Achaemenid Empire


The Achaemenids (pronounced

The name “Achaemenids” (in Old Persian: Haxāmanišiya) refers to the founding clan that freed itself around 550 BC from the tutelage of the Medes, previously their rulers, as well as to the great Empire that subsequently resulted from their domination. The Empire founded by the Achaemenids seized Anatolia by defeating Lydia, then conquered the Neo-Babylonian Empire and Egypt, uniting the oldest civilizations of the Middle East into a single political entity in a lasting way. The Achaemenid Empire threatened ancient Greece twice and collapsed, defeated by Alexander the Great, in 330 BC, but not without bequeathing to the diadochs who succeeded him a notable part of his cultural and political traits.

During the two centuries of its supremacy, the Achaemenid Empire developed an imperial model taking up many features of its Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors, while presenting original aspects, such as a constant flexibility and pragmatism in its relations with the dominated peoples, as long as these respected its domination. The Persian kings carried out important works on several sites in the heart of their Empire (Pasargadae, Persepolis, Susa), synthesizing the architectural and artistic contributions of several of the dominated countries and expressing their imperial ideology with pomp.


The great Achaemenid kings have left royal inscriptions, sources of information on the construction activity of the sites and on their vision of the Empire. They provide numerous clues which, when put into perspective with the historical context of the time, allow us to understand the political will of the kings and their way of conceiving the exercise of power. They have been rediscovered and translated since the middle of the 19th century. Other testimonies are made up of administrative, satrapic or royal archives, in which the most important decisions were reported (land movements, fiscal documents…).

It is rather through external writings that we traditionally know the Achaemenid history, especially through Greek authors such as Herodotus, Strabo, Ctesias, Polybius, Elian and others. In the Bible, the Book of Ezra, the Book of Esther and the Book of Daniel also contain references to the great kings. Ancient authors also wrote about Persia, in works called the Persika, works of which only a few fragments are known, the rest having been lost.

The documentation on the Achaemenids is thus ultimately important and varied. The iconographic elements are numerous, but their analysis poses a problem because they are very unevenly distributed in space and time, as well as the archaeological works which have long privileged certain regions. This has led to a documentary gap: there are few or no sources on certain regions, while others such as Fars, Susiana, Egypt and Babylon are very well documented. Moreover, while documents on the reigns of Cyrus the Great, Artaxerxes I and Darius II abound, the same is not true for other periods. These trends surely reflect ancient realities (the best-known regions are probably those that were most densely occupied, most literate, and most prosperous), but recent archaeological research tends to offset some of these imbalances.

Development of studies on the Achaemenids

After having been marginal for a long time between the studies on Ancient Greece and those on the rest of the Ancient Near East, the works on the Achaemenid Empire have experienced a boom since the 1980s under the impulse of several researchers who set up structures and colloquia facilitating communication between specialists of the period. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (en) thus set up the Achaemenid History Workshops between 1980 and 1990 from Groningen, later assisted by Amelie Kurth. This resulted in several publications in the Achaemenid History series.

Pierre Briant, professor at the University of Toulouse II-Le Mirail and then at the Collège de France where he held the chair of History and Civilization of the Achaemenid World and the Empire of Alexander from 1999 to 2012, directs particularly active work and coordination tools: the Achemenet website and the Persika series of publications, which publishes, among other things, the proceedings of colloquiums organized on a regular basis and taking stock of the progress of research on various subjects.

Recent projects include the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project at the Oriental Institute of Chicago, under the direction of Matthew Stolper, which aims to expand work on the Persepolis fortification archive, little studied since its discovery in the 1930s.

Origins of the dynasty

The founder of this dynasty is said to be Achaemenes (Old Persian: Haxāmaniš, Ancient Greek Ἀχαιμένης, or هخامنش in modern Persian which means “wise man, of a friendly spirit”). He is a person whose existence remains controversial (see below), leader of a Persian clan probably ruling over other Persian tribes as early as the ninth century B.C. Settled in northern Iran (near Lake Orumieh), the Achaemenids were then tributary to the Assyrians.

Under pressure from the Medes, Assyrians and Urartians, they migrated south of the Zagros Mountains and gradually settled in the region of Anshan towards the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the first millennium. Teispes would have enlarged the Achaemenid territory by conquering the kingdom of Anshan and Fars, thus gaining the title of King of Anshan while Assurbanipal took Susa and the Elamite kingdom temporarily disappeared.

Teisses was the first Achaemenid king to bear the title of king (of the city) of Anshan. Inscriptions reveal that when Teispes died, the kingdom was divided between two of his sons, Cyrus I (Kurāsh or Kurāš), ruler of Anshan, and Ariaramnes (Ariyāramna, “He who brought peace to the Iranians”), ruler of Parsumaš. They were succeeded by their respective sons, Cambyses I (Kambūjiya, “the elder”) on the throne of Anshan, and Arsames (Aršāma, “He who has heroic power”) on Parsumaš. These kings had only a limited role in the region, which was then dominated by the Medes and Assyrians. The existence of Cyrus and his reign over Anshan is attested by a seal bearing the mention Kurāš of Anšan, son of Teispes. However, an inscription dated 639 mentions the payment of tribute to Assurbanipal by Kurāš of Parsumaš, suggesting that the king of Parsumaš would be the same Cyrus, unifying the two crowns. This element could then synchronize the Persian and Assyrian stories. However, this interpretation is debated, and Parsumash, Parsa and Anshan seem to be distinguished. After the fall of the Assyrian kingdom, the Achaemenids recognized the authority of the Medes. Although Herodotus wrote “it had long been the case that the Persians took ill to be commanded by the Medes”, the origins and modalities of this subjection are still unknown.

Darius I is the first to speak of Achaemenes, whom he presents as the ancestor of Cyrus the Great (which would make him the founder of the line of Achaemenid rulers. However, some scholars argue that Achaemenes is a fictitious character used by Darius usurping the Persian throne to legitimize his power. If we refer to the first rulers, the dynasty of the Achaemenid kings extends from 650 to 330 approximately.

Construction and extension of the Empire

In 559 BC, Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, succeeded his father Cambyses I to the throne of Anshan. Having also succeeded Arsames (during his lifetime) to the crown of Parsumaš, Cyrus thus unified the two Persian kingdoms and was thus considered the first true king of the Achaemenid dynasty, his predecessors still being under the control of the Medes.

Between 553 and 550, a war broke out between the Medes and the Persians at the end of which Cyrus II defeated Astyages, king of the Medes, and seized Ecbatane (Hagmatāna, ” The city of gatherings “, the current Hamadan). He declares on this occasion that the Persians, “formerly slaves of the Medes, have become their masters”. Cyrus leaves the life with Astyage, undertakes to behave like his legitimate successor. According to Ctésias and Xénophon, he marries Amytis, daughter of Astyage. Ecbatane remains one of the regular residences of the Great Kings, because it presents a certain strategic importance for who wants to control Central Asia.

The taking of Media by the Persians is then an important upheaval, on the scale of the Middle East. The fact that Cyrus presents himself as the heir of Astyage leads him to clash with the neighboring powers of Lydia and Babylon. Croesus, king of Lydia, and brother-in-law of Astyages, “worried about the ruin of the empire of Astyages and concerned about the increase in the affairs of the Persians” attacks Cyrus in 547-546. But Persians counter-attack and pursue Croesus until its capital, Sardis, which quickly falls to the hands of Cyrus. Croesus constitutes himself prisoner, then will finally receive a city of Médie whose incomes will make him live.

From 546, Cyrus sets out again from Asia Minor without having subjected the Ionian and Aeolian cities. Indeed, the king undertakes a new campaign, because Babylon, Sacia, Bactria and Egypt are threatening. This period is not well known, but it seems that Cyrus takes Babylon in 539, then subdues the Bactrians and the Saces. It was perhaps at this time that Cyrus conquered Parthia, Drangian, Arie, Chorasmia (see Khwarezm), Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandhara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, and Makran. Darius, at the beginning of his reign, presents indeed these countries as acquired. After the capture of Babylon, Cyrus allows the exiled Judeans to return to Jerusalem, giving instructions to his subjects to facilitate this return. He then conquered Transeuphratene and subdued the Arabs of Mesopotamia. Cyprus surrendered by itself afterwards.

After the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses II conquers Egypt in 527

The revolt is then led by a group of priests having lost their power after the conquest of Media by Cyrus. These priests, whom Herodotus calls magi, usurped the throne in order to place one of their own, Gaumata, who claimed to be the younger brother of Cambyses II, Smerdis (or Bardiya), probably assassinated three years earlier. Because of the despotism of Cambyses and his long absence in Egypt, “the whole people, Persians, Medes, and all the other nations”, recognize this usurper as their king, and this all the more easily that he grants them a tax remission of taxes, for three years.

According to the Behistun inscription, Smerdis reigned for seven months before being overthrown in 522 by a distant member of the Achaemenid family branch, Darius I (from Old Persian Dāryavuš, also known as Darayarahush or Darius the Great). The “magi,” though persecuted, continued to exist. In the year following Gaumata’s death, they attempt to reinstall a second usurper in power, Vahyazdāta, who presents himself as the son of Cyrus. The attempt achieves transitory success and then finally fails.

Darius continues then the expansion of the Empire. It makes execute Oroitès (in), satrape of Sardes, which rebelled about 522-520, then wishes to extend its domination to the islands of the Aegean Sea. It conquers Samos about 520-519, then marches on Europe. It passes the Bosphorus, leaves Greek troops at the mouth of the Danube (cities of the Hellespont and the Propontide) and walks towards Thrace. This one indeed has a great importance for Persians, because the province is rich in strategic products: wood necessary to the naval constructions and precious metals.

Darius Ier then attacks Greece, which had supported the rebellions of the Greek colonies then under his aegis. Because of his defeat at the battle of Marathon in 490, he was forced to restrict the limits of his empire to Asia Minor.

It was during the reign of Darius I, from 518-516, that the royal palaces of Persepolis and Susa were built, which served as capitals for the following generations of Achaemenid kings.

Stabilization of the Empire and unrest at court

After the death of Darius, the Achaemenid Empire kept the domination of territories from the Indus to the Aegean Sea for about two and a half centuries, a longevity that had not been reached by the previous empires (Assyria and Babylon). This reflects the solidity of the political construction put in place by Cyrus II and Darius, which their heirs were able to preserve, an observation that goes against a vision of decadence of the empire after its founders that has long prevailed. However, that did not occur without problems: failures in Greece, revolts of several areas, sometimes carried out by their satraps, whereas the disorders at the head of the State persist.

Xerxes I (Old Persian: Xšayārša, “Hero among kings”) succeeded his father Darius around 486-485. Revolts having broken out in Egypt and Greece, Xerxes began his reign by leading an expedition against Egypt. After a quick reconquest, Xerxes marched on Greece and defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae. Athens is conquered and sacked, the Parthenon is burned. Athenians and Spartans withdrew behind their last lines of defense on the isthmus of Corinth and in the Saronic Gulf.

The first years of the reign of Xerxes are marked by a change of policy towards the conquered peoples. Contrary to his predecessors who respected the sanctuaries of the subjected peoples, Xerxes proceeded to the destruction of temples in Babylonia, Athens, Bactria and Egypt. The titles of Pharaoh and King of Babylonia are abandoned and the provinces reorganized in satrapies. The Egyptians succeeded twice in regaining their independence. According to the study of Manethon, the Egyptian historians make correspond the periods of Achaemenid domination in Egypt with respectively the XXVIIth (525 – 404) and XXXIst dynasties (343-332)

In Artemisia, the battle made indecisive because of a storm destroying the ships of the two camps, stops prematurely with the arrival of the news of the defeat of Thermopyles. The Greeks then decided to retreat. Finally, the battle of Salamine on September 28, 480 is gained by the Athenians. The loss of the maritime communication with Asia forces Xerxes to withdraw to Sardis. The army with which it leaves Greece, placed under the command of Mardonios, undergoes still a defeat at the time of the battle of Platées in 479. A new Persian defeat in Mycale encourages then the Greek cities of Asia Minor to the revolt. These revolts see the foundation of the league of Delos, and the Persian defeats which follow devote these territorial losses in Aegean sea.

Nevertheless, in the fifth century BC, the Achaemenid rulers ruled over territories covering approximately those of the following present-day countries: Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece (eastern part), Egypt, Syria, Pakistan (large part), Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Caucasus, Central Asia, Libya, and Saudi Arabia (northern part). The empire eventually became the largest in the ancient world, with a territory covering approximately 7.5 million km2.

The defeats of Xerxes are omitted in the royal inscriptions. Some Greeks rallied all the same to Xerxes, like Pausanias, commander of the Greek fleet in 478 or Themistocles, the winner of Salamis. What allows the Persian empire to keep a good number of allies in the Greek cities of Asia Minor. At the end of problems of succession, Xerxes, who had not designated a legitimate successor, was assassinated, perhaps by one of his sons.

Artaxerxes I, one of the sons of Xerxes, ascended the throne in 465. Just after he took power, he faced a revolt in Bactria, which he overcame. Artaxerxes modified the etiquette of the court and redefined its hierarchy, which seems to mark the redefinition of the relationship between the Great King and the aristocracy. He continues the works at Persepolis, between 464, and the role of the Persian capital seems to change: it is less frequently occupied, to the benefit of Susa and Babylon. Hypotheses suggesting a change in the role of Persepolis, which then became “a sanctuary rather than a city”, remain uncertain. After Bactria, it is Egypt which rises against the authority of the Great Achaemenid king. Diodorus reports that the news of the assassination of Xerxes and the disorders which follow push the Egyptians to chase out the Persian tribute-holders and to bring a certain Inaros to the royal power (463-462). Inaros proposes an alliance to the Greeks, who accept it and send a fleet towards the Nile. The alliance between Greeks and Egyptians lasts six years (460-454). In 454, the Persian army and fleet freed the Persians entrenched and besieged in Memphis. Inscriptions engraved in Egypt at this time suggest that only the region of the Nile Delta had risen. The revolts of this period are revealing gaps in the territorial domination of the Persians. In the years 450, the fights start again between Athens and Persia. The known documentation of the time does not allow us to know the Persian territorial evolutions in Asia Minor: only the lists of the Attic and Persian tributes make it possible to know that the positions in this area could have evolved from one year to another.

Artaxerxes I dies in Susa, his body is brought back to Persepolis to be buried near the tombs of his ancestors. His eldest son, Xerxes II, the only legitimate son of Artaxerxes, succeeded him immediately, but was assassinated by one of his half-brothers, Sogdianos, forty-five days later. Ochos, another half-brother of Xerxes, then in Babylon, gathers his supports and marches on Persia. He puts the assassin to death and is crowned King of Kings under the name of Darius II in 423. The course of this succession poses again a problem, Ochos and Sogdianos having certainly carried out each one a campaign of propaganda aiming at receiving the support of the Persian people and thus to show the legitimacy of their accession to the throne.

From the reign of Darius II, the documents found are rather rare and inform only on the situation of the western marches of the empire, where the hostilities between the Greek cities and Persians continue. Between 411 and 407, the Athenians reconquered a part of Asia Minor, helped in that by the disordered and competing initiatives of the satraps controlling these areas.

Darius II died in 405-404. Like that of other previous great kings, his succession once again provoked opposition between two of his sons, Arsès and Cyrus. It is Arsès, the elder, who mounts on the throne under the name of Artaxerxès II in 404. Cyrus disputes the power to him and a war follows between 404 and 401. Cyrus raises an army, leaning mainly on Persians of Asia Minor, but also on Greek mercenaries (the “Ten Thousand”). The two brothers clashed at Counaxa, in Mesopotamia, in 401. Cyrus killed during this battle, Artaxerxes II starts immediately a process of relegitimization of its royal capacity. Egypt takes advantage of these disorders to revolt and to withdraw from the Persian domination under the control of Amyrteus.

The satrapies and the cities of Asia Minor which had ranged on the side of Cyrus are entrusted to Tissapherne so that it gives in order the area. Artaxerxes II indeed intends to take again the control of the Aegean littoral. Those which refuse to be subjected turn towards the Greeks, and more particularly Sparta, to help them. Agesilaus II leads the Spartan military campaign in Asia Minor, without great success. He is recalled to Sparta because other Greek cities, of which Athens, threaten the city. Persians are found thereafter caught between the fights of Athenians and Lacedemonians which take place in Asia Minor towards 396. Artaxerxes II must then fight the attacks and alliances of Evagoras of Salamis in Cyprus and in Egypt, between 391 and 387. Exhausted by the continuous wars, the Greek cities aspire to peace. In 386, Artaxerxes II imposes his peace (also known as “Peace of Antalcidas”) to the Greek cities, which accept it all except Thebes. The King needs to release his armies to deal with Egypt, which also entered in rebellion. Around 381-380, the Persians would have suffered a defeat against the Egyptians, who succeeded in taking back their independence. Following this defeat, the Achaemenid armies left Egypt without succeeding in regaining control of the country. The peace of 386 with the Greeks is confirmed twice, in 375 then in 371.

Shortly after, between 366 and 358, the empire knows disorders: satraps rebel in Cappadocia, in Caria, in Lycia, the Egyptians carry out an offensive against Persians. The revolts of Asia Minor will have hardly consequences. Combined with the failure in Egypt, these events seem to show a certain instability of the imperial power and its incapacity to come to an end of the movements of revolt.

It is during the reign of Artaxerxes II that Anahita and Mithra begin to be worshipped, whereas the previous Persian kings only cited Ahura Mazda in their inscriptions. Historians still wonder if this is a real novelty introduced by Xerxes or if the practice already existed before.

The last years of Artaxerxes were filled with plots. The king had three legitimate sons, Darius (the eldest), Ariaspes and Ochos, and many bastards from his concubines. According to Plutarch, the king designated Darius as his heir. Darius foments a plot against his father, is discovered, tried and put to death. Ochos, by maneuvers, destabilizes his brother Ariaspes, who commits suicide. He then suppresses another of his half-brothers, Arsamès. It is in this context that king Artaxerxes II dies of old age in 359

Fall of the empire

Ochos goes up on the throne under the name of Artaxerxes III (358-338). From the beginning of his reign, Artaxerxes III must face disorders: fights oppose the allies of Athens to Persians in Asia Minor, revolts take place in Phoenicia and in Cyprus between 351 and 345. The Persian army also undergoes a new failure in Egypt in 351. In 343 Artaxerxes III beat Nectanebo II and reconquered Egypt, which once again became a Persian satrapy. In Greece, the kingdom of Macedonia starts to face the Persian empire on its western front. In 338, Philip II unifies certain Greek States within the League of Corinth, the others which oppose Philip II counting on the assistance of the Large King. The exact relations are little known, but Briant says that “the court was informed of the operations of Philip II”. In this same year 338, Artaxerxes III is poisoned by his minister, the Egyptian eunuch Bagoas.

Arsès succeeded Artaxerxès III under the name of Artaxerxès IV, and was also poisoned by Bagoas two years later. Bagoas would have killed not only all the children of Arsès, but also several other local princes, undoubtedly satraps. Bagoas then places on the throne Darius III (336 – 330), a cousin of Artaxerxes III. For the Macedonians, Bagoas would have carried one of his friends slaves to the power under the name of Darius III. For the Persians, Darius was brought to power because he showed exceptional courage during a singular duel against the Cadusians. The accession to the throne of Darius III is surrounded of violence, and uncertainties remain on the conditions of access to the throne. Briant reports that Darius III was a member of the “royal stock”, presented like an elite warrior and supported by a great part of the aristocracy and the army.

Darius III, although previously satrap of Armenia, has no imperial experience. Nevertheless, he proves his courage in the first year of his reign as emperor by personally forcing Bagoas to swallow a poison. In 334, whereas Darius has just succeeded in resubmitting Egypt, Alexander attacks in Asia Minor. In response to the Macedonian aggression, the satraps of the west are mobilized and come to meet the invader. Darius III and several of his satraps call upon Greek mercenaries to reinforce his armies. It remains many questions on the role of the Greek mercenaries in the decadence of the Persian military power according to the accounts of the various sources. The Persian army then undergoes a first defeat with Granique vis-a-vis the Macédonian troops hardened with the battle. The defeats at the battles of Issos (333), Gaugamèles and Babylon (331) follow. The populations conquered by the Macedonians appear rather relieved of the release of the Persian yoke according to various authors. Pushing always further, Alexander marches then on Susa which capitulates and gives back a vast treasure. The conqueror moves then eastward in direction of Persepolis which gives up at the beginning of 330. Darius then finds refuge in Ecbatane and gathers an army around him. From Persepolis, Alexander then went to Pasargadae a little further north, where he treated with respect the tomb of Cyrus II. He then moves towards Ecbatane. On the way, satraps of Darius III surrender to Alexander in front of the unfavourable balance of power. At the time of the escape of Darius III, the satraps closest to the king seem to have organized a plot around his person. Darius III is assassinated by several of his satraps, which return to Alexander or return in their province to be made king. On Alexander’s orders, the body of the sovereign is honored and taken to Persepolis for burial.

The fall of the Achaemenid Empire to the armies led by Alexander has often been explained by the fact that he would be a “colossus with feet of clay”, thus an ideal prey, another common approach among Alexander specialists being not to really bother to study his opponent. More recently, the capabilities of the Persian army and its king, Darius III, generally depreciated because of their defeats, have been reassessed. The documentation from several regions of the empire seems in any case to indicate that the imperial administration was functioning as before in the years preceding the conflict, and that Achaemenid domination does not seem to have been weakened. Members of the Persian administration are moreover integrated into that of Alexander, thus participating in the transition and the continuity between the two dominations.

The Achaemenid Empire ended with the death of Darius III. After the conquest and the reign of Alexander, the era of the Seleucids begins, a dynasty born from one of the generals of Alexander the Great, which will succeed that of the Achaemenids.

The Achaemenid imperial structure revolves around the King of kings, who is the symbolic center of the empire, wherever he is. From a geographical point of view, it can be determined that the center of the empire is in Persia (the current province of Fars), the region of origin of the dynasty, where it is embodied in several palatial sites. The monuments found there are the places of expression of the royal power, but their exact function remains undetermined and they do not seem to exert a strong power of attraction on the rest of the empire. In order to dominate a vast territory from this initially not very prosperous region, the Persian kings relied on an administration and an army led by their relatives, the members of the Persian aristocracy who formed, according to the expression of P. Briant, a “dominant ethno-class”, welded together notably by belonging to tribes and clans linked to each other and the practice of a common language and religion that they never tried to extend to the peoples they dominated.

The “King of Kings

The king occupies the central place in the Persian empire, both in its administration and symbolically. According to the consecrated title, he is the “King of kings”, xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām. The inscriptions of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rostam and Behistun synthesize well the conception of royal power, its foundations and its insertion in the cosmic order. According to the texts of the second site, the king is like other men a creation of the great god Ahura Mazda, but he is different because the latter has endowed him with remarkable qualities. He is king thanks to the god who placed him at the head of the peoples of the earth with the mission to lead them in a just way and to ensure the setting in order of the world by fighting the bad ones and the lie (according to a dualistic principle). He is therefore the intermediary between Ahura Mazda and men to achieve the triumph of good over evil, as is evident from the bas-reliefs of Behistun in which rebels are seen as manifestations of falsehood and are punished by the king himself, for it is his responsibility to accomplish justice. To fulfill this role he has been endowed by the god with superior intelligence and infallible judgment. In addition to that he is an accomplished warrior, able to handle the bow, the spear, to ride a horse. The fighting qualities of the kings are often shown in the representations of these characters on seals or coins, illustrating him in a victorious position in hunting or in war. The king’s link with the divine world is also found in his priestly function, since he had to perform sacrifices at regular intervals in Persia, intended above all for Iranian deities.

In a more prosaic way, the Persian king ascends to the throne by the principle of dynastic succession, also well anchored in the titulary and in particular the notion of dynasty of the Achaemenids, the descendants of Achaemenes, which is undoubtedly put in place at the time of Darius I in order to be linked to the family of Cyrus II, a link reinforced by his union with the daughter of the latter, Atossa. The dynastic principle is respected thereafter, even the presence of many potential heirs to the throne because of dynastic disorders. More broadly, the power of the king also relies on its links with the Persian nobility, the “dominant ethno-class” which ensures the government of the most important positions of the empire and which is often united by matrimonial ties to the royal family. All the power of the latter emanates from the king, who assigns them their functions, but who must also deal with the most powerful and influential of them. Outside Iranian circles, the king ensures the loyalty of his provinces by a mixture of constraints (notably the fear of reprisals) and an adaptation to local traditions, as can be seen in Babylonia or Egypt, where the king takes on many aspects of the ancient native rulers in his inscriptions and representations. The bas-reliefs of the delegations of tribute-bearers from Persepolis emphasize the link between the king and his subjects: he is the “King of the peoples,” xšāyaθiya dahyūnām.

The places of royal power

The power controlling the empire is where the king is, with his entourage. Concretely, the Persian kings took over the habit of the kings who had preceded them to reside in palatial complexes, with the particularity that they had several in which they resided periodically, and that they could move throughout their empire if necessary. The Greek authors report that the Achaemenid kings moved their capital according to the season: in winter, the kings were in Susa, in summer in Ecbatane, in autumn in Persepolis and the rest of the year in Babylon. It should be noted, however, that apart from Babylon, there is currently no indication that these “capitals” were important agglomerations, since archaeological excavations and surveys have only identified royal and provincial palatial sites in Achaemenid Iran and no “city”. It is then necessary to consider temporary cities, made up of tents or other forms of short-lived installations during periods of residence of the court, and depopulated the rest of the time. This raises the question of their exact function, which is still uncertain and debated, especially for Persepolis, in which some see above all a ceremonial center.

The original capital of the dynasty may have been Anzan (Tell-e Malyan in Fars), an old Elamite city claimed by the early Persian kings. But there are no notable traces of occupation from their time, and it may be that the site was never a Persian capital but that the presence of the name of the city in the titulature of the first kings is mainly explained by its ancient and prestigious status. At the time of Cyrus II, the Mede capital Ecbatane (present-day Hamadan) became another capital after his conquest, but the Persian period levels were not cleared there. Babylon took on the same role after its conquest, and Achaemenid-period developments have been identified in its “Southern Palace,” whose known levels are mostly attributed to the Babylonian Empire period, although much of it may have been built by the Achaemenids (notably Darius I). Cyrus establishes the first proper Persian capital in Fars, Pasargadae, a vast palatial complex integrated in gardens, reminiscent of an encampment, reminiscent of the nomadic tradition of Persian kings. Other constructions were carried out on this site by subsequent kings, who seem to have made this site their coronation place. Susa, another old Elamite capital, became the capital of the empire probably from the time of Darius I who erected on its acropolis a vast royal palace shortly after his enthronement, and later Artaxerxes II erected another palace on the same site but below on the banks of the Chaur. Darius also built another large royal palace on the same model in Persepolis, the “City of the Persians”, also in Fars. Xerxes I continued the construction of the latter site, which was the largest architectural complex built by the Achaemenid dynasty, and was the best symbol of their power. The two great palaces of Susa and Persepolis, erected on vast terraces, are dominated by a building called by archaeologists apadana, a square-shaped building consisting of a vast hypostyle hall and porticoes outside, probably serving as a reception hall or for important gatherings. These are the most characteristic forms of Achaemenid palatial architecture, found at several palatial sites in the empire. They adjoined residential and administrative buildings organized around central courtyards following the Mesopotamian model. The important treasures must have been located there even if it is not easy to identify them.

The other places symbolizing royal power in the center of the empire are the royal tombs. Cyrus erected his on the site of Pasargadae in a garden in the form of a building built on a pedestal, while his successors opted for the form of rock tombs, located first at Naqsh-e Rostam, an old Elamite rock shrine, following Darius I, and then in the vicinity of Persepolis.

The expression of power in the capitals of Persia

The Achaemenid art is an art of dignification, serving at the scale of the empire to glorify the reigning dynasty. The extension of the Achaemenid empire allows a development of the art to its measure. The apogee of Achaemenid art culminates at the time when the Persian power is also at its peak, in particular thanks to the tributes collected in all the empire. This is reflected in the royal sites of southwestern Iran where the most important traces of Achaemenid power constructions have been uncovered.

It was Cyrus who first used architecture and town planning to express the cultural diversity of the empire and to assert the strength of the central power. Pasargadae was designed by the king and his advisors, and the work was carried out by Lydian and Mesopotamian craftsmen, whose presence is attested by tablets. Stylistic borrowings from the Anatolian, Assyrian-Babylonian and even Phoenician and Egyptian regions are numerous in Pasargadae. The result, however, is not a juxtaposition of heterogeneous styles but a new ensemble that is part of an imperial and dynastic program. Pasargadae thus marks a first step in the development of the Persian architectural and urbanistic style: situated in a plain within a vast irrigated park and dominated by a fortress, its structure covers about 10 hectares and is organized according to an orthogonal but not yet symmetrical plan. Square pavilions adorned with colonnades on the façade form the accesses to the different areas of the complex which also includes two asymmetrical hypostyle palaces. One is flanked laterally by two large porticoes of unequal length and is thus “H”-shaped; the other, a true stylistic sketch, announces the future apadanas of Susa and Persepolis. Its asymmetrical wings as well as the presence of lateral recesses are indicative of still unfinished architectural research and trial and error. In order to mark his accession to power, and to ensure his legitimacy to the throne, Darius the Great launched thereafter a gigantic program of construction, transformation and embellishment in Pasargadae, then especially in Susa and Persepolis. He also carried out works in Babylon and Ecbatane. The inscriptions and the foundation deposits clearly indicate that Darius wanted to show the image of his sovereign and unlimited power. This monumental program will then be taken up by his successors: Persepolis thus remains under construction until the fall of the Persian empire. The Achaemenid architectural style was then at its peak. The plan of Persepolis is thus rationalized and balanced: the square plan is systematized, the hypostyle spaces are generalized. The columns are strictly arranged, including in the annexes of the palaces. Another major innovation : the transitions from the porticoes to the lateral sides are assured by corner towers on the apadana. Large doors and different passages distribute the circulation towards the major buildings.

One of the characteristics of Achaemenid Persia is therefore the erection of monumental palatial constructions from the reign of Cyrus the Great, in total rupture with the absence of such constructions during the previous periods. In fact, the Persians did not originally possess their own architectural baggage: they were indeed a semi-nomadic people of pastoralists and horsemen. They therefore called upon the know-how of workers, craftsmen and architects from all the nations of the empire, integrating these influences and rapidly proposing an original art whose style is marked by the combination of elements from the subjugated civilizations. It is not a question of hybridization, but rather of a fusion of styles that create a new one. Persian architecture is utilitarian, ritual, and emblematic. Present in the Middle East before the Persians, the principle of internal spaces created by wooden supports and ceilings evolves, the hypostyle hall becomes the central element of the palace. The contribution of Greek techniques allows Persian architecture to achieve different constructions where space has different functions: the clearing of vast spaces by means of high and thin columns constitutes an architectural revolution specific to Persia. The hypostyle halls are intended for crowds and not only for priests as in Greece or Egypt. Because of the inclusion of Ionia in the satrapies of the empire, the Achaemenid Persian architecture is marked by a Greek-Ionian influence, visible in the hypostyle halls and the porticoes of the palaces of Persepolis. Lydian and Ionian architects were hired on the building sites of Pasargadae, then later on those of Persepolis and Susa. They carried out elements of it, and one thus finds graffiti in Greek in the careers close to Persepolis, mentioning the names of chief carriers. The participation of Greeks in the erection of columns and the decoration of palaces in Persia is also mentioned by the charter of Susa, as well as by Pliny the Elder. The Achaemenid palaces also bear the marks of Mesopotamian influences (in particular in the palatine formula associating two palaces, one for the public audience and the other for the private audience), and more specifically Babylonian (enamelled and polychrome reliefs) and Assyrian (orthostats adorned with bas-reliefs, winged bull-men of the doors), also Egyptian (grooves of the cornices overhanging the doors, porticoes). All the Achaemenid palaces had systematically walls in raw brick, which may seem surprising in a region where building stone is available in quantity. This is in fact a common feature of all Middle Eastern peoples, who reserved stone walls for temples and walls. No wall of Persepolis has survived, the only elements still standing are the doorframes and the stone columns.

The craftsmen who worked on these sites had to follow to the letter the instructions given by the king’s advisors. The borrowings from the previous arts of the region are then merged into a royal art that follows a precise program: to show the omnipotence of the Great King and his ability to ensure the unity of the world under the protection of Ahura Mazda and to mobilize the peoples of the world despite their diversity. This can be seen concretely in the foundation inscriptions found in the Persian palaces which aim to bring this message to those who visit them and especially to posterity, such as the inscription of Darius I found on a building in Susa saying that all the vassal peoples brought their labor force or their materials for the construction of the palace. This message is also conveyed by the representations of the delegations of the gift-bearers of the Persepolis empire bringing each of the characteristic products of their countries, or on the tomb of Darius at Naqsh-e Rostam on the facade of which the peoples of the empire are represented carrying the upper register where the king pays homage to his great god who overlooks the scene.

Several of these scenes probably refer to ceremonies that took place in palatial sites. These had an obvious ceremonial function, allowing the royal power to assert itself symbolically, notably in its link with the gods during sacrifices or other acts of worship. It remains to be determined whether the representations of the offering bearers of the Persepolis apadana symbolize a ritual of homage that really took place, perhaps during the New Year (Nowrouz, in March) according to a principle that can be found in Iranian and Indian texts dating from after the empire, and which would symbolize the link between the king and his peoples. This once again raises the question of whether the ritual function is the primary reason for the existence of this site.

The art forms of the royal palaces

The artistic material of the Persian royal sites is rather limited in quantity, but it suffices to illustrate the essential characteristics of the aulic art of this period, symbolizing the power of the empire and synthesizing influences brought to its center by craftsmen coming from various regions. It is represented above all by the sculptures in bas-reliefs of the palatial buildings, the enamelled bricks that adorned others, and the precious metal tableware.

The best known and most widespread form of Achaemenid sculpture is the bas-relief, especially in Persepolis, where bas-reliefs systematically decorate the stairways, the sides of the palace platforms and the interior of the bays. It is also assumed that they were used in the decoration of hypostyle halls. One can see Egyptian and Assyrian inspirations, even Greek for the finesse of the execution. Most of the stereotypes of ancient oriental representations are present: all the characters are represented in profile; if perspective is sometimes present, the different planes are generally rendered one under the other; the proportions between the characters, the animals and the trees are not respected; the principle of isocephaly is strictly applied, including on the different steps of the stairs. The subjects represented are parades of representatives of the peoples of the empire, Persian nobles and guards, audience scenes, royal representations and fights between a royal hero and real or imaginary animals. These bas-reliefs are remarkable for their quality of execution, each detail is rendered with great finesse.

Very few Achaemenid sculptures in the round are known; that of Darius, found in Susa, is the best known (for example, Plutarch mentions that in Persepolis there was a large statue of Xerxes I.

However, many decorative elements can be considered as ronde-bosse. It is mostly used for representations of real or mythological animals, often included as architectural elements in doors and capitals. It is mainly bulls that are represented as guardians of the doors, as well as in the portico of the Hall of the Hundred Columns. The column capitals end with impostors of animal prototypes: bulls, lions, griffins… The animals are very stylized, without any variation. Some statues entirely in the round have also been found, such as one representing a dog, which decorated a corner tower of the Apadana.

Unlike Persepolis, the palaces of Susa do not have low reliefs carved in stone. The decoration is ensured by enamelled brick sets creating vast polychrome ceramic panels of Mesopotamian inspiration. Animal figures (lions, bulls, griffins) and representations of Melophores like those of the Persepolitan reliefs are declined there. Polychromy thus plays a considerable role in Achaemenid representative art, transfiguring the characters and figures represented, giving the palaces a colorful glow.

Notwithstanding the discovery of polychrome ceramics from Susa, the use of colored paintings in Persepolis has often been underestimated due to the numerous alterations that pigments undergo over time. The evidence of multiple colors on numerous pieces from most Persepolitan palaces and buildings attests to the richness and ubiquity of polychrome paintings in Persepolis. This is not only evidence based on pigment traces persisting on objects, but consistent evidence such as agglomerates of paints forming lumps, of colors having set in mass in bowls found in multiple locations of the site. These colors were used not only on architectural elements (walls, reliefs, columns, doors, floors, stairs, statues), but also on fabrics and other decorations. Glazed bricks, floor coverings in red ochre or green-grey gypsum, painted columns and other hangings adorned the interiors and exteriors of palaces. The wide range of colors found gives an idea of the polychromic richness present at the time: black (asphalt), red (opaque red glass, vermilion, hematite of red ochre), green, Egyptian blue, white, yellow (ochre or gold). The use of vegetable pigments is mentioned, but is not demonstrated to date.

Goldsmithing was a crucial area of tribute imposed on the subjugated nations by the Persian rulers. The reliefs of the tributaries as well as the tablets of Persepolis highlight the importance of the drainage of works of art by the Persians through all their possessions.

The numerous discoveries of precious metal tableware (gold, electrum, silver) dating from the Achaemenid period testify to the importance of a ceremonial art in the service of sumptuous banquets during cultic festivals. Direct heirs to the metallurgical art of Marlik or Greek goldsmiths, gold and silver rhytons are remarkable for their aesthetic maturity and technological perfection. In the same way, silver amphorae, cups, and dishes with gadroons, vases, jewels (see the Oxus treasure), ornaments, ceremonial weapons, mix classicism and syncretism. Like other Persian artistic domains, goldsmithing thus integrates multiple influences and know-how coming from all over the empire, which it combines in a new royal Persian style that is both clean and original.

If the work of gold was already developed in the territory corresponding to the Persian Empire in Hasanlu, in Amlach, or in Urartu, the similarity between certain pieces of Achaemenid goldsmithery and others coming from Marlik is such that they seem to come from the same workshops, even though they were sometimes made several decades or even centuries apart. Certain stylistic and thematic analogies are found in Anatolia, Greece, Persia, and as far as Thrace, and testify to the importance of the diffusion of style throughout the empire, notably through Scythian tribal migrations.

Life at the Royal Court

The royal court seems to be the place par excellence of power in the Achaemenid empire: it is there that the king lives, with his family and his familiars. It is also where the nobles must reside, where administrative and strategic decisions are taken, and where satraps are summoned or received. However, the documents concerning the life of the court are rare and unevenly distributed.

The Achaemenid king moved periodically between the different royal residences (Persepolis, Susa, Ecbatane, etc.), accompanied by the court and its various services. During the journeys, the sovereign lodges in a very luxurious tent set up in the middle of the camp and provided with distinctive signs. Life at the royal court seems to be governed by very strict rules of aulic etiquette. The King is surrounded by high court officers, in charge of various affairs (Royal Treasury, Chancellery), and who report directly to him. A large staff was also in charge of the service of the audiences. Indeed, the solicitors and supplicants come to the king’s door. These visitors pass their messages to guards or message carriers, and are received before the king only when summoned.

The king usually ate alone, for security reasons. During the banquets, the place of the guests is carefully chosen, at the same time to testify the favours of the king and to ensure his safety. The Greek authors are all struck by the luxury and the apparatuses of the court banquets. The king’s food is transported separately, like that of the Immortals. Poisonings are common within the court; the king takes everywhere with him water of Choaspes, the river which flows in Susa. The water is boiled and carried in silver vessels. Similarly, the function of cupbearer is very important at court; the king drinks a wine reserved for him, and the cupbearer also acts as a taster.

These measures not only serve to underline the special place of the king, they also seem to be intended to preserve his health. Physicians therefore also held an important place in the royal entourage. Close to the king like the cupbearers, it is easy for them to poison the monarch. These functions were therefore intended for people who could be trusted. The royal physicians were mainly Greek and Egyptian.

Among the court staff were also the eunuchs, divided into two categories: those who were part of the close entourage of the king, and the others, servants. The service of the king and the royal princesses required a large number of eunuchs. Their role was to look after the king’s and princesses’ chambers. They were usually from subjugated countries, and their status was close to that of slaves, although their intimacy with the king gave them a special status.

From many ancient authors we learn that the King, and others, practiced polygamy and had many concubines. The royal princesses, and all women in general, had their own apartments. Concubines reside in a “women’s house” after spending a night with the Great King, and stay with him. The royal princesses had greater autonomy and travelled, as the Persepolis tablets attest. They also managed their lands, their servants and even their workshops.

Hunting is surely the favorite leisure activity of kings. Indeed, it has the advantage of being a very good physical preparation for the young nobleman, and an event during which he can show his courage, his skill and his power (the first trait is reserved for him). Hunting is practiced in the “paradises” (pairidaeza), fenced parks of great extent: the word meaning indeed “having a fence on all sides”. These gardens are both places of relaxation and pleasure, laid out by horticulturists, and huge hunting reserves. The hunting techniques were varied: on foot, on horseback, in a chariot; using the sword, the bow, the javelin, or the net.

The Persian aristocracy

The structure of the Persian empire rests on men related to the king, belonging to the families of the Persian aristocracy, the “dominant ethno-class”. These people are identified by their “people”, dahyu, a term that can also be translated as “tribe”; they are the Persians, but also their “cousins” the Medes with whom the Greeks often confuse them. Then come the clan (zara), like that of the “Achaemenids” (descendants of a distant common ancestor), then the family (in the broad sense) or house (viθ), which we find in the mention of the father and grandfather of the character, thus of the direct ancestors. Persian society is very hierarchical, organized around aristocratic families each headed by a head of household, the king being the head of all. The men of these families occupied the highest positions in the administration of the royal court, the satrapies and the army. They are in fact the first beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the empire, because they control its flow and benefit first from the kings’ largesse, even if this position can be precarious. These characters are linked by ancestral blood ties reinforced by matrimonial alliances, forming a large “household” presiding over the destiny of the empire. The most powerful, notably the king and the princes, form personal relationships with other aristocrats who become their bandaka, a complex term to translate implying submission and loyalty and ruthless repression in case of treason. At the top of the empire, the relationship between the king and the elites was therefore complex, based on the integration of the great families into the royal hierarchy and the capture of the profits from the empire in exchange for their loyalty, and also on a common culture (based in particular on language, religion and aristocratic education) which no attempt was ever made to extend to other peoples. This system proved to be durable and therefore solid, despite several shocks.

Several written sources provide information on the education of young Persian aristocrats, which provides them with the cultural baggage of the “dominant ethno-class”. Even though education was in principle open to all Persians, the children of the working classes remained outside this system, which was reserved for the elite. The best families even sent their sons to be educated at the royal court to prepare them as well as possible to exercise the high administrative and military functions, thus to become loyal servants of the king. According to the known texts, it seems that the education of the young Achaemenid nobles begins at the age of five, and lasts from ten to twenty years according to the sources. Strabo says that the young people practise gymnastics, are trained in hunting with the bow, the lance and the sling, and learn to plant trees, to gather plants and to make clothing and nets. Xenophon points out that their education also includes a part designed to develop their sense of justice, obedience, stamina and self-control, with Herodotus pointing out that they learn to “speak the truth”.

Scriptures and languages of the Persian kings

Several types of written sources from the Achaemenid period have been uncovered in the central part of the empire. The royal inscriptions in cuneiform are those that have been known for the longest time. Many of them are presented in a trilingual form: Old Persian, Akkadian (Babylonian) and Elamite. They served as the basis for the deciphering of cuneiform scripts in the nineteenth century, occupying a special place in the history of Assyriology, even if they were soon relegated to the background following the discovery of more abundant sources in this script in other regions of the Middle East. They often relate acts of construction by the king, sometimes military victories, and are inscribed on stone, sometimes metal, durable materials capable of conveying the glory of the ruler to future generations, following a tradition directly taken from the Mesopotamian and Elamite kingdoms. Texts of the practice have been unearthed in Susa and especially Persepolis, mostly administrative acts written in Elamite, sometimes in Akkadian, Aramaic and even in Old Persian in one case. They were written on clay tablets, a material quite resistant to the ravages of time even if it is not used to be preserved for a long time.

Old Persian cuneiform is a writing system that is above all phonetic, with about thirty syllabic signs and three pure vowels (a, e, i) but with eight logograms (signs that have the value of a word, such as “country”, “king”, “god”). It was probably developed for the inscriptions of Darius I, and its use outside Persia was very limited (in trilingual or even quadrilingual inscriptions found in Egypt or Anatolia for example). The language in which it is written is of the Iranian type, inspired by that spoken by the Persians of the time but including words coming from the languages of other Iranian peoples, notably the Medes, the languages spoken by the elites ruling the empire. It must therefore be considered as a construction for the purpose of royal inscriptions, in the same way as the scripture that reports it.

By adopting the cuneiform system for inscriptions in Old Persian, the Achaemenid chancellery placed itself in the filiation of the previous kingdoms. It did so even more by directly adopting their monumental writing forms. This reflects the habit of the Persians to take over the writings already used before them in the regions they dominated by employing local scribes, and not to impose their form of language and writing. Babylonian, a Semitic language which is a dialect of Akkadian, is as its name indicates the language of the inscriptions of the Babylonian kings and the literary and administrative texts of Babylonia, which was also used in Elam. It was written in the most common form of cuneiform writing, combining dozens of syllabic signs and others with logographic value. The Elamite language was the linguistic isolate used by the people who preceded the Persians in southwestern Iran. It was also noted by the cuneiform writing, and was used by the Persian administration, in addition to the royal inscriptions, for the writing of accounting tablets in the Iranian territories (as attested in Persepolis and also in Kandahar). In the Egyptian context, royal inscriptions also appear in hieroglyphics.

The most widespread language in the administration of the empire, which was not one of those used for monumental inscriptions, was Aramaic in its so-called “imperial” form. It was another Semitic language, written in an alphabet and generally written on parchment or papyrus, perishable materials which could not be preserved except in the case of the archives of Elephantine. It was already the most widespread script and the most widely spoken language (in various dialectal forms that did not necessarily correspond to those written) during the last period of the Assyrian Empire and under the Babylonian Empire, which the Persian kings took over and probably helped to spread even more because of its vehicular character. It was used in particular for administrative acts, but also to broadcast official proclamations to a wide audience.

The religion of the Persian kings and Persia

The religion of the populations of Persia in the Achaemenid period is known above all by documents coming from the royal power and the Persian elites. The official inscriptions of the kings in the first place. As far as beliefs are concerned, they indicate that the great god of the Persians is Ahura Mazda (the “Lord-Wisdom”), who remains the great god of the Iranians until the Islamic conquest. According to the inscriptions of Darius, he “created the earth, the sky, the man, the happiness for the man”: he is a creative god. He is especially mentioned as the sovereign deity, the one who created the king, endowed him with qualities surpassing those of other men and then granted him victory and placed him at the head of his empire. This form of religion is a henotheism, since other gods exist, but of a lower rank. The inscriptions of Darius invoke “other gods that exist”, without further details, those of Artaxerxes II or III show that this king has raised the rank of Anahita and Mithra, two other major Iranian deities. The Persepolis tablets indicate that the royal palace provided in the heart of Persia for the worship of various deities, some of which could be identified as Iranian (Naryasanga, perhaps Zurvan) and others are Elamite deities that continue to be worshipped in the same places where they were worshipped for several centuries before the arrival of the Persians (Humban, Napirisha).

The question of whether or not the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians is very controversial. On the one hand, their supreme god is indeed Ahura Mazda and the name of the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) did reach the contemporary Greek authors. But on the other hand, he does not appear in the known Persian sources (but why would he be there?), as well as the Amesha Spenta (hypostases of Ahura Mazda) or the sacred Zoroastrian texts (the Avesta and especially the Gathas), and several acts of worship known to the Persian kings are not in agreement with the reforms attributed to Zarathustra, in particular at the time of the funerals (the kings are buried whereas that is proscribed by the Zoroastrianism) Concepts present in Zoroastrianism appear in royal inscriptions, such as the opposition “truth” (hašiya)

The cult as it is known is placed under the patronage of the Persian kings, who themselves perform rituals. The “clergy” appears especially in the texts of Persepolis, but also in Greek texts. The “Magi” (maguš) seem to be the priests of the Iranian gods par excellence, perhaps constituting a priestly tribe (of Mede origin if one follows Herodotus), charged with performing sacrifices and even oniromancy. Priests of the ancient Elamite religion (šatin) are mentioned in the Persepolis texts, apparently collaborating with the priests of the Persian religion, the border between the two apparently not being clear as a result of a process of fusion or even acculturation between the two ethnic groups. Other priests are designated according to their ritual function: the lan-lirira is “the one who performs the lan-ceremony”, a ritual whose nature is debated; the atravaša would be “the one who guards the fire”, which would indicate the practice of a cult of Fire in the purest Iranian tradition, which also seems to be represented by several seals. But here again, nothing is certain because the use of fire in a ritual does not mean that it is worshipped. The rituals are in any case accompanied by offerings whose deliveries are recorded in the Persepolitan tablets: small livestock, cereals, fruit, wine, beer. The places of worship are badly known. Herodotus says that the Persians did not have temples, and it should therefore be considered that they did not build them until Artaxerxes (II or III) who mentions them in his inscriptions. The archives of Persepolis indicate the presence of many places of worship, some of which are undoubtedly temples (linked rather to the Elamite religion?). Archaeology has not been able to locate any temples, just probable open-air cult spaces with altars as at Pasargadae (two stone bases, one of which bears a burner).

The Achaemenid Persian Empire was a hierarchical multinational state that controlled most of its territories well, thanks to an administration in the hands of the “dominant ethno-class” that controlled local institutions and resources. The old territorial divisions served as a basis for the new administrative division, the most striking innovation of which was the constitution of vast provinces, the satrapies, whose governors (a satrap) were responsible for maintaining order and collecting tribute. It is thus above all a question of ensuring the security of the empire and its development while taking into account the constraint of its immensity and the diversity of its populations. This was done by various means: fiscal and communication systems, an army, agricultural development projects, and sometimes the establishment of a monetary system.

Satrapies and provincial administration

The extension of the Achaemenid empire posed a problem of territorial division. The political entities preceding the conquests of Cyrus and his successors already had administrative frameworks that could be integrated into the Persian administration, but their geographical extension was diverse and in general too small compared to the new empire. It was therefore necessary to constitute territorial units between the already existing echelons and that of the empire directed by the king and his court: these were the vast provinces that the Greeks called “satrapies”, from the old Persian xšaçapāvan, a term designating the satrap. This echelon, set up from the reigns of Cyrus II and Cambyses II, was an essential element of the cohesion of the empire, which sometimes took over the limits of conquered kingdoms (that of Babylon at the beginning and that of Egypt) and in most cases was created ex nihilo. This is integrated into a strategy aiming at establishing domination on an ideology calling for collaboration with local power structures. The conquerors thus seek to appear to be protecting traditions and sanctuaries rather than disrupting them. The local elites are thus associated with the smooth running of the new empire.

The satrapies, of which there were about twenty from the reign of Darius I onwards, were governed by the satraps, appointed by the king for an unlimited period. As their title indicates, the satraps were “protectors of the kingdom” and not tributary kings. However, they are directly responsible to the king by representing him in the provinces. Their attributions are vast. They were primarily responsible for maintaining order in their provinces, having an armed force stationed in garrisons for this purpose, and had to ensure peace between the different political components of the territory under their jurisdiction. They were also responsible for collecting tribute and taxes and administering justice. They also had the power to negotiate with neighboring states and to wage war. The satraps were generally chosen from among the Persian and Mede aristocracy, being a key instrument of its control over the empire, or even among royal princes. Hystapes, father of Darius, was satrap of Parthia, Masiste, brother of Xerxes, was satrap of Bactria. The satraps themselves were subject to inspections by royal inspectors, called the “eyes” or “ears of the king”. These inspectors travel throughout the empire, accompanied by sufficient troops in case immediate action is needed. They made unannounced visits to inspect the administration of satraps or other members of the royal administration and reported what they saw directly to the king. Comparable to the power of a king, the power of the satraps is exercised on a smaller scale, as the role of the satraps of Asia Minor in Greek affairs clearly shows. However, it is noted that over time, some satraps demonstrated disobedience to royal power, behaving as true kings. With time, the power within the Achaemenid empire has indeed shifted to the satraps.

At the level below the satrapies, which is often poorly known, the Achaemenids generally seem to have retained pre-existing institutions. Thus, the Greek and Phoenician cities retain their institutions (in some cases their kings), as do the Babylonian cities and their temples, which play an administrative role. The satrapies were perhaps subdivided into districts headed by sub-governors, while in Egypt too the ancient provincial division into nomes serves as a basis for the Persian administration. The key military, fiscal and judicial posts remained in Persian hands, but the other posts were occupied by natives. They used local writing systems (Akkadian cuneiform in Babylonia, demotic and hieroglyphs in Egypt, ancient Greek in Asia Minor) even if the Aramaic of the empire was also commonly used because it was in this script that the satraps communicated and the Aramaic language was spoken in a large part of the empire, playing a centralizing role. The Persian administrators had a poor command of the languages of the provinces, so they had to call upon interpreters on a regular basis.

The reconstruction of the Achaemenid administration is however still very incomplete, notably because of the lack of sources for many provinces. In recent years, archaeological excavations have made it possible to better understand the administrative coverage of the empire by uncovering the buildings of the representatives of the central power, primarily the residences of the governors. Such “palaces” have thus been excavated in large numbers in the south of the Levant, a region where archaeological excavations are particularly dense (Lakish, Ascalon, Ashdod, Akko, Buseirah, etc.). Fortresses probably serving as the seat of local power have been explored in Anatolia (Meydancikkale), in the Caucasus (where the ancient Uraltarian fortresses of Erebuni and Altintepe have been reoccupied), somewhat less so in Eastern Iran and Central Asia (Dahan-e Golaman, Old Kandahar). There is no architectural unity between these different centers of power, which would seem to reinforce the idea of a diversity of modalities of control of the different regions of the empire. Future discoveries should shed more light on the aspects of Achaemenid domination.

Withdrawal of wealth

The essential of the requirements of the Persians on behalf of the provinces relates to the goal of taking wealth, which rests on the need to ensure the operation of the empire and the safety in this one. It is indeed a question of raising sufficient sums allowing to finance the expenditure of the State and the king: payment of the servants and the royal officials, financing of public works or of apparatuses (construction of the palates, the roads and the channels for example). But one should not exclude that this was also motivated by a will of enrichment and appropriation of the provincial resources for the benefit of the Persian elites.

Wealth in ancient societies was primarily derived from agricultural production, and thus the Persian administration and elites appropriated this essential resource as the basis of their wealth. The Persepolis archives illustrate this situation well in the heart of Persia, where the administration had vast domains exploited by agricultural dependents, the kurtaš, as well as large herds, whose products were stored in warehouses and then redistributed according to several needs (maintenance of the court, remuneration of the personnel, offerings to the gods). Crown lands (notably the “paradises”) also existed throughout the empire, and it is at least on part of these that estates were granted to members of the royal family and high dignitaries. The documents from Babylonia and Elephantine also show that the state organized the division of certain lands for the financing of troops, who received a quantity of land proportional to the equipment necessary for their maintenance, depending on whether they were archers, horsemen or chariots, even if it is not clear whether these lands were charged with paying for the financing of the military unit or with directly maintaining a unit assigned to it. The productions of the agricultural lands are finally mobilized for the taxes.

From the reign of Darius, who carried out a real “tax reform”, all the tax districts corresponding to the different administrative territories headed by the satraps (cities, kingdoms, provinces) had to collect and pay a fixed tribute, the amount of which was defined in gold and silver weights, added to goods in kind according to the economic resources of the district (grain, wood, horses, etc.). The reason for the appearance of this tax is that in order to carry out his reform of the empire, Darius needed to provide his administration with funding on a new economic basis. Detailed statistics on tributes are given by Herodotus.

These tributes seem to constitute the most important source of income for the empire. The gold and silver collected went to the royal treasuries (ganza in Old Persian) of Susa, Ecbatan or Persepolis. The administration of the treasures gave rise to inventories and accounts, reported on numerous Elamite tablets, the examination of which makes it possible to reconstruct the activity of the tax officials. The tablets also mention other sources of revenue for the treasury, such as commercial and customs taxes levied on the royal roads or at the gates of the cities, or taxes on mineral production and levies on behalf of the satrap. The populations of the empire could also be forced to perform corvées (notably for the maintenance of canals) or to provide accommodation and maintenance for the king’s court, the satrap or administrators, or to pay exceptional levies.


The large size of the empire (perhaps up to 7,500,000 km2) made the development of roads necessary: the imperial administration therefore had to facilitate the movement of people, the flow of information and the transport of goods over the enormous distances separating the different parts of the empire. Darius I ordered the construction of roads in order to make the travel of commercial caravans, troops and inspectors of the king faster. The satrapies were then linked by a road network connecting Susa and Babylon with the provincial capitals. The most impressive part of this network is the King’s Road, which stretches for more than 2,500 km between Susa and Sardis, built on a commission from Darius I. This road has about a hundred stations and mobilizes a staff: garrisons protecting the posts, road controllers, caravan leaders and especially express messengers who can carry messages in a few days from one end of the empire to the other by taking turns (15 days at least according to Herodotus). The Persepolis tablets indicate the rations received by the various members of the administration who had to make long journeys, which were evaluated according to the length of the journey but also according to their rank.

Water communications were important, facilitated by major works, the most famous of which was the digging of the ancient Suez Canal, which linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea (via the Nile Delta). Planned by the pharaoh Nekao II, this canal was in fact completed by Darius I, who commemorated his work with several multilingual steles. River transport was important in regions where it had been developed for a long time, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The crossing of rivers is generally done by boat bridges. As far as maritime flows were concerned, the eastern Mediterranean was actively explored under the impetus of the Phoenicians and Greeks, while new routes were explored in the east: Darius also financed expeditions such as that of Scylax of Caryanda, who discovered the mouths of the Indus by following the coastal route from the Persian Gulf. The Journey of Scylax of Caryanda constitutes the first piece of information on India known in the West.

These different long-distance communication routes were used for the administration and the army, but also for commercial exchanges. Following habits dating back several centuries, metals circulate a lot (copper and iron from Anatolia, copper from Cyprus, tin from Iran), wine and dyed wool from the Levant, etc. The Phoenician cities play an important role as hubs for these different products. Travelers and products were subject to various tolls and taxes on transactions.


The Persian army is constituted on the model of that of the predecessor empires, especially Assyria, but by taking again also Egyptian or Elamite elements. It is also very marked by aspects properly mèdes or Persian. Like the imperial administration, it was in the hands of the king, the royal family and the Persian-Median aristocracy, whose education was largely determined by preparation for warlike activities. By the time of Cyrus I, all Persian men were expected to fight for the king. In addition to its strategic military importance, the imperial army also played an important political role, ensuring the maintenance of the political union of all the territories united under the Achaemenid leadership. Its elite is constituted by the corps of the 10 000 Immortals, from which are descended the guards of the royal palaces. The head of this unit (called hazāparati), as the “king’s second in command,” also provided command of the entire imperial army.

In times of war, this professional army was supplemented by conscript troops raised from the various peoples of the empire. This army was then divided into national units and equipped according to their national customs. If one believes the writings of Herodotus describing the reviews of his army carried out by Xerxes I in Thrace or near the Hellespont, the imperial army is indeed very heterogeneous and bigarrée. They are grouped in unit of 10, 100, 1 000 and sometimes even 10 000 men, according to a principle taken again of the Mesopotamian kingdoms. A distinction is made between the Persian and Medes troops, who form the core of the army, and the provincial troops who reinforce them. The outfits and equipment of the latter described by Herodotus are extremely heterogeneous, depending on the people considered. They give an account of an important diversity. Mercenaries could be recruited.

These contingents, commanded by Persians of high lineage, were divided into three categories: infantry, cavalry, and navy. Infantry and cavalry each included contingents of archers. They are essential units in the Persian device. Among the infantrymen are also shield bearers armed with spears. The horsemen, who occupy a place of choice, seem to borrow a large part of their offensive and defensive equipment from the traditions of Central Asian peoples such as the Sakas. They are also armed with javelins. The war chariots, in particular the “Scythian chariot” described by Diodorus, are always used although their place seems secondary. The naval troops are made up of crews recruited among the Phoenicians and the Ionians. The most used boat is the trireme, a fast boat with three rows of oarsmen which would have been invented by the Sidonians or the Corinthians.

The army had permanent garrisons throughout the empire, commanded by Persian officers. The garrisons were placed at strategic points: the forts located on the main roads of the empire, at the borders or even in military colonies (as at Elephantine on the Egyptian-Nubian border). These garrisons were composed of Persian, Medes, Greeks, Chorasmians, and especially Jews. The satraps were responsible for the supply, maintenance and financing of these armed forces stationed on their administrative domain, but they were not responsible for their military command. This is in fact ensured by a separate hierarchy, subject to the royal authority. According to the sources from Nippur (and also from Elephantine), the troops are maintained by agricultural service lands which provide them with equipment. The size of these domains depends on the unit to be maintained: the “archers’ lands” are the smallest, then there are “horse lands” and “chariot lands”.

The heterogeneity of the troops, their weapons and equipment, and their combat techniques, naturally raises the question of the effectiveness of the command and the difficulty of coordinating maneuvers in combat. Quinte Curce even emphasizes that the diversity is such that the king did not know all the peoples composing his army, and that the peoples did not know who their allies were. For Briant, if this diversity could be advanced in the first place to explain the Persian defeats against the Greeks and the Macedonians, it does not take into account the fact that the contingents described by Herodotus never in fact took part in the fights, which implied especially elite troops essentially resulting from the Iranian plate. The combatants engaged at Thermopylae were thus Persians, kissians, and immortal guards; those engaged at Platées were Persians, Medes, bactrians, Indians, saces, and mycales.

Briant observes that the reviews of armies by Xerxes were rather in a ceremonial framework: the king taking note of his power through the presentation of his army. The objective was not to count the available military forces, but for the king to take note of the diversity of his empire and to stimulate the morale of his troops. Based on Quinte Curce’s interpretation, he therefore makes a distinction between these parade troops, which were staged to represent the imperial space even in its most marginal peoples, and the selected, mostly Iranian fighting troops. At the end of the Achaemenid period, the Persian soldiers were more and more replaced by Greek mercenaries.

Agricultural Enhancement

The Achaemenid period brought important changes to agriculture, one of the pillars of the economic life of the empire. The improvement of irrigation is notable, especially in regions with little water: Egypt, Babylonia, Iran, Central Asia. In Babylonia, the Achaemenid kings and their satraps continued the work of the Neo-Babylonian kings who had preceded them by restoring and extending the irrigation system, contributing to the extension of crops and the growth of agricultural production. The irrigation system called qanat, which still provides water in Iran and Afghanistan today, was indeed developed at this time. According to the traditional interpretation of a text by Polybius, it was the king himself who had these underground irrigation canals built, and who rented them out or gave the usufruct for five generations to the family that participated in their construction, but in fact the Iranian origin of the qanats and its expansion linked to the Achaemenid power are still poorly established.

The regularity of agricultural production and the profitability of the estates are essential for the functioning of the empire. The largest agricultural estates were at the disposal of the king, the Persian aristocratic families, and also of the temples (at least in Babylonia, Egypt or even in Greek cities) and certain large entrepreneurs. As we have seen above, these resources are primordial because they provide a notable part of the taxes, but also because the system of allocating land to members of the aristocracy, the administration, the army serves to finance their service or to reward them for a meritorious action or to ensure their loyalty by this “gift”.

Monetary systems and practices

The study of monetary practices in the empire reveals a new facet of the flexibility of its organization. Two main areas can be identified. The first, which corresponds to the eastern part of the empire (east of the Euphrates), continues to use centuries-old practices in which money serves as an instrument of exchange and as the main unit of account and is valued according to its weight. Ingots or other silver objects of standardized weight may exist, but no preferred form is known; this currency probably circulates in an “anonymous”, unmarked form. In the western part of the empire, these practices are in retreat in front of the expansion of coins, which appeared in Lydia before the Persian conquest (the “cresae” of Croesus). Cyrus II continued the emission of these coins, which spread at the same time in the neighboring Greek cities which made civic emissions. Darius I proceeded at an undetermined date to the emission of a “royal” monetary system, based on two currencies: the daric (from the akkadian šekel, síglos in Greek), weighing approximately 5,60 grams. Twenty shekels are worth one daric. 3,000 dariques form one talent, which is the largest unit of weight and currency. These coins represent the king with a bow and sometimes other weapons, thus in various warlike postures. In the 5th century and especially in the 4th century, satraps of Asia Minor temporarily issued so-called “satrapic” coins: a Pharnabazus in Cyzic, Tissapherne in Tarsus, Mazaios and others in Cilicia. These exceptional issues, probably made after authorization of the royal power, serve to finance exceptional operations, in particular military. These coins are made of silver or bronze, their weight is based on the Persian standard (double shekels also called staters) and the types are local, taking up the symbols of the regions of issue (deities, animals). The use of this currency then spread to Phoenicia, Palestine and Egypt. Greek cities, Anatolian kingdoms (like the Hecatomnides in Caria), Cypriots and Phoenicians also issued coins for their local needs. In this western zone, it is a counted currency whose value is facial and no longer weighted, which marks a crucial break in the history of monetary practices. It may retain a weight value, especially in the eastern regions where some of these coins are found cut or discarded to change their weight before being weighed for a transaction.

The exact use of these new forms of money remains poorly determined, especially with regard to current transactions outside the sphere of power, which issued them primarily for its own needs (military or fiscal). It is known at least from the archives of Persepolis and Babylonia that salaries were generally paid in kind, following the ancestral principle of maintenance rations (essentially grain, wool, oil). The economy of the regions of the Persian Empire was probably not monetized, except at the most in the western cities in contact with the Greek world. Coins circulated in different political spheres: the daric was very popular in the Aegean world, while Greek coins, including the very popular Athenian “owls”, also circulated in Asia Minor and Egypt, where they served as a model for certain issues that took on their weight (tetradrachma) and sometimes even their type. The flexibility of the Persian administration is thus once again apparent, as it had a centralizing instrument with the royal issues, but also allowed for autonomy with the local issues in the west and did not seek to upset the monetary practices of the eastern regions.

A pragmatic and flexible approach to power

In its various aspects, the Achaemenid imperial model testifies to a pragmatic and not very centralizing approach to domination. It leaves above all the place with the adaptation to the structures and habits of the provinces, associating their elites with the exercise of the capacity and conferring a relative autonomy to them (but in a generally subordinate position). It is not therefore a question of reigning by terror (like the Assyrians and to a lesser extent the Babylonians) or upsetting habits by seeking to spread a homogeneous culture to accompany its imperial project. The fact that the religion and language of the Persians were not exported to the subjugated peoples is proof of this, while local temples were realistically supported and the Aramaic of the empire was used as a lingua franca because it was already so under the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. In the field of law, the same approach emerges: local legal traditions seem to be preserved, as is proved by the fact that Darius I patronizes a codification of Egyptian laws. But legal supremacy belongs to the representatives of power, and ultimately to the king.

It is nevertheless exaggerated to consider the Achaemenids and in particular Cyrus II as precursors of religious tolerance or even of human rights, anachronistic notions in the context of the Achaemenid empire, in particular following misinterpretations of the “Cylinder” which in reality places the Persian king in the ancient Babylonian tradition, showing that he is not there to upset local traditions and in particular the power of his great temples. It appears rather that as long as its authority and its demands in resources are respected, the Achaemenid power is not very intrusive and leaves an appreciable margin of autonomy, and only the rebels are the object of really coercive and punitive measures resorting in particular to practices of terror and destruction like its predecessors, as the testimony of the repressions of the revolts in Ionia, Babylonia or in Egypt shows. This in no way calls into question his ability to control the territories he dominated, which was ultimately more solid than historiography has long recognized, nor the willingness and ability of the Persian administration to gradually modify certain aspects of the institutions of the dominated countries.

In the history of the Ancient Near East, the Achaemenid Empire occupies a special place. First of all, as an imperial construction, it is part of the continuity of the Neo-Assyrian empire and the Neo-Babylonian empire, and can to a certain extent draw lessons from their experiences, as well as from their successes and failures. In any case it does not have to start from scratch, and constitutes a new stage in the affirmation of imperialism in the Ancient Near East.

It is indeed under the reign of the Achaemenids that kingdoms, previously competing, were united in a single state formation that stretched between the Indus and the Aegean Sea. The previous kingdoms effectively disappeared, replaced by the administrative organization of the empire. The various traditions of the conquered empires were preserved, recast in a new whole by introducing an ideology and new practices as shown in particular by Achaemenid art or certain administrative innovations (the satrapies). The Iranian administrators are preponderant in these. It is probably through the support that the kings found on the Persian nobility that the Achaemenids succeeded in ensuring their power for so long.

However, the extreme diversity of the peoples that make up the empire makes it difficult to have a precise vision of the exact nature of the hold of the royal power over the different nations of the empire. But it is not established that the Persian hold on the empire is weaker than before in the years preceding the conquest. Alexander, who can be seen as the last of the Achaemenids according to P. Briant, takes again with his account a part of the Achaemenid model and poses as successor of Darius III, tries to prepare a fusion between Iranian and Greek elites, which attracts the opposition of the Macedonian nobility to him, which does not manage to organize the succession of Alexander after his death. The creation of the great Hellenistic kingdoms, more particularly the kingdom séleucide, which followed in the area intervened partly in the continuity of the practices achéménides. Some kings of the Hellenic and Balkan countries even took over the social practices of the Persians to create a community of culture with the nobles of the conquered country.

The legacy of Achaemenid political construction is found in the empires that succeeded them, notably the Seleucids and the Parthians, even if the pragmatic and flexible approach of Achaemenid domination is only incompletely taken up. The Achaemenids found heirs in the Sassanid dynasty of Persia, which emerged in the third century CE from the former heart of the first Persian empire. If Achaemenid places of worship such as Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam were visited by the Sassanid kings who left inscriptions and bas-reliefs there, thus placing themselves in the continuity of their illustrious ancestors, the Persian historiography of the Sassanid period as well as that of the Islamic period did not really preserve the memory of the Achaemenid kings, limited to a few mentions of Cyrus II or Darius I. It is only after the rediscovery of Achaemenid monuments by European explorers and archaeologists and especially after the arrival to power of Reza Shah in 1925 that the memory of the first Persian empire is fully integrated into the national heritage of modern Iranians.

Related articles


  1. Achéménides
  2. Achaemenid Empire
  3. 2002 Oxford Atlas of World History p.42 (West portion of the Achaemenid Empire) and p.43 (East portion of the Achaemenid Empire).
  4. (en) Patrick Karl O’Brien, Atlas of World History, Oxford University Press, 2002, 42–43 p. (ISBN 9780195219210, lire en ligne)
  5. The Times Atlas of World History, p. 79 (1989) : (en) Geoffrey Barraclough, The Times Atlas of World History, Times Books, 1997 (ISBN 978-0-7230-0906-1, lire en ligne)
  6. Grosser Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Westermann, Braunschweig 1985, (ISBN 3-14-100919-8), pp. 14 à 23.
  7. ^ The standard was described as “a golden eagle mounted upon a lofty shaft.” This image is a reconstruction, the design based on an Achaemenid tile from Persepolis, and the coloring based on the Alexander Mosaic, which depicts the standard in dark red and gold.[1]
  8. ^ xšāyaθiya
  9. ^ xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām
  10. ^ daivā-inskriften (Xph §3) uppräknar fortfarande de joner som bor nära havet, de joner som bor på andra sidan havet och invånarna i Skudra.
  11. ^ Briant preciserar, s.671, att datumet anges av Isokrates i dennes Panegyrik, den enda tillgängliga källan som hänvisar till operationen mot egyptierna.
  12. Ver «Historical Estimates of World Population» no website do Departamento do Censo dos Estados Unidos.[19]
  13. The Persian Empire is an empire in the modern sense – like that which existed in Germany, and the great imperial realm under the sway of Napoleon; for we find it consisting of a number of states, which are indeed dependant, but which have retained their own individuality, their manners, and laws. The general enactments, binding upon all, did not infringe upon their political and social idiosyncrasies, but even protected and maintained them; so that each of the nations that constitute the whole, had its own form of constitution. As light illuminates everything – imparting to each object a peculiar vitality – so the Persian Empire extends over a multitude of nations, and leaves to each one its particular character. Some have even kings of their own; each one its distinct language, arms, way of life and customs. All this diversity coexists harmoniously under the impartial dominion of Light […] a combination of peoples – leaving each of them free. Thereby, a stop is put to that barbarism and ferocity with which the nations had been wont to carry on their destructive feuds.
  14. “For thousands of years Persians have been creating beauty. Sixteen centuries before Christ there went from these regions or near it […] You have been here a kind of watershed of civilization, pouring your blood and thought and art and religion eastward and westward into the world […] I need not rehearse for you again the achievements of your Achaemenid period. Then for the first time in known history an empire almost as extensive as the United States received an orderly government, a competence of administration, a web of swift communications, a security of movement by men and goods on majestic roads, equaled before our time only by the zenith of Imperial Rome.”
Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

Ads Blocker Detected!!!

We have detected that you are using extensions to block ads. Please support us by disabling these ads blocker.