To a call a history about the people living in modern day Iran, Persian history is incorrect. Strictly speaking, Persia only refers to the modern Iranian province of Fars in southwest Iran. It is largely because of the westward expansion that brought Persia into conflict with the people living in Greece, that we refer to all those living in Iran as Persians. However, the term Persian has become synonymous with the “Persian Empire”, thus to avoid confusion this compellation of Persian history will continue to refer to Persia in the classical sense. A great deal of what we know about Persian history comes from the scholarly works of the west, and the interactions of west with Persia. This is important to remember when examining ancient scholarly works, as many authors during the ancient period were bias. This is particularly important when investigating Persian history as our most important sources are largely scholarly works of the Greeks and Romans. This is not to say that we do have Persian texts, but the Greek and Roman works about Persia have been able to survive the ravages of time, unlike their Persian counterparts.
Though the history of Persia goes back well beyond the Neolithic period this, particular look at Persian history will start in 700 BCE, with the beginnings of the Persian Empire. The first section will look at the Medes, the Lydians and the rise of the Persian Empire, 800 BCE to 492 BCE. The second section will consider the Greco-Persian wars and the fall of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great, 492 BCE to 323 BCE. The final section will scrutinize the Greek influence in Persia during the Hellenistic period and the beginning of Parthia’s great clashes with Rome, 323 BCE to 36 BCE.
The Medes, Lydians and the rise of the Persian Empire: 800 BCE to 492 BCE
The Assyrians first reference the Medes in the ninth century BCE. Like the Persians the Medes were an Indo-European people that spoke an Iranian language. It is unknown when the Medes migrated to Iran, but by the ninth century BCE, they were well established. Our best source of information about the Medians comes from Herodotus who wrote an account of the Medes in his “Histories”. Though the later portions of his account are reliable, the earlier periods of Median history are not. The Assyrian accounts of the Medes can help us to fill in the blank spaces left by Herodotus’s work, though we are still somewhat in the dark in regards to the foundations of earlier Median society. During the early stages of their history, the Medians were most likely a loose confederation of tribes. However, by the seventh century BCE they controlled a vast stretch of territory from their capital Ecbatana. How the jump was made from loose confederation to extensive empire remains a mystery. In 612 BCE, the Medians allied with the Babylonians were able to attack and defeat Assyria, the great power of the ancient world. In the war against Assyria, the great Assyrians cities of Nimrud and Nineveh were sacked. This war made the Medes the dominant power in northern Iraq.
The fall of the Assyrian Empire brought the Medes into conflict with a new opponent, the Lydians in Anatolia. Both the Lydians and the Medes had been able to profit from the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The fall of the Assyrian is in fact what brought these two powers to war. In 590 BCE, the Lydians and Medes began a war that was only to last five years. This war has been made famous by history as a solar eclipse during a battle in 585 BCE brought both armies to a standstill. The eclipse was seen by both sides as an omen and peace was declared. In 550 BCE, the Persian king Cyrus deposed the Median king Astyages. Cyrus who was the king of Persia also had a relation to the royal Median line, by the way of his mother. In 549 BCE, Croesus, the king of Lydia, saw an opportunity to expand his kingdom by taking advantage of the weakness of the newly amalgamated Persian Empire and crossed the river Halys. The river Halys had previously been regarded as the boundary between Lydian and Median territory. Before declaring war Croesus had consulted one of the Greek oracles about his fortunes if he was declare war on Cyrus. The oracle told him that if he was to cross the river Halys, a great empire would fall. Croesus interpreting this to mean that his actions would cause the Persian Empire to fall crossed the river Halys and declared war upon the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, for Croesus, the great empire that was to fall would be his own. Upon crossing the river Croesus faced off against Cyrus and after inconclusive battle both retreated to regroup. Cyrus re supplied and reorganized his forces first, and moved to peruse Croesus who had retreated to the Lydian capital of Sardis. At the battle of Sardis, Cyrus defeated Croesus and effectively added Lydia to the Persian Empire.
Cyrus was now in control of Asia Minor, Persia, and even some Greek cities along the coast of Asia Minor. In 539 BCE, Cyrus turned his attention towards Babylon and its weak king, Nabonidus. After several battles, the Babylonian king was deposed and Mesopotamia and the domains of Babylon, mainly Syria and Palestine fell under Cyrus’s control. Cyrus had now carved for himself one of the greatest land empires in history. The domains of the Persian Empire stretched east-west from the Mediterranean to the Indus River and north-south from the Black Sea to the fringes of Arabia. In 530 BCE, Persia’s greatest king died campaigning against a tribe called the Massagetae, somewhere east of the Aral Sea. Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses who looked to expand the Persian Empire even further. Cambyses is portrayed in Herodotus’s “Histories” as a tyrant of the worst kind. This characterization of Cambyses is unjustified as he was no different than his father. Cambyses major achievement was the conquest of the waning Egyptian Empire. Cambyses eventually died in 522 BCE, while on his way to Syria to suppress a revolt.
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