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History of Ancient Iran

Geographical and time limits

Iran is a country of ancient and highly developed civilization. Its inhabitants at the beginning of the third millennium BC created their own writing and original culture, which they then improved over many millennia.

The ancient Iranian religions (Zoroastrianism, Zervanism, and Manichaeism) had a significant influence on the development of the philosophical views of the ancient world and on the emergence of eschatological teachings in Christianity and Islam. Many works of ancient and early medieval Iranian literature were translated into Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and other languages, and then — in the Renaissance and later-gave subjects for literary monuments of the West and East. The works of art created by the masters of Ancient Iran have firmly entered the treasury of world culture.

The original population of the southwestern part of Iran was the Elamites, related, as many scholars believe, to the Dravidian tribes who lived to the east of them, in Baluchistan. In the western foothills of Zagros and in the territory of northwestern Iran lived tribes of non-Indo-European origin, including the Hurrians, Mannei, Lullubei, etc. At the turn of the XII-XI centuries BC, the Medes and Persian tribes began to settle on the territory of Western Iran, which later occupied the entire Iranian highlands and assimilated the autochthonous population.

In the history of Ancient Iran, the following stages are clearly distinguished:

  • the time of occurrence and the heyday of the Elamite civilization (late fourth Millennium to the end of the VII century BC);
  • median age (VIII — the middle of the VI century BC);
  • Achaemenid period (from the middle of the VI century up to the year 330 BC);
  • Parthian period (the middle of the III century BC, approximately 224 ad).


Geography of the regions

The southwestern part of Iran was occupied by Elam. Khuzistan province), where there were favorable conditions for the rapid development of productive forces. The plain part of Elam (Susiana) was watered by the waters of the Karun and Kerkha rivers, which in ancient times flowed into the Persian Gulf. This alluvial valley is one of the oldest areas of agricultural culture. Already at the turn of the IV-III millennium BC, there were abundant crops of barley, emmer and fruit. At the same time, the craft also appeared here. Especially significant flourishing reached pottery. The mountain part of Elam (modern. Bakhtiar Mountains) was rich in construction timber and minerals (copper, lead, etc.). The main occupation of the inhabitants of the mountainous areas was cattle breeding.

At the beginning of the third millennium BC, early state associations of tribes appeared. The capital of one of these associations was Susa, a large city in the valley of Karun and Kerkhi, located at the intersection of the most important routes connecting Elam with the Two Rivers, as well as with Northern and Eastern Iran. In addition, the states of Awan, Anshan, Kimash, and Simash existed in Elam.

Public administration

Gradually, a characteristic system of government was developed, which existed from the middle of the third to the middle of the second millennium BC. Along with the supreme ruler, who bore the title of sukkalmach (“great messenger”) and stayed in Susa, a large role was played by his deputy, usually the younger brother and future successor of the supreme ruler. He was called the sukkal (messenger) of Simash. In the third place in the state hierarchy was the governor of the region of Susiana, who was the eldest son of the king. He took the place of sukkal Simash in the event of the latter’s death. Smaller areas were ruled by people of local origin, after whose death power passed to their nephews (the sons of the sisters). The royal families of Elam were characterized by sister marriages and levirate marriages, when after the death of the king, his brother and successor married the widow of the deceased and thus received the right to the throne. Therefore, kings and heirs to the throne in Elam from ancient times bore the title “sons of the sister”. Sister marriages continued for a very long time, at least until the middle of the seventh century BC.

Statue of Queen Napirasu. Susa. Persia

Statue of Queen Napirasu. Susa. XIII century BC.

Although throughout the history of Elam, women have maintained their position of honor, great changes have gradually taken place in the system of government. Starting from the XIII century BC, the royal throne began to be inherited through the paternal line, from the king to his eldest son.

Social and economic norms of Elam

In the third millennium BC, the main form of economic and social organization in Elam was rural communities, which included all free people, regardless of their kinship ties, who collectively owned land and jointly cultivated it. These communities were governed by elders chosen by the people’s assembly of a particular town or village. The People’s Assembly and its elected officials regulated disputes, settled property disputes, and tried criminals.

However, since the beginning of the second millennium BC, private farms with the use of slave labor began to develop intensively. This led to property differentiation, to the collapse of rural communities and the ruin of free community members, who were deprived of land and tools. Land became concentrated in the hands of individual economically powerful families. Rural communities, which had ceased to exist by the end of the second millennium BC, were replaced by domestic communities. The manufacturers who were part of them were related by family ties. The home communities collectively owned the land and farmed it together, and then divided the income among themselves.

In the course of time, people who were not related could also join home communities. To do this, it was only necessary to conclude a contract on the “brotherhood” and transfer their land to communal use. Gradually, however, such contracts were used to increase the labor force at the expense of small-land freemen, who, having joined the community, lost their property and took part in the cultivation of the land, receiving a part of the crop in return. The poor had to resort to loans of grain or money, giving their homes or gardens as collateral. In addition to repaying the loan, the lender also demanded the payment of interest. Therefore, many poor people found themselves in debt slavery. Gradually, the processes of property differentiation led to the disintegration of the home community, the disintegration of the family collective as a single economic unit, the division of communal property among individual members, and even the lease and sale of land.

Along with communal and later private farms, there were also royal and temple farms in Elam. The temples were the owners of large land holdings, engaged in trade and usury operations, lending grain, money, etc. at interest. Part of the temple land was leased, the rest of the land was cultivated by temple slaves, as well as community members. However, in the first millennium BC, as a result of endless wars and repeated invasions of foreigners on the territory of Elam, the temple farms were ruined and ceased to play a prominent role in the economic life of the country.

According to the beliefs of the Elamites, the laws were established by the gods, and violation of them was punished by the Sun god Nahhunte. In the society we are considering, there were not only religious laws, but also laws on adoption, division of property, sale of land, etc.The Elamite law was characterized by severe punishments of criminals. For example, for a false oath, a hand and tongue were cut off or drowned in a river. Often, contract violators were also sentenced to death.

Political history

The political history of Elam was closely connected with the history of Mesopotamia. The two countries often fought each other, concluded peace treaties, and had lively trade and cultural ties. In the XXIV-XXIII centuries BC, Elam was incorporated into the Akkadian state. Most of the documents and inscriptions in Elam during this period were written in Akkadian. In the XXII-XXI centuries BC. e. under the kings of the III dynasty of Ur, Elam remained under the rule of the Two Rivers, but in the second half of the XXI century BC. e. achieved independence. Under King Kutir-Nahkhunt I (1730-1700 The Elamites invaded the Two Rivers and, as one Babylonian inscription says, “laid hands on the sanctuaries of Akkad for a century and turned Akkad to dust.” Until the middle of the XIV century BC, Elam retained its independence, but then it was conquered for a long time by the Babylonians. Around 1180 BC, the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte I drove the Babylonian army from the territory of Elam and, having made a victorious campaign in Babylonia, plundered its cities and took from there to Susa rich booty. Among this loot was also a stele with the Laws of Hammurabi, which at the very beginning of this century was excavated in Susa by French archaeologists.

In 1159-1157 BC, the Elamite king Kutir-Nahhunte III was at war with Babylonia, where the last representative of the Kassite dynasty, Enlil-nadin-ahhe, ruled. The war ended in a complete victory for the Elamites, who captured Babylon, Sippar, Nippur, and other cities of the Two Rivers. This was the heyday of Elam, and in Iran itself the power of the Elamite kings extended from the Persian Gulf in the south to the area of the present city of Hamadan in the north.

In the eighth century BC, when Babylonia was fighting for its independence from Assyria, Elam became an ally of the Babylonians and became embroiled in endless wars with the Assyrians. At first, the military luck was on the side of Elam and his allies. In 720 BC, the Elamites inflicted a crushing defeat on the Assyrians in the bloody battle of Dera. But ten years later, the Assyrian king Sargon II invaded Elam and defeated his army.

In 692 BC, the Babylonians launched a new revolt against Assyria. Elam, true to his traditional policy, decided to help his allies. All the tribes of Zagros, including the Persians, also united around Elam. A strong army was created, the core of which consisted of Elamite and Persian chariots, infantry and cavalry. The battle with the Assyrians took place in the area of Halule on the Tigris. Although the Elamites gained the upper hand in a fierce battle with the Assyrians, they themselves were so drained of blood that they were unable to transfer the war to the enemy’s territory.

When the Babylonian king Shamash-shum-ukin rebelled against Assyria in 652 BC, the Elamites again sided with Babylonia. The war ended a decade later with the complete defeat of Elam and the capture of Susa by the Assyrians. Later, around 549 BC, Elam was captured by the Persians and lost its independence forever. However, the Elamite civilization had a huge impact on the material and spiritual culture of Ancient Persia.

Elam Culture

Written language

The Elamites created an original culture. At the beginning of the third millennium BC, they invented pictographic (pictorial) writing. It is possible that the presence of writing among the Sumerians who lived nearby gave rise to its emergence, but the latter is an independent type of writing, which is commonly called Proto-Elamite. For 400 years, it was used to record documents of economic reporting, had about 150 basic characters that conveyed whole concepts and words. The clay tablets depicted cattle, pitchers, vases, etc. in the form of drawings. Such tablets are found not only in the Elamite territory proper (in Susa, Anshan, etc.), but also in Central Iran (in the area of Sialk) and in the extreme south-east of Iran, 300 km from Kerman, on the Tepe-Yahya, which indicates the wide spread of the Elamite culture at the beginning of the III millennium BC.However, this letter has not yet been deciphered.

In the second half of the third millennium BC, linear syllabic writing was invented in Elam, which arose independently of proto-Elam. The signs of linear writing, which consisted of combinations of various geometric lines, denoted not a word (logographic writing), but a syllable (syllabic writing). Such signs (and there were about 80 of them) could be written not only economic, but also political or religious texts. The writing materials were stone, clay, and metal. However, linear writing was not long in use in most areas of Elam, and the main texts recorded by him date back to the XXIII century BC.

From the end of the third millennium BC, the Elamites resorted to the Sumerian-Akkadian cuneiform script, which they used until the middle of the fifth century BC. In the first half of the second millennium BC, they usually used Akkadian to compile business documents, as well as to write literary texts. Since the second half of the second millennium BC, a significant number of cuneiform texts in the Elamite language began to appear.


Although the Elamite religion was related to the religion of the Two Rivers, it is very peculiar in its essential features. Susa served as the religious center of the country. Initially, the Elamite pantheon was headed by Pinekir, the” great goddess”, who was considered the mother of the gods, which indicates the strong influence of the remnants of matriarchal law in Elamite society. The cult of Inshushinak, the patron saint of Susa, and later the god of the underworld, was also of great importance. By the middle of the second millennium BC, the dominant position in the Elamite pantheon was occupied by the god Humban. The Sun God Nahhunte was considered the creator of the day. In one text of the XXIII century. The names of 37 Elamite deities are given in BCE. Many of them were revered by the Elamites until at least the middle of the fifth century BC.

Art and Architecture

Back in the IV millennium BC, the Elamites created original art. The Elamite vessels are decorated with geometric patterns and geometrized images of birds, animals, and people. The art of the third millennium BC is most clearly reflected in the seals, which depict griffins, winged lions and demons. On the stone vessels-images of cattle, birds and animals.

Bo II thousand BC. e. Babylonian fine art had a significant impact on the Elamite. The statues of this period are made in the tradition of the round sculpture of Babylonia. A masterpiece of Elamite art is the bronze statue of Queen Napirasu (XIII century BC), which weighs 1800 kg and is made with great skill.

A large golden bowl. Hasanlu. Iran

A large golden bowl. Hasanlu. XIII-XII centuries BC.

The largest monument of Elamite architecture is the ziggurat (cult tower), built directly in Dur-Untash (now Choga-Zambil), 30 km from Susa, under King Untash-Napirish in the XIII century BC. A 50 km long canal was built from the Karun River to the city to supply water. At the entrance to the ziggurat were sculptured images of lions, bulls, vultures, statues of gods and kings, carved in gold and silver. The length of the sides of the lower floor of the ziggurat was 105 m. The ziggurat had seven gates and was four stories high. The total height of the building was 42 m. Millions of bricks and hundreds of thousands of stones were spent on its construction. In the ruins of the ziggurat, French archaeologists who conducted systematic excavations there found many dedicatory vessels made of metal, marble and glass, as well as hundreds of royal inscriptions. The city of Dur-Untash was destroyed in the VII century BC by a powerful invasion of the Assyrian army that invaded Elam.

The arrival of the Medes and Persians in Iran

The Medes and Persians formed part of the vast world of Iranian tribes that stretched from the Northern Black Sea Coast to the territory of modern Afghanistan. These tribes spoke various dialects of the Iranian languages. Many of them were engaged in nomadic cattle breeding.

Until recently, most scientists believed that the ancestral home of the Iranians was in Central Asia and the surrounding areas, and from there in the IX-VIII centuries BC. e. part of the Iranian tribes went to the Iranian plateau. But at present, many experts are inclined to believe that the Iranian tribes headed to the plateau from the southern Russian steppes through the Caucasus. For example, according to V. I. Abaev, at least since the beginning of the second millennium BC. The Iranian tribes were located in the south of Russia, and later some of them went from there through the Caucasus and along the northern coast of the Caspian Sea, respectively, to Iran and Central Asia, while the Scythians, who were also Iranians, remained in Southern Russia. There are, however, other hypotheses, other scientific concepts.

In any case, we can say that the Medes and Persians appeared on the plateau already at the beginning of the first millennium BC. In the IX-VIII centuries. In many areas of Iran, the local non-Iranian-speaking population still remained predominant in political terms, but since the second half of the VIII century. Iranians already formed the majority in various areas of Western Iran, including on the territory of the future Median Kingdom, and to the west of it. When the Medes and Persians came to these areas, they already had developed cultural and socio-economic traditions and institutions, they were engaged in both cattle breeding and horse breeding, as well as agriculture, and were well acquainted with the processing of metals. In military campaigns, the chariot was used. The kingdom of the Medes, as well as later the state of the Persians, arose in an area where the Iranian ethnic element prevailed, it arose precisely on the basis of the previous development of the Iranian tribes, their socio-economic relations and cultural traditions.

The ancient history of the Iranians is very sparingly reflected in written sources. As can be seen from the Assyrian texts, the Medes settled in northwestern Iran at the beginning of the first millennium BC. In the IX century BC, the transition from primitive communal relations to class relations began in this territory, and there were dozens of small principalities that united both the Medes and the autochthonous population.

The Persians are also first mentioned in Assyrian sources in the 9th century BC. An inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, compiled around 843 BC, refers to the region of Parsua. In 834 BC, the Assyrians received a grant from the 27 “kings” of the area. In all probability, it was located in the mountains of Central Zagros. The Persians were not yet united and were led by their numerous leaders, who were independent of each other. At the end of the eighth century BC, Assyrian texts mention the country of Parsumash, located to the east of the present city of Sulaymaniyah, i.e. northwest of Elam. Apparently, around 800 BC, the Persians separated from their related Median tribes and gradually moved to the southeast. In 714 BC, they are mentioned as subjects of the Assyrian king Sargon II. Over time, they occupied the original Elamite territory in the southwestern part of Iran, which was named Parsa after the new newcomers. This territory roughly coincided with the modern Iranian province of Fars. The latter name is an Arabized form from Parsa, denoting both the country and the people of the Persians, and their capital Persepolis.

Until the early 40s of the seventh century BC, the Persians were dependent on the Elamite kings and then for a short time became tributaries of the Assyrians. Apparently, even at that time, the Persians formed a tribal alliance, which was headed by leaders from the Achaemenid family. Tradition considered Achaemenes the founder of the dynasty. Around 675-650 BC, the union of Persian tribes was led by Chishpish, who was considered by later tradition to be the son of Achaemenes. After Chishpish, the royal power passed to his son Cyrus I, who was the ruler of the region of Parsumash and around 646 BC. He sent his own son as a hostage to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.


The Rise of the Mussel

The need to resist the predatory invasions of the Assyrians accelerated the process of uniting the small Median principalities into a single state. In 672 BC, the Medes, supported by the Cimmerians and Scythians, who invaded from the Northern Black Sea region in Front of Asia in the last decades of the eighth and early seventh centuries BC, rebelled against Assyria. But soon the Assyrians managed to get the Scythians to fall away from the rebels. The Medes continued to fight and were able to achieve independence. They managed to create their own state, which by the middle of the VII century BC. Along with Assyria, Elam and Urartu became a major kingdom. In 653 BC, the Medes launched a campaign against Assyria. But at this time the Scythians, the allies of Assyria, attacked the Medes. The latter were defeated, unable to withstand the struggle on two fronts. In 653-624 BC, Media was dominated by the Scythians.

In 624 BC, the Median king Kiaxar defeated the Scythians and finally united all the Iranian tribes into a single state with its capital in Ecbatani (now Hamadan). Soon Kiaksar created a combat-ready regular army, reorganizing it according to the types of weapons (spearmen, archers and cavalry) instead of the former militia on the tribal principle.

The Medes now turned against Assyria, which had been at war with Babylonia for more than a decade. In 614 BC, the Medes led by Kiaxar captured Asshur, the ancient capital of Assyria. In August 612 BC, the Medes and Babylonians invaded Nineveh. As a result of the defeat of the Assyrian power, the Medes captured the eastern part of Asia Minor and the indigenous territory of Assyria.

Kyaxar, whom the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus called “the founder of the dominion over Asia”, began to expand the borders of his state at the expense of his southern and eastern neighbors. One of his first attacks fell on Persia, which was conquered around 624 BC. e. Kyaxar also managed to capture Parthia and Hyrcania, located to the east of the Caspian Sea, and in addition, Armenia. Around 590 BC, Kyaxar annexed Manna, a large state to the west of Media. At the same time, the Medes subordinated Urartu to their power.

But already in 553 BC, the Medes faced the Persians, who had previously been in vassalage to them.

Discovery of the Median monuments by archaeologists

In the seventh and first half of the sixth centuries BC, Media was the center of Iranian material and spiritual culture, which was then borrowed and developed by the Persians. In the works of Herodotus and Polybius, a description of the royal palace at Ecbatana has been preserved. The palace was surrounded by seven fortress walls. At the same time, one wall rose above the other to the height of a bastion, and the bastions themselves were painted in different colors. The two bastions adjoining the palace were respectively silvered and gilded. Inside these walls were the palace itself and the treasury. The palace had a circumference of more than one kilometer. The ceilings and porticos of the palace chambers were made of cedar, sheathed in gold and silver. Excavations of the archaeological sites of Mussel began only a few decades ago. Therefore, researchers have yet to discover Iranian palace architecture and monuments of monumental art. Over the past 30 years, intensive archaeological work has been carried out on the territory of Media. The monuments discovered during their construction date back to the Iron Age and date back to between 1300-600 BC. Of particular note are the “Luristan bronzes” — votive and household items, weapons, horse harness parts depicting real and fantastic animals. Some of the items belong to the turn of the second and first thousand BC.

In 1947, local residents found a large treasure near a high hill 42 km east of Sakkyz. Among the treasures found are a gold breastplate, which, in all probability, was worn by the king, a fragment of a golden royal diadem, a massive gold part of the sword scabbard, silver and gold parts of horse harness and ceramic vessels. To decorate these items, images of deer, vulture, hare and ram were most often used. Later, archaeologists found that a fortress was located on the site of the treasure in the VIII-VII centuries BC. It must be assumed that the mentioned things from Sakkyz also belong to the same time.

Since 1951, the Khasanlu Hill in northwestern Iran has been studied. This hill, 25 m high, hid, in particular, the monuments of the Median era. A fortified building (apparently a palace) was excavated, surrounded by a wall with twelve towers, the intervals between which are about 10 m. A 4.5 m long portico led to the building. The portico was followed by a “hall of audience” with four rows of columns. This building was destroyed in a fire at the end of the IX century BC during a raid of the Urartian army.

In 1961-1962, the Marlik burial ground was excavated in the Gilan region. This monument contained 53 burials with a rich inventory. Of particular interest are the gold figurine of a man in ceremonial clothing, male and female ceramic figures of ape-men, gold and silver vessels with images of various, including fantastic, animals found in it.

Of great interest is the monument of the Median era, called Nush-i-Jantepe. It is located 70 km south of Hamadan. In 750-600 BC, there was a Median fortress with religious and administrative buildings and living quarters for the rulers and their nobles. The rooms of the fortress, built of mud bricks, have been preserved to a height of up to 8 m. On the territory of the fortress there was also an audience hall and two temples of fire. All these buildings were surrounded by a round brick wall with towers.

Achaemenid power

Political history

The reign of Cyrus II

In 558 BC, Cyrus II became the king of the Persian tribes. The center of the Persian state was located around the city of Pasargada, the intensive construction of which dates back to the beginning of the reign of Cyrus.

When Cyrus II became king of Persia, there were still four major powers in the entire Middle East: Media, Lydia, Babylonia, and Egypt. In 553 BC, Cyrus rebelled against Astyages, the king of Media, who was a vassal of the Persians. The war lasted for three years and ended in 550 BC with a complete victory for the Persians. Ecbatana, the capital of the former Median state, became one of the royal residences of Cyrus. Having conquered Media, Cyrus formally retained the kingdom of Media and assumed the official titles of the Indian kings: “great king, king of kings, king of countries”.

Shaped vessel. Kurdistan. 8th century BC

Shaped vessel. A naked mourner with a libation vessel. Kurdistan. VIII-VII centuries BC.

Since the capture of Media, Persia, a hitherto little-known peripheral region, has emerged on the broad stage of world history to play a leading political role in it for the next two centuries. In 549-548 BC, the Persians subjugated the countries that were part of the former Median power, namely Parthia, Hyrcania, and probably Armenia. At the end of October, 547 BC, a bloody battle between the Persians and the Lydians took place near the Galis River, which ended without result. Neither side dared to engage in a new battle, and Croesus, king of Lydia, retreated to his capital of Sardis. The next battle took place near the walls of this city. Under the pressure of superior enemy forces, the Lydians had to flee to Sardis, where they were besieged. The siege lasted only fourteen days. In May 547 BC, the city was taken by the Persians, and the Lydian kingdom ceased to exist. After that, it was the turn of the Greek states of Asia Minor to recognize the authority of Cyrus.

Between 545 and 539 BC, Cyrus conquered the eastern Iranian (now the eastern provinces of Iran and parts of Afghanistan and India) and Central Asian regions of Drangiana, Margiana, Khorezm, Sogdiana, Bactria, Areya, Gedrosia, the Saka tribes, Sattagidia, Arachosia, and Gandhara. In the autumn of 539 BC, the Persians captured Babylonia. After that, all the Western countries up to the borders of Egypt (Syria, Palestine and Phoenicia) voluntarily submitted to Cyrus. Then Cyrus decided to secure the north-eastern borders of his state from the invasion of the nomadic tribes of the Massagets in Central Asia. These raids caused considerable damage to the areas with settled populations that were part of the Achaemenid empire. During the battle on the eastern side of the Amu Darya in early August 530 BC, the Persian army was completely defeated, and Cyrus himself was killed.

Board of Cambezes

In the same year, Cambyses, the eldest son of Cyrus, became king of the Achaemenid empire. In May 525 BC, the Persians defeated the Egyptian army and captured Egypt. In March 522 BC, Cambyses died, and at the end of the same year, the royal throne in Persia was seized by Darius I. The beginning of his reign was marked by numerous revolts of the peoples of the Achaemenid empire. Persia, Media, Elam, Margiana, Parthia, Sattagidia, the Saka tribes of Central Asia, Babylonia, and Egypt revolted against Darius. These uprisings were suppressed after a little over a year as a result of bloody battles.

The reign of Darius I

Having restored the empire of Cyrus and Cambyses to its former borders, Darius in 519 BC led a campaign against the Saka tribe of Tigrahuda, who lived in Central Asia, and conquered it. Then, between 519-512 BC, the Persians conquered Thrace, Macedonia, and the northwestern part of India. By the end of the VI century BC, the borders of the Achaemenid empire extended from the river. The Indus in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west, from Armenia in the north to the first Nile cataract in the south. Thus, the first world power in history emerged, uniting dozens of countries and peoples under the rule of the Persian kings from the Achaemenid dynasty. The socio-economic institutions and cultural traditions that developed in the Achaemenid period played a major role in world history and were preserved for many centuries, serving the states of Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids.

The Parish of Alexander the Great

Figure of a doe. Gold. Achaemenid period

Figure of a doe. Gold. Achaemenid period. VI century BC.

Soon, a dangerous opponent appeared on the political horizon. In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander the Great marched against Persia. His army consisted of 30 thousand infantry and 5 thousand cavalry. The core of the army was heavily armed Macedonian infantry and cavalry. There were also Greek infantry, Cretan archers, and Thessalian cavalry. The army was accompanied by 160 warships. Siege engines were used to storm the cities.

The first collision occurred in the summer of 334 BC on the Hellespont at the Granicus River. The winner was Alexander. After that, he captured the Greek cities in Asia Minor and moved inland. In the summer of 333, the Macedonians rushed to Syria, where the main forces of the Persians were concentrated. In November of the same year, a new battle took place at Issus, on the border of Cilicia with Syria. While the fierce battles were going on, the Persian king Darius III lost his temper and, not expecting their outcome, fled, leaving his family, who were captured. The battle had ended in complete triumph for Alexander, and the way to Syria and the Phoenician coast was now open to him. With the capture of Phoenicia by the Macedonians, the Persian fleet lost its dominant position at sea, as it consisted mainly of Phoenician ships.

In the autumn of 332 BC, Alexander captured Egypt, and then returned to Syria and went to the area of Gavgamela, near Arbela, where the Persian king was with his army. On October 1, 331 BC, a battle took place. The decisive battle was fought in the center, where Alexander and his cavalry crashed into the middle of the Persian army. The Persians brought chariots and elephants into the battle, but Darius III, as at Issus, prematurely considered the ongoing battle lost and cowardly disappeared. Alexander won an undisputed victory and captured Babylonia, and in February 330 BC the Macedonians entered Susa. Then the Macedonian army fell into the hands of the cities of Persepolis and Pasargadae, the dynastic capitals of the Persian kings, where their main treasures were kept. Darius III and his entourage fled to Eastern Iran, where he soon fell at the hands of the governor of Bactria, Bess, who sought to seize the throne. But in 329 BC, Bactria was also conquered by the Macedonian army, and the Achaemenid empire perished.

Economics and social institutions

According to its socio-economic structure and traditions, the empire of the Persian kings was very diverse. It included the regions of Asia Minor, Elam, Babylonia, Syria, Phoenicia and Egypt, which long before the emergence of the state of the Persian tribes had their own developed civilizations and social institutions. Along with these economically advanced countries, the Persians also conquered the Massagetian and other tribes that were at the stage of disintegration of the tribal system, engaged in gathering and lived in group marriage.

The reforms of Darius I. The formation of satrapies

In order to create an effective administrative apparatus for such diverse areas, around 519 BC, Darius I began to implement his famous administrative and financial reforms. The state was divided by him into twenty administrative-tax districts, which were called satrapies. They were led by satraps. This title existed under Cyrus II and Cambyses, but then the civil and military functions were united in the hands of the same person, which was the satrap. Darius also limited the power of the satraps, establishing a clear division of functions between them and the military leaders. The satraps were now civilian governors. They stood at the head of the administration of their region, exercised judicial power there, monitored economic life, the receipt of taxes and the performance of duties. The army was under the command of military leaders, independent of the satraps and subordinate directly to the king. However, after the death of Darius I, the rule of a clear separation of military and civilian functions was not strictly observed.

Hryvnia with the heads of lionesses. Gold 6th century BC

Hryvnia with the heads of lionesses. Gold. VI-V centuries BC.

The vast satrapies could also include countries that enjoyed autonomy in internal affairs. This applies to remote provinces, in the daily life of which the Persian administration rarely interfered, managing them with the help of local rulers and limiting themselves to receiving taxes. Such tribes as the Arabs, Kolkhas, Ethiopians, Saks, etc., were governed by their tribal leaders.


In connection with the implementation of the new reforms, a large central office was created, headed by the tsarist chancellery. The central state administration was located in Susa, the administrative capital of the Achaemenid empire. The royal court spent the autumn and winter in Babylon, the summer in Ecbatana, the spring in Susa, and the great feasts in Pasargadae and Persepolis.

The official language of the Achaemenid empire was Aramaic, which was used for communication between the state offices of the entire state. From the center in Susa, official documents in this language were sent to all parts of the country. Having received the documents locally, scribes who knew two or more languages translated them into the native language of the governors of the regions. In addition to the Aramaic language common to the entire empire, official documents were also written in local languages in various countries, and thus office work was conducted in two or more languages.

Postal Service

A regular postal service was established to manage the satrapies. On major roads, there were special points with inns, which were located at a distance of a day’s march and were protected by the state. On the most important of them were sentry fortifications with guards. From Sard to Suz, for example (this path was about 2470 km), there were 111 stations. Changing horses and messengers, it was possible to cover up to 300 km in a day, and the entire distance from Sard to Suz was usually covered in a week.

Hryvnia with the heads of lionesses. 10th century BC

Hryvnia with the heads of lionesses. Gold, turquoise. X century BC.

Cuneiform documents from Persepolis, compiled at the turn of the VI and V centuries BC, contain abundant information about the delivery of state mail to various areas of the Achaemenid empire, from Egypt to India. In particular, official letters and reports of high-ranking officials to each other have been preserved. The reports addressed to the king were usually sent to Susa, and in all probability, in most cases, were actually intended for the royal office. Messengers were sent from Susa to almost all the satrapies with the orders of the king. Naturally, for the regular delivery of state orders, it was necessary to have a significant staff of professional messengers, who were on a permanent state allowance. At intermediate points there were royal warehouses, from which food was released for messengers and other officials sent on errands on a long journey. For the message of urgent news, fire alarm was also used.

However, in ancient times, the postal service existed only for state needs. Private letters were sent either by chance, or through messengers or agents in the service of private individuals. Many private letters survive from the Babylonian Satrapy of the Achaemenid empire. Since they give an idea of everyday life, here are some of them.

For example, a sister writes to her brother: “Hello to my brother. Will you treat my children well when I die? Will you buy them out of the debtors ‘ prison if they get there? When I was alive, you were cruel to me. Raise your head and tell the truth, looking at the sun: did I not raise you as if you were my own son? Or should I come to you and tell you all this to your face? Why, when our brother Rimut fell ill, did you not send him to me?.. Send me barley and dates, for I have nothing. May this letter soften your heart, and the gods make your heart merciful.”

Another person writes to his sister: “This is terrible! Why haven’t I heard from any of you? My heart rejoices to know that you are pregnant. The news that reaches me is disappointing. Send me one mina of silver and a tunic with someone on their way here…»

The following letter is full of anxiety for the fate of a friend: “Bel-epush, who is with you, is dear to me as a brother. You must silence anyone who defames him with their stories. In every way, we are like brothers. I am writing this in great anxiety. Do me a favor and send me an urgent reply to this letter.”

A certain Rimut-Nabu writes to his relatives: “For two years I did not see your sister, but on the same day that I saw her, I took her in. Two years later, Nabu-kishar demands her, saying, ” She is a slave who belongs to me.” You are too afraid of the governor to complain to the king. Because of this fear, you will lose it.”

Behind the apparent interest in astronomy, in the lines of another letter, the anxieties of earthly life are glimpsed: “When I looked at the moon, clouds appeared. Has there been a lunar eclipse? Please let me know exactly what it is. Find out what prayers to say in the event of an eclipse. Give me your wise opinion.”

Silver rhyton. Persia. 5th century BC

Silver rhyton. V century BC.

Interesting private letters have also been preserved from the Egyptian Satrapy. Most of them were written at the turn of the VI—V centuries BC.

One letter ends, for example, with the following words: “When I find a reliable person, I’ll send you something.”

The sender of another email says, ” A snake has bitten me and I’m dying, and you won’t even send a letter to ask if I’m alive or dead.”

The third letter contains a request: “Watch the children now until Ahutab arrives and entrusts them to others.”

Tax system and coinage

The Achaemenid Empire could have existed under a well-established tax system. However, under Cyrus II and Cambyses, there was still no firmly regulated system of taxes based on taking into account the economic capabilities of the countries that were part of the power. Around 519 BC, Darius I introduced a new system of state taxes. All the satrapies were obliged to pay the monetary taxes strictly fixed for each region in silver, which was established taking into account the cultivated land and the degree of its fertility. In the work of Herodotus, a detailed list of taxes that were paid annually to the satrapy of the Achaemenid empire has been preserved. According to him, in total, the peoples subject to the Persian kings paid about 7,740 Babylonian talents of silver (232,200 kg.) per year, not counting the Indian Satrapy, which contributed gold dust. In addition to monetary taxes, it was also necessary to pay taxes in kind: grain, fruit, wine, cattle, carpets, clothing, gold and silver vessels, etc. Darius I introduced a single monetary unit for the entire power, which formed the basis of the Achaemenid monetary system, namely the golden darik weighing 8.42 g. The minting of gold coins was the prerogative of the Persian king. The usual medium of exchange was a silver shekel weighing 5.6 g with an admixture of no more than 5%, minted mainly in the satrapies of Asia Minor in the name of the king. Silver coins of various values were also minted by autonomous cities and dependent kings, such as the kings of the Phoenician cities, as well as satraps.

However, the coins of Persian coinage had limited circulation outside of Asia Minor. Usually, the trade was conducted with the help of bullion of non-minted silver, and the coins of the Persian coinage played only a secondary role. Therefore, it is easy to understand why the hoard of silver coins found in 1933 in Kabul and testifying to the circulation of minted money in Eastern Iran (the hoard was buried around 380 BC) contains only 8 shekels of Persian coinage. At the same time, the treasure has Greek coins from almost all regions of Greece and all times, ranging from archaic square-shaped ingots with stamps to staters and tetradrachms.

It was during the Achaemenid period that the regions of Eastern Iran and Central Asia became familiar with coin circulation, and samples of dariks and other Persian coins were found on their territory. Nevertheless, there is no reason to talk about their widespread distribution in these territories.


A figure of a galloping horseman. Achaemenid period

A figure of a galloping horseman. Achaemenid period.

The relative political calm and regular contacts between the various satrapies of the Achaemenid empire and the availability of good sea and land roads contributed to the development of international trade on an unprecedented scale. For the flourishing of trade relations, the expedition of the mariner Skilak, a native of the region of Caria in Asia Minor, was also of great importance. Around 518 BC, Darius I ordered him to investigate the possibility of establishing maritime links between India and other countries of his power. Skilak’s ships sailed through India to the Indian Ocean and then, skirting Arabia, along the southern coast of Iran, reached the coast of the Red Sea.

There were many important caravan routes in the Achaemenid empire. In particular, the road that crossed the Zagros Mountains connected Babylonia with the Ecbatans and then continued to Bactria and the borders of India was of great importance.

For the development of trade contacts, the difference in the nature and climatic conditions of the countries that were part of the Achaemenid Empire was also of considerable importance. Gold, ivory, and incense were imported from India. Lapis lazuli and carnelian were imported from Sogdiana and Bactria, and turquoise from Khorezm. Grain and linen were exported from Egypt, woolen clothing from Babylonia, wine and handicraft items (primarily glass vessels) from Phoenician cities.

Golden rhyton. Hamadan. 5th century BC

Golden rhyton. Hamadan. V century BC.

Particularly extensive information about trade is preserved in Babylonian documents of the Achaemenid period. Powerful business houses were of great importance in domestic and foreign trade. The most famous of these houses was the house of Egibi, which began functioning before the Achaemenid period and continued its activity until the fifth century BC. He sold and bought fields, houses, slaves, and also engaged in banking operations, acting as a lender, accepting deposits, giving and receiving bills of exchange, paying the debts of his clients, financing and founding commercial enterprises. The role of the House of Egibi in international trade was also great. For example, representatives of the Egibi traveled to Media and Elam, buying local goods there and reselling them in Babylonia.

In the V century BC, the house of Murashu was distinguished in southern and central Babylonia, which was engaged in trade and usury operations. He rented the fields belonging to the Persian nobles, officials and royal soldiers, paid their owners rent and paid for them to the state treasury in cash and in kind taxes. During one calendar year 423/422 BC, Murashu’s income from dates alone was about 48,200 hectoliters, which in monetary terms would amount to 350 kg of silver.


The stability of the Achaemenid empire depended largely on the army. Its backbone was made up of Medes and Persians. Most of the adult male population of the Persians were warriors. They started serving at the age of twenty. In the wars waged by the Persian kings, not the least role was played by the eastern Iranians. In particular, the Saka tribes of Central Asia supplied the Persian kings with a significant number of horse archers accustomed to constant military life. The highest positions in garrisons, major strategic points, fortresses, etc. were usually in the hands of the Persians. The army consisted of cavalry and infantry. The combined actions of cavalry and archers provided the Persians with victories in many wars. Archers upset the enemy’s ranks, after which the cavalry destroyed it.

An eagle torturing a swan. Achaemenid period

An eagle torturing a swan. Gold, enamel. Achaemenid period.

In the conquered countries, to prevent the revolts of the conquered peoples, troops were stationed, the composition of which was very motley. But they were usually absent from the inhabitants of the country. For example, in Egypt, the Persian kings kept an army of 10-12 thousand people. Approximately the same number of soldiers were in the garrison army stationed in Babylonia.

On the borders of the state, the Persian kings planted soldiers, giving them land plots. Of the army garrisons of this type, the best known is the Elephantine military colony, established for guard and military service on the borders of Egypt with Nubia. In this garrison, located on the island of Elephantine on the Nile, there were Persians, Medes, Greeks, Carians, Khorezmians and other foreigners, but the main part of it was Jewish settlers who served there under the Egyptian Pharaohs, i.e. before the conquest of this country by the Persians.

During the most important military campaigns, all the peoples of the power were obliged to allocate a set number of soldiers. Since the time of Darius I, the Persians have also taken a dominant role at sea. Naval warfare was fought with the help of ships of the Phoenicians, Cypriots, inhabitants of the Aegean islands and the Egyptian navy.

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