The Persian Empire was founded in 550 B.C. by Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great. His reign marked the beginning of the Achaemenid dynasty*, which ruled the Persian Empire for more than 200 years. At its height, the empire extended from the west coast of Asia Minor to the border of India. The empire was noted for its system of government, its religious and cultural tolerance, and its splendid palaces. The empire ended in 330 B.C., when the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty was assassinated and the empire was taken over by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great.
Cyrus the Great. The Persians originated in central Asia before settling in the region of present-day Iran. In 550 B.C., Cyrus II, the Persian king, conquered the large empire of the Medes, a neighboring and closely related people. This gave Cyrus control of the ancient kingdom of Assyria and brought under his command a large army of both Persian and Median horsemen who were skilled with bow and arrow. With these mounted troops, Cyrus set out to conquer more lands and expand his empire.
Cyrus and his army first conquered the countries and cities on the seacoast of Asia Minor. Next, they captured the ancient city of Babylon without a fight, a victory that also brought Palestine into the empire. Cyrus and his army then pushed eastward, eventually expanding the empire all the way to India. The reign of Cyrus the Great ended in 530 B.C., when he was killed while fighting in the East. Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, who added Egypt to the empire.
Darius the Great. In 522 B.C., Darius I, a relative of Cyrus, seized the throne from Cyrus’s son. Darius the Great, as he was known, completed the system of government begun by Cyrus, a system in which the empire was organized into provinces, called satrapies. Each satrapy was ruled by a satrap, an official who was accountable to the king. The satrapies provided soldiers for the king’s army, and the satraps paid tribute* to the king. Under this system, great wealth flowed into the empire’s treasure houses, and the empire prospered. The Persians were a nomadic people, and it was customary for the king to travel throughout the year between the various capital cities of the empire. In this way, the king could be seen by all his people every year, and the royal court could avoid severe climatic conditions.
* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group
Before the time of Cyrus the Great, the Persians believed in many different gods of nature. Then, in the 500s 8.C., a religious prophet named Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) appeared in their country. The prophet taught that there was just one supreme god, named Ahura Mazda, who was in constant conflict with the spirit of evil, ailed Ahriman. Zoroastrianism, the religion of the followers of Zoroaster, persisted long after the Persian Empire fell in the 300s B.C. The cult of the Magi arose from the priesthood of Zoroastrianism, and "Magicians" appeared at the royal courts of several nations and were generally welcomed by all.
Darius also enacted and enforced strict laws and suppressed many revolts during his rule. In 499 B.C., several of the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor which were under Persian domination rebelled against Persia, marking the start of the Persian Wars, which lasted another 20 years. After suppressing the revolt, Darius attempted to conquer Athens. However,
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government
Darius was defeated at the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and his reign ended with his death in 486 B.C.
Decline and Fall of the Empire. After the death of Darius, his son Xerxes ruled until 465 B.C. Xerxes was a cruel but weak king who was also defeated by the Greeks in the Persian Wars. During Xerxes’ reign, the Persian Empire declined. Although the empire continued for more than a century, it grew weaker as it constantly faced conspiracies, assassinations, and revolts by the people who were burdened with heavy taxes. Alexander the Great defeated King Darius III and the Persian army in 330 B.C. Darius was subsequently assassinated by one of his own followers. Although Alexander retained the Persian system of government until his own death in 323 B.C., Darius’s defeat marked the end of the Achaemenid dynasty and the Persian Empire. (See also Croesus; Greece, History of; Herodotus.)