The term “Persian civilization” can refer to two distinct, but closely related cultural entities, Pre-Islamic Persian civilization and Islamic Persian civilization. Pre-Islamic civilization in turn falls into two main periods: first, that of the great Persian empire of the Achaemenid kings (c. 550 BCE to c. 330 BCE); and second, that of the Parthian and Sasanian empires (c. 140 BCE to c. 640 CE). These two periods are punctuated by the Greek-Macedonian occupation of Iran under Alexander the Great and his successors.
This article deals with the government and politics of the great Persian empire which was founded by Cyrus the Great in the 540s and 530s BCE, and was conquered by Alexander the Great two centuries later. For this empire’s society, economy, religion, art and architecture see the article The Persian Empire: Culture and Society
The Iranian peoples were a branch of the Indo-European group of peoples who had spread out across the steppes of central Asia from the 4th millennium BC, propelled by their nomadic lifestyle. A group of eastern Indo-European peoples, who called themselves the “Aryans” (or “Iranians”) moved down into Iran and the western Indian subcontinent (modern-day Pakistan). In India they would go on to play a pivotal role in that subcontinent’s history. In Iran, they slowly spread out over a huge area, from the Hindu Kush mountains on the east to the Caucasus and Zagros mountains in the west, and down to the Indian Ocean in the south. Along with those who remained on the steppes of central Asia, the Iranians covered what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and parts of Iraq and Turkey.
Although by the 7th century BC the Iranians were divided into many different tribes – Parthians, Sogdians, Bactrians, Medes and Persians, for example – they remained very conscious of their Iranian (or “Aryan”) identity.
During the 7th century many of the Iranians came under the control of one of these tribes, the Medes, who seem to have formed them into a fairly loose confederacy, with vassal kings subordinated to the Mede “King of Kings”.
In the mid-6th century BC there reigned a vassal king called Cyrus, who ruled an Iranian tribe called the Persians. They lived in modern-day Fars province (i.e. Persia), a fairly mountainous and inaccessible corner of southwestern Iran.
Cyrus (“the Great”) rebelled against his overlord, the King of the Medes, and, defeating him in battle, replaced him as “King of Kings”. He and his immediate successors then went on to conquer a multinational empire of unprecedented size – the largest in the world at that time, and indeed the largest (by area) in the whole of ancient history.
Cyrus’ successor-but-one, Darius I (also called “the Great”, reigned 522-486 BCE), set the empire on a sound administrative footing. Such was his achievement that it was able to endure for nearly two hundred years after his time. Finally, in a ten-year period from 334 BCE, the huge empire was in its turn conquered by the army of Alexander the Great.
This empire is sometimes known as the “Achaemenid empire” (after the dynasty which ruled it), to differentiate it from the other Persian or Iranian empires which flourished at different times (for example the Sasanian empire of c.240-640 CE and the Safavid empire of the 16th to 18th centuries). However, here we will call it the Persian empire, the name by which it is more commonly known. It was by far the largest of all the Iranian empires.
The Persian empire ruled a multicultural, multiethnic empire of some 50 million inhabitants. Of these, the Persians, as the conquering race, naturally occupied a special position. They paid no tribute, their young men formed the elite units of the empire’s army, and their nobles filled the topmost positions in government. Their close relatives the Medes were almost as privileged, for although they did pay tribute, this was not at as high a rate as other peoples; moreover, like the Persians, their young men were recruited into elite units of the army, and their nobility also held an important place in the ruling class of the empire
The other Iranian peoples enjoyed a slightly less privileged position in the empire, in that their tax burden was lighter than that of the non-Iranian peoples of the empire.
Beyond the lands of the Iranians, to the east the empire covered western India; to the west, it took in Mesopotamia, Syria (including Judaea), Asia Minor (including the Greek city-states of Ionia), Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrenaica. At times it also included parts of Europe up to the river Danube, including Thrace and Macedonia.
Talking of the “civilization” of the Persian empire is not really accurate. All the subject nations within the empire maintained their own customs and culture; indeed, one of the hallmarks of Persian imperialism was to interfere as little as possible in the way of life of the conquered peoples. Nevertheless, the Achaemenid period did see a Persian-style civilization arising in the Iranian homeland, and we will discuss this as a part of the overview of the government, society and culture of the Achaemenid empire.
Kingship in the Persian empire was hereditary within the Achaemenid clan, which had been the royal clan of the Persians for many generations.
In the not-so-distant past, when the Persians had been nomadic herdsmen on the steppes of central Asia, their kings had been first among equals rather than unquestioned rulers. This tradition was maintained to some extent in the privileges accorded to the high nobility, especially the leaders of the “seven great families”. These formed a council which was consulted on major matters of state.
However, the settled peoples of the Middle Eastern had long been accustomed to being governed by all-powerful sovereigns, and the Persian kings took on this mantle. To the people of Mesopotamia they claimed to be the true successors of the kings of Babylon, ruling by the favor of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians. To the people of Egypt they claimed to be the heirs of the pharaohs – and within Egypt, therefore, divine. To the rest of their subjects they made no claim to divinity, but they did claim to rule by favor of the chief of the Iranian gods, Ahura Mazda, who had bestowed the empire on them. They ruled as his representative on earth, and in return he required them to be friends “to right, not to wrong”. To help them in their task Ahura Mazda bestowed “wisdom and strength” on them so that they were valiant warriors, wise leaders and just law givers. Their person was sacred, and they possessed an abundance of royal charisma. As one of their greatest monarchs said of himself, “I am Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of the countries….an Achaemenid.”
Wherever the king was, there was his capital. In practice, though, he spent most of his time when not on campaign in one of four cities in Iran: Parsagadae, built by Cyrus the Great, and Persepolis, founded by Darius the Great and completed by his successors – both these lay in the Persian homeland, but were comparatively inaccessible, and their main role was as centers of royal ceremony. Susa, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Elam and well-located on major long distance routes, functioned as the chief seat of government, with Ecbatana, the old capital of the Medes, being used as a summer retreat. All these cities were lavishly embellished by successive kings with magnificent palaces.
One other city, outside Iran, also functioned as a subsidiary capital of the empire. This was Babylon, in Mesopotamia, where some of the kings spent much of their reigns.
The royal palaces lay at the heart of the administration of the Persian empire, and it was here that the provincial administration was co-ordinated. A vast stream of correspondence flowed to and from all the provinces of the empire, and was dealt with by a large and complex secretariat. This was organized along Babylonian lines and operated according to practices developed over thousands of years of Mesopotamian history. Presumably some of this secretariat accompanied the king wherever he might be, but its permanent headquarters seems to have been at Susa. The chief cities in each satrapy had a smaller version of this body.
The central bureaucracy also handled the flow of tribute which came in from the satrapies. This came in, not only in silver and gold coin, but in ivory, cattle, corn wine, oil, and all manner of other commodities. Huge warehouses were located in Susa, Ecbatana and Babylon to store this tribute, and a large staff of officials, also presumably operating along Babylonian administrative lines, disbursed this to pay the king’s servants and officials, the army, the expenses for public works such as the construction of palaces, roads, and canals, and the manifold other demands on the royal treasury.
Official correspondence initially in Elamite, later was mostly in Aramaic, which had already become the language of state in Assyrian times. In those countries where Aramaic was not widely understood, national languages and scripts were used: demotic writing in Egypt, Greek in Ionia, in western Asia Minor, and Elamite in the territory of the old Elamite kingdom and, indeed, in Persia too, at least until about 460 BCE when Aramaic replaced it.
Communication between center and provinces was facilitated by an excellent (for the time) road network – vital in such as extensive state as the Persian empire. The roads allowed a regular government postal service to operate. Such a service had first been developed by the Assyrians, and was based on relay stations located at regular intervals along the roads. These enabled couriers to have fresh remounts day and night, so that they could cover the distance from Sardis in Asia Minor to Susa in Iran in only seven days.
The Persian empire, as we have already stated, was a huge multinational state. For purposes of administration it was divided into about twenty large provinces, called satrapies (the number varied from time to time as some were merged, some divided, or borders between them changed). The only part of the empire not assigned to a satrapy was Persia, which was regarded as being ruled directly by the king himself.
The governors of these satrapies were appointed by the king, whom they represented within their territories. Just as the king’s power was absolute throughout the empire, so theirs’ was absolute within their satrapies. They dispensed justice, collected tribute, negotiated with nearby states beyond the empire’s borders, and were commander’s in chief of the troops stationed within their borders. The governors’ (satraps’) courts and administrations were smaller copies of the royal ones.
The men appointed to be satraps were mostly princes of the Persian royal family or senior members of the high Persian nobility. To check the power of these potentially over-mighty governors, the satraps were regularly visited by royal inspectors, called “the king’s eyes”, who traveled all over the empire and reported directly to the king.
As we have seen, one of the prime duties of a satrap and his staff was the collection of tribute from the populations under his control. This function was often farmed out to tax farmers. These often operated as companies, who provided the up-front sum and then made their profit by taking what they could from the population. This was a very widespread practice in the ancient world, and indeed right up to modern times, as it obviated the need for the state to employ its own large bureaucracy for this purpose. However, wherever it was found the practice was open to abuse, and the Persian empire was no exception.
Just as the Persian homeland (modern-day Fars province in Iran) was not governed by a satrap, neither was it subject to tribute. The other Iranian peoples (Medes, Parthians and so on) were under satraps and did have to pay tribute, but at a lower rate than non-Iranian subjects of the empire. To ensure a fair assessments of tribute, Darius had sent a commission of trusted men to evaluate the revenues and expenditures of each satrapy. These rates, however, never seem to have been adjusted in later times, and this must have led to a growing disparity between a region’s tax liability and its ability to pay.
Each satrapy was divided into local districts, with their own governors. These could be appointed by the royal court, but they could also be nominated by the satrap. Sometimes local peoples were under their own native rulers, who retained their positions so long as they fulfilled their obligations to the Persian government. Thus the re-established community in Jerusalem had a succession of Jewish officials as their governors.
The Achaemenid kings allowed the conquered peoples within their empire a large measure of autonomy. In Babylonia, for example, they kept the administrative apparatus of the late Babylonian empire in place; similarly, they maintained the ancient institutions of Pharaonic Egypt; the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon remained under native leaders, as did the Jews in Jerusalem.
Likewise, there was no attempt at “cultural imperialism”. The different peoples where allowed to keep their own customs, religions, laws, languages and so on. Indeed the Achaemenid kings went out of their way to promote their subjects’ identities. The most famous instance of this is the official encouragement successive Achaemenid kings gave to the Jews in returning from exile and rebuilding the temple and city walls of Jerusalem. Another example is that Darius commissioned the codification of the laws of Egypt. This policy paid dividends: the Babylonians acknowledged Cyrus as rightful successor of Nebuchadnezzar and Nabonidus, and the Egyptians recognized Cambyses as founder of a legitimate new dynasty of pharaohs; and the Jews looked to the Persian kings with gratitude and loyalty, regarding them as deliverers sent by God.
The Achaemenids, as we have seen above, allowed the different peoples to keep their own laws. However, a multinational empire required an overarching legal framework by which all its peoples could resolve differences and have justice done to them, even if they came from different cultures. This framework was naturally provided by Persian law, but heavily adapted by the Achaemenids to deal with a more cosmopolitan world. This basically involved importing major influences from the Babylonian legal tradition into it, particularly to do with civil and commercial law.
No Achaemenid law code has survived, and probably none ever existed. However, the kings paid great attention to legal matters. Darius’ inscriptions clearly underline the importance he attached his role as a lawgiver, and his reputation in the ancient world was such that even the great Greek philosopher Plato would praise him as the model of a good lawgiver and king, since by his laws the Persian empire had been preserved “up to now” (i.e. Plato’s own day, late 5th/early 4th centuries BCE).
For the Persians, the king’s law was the gods’ law, and as such applied to the whole empire. Every royal decree was considered irrefutable and unchangeable law, to be obeyed by all his subjects. This divinely-sanctioned law could thus be used to enforce obedience to the king; but it could also ensure that, for example, merchants from different nations could resort to a Persian court to resolve any business disputes between them.
The king appointed a panel of special judges (all Persians) to advise him on legal matters and to try cases in his name. They were experts in interpreting the ancient laws. In doing this they followed the traditional Persian principle of close examination of the facts of a case and paying attention to the previous character of the individuals involved. In criminal cases, the punishment meted out by Persian courts was, by modern standards, frighteningly cruel: execution by crucifixion or impalement was common; mutilation was a standard punishment, as was banishment. These punishments, however, were normal in the ancient Middle East.
The satraps had similar panels of judges to aid them dispense justice within their provinces.
The Achaemenid kings took justice very seriously; Greek authors mention several cases of corrupt judges being sentenced to death. The great achievement of the Achaemenids was to provide a legal system which enabled all their subjects to have a large measure of confidence that, in the last resort, they would receive justice, even if those involved in a case came from different races and cultures.
The composition of the Persian army changed over time. Under Cyrus all male Persians were required to fight in the army, and contingents of subject peoples were called up for specific campaigns. Darius created a standing army of professional troops, containing both horsemen and foot soldiers and all recruited from amongst the Persian and Iranians.
The main types of units were horsemen, spearmen and bowmen, the last two being subdivided into cavalry and infantry. The backbone of the army was formed by an elite corps recruited from amongst the Persians and Medes. These acted as the royal guard, and formed the core of any Persian battle plan. They were known to the Greeks as the 10,000 “Immortals”, but this may have been a mistranslation of the Persian word for “retainer”. Their commander was “second after the king” in the empire, and seems to have been responsible for all military matters. It is also probably that he had wide civil powers as well, acting as a kind of vizier to the king.
Permanent garrisons were stationed throughout the empire at strategic points — along the frontier, or guarding main routes. These garrisons came under the control of the satraps of the provinces where they were stationed, and were commanded by Persian officers; they were often composed of troops from subject nationalities – Greeks, Carians, Chorasmians, Jews, for example – as well as Medes and Persians. It seems that the garrison soldiers were allotted farmland from which to support themselves, either by farming it directly or renting it out.
For campaigns the professional troops were supplemented by troops levied from all parts of the empire. In this way huge armies could be formed. These were divided into national units and armed according to their national customs. The fighting quality of these levies must have been variable. As time went by, therefore, the Achaemenid kings relied more and more on mercenaries, particularly for their infantry. The Greeks were by far the most highly regarded of these troops-for-pay, and played a major role in the wars of the later Achaemenid kings.
The fighting force of Persian armies on campaign were accompanied by siege trains and specialists in siege warfare, as well as well-organized logistic support. In these, the Persians were drawing on ancient experience in the Middle East going back to at least the time of the Assyrians.
The Persian navy was recruited and officered entirely by subject peoples with a seafaring tradition. the Phoenicians were the outstanding example of these, and the cities of Tyre and Sidon provided the bulk of the fleet.
It has been traditionally thought, by Western scholars at least, that after the great kings Cyrus and Darius had passed from the stage, the Persian empire began a long, relentless decline under weak and incompetent kings who preferred the pleasures of the harem to the burdens of government. This is a gross misrepresentation of what happened, at least so far as the kings were concerned. The later kings were indeed not as capable of their two great predecessors – how could they be, given that the former were two of the greatest figures in world history? – but most carried out their duties conscientiously, capably and with a large measure of success.
There was, however, one major weakness in the Persian system, which was common to many monarchies, in all regions of the world and in all periods of history: the succession from one king to another was often disputed and often accompanied by rebellions and civil wars. However, all the kings were able to overcome these revolts, sometimes through hard fighting, and having done so to rule their huge empire effectively until their own deaths.
These revolts were linked to the power of the satraps, who were often closely related to the royal family and therefore could make a claim to the throne. The satraps indeed grew more powerful, and more rebellious, as time went by. From the mid-fourth century the kings – particularly Artexerxes III – had an ever harder time keeping them under control. It is easy to think that, even had one of the greatest commanders in all history, Alexander the Great, not come on the scene, the Persian empire would have soon fragmented as the satraps turned themselves into hereditary kings of independent realms.
But this is simple speculation, a very unreliable tool for historical analysis. When Alexander did start his conquests, the Persian empire was still very much a going concern. Indeed it had recently regained control of the wealthy province of Egypt. The great battles that he had to fight were not push-overs, and a lesser commander might well have lost them. There was nothing pre-ordained about the fall of the Persian empire at that time.