Anatomy of the Persian Empire

The poster child for empire building is Persia. The Classical Era begins at 600 BCE because this is around when the Persian Empire was formed. (For context the Roman Republic gets established 91 years later but it will be another 500 years before it officially becomes the Roman Empire.) And the Persians do such a good job of developing methods for maintaining control of their empire that essentially every other empire in human history is going to in some way copy them.

(Listen to the full episode here!)

cyrus the great & persian social structure

The main person we have to thank for this model is Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire and he is nicknamed “the Great” for a few reasons.

First, he instituted a policy of tolerance over the people he conquered. He allowed them to maintain their local identities – religion, culture, governing structure – as long as they paid tribute (or taxes) to him and as long as their leaders acknowledged him as the King of Kings (or shahanshah – if you know anything about modern Iran, this is where the term “shah” comes from).

Another reason why he got to be a “the Great” is because of what he did for the Jews. Judaism was established back in the ancient era (remember the first city of Ur, where Abraham lived?). According to religious literature they had ruled themselves at one point, but had been cast out by various Mesopotamian city-states who were expanding and conquering surrounding areas. The most famous instance of this is called the Babylonian exile. However, when Cyrus conquered the area known generally as Mesopotamia, he freed the Jews in Babylon, earning him the title “messiah” – the only non-Jewish person to be called that in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even gave the Jews money and support to return home and build the Temple of Jerusalem. Pretty great, huh?

Cyrus was succeeded by his son who wasn’t that great and then by a guy named Darius. (It’s spelled like Darius Rucker from Hootie & the Blowfish – I refuse to accept him as a solo country artist.) While Cyrus was famous for creating the empire, Darius did the work of establishing systems that would unite it – both culturally and physically. So let’s look at what Cyrus and Darius did in Persia, and also some other civilizations who have lovingly plagiarized their model.

Like I mentioned before, the Persians established a principle of social tolerance. Citizens were all awarded equal rights as long as they paid taxes, which was incredibly forward-thinking for the time. Remember, we’re talking about 2600 years ago. Tolerance was an important strategy for gaining support and it worked so well that revolts were very rare in the empire.

Persian political structure

Politically, the Persians realized that the key to maintaining control over such a vast landmass (at their height under Darius they ruled from Libya to Pakistan) was to delegate. They divided up the empire into administrative provinces called satrapies that were ruled by satraps, or governors. Joke break: What did Admiral Ackbar say when he met the Persian governor? It’s satrap!

This model will be copied forever because it makes so much sense. In the Roman Empire it will be governors and provinces, the Spanish will set up viceroys to rule viceroyalties in the New World. The United States does this with its federalist system – governors are responsible for what’s going on in their state. Everyone just calls it something different and claims they came up with it. Delegation is an effective way to maintain your empire – as long as you can keep an eye on your satraps so they don’t get any ideas…

interaction with the environment

Since the Persian empire was so massive, they had to modify their natural environment to create physical unity. The best example of this is the Royal Road. This road and its offshoots created a web across the empire and it served many different purposes. Optimistically, people could travel and trade across the empire more easily. Taxes could also be collected much more efficiently. But also, the leader of Persia could send out a military quickly or, more commonly, his spies. Since he didn’t have the power yet to read everyone’s emails, Darius set up a really efficient postal service to improve communication, but also to send out people known as the “king’s ears” who could report back if people in a satrapy were growing restless or a satrap was becoming too powerful.

PErsian religion

The Persians extended their tolerance to religion, too. Conquered people were allowed to keep their beliefs, but many chose to convert to the Persian religion – Zoroastrianism. It was an incredibly attractive religion for a few reasons.

  1. It was the official religion of Persia and it’s typically beneficial to be the same religion as your ruler.
  2. It introduced new ideas like free will and heaven and hell. Remember – most of the people conquered by the Persians were Mesopotamians before. Their religious outlook was incredibly dark – there was no good option after you died; you just died and ended up in a gloomy, dusty afterlife. So Zoroastrianism would have seemed like a much more enticing alternative. Also, the main god of this religion, Ahura Mazda was as a loving Father figure who had no evil in him. Side note: the car company Mazda took their name from the Zoroastrian god. Why? I have no idea.
  3. Even though Zoroastrianism had one main god – they explained that the worship of all other deities would eventually flow to Ahura Mazda. So local people could retain a lot of their religious practices and get all the benefits of this new religion.

One thing to notice – the Persian religion is structurally almost identical to the way empire was set up. Tolerance toward local customs, the continuity over local rulers, but ultimately everyone was underneath one Father-figure god or “King of Kings.” This made it even easier to maintain control because their religious beliefs backed up the political situation.

(As a counterexample – when Christianity comes along preaching equality under one god, the Romans are not going to like it. It goes against their extreme socio-political hierarchy and their worship of a pantheon of many gods. But you know this, you’ve seen Jesus Christ Superstar.)

Persian economy

Anatomy of the Persian Empire | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: By Deflim [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Persian daric, 420 B.C.E. By Deflim [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The last thing that the Persians did that was a game changer was to invent a standard coin that could be used all across the empire.

The Persian daric was gold and it typically had the image of the king on it – just in case you forgot who was in charge. Power over currency was so important to maintaining imperial control that when provincial leaders started minting their own coins, Darius had them put to death. Tolerance only goes so far…

The Persians were basically crushing it until they went a step too far. They conquered an area known as Ionia on the coast of modern-day Turkey, and there lived a settlement of people who refused to submit to Persian rule. These people also came from an advanced and complex culture and even though they were an isolated colony, they remained loyal to their homeland. They were the Greeks.