The Achaemenid Persian Empire (c. 500 BC)
In the early sixth century BC, the Middle East was a theatre of war between several empires competing for dominance of the region. The Median Empire asserted its control over all of Iran and the mountainous areas directly north of Mesopotamia while the so-called Neo-Babylonian Empire toppled the Assyrians and consolidated its power centre in the fertile lands between the Euphrates and Tigris.
Meanwhile, after the fall of the New Kingdom and the ensuing centuries of internal conflict, Egypt managed to reconsolidate one more time under its twenty-sixth dynasty. In a beautiful example of how history always seems to repeat itself, the reborn Egypt challenged the Neo-Babylonian Empire for control of the eastern Mediterranean coasts, much like the New Kingdom had battled the Hittites centuries earlier. Yet the days of Egypt’s greatness under the New Kingdom were long gone. The Neo-Babylonian Empire soundly defeated Egypt and pressed into Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in 587 BC and turning Egypt into a de facto puppet state. Babylon thus emerged victorious and became the supreme centre of the ancient world.
However, fortunes were about to shift completely. Shortly before 550 BC, the Median Empire faced a revolt in southern Iran which paved the way for the rise of a new power: the Achaemenid Persians, led by Cyrus the Great. Taking over control of southern Iran, the Persian heartland, Cyrus embarked on a systematic campaign of conquest in the Middle East. Persian forces swept westwards, reaching Lydia by 545 BC, overthrowing the Lydian kingdom of Croesus and taking over much of Asia Minor. Only a few years later, the Neo-Babylonian Empire underwent the same fate when Cyrus defeated its armies in 539 BC at Babylon itself, simultaneously ending the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. Next, the Persian war machine stormed into the east and Cyrus expanded his empire as far as the north-eastern regions of Iran, where he ultimately fell in battle against the nomads of Central Asia. His son and successor Cambyses continued the Persian rise to power, consolidating Persian holdings and annexing Egypt by 525 BC.
In approximately thirty years time, the Achaemenid Persians had created the largest empire the world had ever seen until then, uniting for the first time the entire region of Egypt, the Middle East and Iran under one empire. This implied the de facto unification of most of the sedentary and urbanised world in the west of Asia. Cambyses’ successor Darius managed to keep the empire together despite a number of revolts and steered it to its zenith of power. The empire was divided up into approximately twenty provinces, called satrapies, of which the inhabitants were allowed significant local autonomy as long as Persian lordship was recognised.
Despite the near-supreme power of the Persian Empire, further expansion proved difficult. North of the empire lived the nomads of Central Asia and southern Russia, known in the Greek world as Scythians. Darius failed to fully subdue them, leaving the steppes of Central Asia as the empire’s northernmost frontier. In the east, the Persians expanded into the Indus Valley but failed to gain footholds in India proper. Lastly, the Arabian desert prevented any real expansion into the Arabian peninsula. This left the power-hungry empire with only one direction for worthwhile expansion: the west. Persian armies invaded Europe before the end of the sixth century BC, capturing Thrace and subduing Macedon. Such was the prelude to the titanic clash between the Persian superpower and the world of the Greek city-states…
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