Iranian History/The Medes and the Early Achaemenids

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The Aryan Migration Theory

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During the second millennium BC, there were widespread migrations into Iran in waves from the north. These people, who had been commonly designated as Aryans, are believed to be the ancestors of the Iranians of today. Most historians feel that a majority of the Iranians of today are descended from nomadic pasture-dwellers from the north. However, recent discoveries and genetic studies have cast serious doubts on the Aryan theory. Even prominent historians like Sir Richard Frye have limited the use of the word "Aryan" while referring to Iran's ancient period. Recent genetic researches have revealed that the Aryans were actually a Middle-Eastern tribe closely related to the other peoples of the fertile crescent and were the descendants of the people who migrated to the Iranian plateau around 10,000 years ago, forming civilizations like the Elamite one.

The acceptance of the concept of an Aryan race has been more widespread and greater in Iran than in other countries with an "Aryan" heritage as the United Kingdom, India or other modern Western European countries. This is because the very name "Iran" is derived from the name of a mythical land called "Airyanem Vaego" mentioned in the Avesta as one of the sixteen lands created by Ahura Mazda.

The Medes

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The Medes were an ancient Indo-Aryan people. In the third millennium BC, they migrated from the North-west of Iran to the south and occupied the highlands of the Zagros chain. Starting with the 7th century BC, they organized a powerful Empire that fought against the Assyrians with considerable success and heralded the downfall of the Imperial Assyrian Empire of Mesapotamia. They exercised their power over much of modern-day Iran for a brief span of around 150 years. But their contributions, especially to Zoroastrian religion and philosophy and the modern Persian language have been immense.The Medes are closely related to the modern Kurds.


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The origin of the Medes is shrouded in obscurity. They are believed by some to be the people of Madai mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. Modern scholars hold the universal opinion that they are the people of the Avesta.

It is widely presumed that their presence in Iran must date at least as far back as 1500BC. The Gathas, the sacred hymns of Zoroastrianism are believed to have been composed during this period. However, the first mention of Medes does not go beyond 835BC when they appear in the records of the Assyrian king Shalmenesser II. However, the Iranologist George Rawlinson gives evidence to the contrary. He says that the historian Kanosys of Carthion mentions the conquest of Babylon by Medes as far back as 2000BC.

Rawlinson also says that the presence of Aryan influence amongst the "seven Chaldean talons" indicates Median presence in Northern Mesapotamia. He also says that the Medes were known to the Greeks and were referred to under the eponyms Medea and Andromeda. But most of these sources are uncertain and unreliable. We begin to get clear picture of the Medes only when they settle down in the country which is subsequently named after them and establish the Median Empire.


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We first hear of Media during the time of Shalmanessar II of Assyria who speaks of having led an expedition to Media in the year 835BC. His son, Shamas-Vul boasts of having worsted the Medes in battle and ravaged their country. Following this invasion, the Medes appear to have become tributaries of Assyria and paid them regular tribute. However, a hundred years later, the Assyrians launched another invasion of Media and annexed the country of the Medes. Assyrian Emperors Sennacherib and Esar-haddon boast of having reduced Media into total submission.

Diyako or Deioces who united the seven Mede tribes is generally recognized as the first king of Media. However, both Herodotus and Ctesias claim that there were six Median "monarchs" prior to the rise of Deioces and gives their names as Arbaces, Maudaces, Sosarmus, Artycas, Arbianes and Artseus

Diyako (Deioces) 701 -665 BC

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Deioces was the son of one Phraates and was a renowned judge in his part of Media. In 701BC, with dacoitry and lawlessness proving to be a headache, the seven tribes of Media came together and formed a kingdom. Deioces was the unanimous choice to be the king of Media. He ruled the state with an iron hand until his death in 665 BC. His rise to power is described in detail in Herodotus' Histories. He is credited with having built a palace in the capital city,Ecbatana.

Kshatrita (Phraates) 665 - 633 BC

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Fravartish or Phraates Old Pers. Kshatrita succeeded his father Deioces and ruled Media from 665BC to 633BC.

Herodotus, in Line No.102 of his Historiestells that Phraates was an extremely ambitious ruler and credits him with the subjugation of the Persians. In 634BC, with the assistance of his son, Cyaxares, Phraates launched an invasion of Assyria. However, the invasion was an utter failure and in the battle fought at Adiabene, the Medes were worsted and their army, cut to pieces and Phraates, himself, killed.

Hvakshatra (Cyaxares) 633 - 585 BC

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Following the death of his father Phraates in 633BC, Cyaxares retreated to Media and reorganized his army, till then under tribal chieftains, on a purely regimental basis. He then led a large army into Assyria and having defeated the Assyrians, pursued them to the gates of the Assyrian capital Nineveh. But Cyaxares did not launch a siege of Nineveh. Instead he was content to retreat with his soldiers back to Media. However, on his return to Media, the Median troops were confronted by bands of Scythians under their leader Madyes who inflicted a crushing defeat on them. Cyaxares surrendered and was compelled to pay a heavy tribute.

The Scythian hegemony lasted eight years during which they earned a reputation for avarice through their repeated exactions. However, Scythians rarely interfered in the affairs of the inhabitants. Finally, in 625BC, eager to throw off the Scythian yoke, Cyaxares invited the Scythian chiefs to a traditional banquet and had them treacherously murdered. There were simultaneous eruptions all over Media resulting in a large scale destruction of the Scythians such that barely a semblance of their eight-year rule survived.

Having emerged victorious from his battle with the Scyths, Cyaxatres now desired to expand his dominions. He concluded a marriage alliance with Nabopolassar of Babylon by giving his daughter Amytis in marriage to Nabopolassar's son Nebuchadnezzar. He then launched a second invasion of Assyria in 612BC and put an end to the Assyrian Empire. This event is believed to have occurred during the reign of the third Achaemenid king Cyrus I and hence signifies a shift of power from the Assyrians to the Medes.

Ctesias while describing the battle narrates how the combined forces of the Persians, the Arabs, the Medes and the Babylonians numbering four hundred thousand individuals were defeated in two pitched battles by the Assyrians and how they rallied at the arrival of reinforcements from Bactira and surprising the Assyrian camp at night inflicted a crushing defeat upon them. Cyaxares proceeded to sack Nineveh and pulled it to the ground.

During the latter part of his reign, Cyaxares also invaded and conquered Armenia, Northern Mespotamia and Lydia. In 585BC, the Battle of Halys was fought between the Medians and the Lydians. The battle ended in a truce between the Medes and the Lydians. Cyaxares died soon after the battle.

Ishtovigu (Astyages) 585 - 549 BC

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Astyages succeeded Cyaxares in 585BC. He is described by Herodotus as a vain incapable monarch given to luxury and comfort. Tradition says that he was remarkably handsome, cautious, and of an easy and generous temper. His reign is regarded as one of peace and few battles were fought.

But Herodotus accuses him of excessive vanity. According to Greek accounts, he was always surrounded by eunuchs and women. Lavish feasts were held at the Great Palace of Ecbatana. The courtiers wore long flowing robes of many different colors, amongst which red and purple predominated, and adorned their necks with chains or collars of gold, and their wrists with bracelets of the same precious metal. Even the horses on which they rode had sometimes golden bits to their bridles. Astyages' chief pastime was hunting. The capital was surrounded by a park where the king hunted wild animals.

However, this period is especially remembered for the ascendancy of the Zoroastrian priestly class called the Magi.

All through this reign, there was one issue which bothered Astyages. His marriage with the principal queen, the Lydian princess Aryenis produced no male offspring nor did his affairs with any of his concubines. Legend says that he, however had a daughter Mandane who was married to Cambyses I of Persia. Their son Cyrus II would later wrest control of the state from his grandfather and become one of the greatest monarchs in history.

Though historians barely assign any important wars to this period, it is widely believed that Astyages and not Cyaxares could have been the king who had actually fought the Lydians. At the fag end of his reign, the Armeians rose into revolt and were subdued by Astyages with an iron hand.

In 559BC, Astyages had to face the revolt of his own grandson, Cyrus of Persia. A battle was fought in which Cambyses I was killed. But Cyrus rallied the forces together and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Medes. The fleeing Median soldiers were pursued deep into their territory along with their king and commander Astyages. There were a couple of engagements between the Medes and the Persians. On conclusion of the first, the Medes had to flee as their camp was taken over and their royal insignia fell into the hands of the Persians. In the second engagement, Astyages was captured by the Persians. This brought an end to the war. Ecbatana surrendered and Media became a province of the fledgling Persian Empire.

Zoroaster and the Birth of Zoroastrianism

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Zoroaster also known as Zarathusra or Zardosht was born around this time. The religion which he founded, called Zoroastrianism originated from an older polytheistic faith called Magism. This was the religion of the Medes and the Persians prior to the birth of Zoroastrianism and was the official state religion during the sovereignty of Media.

Media and Magism are closely related, so much so that the high priests of Magism, the Magi who give the religion its name were exclusively chosen from a Median tribe of the same name. The actual Persian name of the Magi seems to have been Magupat which gradually changed into Mobed with the passage of time. These Magi were the most supreme spiritual authority in the Empire. However, with the passage of time, the Dastur was elevated to a position higher than that of the Magupat and the Magi themselves weren't picked ur from the Mede tribe.

The Iranians, prior to the birth of Zoroaster, worshipped natural forces. They were mostly Vedic divinites like Mithra, Varuna, Vayu, Agni, etc. One of the principal deities Yima Kshaeta (Jamshed in modern Persian) is believed to have originated from the Hindu Yama. Their pantheon also comprised other divinities like Anahita, Spenta Armaiti,Vohu-mano and Asha Vahishta.

As Zoroastrianism expanded to every nook and corner of Persia, these divinities were incorporated into Zoroastrianism as angels and good spirits. For example, Vohu-mano, Asha Vahishta, Spenta Armaiti, Kshatra Vairya, Haurvatat and Ameretat became the six Amesha Spentas(arch-angels) of Zoroastrianism. Apart from the Amesha Spentas, there were the Fravashis (angels) and the Yazatas (Adorable ones) who were worshipped.

Zoroaster: His Life and Philosophy

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Zoroaster is believed to have born between 1400 and 1000BC in Northern Iran close to the Caspian coast. This is the land, which some people believe to be the paradise, Airyanem Vaego. His family name was Spitama, a cognate of the Sanskreit Swetha meaning "whiteness". His father was named Pourashaspa and his mother was Dugdhova. Little is known about his childhood except that he was an extremely pious boy. M.N.Dhalla in his History of Zoroastrianism (1938) describes Zoroaster's life in detail. However, this is an extremely biased account which gives credibility to legends and myths. Nevertheless, this is one among a few biographies of Zoroaster in existence.

Like the founder of each and every other religion, tales of Zoroaster's early life are often spiced and flavored with miracles. His birth had been prophesized prior to his arrival and was pre-destined to happen. Legend has it that Pourashaspa had longed for a child for a long, long time and prayed to Haoma to this effect. His prayers bore fruit with the birth of the Prophet. The Zarathusht-namah tells us that the angel Vohumanah entered the child's mind soon after his birth and the child laughed aloud immediately upon his birth which startled the people around. Tales also abound on how Porushaspa came under the influence of a wicked magician called Duasrobo and tried to kill the young child Zarathushtra on his insistence. However, the young Zoroaster escaped miraculously each and every time in the end, killing Duasrobo himself. These tales bear a striking resemblance to the stories of Kamsa's attempts on the life of the young Krishna and those of Herod on the young Jesus.

M.N.Dhalla says that Zoroaster was disillusioned with his religion at a very early age. He questioned the need of sacrifices and elaborate rituals. He stressed upon piety and goodness and was a sworn enemy of the Magian priests whom M.N.Dhalla calls Daivayasnians. However, the term Daivayasnians never existed and is purely an invention of the writer. Dhalla says that Zoroaster wanted to have a glimpse of the Great Lord Ahura Mazda but couldn't. However, he was suitably rewarded when his good thoughts, actions and conduct pleased Vohumanah who blessed him with a vision of the Great Lord Ahura Mazda Himself. This is one of the most important events in the history of Zoroastrianism. Ahura Mazda dictated the holy scripture unto Zoroaster which he later revealed to the Iranian people. This has since been written down in the form of the various books of the Avesta. This was the Zoroastrian revelation.

After his conversation with Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster was sure that he was the chosen One of the Lord and went from place to place preaching his new religion. (His first convert was his cousin Maidhyoimangha). In some places, he provoked the open enmity of the Magian priests. Dhalla mentions two Magian priests Bendva and Grehma who were his sworn enemies. However, Zoroaster had the last laugh when he travelled to the Iranian court and converted the Shah of Iran to his new religion. Zoroastrianism was subsequently made the state religion and the people were ordered to convert to the new faith. It is believed that Zoroaster lived up to the age of seventy-seven.

Zoroaster stressed upon three main principles: Humata (good thoughts), Huktha (Good words) and Huvarashta (Good deed). This has been adopted by the present Islamic regime and has been incorporated as the motto of the Islamic Republic of Iran: pendar-i-nik, goftar-i-nik, kerdar-i-nik. At the focal point of the Zoroastrian pantheon lay Ahura Mazda or the Supreme Lord. Below him lay the six Amesha Spentas about whom we had already seen. These were the forces of goodness. However, later fire gained prominence and gradually displaced all others as the principle object of worship. Like Hindus, the early Zoroastrians considered cows to be holy and a recipe made of cow's urine was considered to be an instant purifier which could absolve a man of any kind of sin.

The forces of evil were led by Ahrimaan (the Old Persian Angra Mainyos) who was assisted by an army of demons (daevas). Chief amongst them was Indra who was the Avestan counterpart of Vedic God Indra.

Zoroaster's marriage was arranged at a very early age . However, fables indicate, Zoroaster refused to marry the girl when she declined to remove her veil. Later, Zorosaster married three three times. His first wife bore him a son Isadvastra (whose son Ururvija was a prominent Zoroastrian missionary of later times) and three daughters—Freni, Thriti and Pouruschita. His second wife was, allegedly, a widow and she bore him two sons—Hvarechitra and Urvatnara.His third wife was Hvovi, daughter of Frashaoshtra, an important official in the court of Iran.

The name Zardosht is believed to have originated from either Zarat-ustra or Zarant-ustra.There are different theories with regard to the origin of his name:

Following *zarat-uštra- are:

  • "moving camels" or "driving camels," and related to Avestan zarš- "to drag" (Bailey, 1953:40-42)
  • "desiring camels" or "longing for camels" and related to Vedic har- "to like" and perhaps (though ambiguous) also to Avestan zara-. (Mayrhofer, 42–43)

Following *zarant-uštra- are:

  • "with old/aging camels," related to Vedic járant- and similar to Ossetic zœrond. (Schlerath)
  • "with yellow camels" with a parallel to Younger Avestan zairi- (Werba, 1982:184ff)
  • "with angry camels," from Avestan *zarant- "angry, furious" (Mayrhofer, 42–43)

The Avesta

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The Avesta is believed to have been compiled by the Prophet himself who dictated the 21 Nasks to his son-in-law Jamasp who inscribed the scripture in golden letters on cow hides. However, the cow hides have been lost to time. The Nasks themselves haven't survived in their entirety, except for one, the Vendidad which has been translated into English and most European languages.

The Avesta, in its modern form, was written down between 78 and 300AD. Today, it is regarded as the most holy book of Zoroastrianism and like the holy books of other religions is believed to have been revealed by Ahura Mazda Himself.They comprise the Vendidad which is made of 22 Fargards, the Yasna comprising 72 sections, the Visperad comprising 23 Kord (or sections), the Yashts, the Khorda Avesta (Small Avesta) and the Gathas. The oldest of these books are the Gathas believed to have been composed around 1300BC. The language of the Gathas closely resembles Vedic Sanskrit and form one of the earliest extant works in the language called Old Avestan.

The Avesta, often prefixed by the word "Zend" and called Zend Avesta is derived from the Old Persian word "A-vi-stak", the root word "vi" same as the root "vi" of the Vedas meaning "knowledge". The word "Zend" is derived from "Zainti"


The teachings of the Avesta appear highly-conservative even as per Zoroaster's standards. Ironically, for a man who spent a lifetime fighting superstition and rituals, the Avesta is filled with invocations to innumerable angels, black-magic, and prayers for the expiation of sins previously committed.These sins include introduction of any dead or impure matter into the holy fire, cremating or burying a corpse,etc. The Vendidad or Vi-daevodatem which means anti-demoniac law prescribes ways or purification of the impure. Pregnant women were regarded impure in Ancient Iran as they bore a grave in their wombs (in the form of a still-born child) and were to be confined to a corner of the house for nine-consecutive days and nights (known as Barashnum) far away from the holy fire. Similarly, a menstruating woman, corpse of a human being, etc. were all regarded as impure as they acted as carriers of the druj Nasu.Purity and chastity of an extreme kind were recommended. People who did not adhere to these rules were either whipped in public or were asked to pay a huge sum as penalty. These were the laws as prescribed by the Avesta. However, it remains to be seen to which extent these laws were implemented.

Apart from being a treasure in the eyes of a theologian, the Avestan books were also of immense historical interest. They were recited in a dialect of Old Persian which wasn't understood by the time they were written down (duri9ng the early Sassanian period). The Zand or the Zainti is believed to be a commentary in the Avesta which was essential for the religious text to be understood. The Avesta also gives a vivid description of the home of the Avestan people. Based on the Avesta, historians place the Avestan country in Northern Iran, roughly in the land known as Khorasan.

The Achaemenid Dynasty

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The Achaemenids were princes of the Persian race, who were an Indo-European people who migrated from the north of Iran. With the Median highlands being people by the tough and powerful Medes, the Persians were obliged to settle in a comparatively quiet and less occupied province of Pars in Southern Iran. During the 7th century BC, one Hakhamanisha rose to power and crowned himself the first King of Persia. His descendants overthrew the Medes and established the Achaemenid Dynasty. They ruled Persia for around 225 years until the fall of their last king Darius III in 331BC. During this period, they waged highly successful wars against Egypt, the Levant and the Greeks and expanded their kingdom to distant parts of the globe.


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The first supposed mention of the Persians is in an inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmanesser II in in which references are made to the Parsu of south-western Armenia. In the seventh century BC, a semi-mythical personality called Hakhamanish established a kingdom in Persia and ruled as a feudatory of the Assyrian monarch. He is known as Achaemenes to the Greek writers. He was succeeded by Teispes (Cispi), Cyrus I and Cambyses I. However, no evidence exists regarding the existence of these monarchs and stories of them are regarded as purely fictitious and concocted. In 612BC, however, the Mede Cyaxares inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Assyrians and occupied Nineveh. This resulted in a shift of balance of power as the Medes emerged as overlords of the Middle East and most of the known world. Cyrus I is believed to be the Persian monarch who immediately submitted to the emerging power. Median overlordship lasted until 559BC when Astyages was overthrown by Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great with whose reign Persia enters historical times.

Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) 549 - 529 BC

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Cyrus ascended the throne of Persia in His actual name in Old Persian happens to be Kurush. In his inscriptions, he extensively uses his royal title "Vazraka" which means "the Great". In modern times, Cyrus referred to as "Kurush-i-bozorg" has become a symbol of Persian revival and is regarded as a hero by monarchists and right-wing nationalists alike.

Early Life and Rise to Power

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Cyrus II was born in 590 or 576 BC as per different versions, the son of the Persian Emperor Cambyses I and the daughter of Astyages of Media, Princess Mandane. There are a number of fantastical tales woven around the early life of Cyrus II including that he was brought up among a family of herdsmen. However, evidences of such an upbringing if at they are factual are yet to be found.

However, all the sources agree to the fact that Cyrus II was sent to the court of the Median ruler Astyages at Ecbatana at a very early age. The fact that Cyrus was a grandson of the Median ruler must be one possible reason. However, eyebrows are raised over the veracity of this claim. While Xenophon is the one who tells us that Cyrus was a grandson of Astyages, Nicolas and Ctesias say that Cyrus was in no way related to Astyages and his confinement at the court of Astyages was due to a strange personal attachment Astyages had towards him. However, Cyrus detested Ecbatana and the company of the vain old monarch who spent more of his time in merriment and conducting lavish feasts. He secretly desired to escape to his own country and lead a rebellion against Median yoke. But the royal priests and the Median astrologers had advised the monarch to keep Cyrus captive in Ecbatana for they said that if he ever allowed Cyrus to go back to Persia he would lose his kingdom forever. So, willing to preserve his kingdon, Astyages kept Cyrus under heavy-guard. But Cyrus managed to escape to Persia. The story of this escape is narrated in vivid detail by Rawlinson.

Desiring to leave for Persia, Cyrus petitioned Astyages requesting a leave of absence for five months reasoning that his father in Persia was ill. The first application was rejected. However, the second, made through the king's favorite eunuch was more successful. Astyages agreed and Cyrus set forth for Persia. But the next evening, as Astyages was enjoying a royal feast, one of the dancing-girls sang of "a lion which had let a wild boar escape". Immediately, Astyages realized his folly and bade his soldiers set forth for the frontier and capture Cyrus either alive or dead. They caught up with Cyurus before he reached the border but the latter fooled the soldiers by inviting them for a drink and made good his escape taking advantage of their intoxication. By the time they caught up with Cyrus again, he had crossed into Persia and at the head of a Persian contingent now, he repulsed the soldiers who returned empty-handed to Ecbatana. Furious, Astyages led a huge army into Persia. The contingent consisted of a hundred chariots, fifty thousand horsemen, and three hundred thousand light-armed foot, who were drawn up in in front of a fortified town near the frontier. The battle lasted two days during which Cambyses I was killed and the Persians defeated. Astyages and his soldiers pursued the fleeing Persians to the hills where a second battle was fought. The Persians, taking advantage of their high-ground, charged furiously at the Medes and slew sixty thousand of them. Astyages immediately withdrew and later attacked the Persians at Pasargadae.A battle was fought which brought about an overwhelming victory to the Persians. All the insignia of Median royalty along with their treasures fell into the hands of the Persians. Cyrus followed Astyages into Media where a sixth battle was fought. The Medians were completely defeated and Astyages captured as a prisoner. Following the capture of Astyages, the whole of Media surrendered without the slightest resistance and Cyrus emerged as the absolute sovereign of the First Persian Empire.

The end of the Median dynasty came with the conquest of Ecbatana by Cyrus in the year 549BC. This was also the year when Cyrus conquered Media and made himself the master of Iran. Almost immediately after his victory over the Medes, Cyrus launched an invasion of Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan). The north-west was another region which had successfully resisted attempts at conquest. Cyrus led a large expedition to the north-western frontier and after occupying the outlying provinces with ease came to a face-to-face encounter with the kingdom of Lydia.

Conquest of Lydia

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The Emperor of Lydia Croesus was a brother of the Mede Astyages and was greatly affected by his dethronement and the annexation of Media by Persia.He had a built a powerful Empire in Asia Minor conquering all the smaller states and this sudden rise was made possible mainly by the friendly relations he had with Media and non-interference by neighbouring countries. During this period, Croesus earned perpetual fame for himself for the magnificent gold coins he minted. So, when Astyages was dethroned and his empire annexed by Cyrus he was worried about his own fate. This prompted him to ally with Greece and Babylonia. Cyrus, at once took an aggressive posture and invaded Asia Minor taking Diabekr, Malatiyah and Gurun. Croesus, at once declared war on Persia and crossing the Halys river attacked the city of Pteria in 547BC. This attack on Pteria has been immortalized by the famous legend involving the Oracle at Delphi. According to the legend, Croesus contacted the Oracle before his attack on Pteria. The Oracle suggested vaguely that, "if King Croesus should cross the Halys River, a great empire would be destroyed." Croesus took these words with delight, instigating a war that would ironically and eventually end not the Persian Empire but terminate his own.

The Lydian advance was checked by Persian troops within the gates of Pteria and a terrible battle ensued. Initially, the Lydians had the upper hand mainly due to the strength of their excellent cavalry. But Cyrus formed an advance brigade made of camelmen and charged at the Lydians forcing them to flee. However, soon, Cyrus gave up the charge allowing them to reach Lydia unmolested. When Croesus had reached his own palace and all fears of a Persian attack of Lydia had subsided, Cyrus saw his moment and gathered his army and attacked the Lydian capital taking Croesus by surprise. Croesus appealed to his allies for aid as the Lydian troops successfully defended the city for fourteen days. But on the fifteenth day, a Persian soldier discovered a secret passage into the city through its walls. The Persian soldiers capitalized on this discovery and enjacted a breach. Lydia was taken and absorbed into the Persian Empire. Croesus was captured and imprisoned but was later pardoned and ruled Lydia as a vassal of Persia.

Soon afterwards, Sardis became the scene of an insurrection. Pactyas, a Lydian, who had been entrusted with the duty of conveying the treasures of Croesus and his more wealthy subjects to Ecbatana, revolted against Tabalus, the Persian commandant of the town, and being joined by the native population and numerous mercenaries, principally Greeks, whom he hired with the treasure that was in his hands, made himself master of Sardis, and besieged Tabalus in the citadel. The news reached Cyrus while he was upon his march; but, estimating the degree of its importance aright, he did not suffer it to interfere with his plans. He judged it enough to send a general with a strong body of troops to put down the revolt, and continued his own journey eastward. Mazares, a Mede, was the officer selected for the service. On arriving before Sardis, he found that Pactyas had relinquished his enterprise and fled to the coast, and that the revolt was consequently at an end. It only remained to exact vengeance. The rebellious Lydians were disarmed. Pactyas was pursued with unrelenting hostility, and demanded, in succession, of the Cymaeans, the Mytilenseans, and the Chians, of whom the last-mentioned surrendered him.

Campaign Against the Greeks

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Following the defeat of Pactyas, Cyrus dispatched Mazares to attack his Greek allies. The Greek cities of Priene and Magnesia in Asia Minor were attacked and subdued. Mazares was renowned for his cruelty and barbarism and on the conquest of Priene, he captured its entire populace and sold them as slaves. However, Mazares' successor Hapages was more lenient. The aggressive policy of Mazares was retained and more Greek cities were conquered. However, the inhabitants of these cities were treated well and retained a fair degree of independence. Miletus the most powerful and important of the Greek city-states made a determined resistance but was ultimately subdued and conquered. With this ended Cyrus' war in Asia Minor and when the last Greek city fell, he emerged as the undisputed master of West Asia stretching from Bactria to the Bosporus. This was the largest Empire till then to have ruled over the region.

The First World Empire

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Following the defeat of the Greeks, Hapages subdued the Carians, the Dorian Greeks, the Caunians, and the people of Lycia. One by one the cities fell into the hands of the Persians and Greek resistance was completely wiped out by 542BC. Next, Cyrus turned his attention to the east and attempted the conquest of Bactria. There are different versions as to how Cyrus conquered Bactria. Ctesias says that they submitted peacefully when Darius married a Median princess. However, this is seriously contested by historians who reject the possibility that this could have any effect on the Bactrians. Herodotus says that Cyrus subdued Bactria after a long drawn out war and this seems most probable.

Following the conquest of Bactria, Cyrus' next campaign was against the Sacae (probably the Sakas or Scythians) who resided in the east of Bactria. Herodotus and Ctesias do not record much on the eastern campaigns of Cyrus the Great. However, the historian Pliny relates that Cyrus destroyed the city of Kapisa in Afghanistan. He was assisted in his campaigns by the Ariaspse, a people of Drangiana (near Lake Hamun in modern-day Sistan). Cyrus then marched against the Indians and conquered Gedrosia (the district of Makran in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan; its memory has been preserved by the presence of a city called Gwadar close to the Pakistan-Iran frontier). Among other countries subdued by Cyrus in this neighborhood, are Hyrcania, Parthia, Chorasmia, Sogdiana, Aria (or Herat), Drangiana, Arachosia, Sattagydia, and Gandaria.

Conquest of Babylonia

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In 539 BC, towards the end of September, Cyrus' armies, under the command of Gubaru, the governor of Gutium, attacked Opis on the Tigris river and defeated the Babylonians after a minor uprising. When Opis was occupied, the Persians took hold of the vast canal system of Babylonia.

On October 10, the city of Sippar was seized without a battle. Nabonidus, the ruler of Babylonia, who was staying in the city at the time, fled to the capital, Babylon.

On October 12, Gubaru's troops entered Babylon, without facing any resistance from the Babylonians. Herodotus explains that to accomplish this feat, the Persians diverted the Euphrates river into a canal so that the water level dropped "to the height of the middle of a man's thigh," which allowed the invading forces to march directly through the river bed to enter at night.[20] On October 29, Cyrus himself entered the city of Babylon and arrested Nabonidus. He then assumed the titles of "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four sides of the world."

Prior to Cyrus' invasion of Babylon, the Neo-Babylonian Empire had conquered many kingdoms. In addition to Babylonia itself, Cyrus incorporated its subnational entities into his Empire, including Syria and Palestine.

Before leaving Babylon, Cyrus also freed the Israelites by allowing them to return to their native land, effectively ending the Babylonian captivity. The return of the exiles reinforced the Jewish population in their homeland, which had been waning since the start of the Babylonian rule.

According to the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great, Cyrus' dominions must have comprised the largest empire the world had ever seen. At the end of Cyrus' rule, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Asia Minor and Judah in the west to the Indus River in the east.


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From cuneiform sources, it has now become clear that Cyrus' reign came to an end in the summer of 530. Authors like Ctesias and Xenophon give different accounts of his death. According to Rawlinson, who uses Herodotus' version, Cyrus was engaged in subduing the Massagatse who inhabited the desert of Khwarezm. In the first battle against the Massagatse, Cyrus inflicted a crushing defeat on the Massagatse killing its ruler Spargapises. But in the second battle against the Massagatse, Cyrus was killed by Sparagapises' mother Queen Tornyris who dipped his head in blood and reportedly used his skull as a vessel to drink fine wine for a long time afterwards. However, the Persians won the battle and Cyrus' body was found and carried to Persia where it was buried in the city of Pasargadae.

According to Plutarch, his epitaph says,

"O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore grudge me this little earth that covers my body."

Cyrus was succeeded by son Khambujiya (Cambyses II).


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Cyrus was an excellent statesman and soldier and was the creator of the first world empire in history. His legacy remains alive and is greatly respected in modern Persia. He is also held favorably by the Jews and is the only Gentile to be designated as a messiah in the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1-6). Some scholars believe that there are references to him in the Quran. Many believe that the Quranic figure of Zulqarnain is none other than Cyrus the Great though it has been seriously challenged by some.

One of his great legacies had to be the inscription of the Cyrus Cylinder described below.

File:Cyrus cilinder.jpg

A section of the Cyrus cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder
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The Cyrus Cylinder, also known as the ‘Cyrus the Great Cylinder’, is an artifact of the Persian Empire, consisting of a declaration issued by the emperor Cyrus the Great inscribed in Babylonian (Akkadian) cuneiform on a clay cylinder.

It was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila (i.e., the Marduk temple of Babylon). This cylinder which composed of two broken pieces, now united in the British Museum, and comprises an account of Cyrus' capture of Babylon, a reference to the return of the captured statues of Mesopotamian gods, several topical remarks about the abolishment of unjust corvees, and a description of repairs to old buildings in Babylon. It was regarded as the Oldest Charter of Human Rights in the world by the government of Shah Mohamed Reza, a claim that has been subject to criticism from scholars, who point at the topical character of the document.

Cambyses II 529 - 522 BC

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On the death of Cyrus II in 529BC, his son Cambyses II took hold the reins of power and continued his father's policy of conquest. His original Persian name might have been Kambujiya, which is of pure Indo-European origin and is synonymous with Kamboja. Cambyses II is represented as one of the most ambitious conquerors of the mould of Alexander and Khusro Parviz for like his Macedonian and Sassanian successors he aspired to expand his Empire into hitherto unexplored and unconquered parts of the globe.

Cambyses ascended the throne in the year 530 or 529BC and immediately after his accession murdered his brother Smerdis.

Campaign Against Egypt

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The ambitious Cyrus had always willed to take his armies into Egypt but died before he could realize his dream. Now with the successful conquest of Mesapotamia and the Middle East, the gates were open for an invasion of Egypt.

In 529BC, soon after Cambyses had established himself on the throne, he demanded of Amasis, the Pharaoh of Egypt to send his daughter to him as a secondary wife. However, Amasis deceived Cambyses by sending a damsel named Nitesis instead of his own daughter. When he was acquainted of the fraud, Cambyses swore revenge. However, he waited for four years until the death of Amasis before launching an invasion of Egypt.

In 525BC, Amasis' son Psammetichus III became the Pharaoh of Egypt. Sensing an opportunity, Cambyses led an army of Persian soldiers and Arab mercenaries into Egypt. Amasis had always hoped that the Greeks would come to their aid in the case of a Persian invasion but the Greek Cypriots preferred to join with Cambyses. So assisted by the formidable Cypriot navy, Cambyses conquered Egypt.

Soon after the conquest of Egypt, the rulers of Libya and the Greeks of Barca and Cyrene sent rich tributes to the Persian Emperor. However, Cambyses intended to expand his empire further to the south and conquer the kingdom of Ammon in the North African desert. He sent an army fifty thousand strong which perished in the middle of the African desert. An invasion of the Phoenician colony of Carthage was planned but the plan was abandoned when the Phoenicians in his navy refused to fight against their countrymen. Another force led by Cambyses to conquer Ethiopia had to return when faced with defeat and loss of supplies.

Almost Immediately after his return to Egypt, Cambyses had to tackle the rebellion of Psammetichus III. The priests declared him an incarnation of the sacred bull of Egyptian mythology Apis and the whole country rose into revolt in support of the disinherited king. Cambyses reacted by crushing this insurrection with an iron hand and killing Psammetichus III and the priests who supported him. He then retaliated by stabbing the sacred calf regarded as an incarnation of the sacred bull Apis, killed its priests and prohibited the festivals dedicated to Apis. He ordered the desecration of the tombs of long dead Egyptian monarchs and showed blunt disregard and disrespect for the customs of the people.

At this juncture, there appeared disturbing news from Persia. A messenger informed him that an impostor had captured the thrown of Persia and claims to be Smerdis the deceased son of Cyrus the Great.


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Cambyses, the sources tell us, did not live long after the appearance of this new claimant to the throne. But died in an extremely suspicious circumstances. Some say that he committed suicide. However, this appears highly improbable. Nevertheless, while the truth is being investigated, it would be enough for us to bluntly conclude that Cambyses did die in the year 522BC and was succeeded by the impostor Smerdis.


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See Bibliography Section