringers in Persepolis provide information about the economic characteristics of the individual parts of the empire.

Military affairs

The " Immortals ", relief from Susa
Antique clay head of Achaemenid horsemen, approx. 4.7 cm high

Until the time of Darius I, the Persian army was primarily a militia army. It carried on old nomadic traditions and focused on infantry and archers. Under Darius I a kind of standing army was introduced, which was distributed in garrisons throughout the empire. It was divided into chariot, camel and horse rider, lance bearer and archer associations. It is known that there was both a light and a heavily armored cavalry. In the case of major armed conflicts, such as the invasion of Greece by Xerxes or the resistance against Alexander, a so-called imperial contingent was raised, which consisted of units of the individual peoples of the empire with their typical armament. Greek historians usually speak of armies in the millions, but modern research has shown that these accounts are greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, it was the largest troop units of their time.

The most famous unit of the Achaemenid period were the so-called immortals , an association of ten thousand men, one thousand of whom served as royal bodyguards. This troop was recruited exclusively from Persians who were loyal to the great king. According to Herodotus, the name derives from the fact that when a warrior fell there was always a new one to take his place. The guard of the so-called apple bearers also existed (probably as a separate unit) .

The fighting strategy has always been shaped by nomadic origins. The aim was to overwhelm the enemy with volleys from archers and slingers. The thereby unsettled opponents were then wiped out with the cavalry. Against the heavily armored Greek troops, this strategy was less successful. Therefore, in later times, increasingly Greek mercenaries were hired, who were mostly deployed on the front lines.

Chronology and family tree of the Achaemenids

Research today largely agrees that the kings (apart from Achaimenes) were not Achaemenids before Darius : They were Teispids , who were at most largely related to the Achaemenids. Darius, who in fact came to the throne as a usurper, then constructed a fictional genealogy that apparently made Cyrus and Cambyses his relatives, and moreover married two of Cyrus' daughters: the aim was to legitimize his rule by joining the previous dynasty. Although the first two rulers of the ancient Persian empire were not Achaemenids, one usually speaks of the Achaemenid Empire.

Aftermath of the Achaemenids

The ruins of Persepolis

The Achaemenid Empire was the first political body to encompass the entire Middle East. Despite isolated uprisings, this area was by and large held together peacefully, if not united. The administrative structure of the satrapies was still decisive centuries later and may have flowed into the Roman one . An actual cultural aftermath of the Achaemenid Empire on the areas it ruled was only limited, if at all. Including several successor states , which opposed the conquest by Alexander exempt, especially hereof is Atropatene worth mentioning.

For the Greeks, the Achaemenid Empire remained a symbol of threat, and Alexander's final victory over the Persians was always a glory for the Greek self-confidence. Persian elements also flowed into Greek culture. For example, there is speculation that the reliefs of the Athens Parthenon had Persian models. Some classical scholars also believe that Plato's Atlantis story alludes to the Persian Empire. Persian influences can also be demonstrated in other countries that were outside the Achaemenid sphere of influence. The Persian residences are named as models for some Indian palace complexes.

The Achaemenid Empire naturally had the greatest impact on the Persians themselves. Centuries later, people remembered that there had once been a great Persian Empire, even if more detailed knowledge about it had been lost. The Sassanids added their own rock reliefs at important Achaemenid sites such as Behistun and Naqsch-e Rostam in order to place themselves in the tradition of the Achaemenids. Later, knowledge about the Achaemenid Empire in Iran was lost again and was only awakened again through Western research and excavations. The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi , saw himself in the tradition of the Achaemenid Empire and deliberately steered the Iranian view of history to this high point of Persian power. Even today, many Iranian nationalists refer to the Achaemenid Empire. For example, Persepolis, whose actual role in the Achaemenid Empire was no more important than that of Susa or Ekbatana, is glorified as a symbol of the Iranian nation.


  • Amélie Kuhrt (Ed.): The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period. Routledge, New York 2007 [Paperback 2009] (numerous source excerpts in English translation with introduction and commentary).
  • Hans-Wilhelm Haussig : Herodotus - Histories. Kröner, Stuttgart 1971, ISBN 3-520-22404-6 .
  • Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, James Robson (Eds.): Ctesias' "History of Persia". Tales of the Orient. Routledge, London et al. 2010.
  • Helmut Vretska: Xenophon - Anabasis. Reclam, Stuttgart 1958, ISBN 3-15-001184-1 .
  • Gerhard Wirth , Oskar von Hinüber: Arrian. The Alexanderzug - Indian History. Artemis, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-7608-1649-5 .


  • Pierre Briant : Histoire de l'empire perse. De Cyrus à Alexandre. Fayard, Paris 1996, ISBN 2-213-59667-0 . Also available in English translation: From Cyrus to Alexander. A history of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake 2002, ISBN 1-57506-031-0 (excellent and comprehensive presentation of the Achaemenid period; is internationally regarded as a fundamental standard work).
  • Pierre Briant: Darius. Les Perses et l'Empire. Decouvertes Gallimard, Paris 1992, ISBN 2-07-053166-X (basic work on the life of Darius and the construction of his empire).
  • Pierre Briant, Amélie Kuhrt, Margaret C. Root, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Josef Wiesehöfer (eds.): Achaemenid History. Vol. 1 ff., Leiden 1987 ff. (Important collection of articles).
  • Maria Brosius: The Persians. Routledge, London 2006 (brief overview of pre-Islamic Persia).
  • John M. Cook: The Persian Empire. New York et al. 1983.
  • Vesta S. Curtis; Sarah Stewart: Birth of the Persian Empire. London Middle East Institute at SOAS and British Museum. Tauris, London 2005, ISBN 1-84511-062-5 (including Cyrus II and the Kingdom of Anshan, The Achaemenids and the Avesta, historical idea for the foundation of Iran).
  • Muhammad A. Dandamaev: A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire. Translated by WJ Vogelsang. Brill, Leiden 1989.
  • Elspeth RM Dusinberre: Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013, ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 .
  • Walther Hinz : Darius and the Persians. A cultural history of the Achaemenids. 2 vol. Holle, Baden-Baden 1976 (standard work; the evaluation of the Elamite clay tablets is particularly important).
  • Bruno Jacobs ; Robert Rollinger (Ed.): Der Achämenidenhof / The Achaemenid Court. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2010, ISBN 978-3-447-06159-9 .
  • Heidemarie Koch : Darius the King announces. From life in the great Persian empire. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1992. ISBN 3-8053-1347-0 (comprehensive, but controversial description of the Achaemenid Persian empire with a focus on the time of Darius I).
  • Rüdiger Schmitt : Achaemenid Dynasty . In: Ehsan Yarshater (ed.): Encyclopædia Iranica . Volume 1 (4), Paragraph a109, as of December 15, 1983, accessed on June 14, 2011 (English, including references)
  • Jan P. Stronk: Semiramis' Legacy. The History of Persia According to Diodorus of Sicily. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2017.
  • Leo Trümpelmann : Between Persepolis and Firuzabad. Special volume on the ancient world . Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1992, ISBN 3-8053-1414-0 .
  • Matt Waters: Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BCE. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014 (current overview).
  • Josef Wiesehöfer : Ancient Persia. From 550 BC BC to AD 650. Albatros, Düsseldorf 2005, ISBN 3-491-96151-3 (German standard work on the history of ancient Persia).

Web links

Commons : Achaemenid Empire  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Largest empire by percentage of world population . In: Guinness World Records . ( [accessed October 26, 2018]).
  2. ^ Morris, Ian, 1960-, Scheidel, Walter, 1966-: The dynamics of ancient empires: state power from Assyria to Byzantium . Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-970761-4 .
  3. ^ Thomas Harrison: Writing ancient Persia. Bristol Classical Press, London 2011, ISBN 978-0-7156-3917-7 .
  4. Pierre Briant : From Cyrus to Alexander. Winona Lake 2002, p. 54 f.
  5. See e.g. B. Gerd Gropp: Observations in Persepolis. In: Archaeological Communications from Iran. Vol. 4 (special edition). Published by the German Archaeological Institute, Tehran Department. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 1971.
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on July 19, 2006 .