HIS101 logo Notes on the Significance of the First Persian Empire in World History

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The Persians did not create the first empire in history, but they created one of the first and largest. They are important because they were the first people to unite three sites of early urban civilization (Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley) under a single government. In the process, they opened regular communication between three continents -- Africa, Asia and Europe and developed many of the techniques used to govern by later empires.


A State Created by Nomadic Pastoralists

The Persians were nomadic pastoralists who began to develop their state on the Iranian Plateau east of Mesopotamia in the 6th century BCE. Because the plateau did not get as much water as Mesopotamia and the winters were colder, it was not a good place for planting crops. The Persians and their neighbors, the Medes, survived by raising livestock for food including sheep, goats and cattle.

  1. What are some things that determine the relationship between sedentary and nomadic peoples?

    Although they produce their food in different ways, both types of groups need access to water. That may become a problem in the dry season when herders try to bring their animals to a river through land alongside the river which is used by farmers. It can also lead to problems at the end of the farmers' harvest season when herders or hunter-gatherers who run short of food try to steal from the farmers.

    There are positive relations as well. Farmers, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers each produce different kinds of things, so they trade with each other. Livestock that grazes on fields after the harvest leaves behind manure which makes the next growing season better. Sedentary people manufacture things that nomads use such as metal objects and textiles.

  2. How did states develop in Mesopotamia?

    In Mesopotamia, like everywhere else, the first human groups were families . Questions: Why do humans always form families? Who leads a family? How do family members resolve disputes among themselves?

    The earliest examples of people living in states (a community with a form of government) were unwalled villages that developed around 5400BCE near the mouth of the river in a region called Sumer. Archaeology shows that they consisted of houses grouped around a central building that was used for religious purposes. Donations to deities (gods) received by priests of the religion constituted an early form of taxation since it enabled the priests to survive without farming and to finance projects for the public good. Members of the village were all descended from common ancestors, so government was based on an extension of "family government" in which the oldest members had authority over everyone else. Questions: How could such a community resolve disputes between brothers, cousins or second cousins twice removed? What opportunities did priests have to provide leadership (i.e. what kinds of problems could they help the villagers to resolve)?

    After 4000BCE, most of the open villages disappeared and were replaced by a smaller number of larger walled cities like Uruk, Ur and Lagash. These are called " city-states " because they united the people inside the city with the people living outside. They also united people who did not necessarily share the same ancestors, so they needed new ways to maintain order and unity. Questions: What rights and responsibilities did this relationship create for people outside of the city and inside the city? Why would either type of person agree to be part of such a relationship?

    The final stage in Mesopotamian state-building came when outsiders conquered the city-states and united them under a single leader. The first time this happened was about 2300- 2000BCE when the Akkadians (led by Sargon) came downriver to conquer Sumer. Sargon is technically the first emperor since his state included multiple kingdoms. The Akkadian state became known as Babylon (after the name of Sargon's capital) and the Akkadians invented a number of techniques needed to govern. Perhaps the most famous is written law, created by Hammurabi, who ruled between 1792-1750BCE. Question: What difference does it make if laws are written or not?

    After Babylon came the Hittites (1600-1300BCE), Assyrians (1300-612BCE), the New Babylonians (an alliance of Medes and Chaldeans, 612-539BCE) and the Persians (539-323BCE). Later on, the region was occupied by the Romans, Byzantine Empire, Second Persian Empire, Arab Muslims, Mongols, Turkish Muslims (Ottomans), and Europeans (British, Russians and French) from about 50-1950CE.

An Iron-Age Empire

The Persians developed their empire at a time in history after humans had discovered how to make iron. Iron was particularly difficult to make, but it had unusual properties that affected the way humans produced their food, fought wars and traded.

  1. Where does iron come from?

    Iron ore is the fourth most common element on the earth's surface, but the only pure iron found in nature comes from meteorites. To separate iron from iron ore (i.e. to smelt iron), you need fuel that will burn at an extremely hot temperature (about 2600 degrees Fahrenheit) and flux to cause a chemical reaction to separate iron from various impurities.

    The oldest known iron objects used by humans are some beads from Egypt made about 4000BCE, but they were made from meteorite iron, not smelted iron. The oldest known smelted iron object is a knife that was made about 1500BCE by Hittites from Anatolia (modern Turkey).

  2. How does iron change the way humans live?

    Iron objects are more durable than bronze, copper or stone objects and iron objects can be made sharper. Question: How do these characteristics of iron affect food production and the way people fight?

    Not everyone had the necessary knowledge and/or raw materials to make iron, so societies who could make iron could also trade it. Question: What would happened to a society without iron if it refuses to trade for iron from a neighboring society that had iron?

    The knowledge of iron-making is nearly impossible to figure out by oneself, so it must be learned from someone else. Question: How does that affect the relationship between people who know how to make iron and everyone else in a society?

Ideas about Empires

  1. An empire provides a "fourth level" of government above individual families, villages led by elders and city-states led by kings or councils or elders. An empire requires new techniques for maintaining order and unity, since it includes people who are not descended from the same ancestors. In particular, an empire includes people with different languages, laws and religion, so an empire must create a sense of loyalty to the emperor. Questions: What reasons might people have for supporting imperial rule? (Consider security, food, law & order and trade). What reasons might people have to revolt against imperial rule?

  2. The Persians, like all other empires, used a variety of techniques to maintain order and create a sense of loyalty to the empire. The army was an important tool because it not only defended the empire against outsiders, it could be used to push conflict away from the center of the empire to its edges (i.e. create buffer zones), and the army also brought people from different parts of the empire into contact with each other and gave them a way to work together.

  3. Another technique was to chose local people to serve as representatives of imperial authority. The Persians did this by creating governors called satraps, each of whom was responsible for a province called a satrapy. Sometimes, this backfired if a satrap was more concerned with local interests than imperial interests. Questions: How do local and imperial interests differ when it comes to taxation? What options does a satrap have to satisfy either or both interests?

  4. Successful empires like that of the Persians brought peace to their people and that made it easier to farm and produce other kinds of things. The Persians also built roads and introduced coins. All of this helped to increase the amount of trade. Questions: How do roads and coins increase the amount of trade? How does a government use an increase in trade to promote loyalty to itself?

Persian Emperors
Name Ruled (BCE) Accomplishments
Cyrus I 550-530 led a revolt against the Median king Astyages (550BCE), conquered Lydia (546BCE), New Babylon (538BCE)
Cambyses 529-521 conquered Egypt (525BCE)
Darius I 521-486 conquered land to the Indus River (521-519BCE), created 20 satrapies, dug a canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, ordered the first invasion of Greece (490BCE)
Xerxes I 486-465 ordered the second invasion of Greece (480BCE)
Artaxerxes I 465-424 resisted Athenian invasions and signed a treaty with the Greeks (446BCE)
Xerxes II 424 assassinated by his brother Sogdianus
Sogdianus 424 assassinated by his brother Darius II
Darius II 424-404 gradually lost control of the edges of his empire
Artaxerxes II 404-358 defeated his brother Cyrus, satrap of Anatolia, to become emperor, but Cyrus' "10,000 Greek mercenaries" escaped and Egypt became independent (404BCE)
Artaxerxes III 358-338 ended rebellions by satraps and restored imperial authority
Arses 338-336 took over just as Alexander of Macedonia began his conquests
Darius III 336-330 killed during the invasion by Alexander's Macedonian Greeks

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