Persian History and Its Kings
Persian history dates back to the development of ancient Mesopotamia, the land demarcated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Ancient Persian History
ACHAEMENID: (550 – 330 BC)
SELEUCIAN (306 BC- 150 BC) & PARTHIAN: (247 BC – 224 CE)
SASSANIAN: (224 -651 CE)
ACHAEMENID: (550 – 330 BC)
Persian kings, including Cyrus II, founder of Persis, or Persia, ruled during this period. The Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia.
Cyrus II was a very progressive ruler, and it is due to his practices that he was able to expand the Persian Empire exponentially during his reign. Cyrus was a successful military commander, but he also recognized the need to leave the regions that he conquered in good economic order. To achieve this, Cyrus left local rulers in place after conquering a region, and he allowed the local population to continue practicing their preferred religious traditions.
After defeating the Babylonian army in a few engagements, the Persian Empire army made its triumphant yet bloodless entry into the city of Babylon. This incredible event was epitomized by the Cyrus cylinder, a Persian charter (made in 539 BC by Cyrus’ orders) that upheld the rights of the downtrodden. It is sometimes considered as the oldest known charter or symbol of universal human rights.
(For more information on the enlightened monarch’s thoughts on human rights, freedom of religion and position on slavery see Cyrus Charter of Human Rights.)
Darius also known as Darius the Great, (born 550 BC—died 486), was one of the greatest rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty. He was noted for his administrative genius and for his great building projects. In 519 BC he authorized the Jews to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem, in accordance with the earlier decree of Cyrus Darius himself was influenced by the teachings of Zoroaster.
During this period there were many other great Persian kings, including Cambyses II, son of Cyrus II, Darius I, and Xerxes. The empire was governed from the city of Persepolis, its capital. From this center the empire expanded incorporating Lydia, Babylonia, and Egypt. Many crowning advancements were made during this period including the construction of a canal connecting the mighty Nile River to the Red Sea. At its height around 475 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the world’s population, the highest figure for any empire in history.
Darius III ruled as the final king of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. Also known as Darius Codomannus, he began his reign in 336 BC over Persian Empire.
The Persian Empire entered a period of decline after a failed invasion of Greece by Xerxes I in 480 BC. Unfortunately, the Persian empire surrendered to the Greeks under Alexander of Macedon, aka Alexander the Great (334-331 BC). After Alexander’s death in Babylon his empire was divided into three parts: Macedonia was ruled by Antipater, Ptolemy reconstituted the Egyptian kingdom, and Seleucus ruled the Asian parts of Alexander’s realms. In fact, the Seleucid Empire was a continuation of the Achaemenid Empire.
One of the most remarkable examples of both Achaemenid architecture and art is the grand palace of Persepolis. The ancient Persian capital city of Persepolis, situated in southern Iran, ranks among the world’s greatest archeological sites. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The Achaemenian palaces of Persepolis were built upon massive terraces. They were decorated with ornamental facades that included the long rock relief carvings for which the ancient Persians were famous.
SELEUCIAN (306 BC- 150 BC) and PARTHIAN: (247 BC – 224 CE)
This was a quiet time for the Persian Empire as it existed mainly as a subunit under Greek rule.
After Alexander the Great’s death, Seleucid Empire was founded by Seleucus I Nicator. He was formerly a general in the army of Alexander the Great. Adopting the titles “King of Asia” and “Great King,” the Macedonian rulers of the Seleucid dynasty laid claim to the territory of the former Achaemenid Empire during the Hellenistic period. He was murdered in 281 BCE on the eve of his success by the man he supported on the Egyptian throne, Ptolemy Keraunos. Seleucus was succeeded by his eldest son, Antiochus I Soter, who reigned until 261 and was followed by Antiochus II (reigned 261–246), Seleucus II (246–225), Seleucus III (225–223), and Antiochos III and Antiochus IV (223-164 BCE). Antiochos III’s death was the end of the Seleucid Empire as a great power. The Seleucid kingdom was a major centre of Hellenistic culture, which maintained the preeminence of Greek customs and manners over the indigenous cultures of the Middle East. However, the Seleucids also adapted aspects of the surrounding culture. For instance they used the Babylonian calendar. They may also have taken part in Babylonian religious festivals (such as the Akitu Festival, the New Year) and, just as the Ptolemies adopted the Egyptian ideology of kingship, so they may have borrowed from Persian concepts as well. The kingdom fell once more into dynastic struggles and civil war, and the eastern provinces were gradually lost due to rebellions and Parthian expansion. The Seleucid kingdom began losing control over large territories in the 3rd century BC. It was followed by the first defeat of the Seleucids by the Romans in 190. At the same time Parthia under the leadership of the Arsacids cast off Seleucid rule and established a Parthian empire as a sort of successor to the Old Persian Empire.
Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 CE)
The Parthian Empire, also known as the Arsacid Empire, became a world power in 247 B.C. Arsaces, the chief of an Iranian tribe called the Parni occupied Parthia. The rulers of the Parthian Empire were descended from a group known as the Parni, which is where the people and the region of Parthia in Persia received their names. The Parni originally came from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea and later moved west after Alexander the Great’s invasions into the region during the fourth century BC. The Parthian Empire was established in the third century BC and lasted until the third century AD, making it one of the longest enduring empires and dynasties in world history. The line of kings which Arsaces founded was called the Arsacid dynasty, and the state they founded is often called the Arsacid Empire. The Parthian Empire encompassed the northeast region of present day Iran. It is the second significant era in the extensive history of Iran. In terms of geographic scope, Parthian Empire expanded and extended from the Euphrates to the Indus Rivers, covering Iran, Iraq, and most of Afghanistan and comprised scores of different ethnicities, languages, and religions. The capital of the Parthian Empire was originally Arsak, but it later moved to Ctesiphon.
In 171-138 BC, Mithridates I ruled. He took back the remainder of Iran from the Greeks and issued the first Parthian coins. Iranian society retained its ancient traditional values under the Parthian dynasty by following of the three Zoroastrian principle divines of Good Thoughts, Goods Words, and Good Deeds. In 123–88 BC, Mithridates II ruled. He recovered all previously lost territories from the loss due to the fall of the Acheaemind Empire. He also expanded the empire, westward into present day Armenia and Syria, northward as far as Merv, and eastward keeping the Sakas under control.
The wars between Parthia and Rome were initiated by Rome. Rome had initiated the wars, wanting to take the inheritance of Alexander the Great of the Greeks. In 54 BC, The Roman general Crassus claimed he could conquer Parthian Mesopotamia, but in 53 BC, the Parthians defeated the Romans and Crassus was killed. Orodes failed to follow up with an attack on Roman territory until ten years later, and when he finally did launch a major attack in 41 BCE, the Parthians were defeated. In 20 BC the Romans invaded Armenia. The Roman-Parthian war broke out again in the sixties of the first century CE. Parthian king Vologases I appointed a new Armenian ruler as a result Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo invaded Armenia. After that the Armenian king received his crown again in Rome from the emperor Nero.
By the beginning of the 3rd century, the Parthian empire was weak and divided. Underneath the Parthian Empire, there was multitude of small kingdoms. The ruler of one of these states, Persis (modern Fars), was called Ardashir. In 215 he rebelled against the Parthian king and began to bring neighbouring territories under his control. In AD 222, Ardashir, the ruler of Persia, successfully revolted against Artabanus V. This ended the Parthian rule over Persia and began the ruling of the Sassanians.
The Parthians built one of the greatest and most powerful empires of the ancient world. For nearly 500 years, the Parthians ruled a large swath of land that stretched from Bactria to Mesopotamia and ruled over millions of different peoples. The Parthians were able to do this due to an excellent economy and military and being located on the middle of the Silk Road. Although the Silk Road had been in operation in some form before the Parthians, the Parthians established a control over the road that allowed them to collect sizable profits from the nascent silk trade, which they then used to fund their military.
SASSANIAN: (224 -651 CE)
This period marked the return of Persian kings and the Sassanian Dynasty. The empire’s early years were marked by the emergence of key institutions and cultural developments that would shape Sassanian culture for several centuries. These include complex court ceremonies; diplomatic relationships with Rome and, later, Constantinople; state-sponsored practice of Zoroastrianism; luxury production of silks and silver plate. Most notable during this period was the establishment of the Zoroastrian religion as the official religion of Ancient Persia.
(For more information on this religion see the Persian Culture page).
Under Sassanian rule, Iranian culture experienced something of a renaissance. The Sassanian monarchs hoped to destroy the remaining vestiges of Greek culture that had lingered since the Seleucid era, and supported the development of native art, architecture, and literature. Perhaps the most characteristic and striking relics of Sasanian art are rock sculptures carved on abrupt limestone cliffs, for example at Shahpur, Naqsh-e Rostam, and Naqsh-e Rajab. Shapur I was a king mostly important for his ability to reaffirm Sasanian power in Iran and for his military prowess in fighting Rome.
Khosrow I (531 to 579 CE) is the most important and famous of the Sasanian kings. Successful in both military and administrative duties, he would become the Iranian ideal of a king. He would also feature prominently in Iranian literature. Khosrow’s reforms were probably what continued to sustain the Sasanian Empire for the next 100 years. Khosrow I today is known to have greatly expanded the Academy of Gondishapur, located in the city of Gundeshapur. The Academy of Gondishapur introduced the studies of philosophy, medicine, physics, poetry, rhetoric, and astronomy into the Sasanian court. The 1,750-year-old Academy of Gondishapur, also known as Jondishapur University is registered as a World Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The lasting heritage of the Sasanian Empire is the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism. Under Khusrau II, the Zoroastrian high priest Tansar established the canon of religious texts. It contained hymns of great antiquity but also books on cosmogony and law, a biography of the prophet Zarathustra, apocalypses and several expositions. Although parts of this codex were destroyed by the Muslims, the remainder still inspires thousands of people.
Zoroastrian religion and its presence lasted until it was replaced with Islam in 651 during the Arab invasion. The war Persians and Romans had devastating economic impacts on both the Romans and the Persians (both Parthian and then Sassanids), and as such rendered them each extremely vulnerable to the sudden attacks to come at the hands of the Arab Muslims. The last of the Sassanid kings was Yazdegerd III. After the Arab invasion in 651 the country saw many changes in leadership from Arab to Turk to Mongolian etc. and the Persian Empire never again saw the greatness as it did in the early 6th century BC.