The Origin, Formation and Expansion of Achaemenid Empire

The tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

The Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire, was an ancient Iranian empire that was based in Western Asia and founded by Cyrus the Great. It reached its greatest extent under Xerxes I, who conquered most of northern and central ancient Greece, including the city of Athens, in 480 BC. At its greatest territorial extent, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from the Balkans and Eastern Europe in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. The empire was larger than any previous empire in history, spanning a total of 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles).

The Achaemenid Empire was created by nomadic Persians. The Persians were an Iranian people who arrived in what is today Iran c. 1000 BC and settled a region including north-western Iran, the Zagros Mountains and Persis alongside the native Elamites. For a number of centuries they fell under the domination of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–609 BC), based in northern Mesopotamia.

The Persians were originally nomadic pastoralists in the western Iranian Plateau. The Achaemenid Empire was not the first Iranian empire, as the Medes, another group of Iranian peoples, established a short-lived empire and played a major role in the overthrow of the Assyrians.

The Achaemenids were initially rulers of the Elamite city of Anshan near the modern city of Marvdasht; the title “King of Anshan” was an adaptation of the earlier Elamite title “King of Susa and Anshan”. There are conflicting accounts of the identities of the earliest Kings of Anshan. According to the Cyrus Cylinder (the oldest extant genealogy of the Achaemenids) the kings of Anshan were Teispes, Cyrus I, Cambyses I and Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, who created the empire (the later Behistun Inscription, written by Darius the Great, claims that Teispes was the son of Achaemenes and that Darius is also descended from Teispes through a different line, but no earlier texts mention Achaemenes). In Herodotus’ Histories, he writes that Cyrus the Great was the son of Cambyses I and Mandane of Media, the daughter of Astyages, the king of the Median Empire.

Formation and expansion

Cyrus revolted against the Median Empire in 553 BC, and in 550 BC succeeded in defeating the Medes, capturing Astyages and taking the Median capital city of Ecbatana. Once in control of Ecbatana, Cyrus styled himself as the successor to Astyages and assumed control of the entire empire. By inheriting Astyages’ empire, he also inherited the territorial conflicts the Medes had had with both Lydia and the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

King Croesus of Lydia sought to take advantage of the new international situation by advancing into what had previously been Median territory in Asia Minor. Cyrus led a counterattack which not only fought off Croesus’ armies, but also led to the capture of Sardis and the fall of the Lydian Kingdom in 546 BC. Cyrus placed Pactyes in charge of collecting tribute in Lydia and left, but once Cyrus had left Pactyes instigated a rebellion against Cyrus. Cyrus sent the Median general Mazares to deal with the rebellion, and Pactyes was captured. Mazares, and after his death Harpagus, set about reducing all the cities which had taken part in the rebellion. The subjugation of Lydia took about four years in total.

When the power in Ecbatana changed hands from the Medes to the Persians, many tributaries to the Median Empire believed their situation had changed and revolted against Cyrus. This forced Cyrus to fight wars against Bactria and the nomadic Saka in Central Asia. During these wars, Cyrus established several garrison towns in Central Asia, including the Cyropolis.

Nothing is known of Persian-Babylonian relations between 547 BC and 539 BC, but it is likely that there were hostilities between the two empires for several years leading up to the war of 540–539 BC and the Fall of Babylon. In October 539 BC, Cyrus won a battle against the Babylonians at Opis, then took Sippar without a fight before finally capturing the city of Babylon on 12 October, where the Babylonian king Nabonidus was taken prisoner. Upon taking control of the city, Cyrus depicted himself in propaganda as restoring the divine order which had been disrupted by Nabonidus, who had promoted the cult of Sin rather than Marduk, and he also portrayed himself as restoring the heritage of the Neo-Assyrian Empire by comparing himself to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.The Hebrew Bible also unreservedly praises Cyrus for his actions in the conquest of Babylon, referring to him as Yahweh’s anointed. He is credited with freeing the people of Judah from their exile and with authorizing the reconstruction of much of Jerusalem, including the Second Temple.

n 530 BC, Cyrus presumably died while on a military expedition against the Massagetae in Central Asia. He was succeeded by his eldest son Cambyses II, while his younger son Bardiya received a large territory in Central Asia. By 525 BC, Cambyses had successfully subjugated Phoenicia and Cyprus and was making preparations to invade Egypt with the newly created Persian navy.

The great Pharaoh Amasis II had died in 526 BC and had been succeeded by Psamtik III, resulting in the defection of key Egyptian allies to the Persians. Psamtik positioned his army at Pelusium in the Nile Delta. He was soundly defeated by the Persians in the Battle of Pelusium before fleeing to Memphis, where the Persians defeated him and took him prisoner.

Herodotus depicts Cambyses as openly antagonistic to the Egyptian people and their gods, cults, temples, and priests, in particular stressing the murder of the sacred bull Apis. He says that these actions led to a madness that caused him to kill his brother Bardiya (who Herodotus says was killed in secret), his own sister-wife and Croesus of Lydia. He then concludes that Cambyses completely lost his mind, and all later classical authors repeat the themes of Cambyses’ impiety and madness. However, this is based on spurious information, as the epitaph of Apis from 524 BC shows that Cambyses participated in the funeral rites of Apis styling himself as pharaoh.

Following the conquest of Egypt, the Libyans and the Greeks of Cyrene and Barca in Libya surrendered to Cambyses and sent tribute without a fight. Cambyses then planned invasions of Carthage, the oasis of Ammon and Ethiopia. Herodotus claims that the naval invasion of Carthage was canceled because the Phoenicians, who made up a large part of Cambyses’ fleet, refused to take up arms against their own people, but modern historians doubt whether an invasion of Carthage was ever planned at all. However, Cambyses dedicated his efforts to the other two campaigns, aiming to improve the Empire’s strategic position in Africa by conquering the Kingdom of Meroë and taking strategic positions in the western oases. To this end, he established a garrison at Elephantine consisting mainly of Jewish soldiers, who remained stationed at Elephantine throughout Cambyses’ reign. The invasions of Ammon and Ethiopia themselves were failures. Herodotus claims that the invasion of Ethiopia was a failure due to the madness of Cambyses and the lack of supplies for his men, but archaeological evidence suggests that the expedition was not a failure, and a fortress at the Second Cataract of the Nile, on the border between Egypt and Kush, remained in use throughout the Achaemenid period.

The events surrounding Cambyses’ death and Bardiya’s succession are greatly debated as there are many conflicting accounts.

According to Herodotus, as Bardiya’s assassination had been committed in secret, the majority of Persians still believed him to be alive. This allowed two Magi to rise up against Cambyses, with one of them sitting on the throne able to impersonate Bardiya because of their remarkable physical resemblance and shared name (Smerdis in Herodotus’ accounts.

Ctesias writes that when Cambyses had Bardiya killed he immediately put the magus Sphendadates in his place as satrap of Bactria due to a remarkable physical resemblance. Two of Cambyses’ confidants then conspired to usurp Cambyses and put Sphendadates on the throne under the guise of Bardiya. According to the Behistun Inscription, written by the following king Darius the Great, a magus named Gaumata impersonated Bardiya and incited a revolution in Persia.Whatever the exact circumstances of the revolt, Cambyses heard news of it in the summer of 522 BC and began to return from Egypt, but he was wounded in the thigh in Syria and died of gangrene, so Bardiya’s impersonator became king. The account of Darius is the earliest, and although the later historians all agree on the key details of the story, that a magus impersonated Bardiya and took the throne, this may have been a story created by Darius to justify his own usurpation. Iranologist Pierre Briant hypothesises that Bardiya was not killed by Cambyses, but waited until his death in the summer of 522 BC to claim his legitimate right to the throne as he was then the only male descendant of the royal family. Briant says that although the hypothesis of a deception by Darius is generally accepted today, “nothing has been established with certainty at the present time, given the available evidence”

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