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The civilization on the Iranian plateau is very ancient; copper was smelted there about 5500 BC, and Elam in the lowlands lagged only slightly behind Sumer in the development of hieroglyphic writing 5,000 years ago. However, the Elamites adopted the written language of Akkadian as the most universal language of the area for two millennia. An overlord in Susa ruled over vassal princes.
The oldest written document of a treaty found so far was between the Akkadian Naram-Sin and an Elamite king about 43 centuries ago. Much of what is known about Elamite civilization comes to us from Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian records. The cities of Susa and Anshan were important links for trade and communication between Mesopotamia and the Harrapan culture of the Indus valley. Elam overthrew the Third dynasty of Ur in the 21st century BC; three centuries later they were conquered by Babylon’s Hammurabi, but they were able to defeat his son.
In the 17th century BC when the Kassites began to take over Babylon, they also dominated Elam, as Aryans came through Iran on their way to India bringing Indo-Iranian languages in the first half of the second millennium BC. Elam clashed with Assyria in the thirteenth century BC but reached its height of power in the twelfth century BC when Shutruk-nahhunte I overthrew the Kassites in Babylon, and his son took the statue of Marduk to Susa. King Shilkhak-Inshushinak invaded Assyria as far as Ashur and besieged Babylon, establishing a brief Elamite empire which used the proto-Elamite script in its inscriptions. However, before the twelfth century was over, Babylon’s Nebuchadrezzar I defeated the Elamites and took Marduk’s statue back. For the next three centuries little is known of Elamite culture. Assyrian military campaigns against Elam in the eighth century BC increased in the seventh century climaxing in 639 BC when Ashurbanipal’s armies destroyed Susa and sowed the land with salt. Elam continued to exist for another century but never rose to power again.
The name Iran derives from the word “Aryan,” and in the first half of the first millennium BC Iranian-speaking peoples moved gradually into the area of the Zagros mountains, the largest groups being the Medes and the Persians. More effective use of iron tools and irrigation from the ninth to the seventh centuries BC enabled the Iranians to farm more successfully and increase population in the plains. The Aryans brought horses and chariots, and their use of cavalry stimulated the Assyrians to do the same. The Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III conquered and deported 65,000 Medes replacing them on the plateau with Aramaeans. Urartu led by its king Rusas I tried to fight back against the Assyrians, and the semi-legendary first king of the Medes, Daiukku, was said to have united dozens of tribal chiefs to join the effort. According to Herodotus Daiukku had been made king because of his reputation for making fair judgments. Assyria’s Sargon II defeated dozens of Median chiefs and settled 30,000 captured Israelis in the towns of the Medes in the late eighth century BC. From the northwest came Scythians and Cimmerians who devastated Urartu so badly that Rusas committed suicide.
While Assyrian king Sennacherib was busy fighting Babylon, Elam, Egypt, and Judea, the Medes rallied around Khshathrita (called Phraortes by Herodotus), the son of Daiukku, and with Cimmerians as allies and Persians as vassals they attacked Nineveh in 653 BC but were defeated, and Khshathrita was killed. The Scythians took advantage of this opportunity by invading and subjugating the Medes for 28 years. Herodotus told how the next Median king Cyaxares killed the drunken Scythian chieftains at a banquet and went on to recover Median power. The prophet Nahum indicated that the growing hatred of the Assyrian nobility, priests, military, administrators, and merchants was going to bring about the downfall of that empire. Adopting the specialized military units that had been used by the Urartians and Assyrians for more than a century, the Medes marched west and took Arrapkha in 615 BC, surrounded Nineveh the next year, and then went on to take Ashur by storm. Nineveh fell in 612 BC with help from the Babylonians. The Assyrian empire was divided between the Medes and the Babylonians.
Babylon ruled over the fertile crescent, while Media controlled the north and east. The Medes came into conflict with Lydia, the major power in Asia Minor, and fought with them for five years before an eclipse of the sun stimulated them to agree to a truce mediated by Babylonians in 585 BC. That same year Astyages succeeded as Median king and ruled for 35 years. Perhaps influenced by Zarathushtra, Astyages was reluctant to engage in continual conquest and thus alienated the ambitious aristocracy. A plot of the nobles was organized by Hypargus, and border tribes were incited to rebel by Oebares and others. After Persian king Cyrus II revolted, Babylonian king Nabonidus took back Harran in 553 BC while the Medes were defeating Cyrus, who was forced to retreat. Faced with the Persian revolt and the betrayal of the aristocracy, Astyages was captured, and the royal city of Ecbatana had to submit to Cyrus, according to Ctesias because Cyrus threatened to torture his daughter Amytis, whom Cyrus later married.
Cyrus II inherited a Persian kingdom in the Median empire from his father Cambyses I in 559 BC. The mother of Cyrus was a daughter of the Median king Astyages. Herodotus, who delighted in relating stories of how oracles and dreams unexpectedly came true, wrote that because of a dream Astyages tried to have Cyrus murdered when he was a baby; but Hypargus did not want to kill him and left it to another who saved the child. When the boy was found to be acting like a king he was discovered and returned to his true mother and father. This ironic story may have been fabricated to justify Cyrus for overthrowing his grandfather.
As a vassal king in Anshan Cyrus ruled from his capital at Parsagarda and united seven Persian princes into a royal council under his leadership. Cyrus initiated diplomatic relations with Babylon’s king Nabonidus and was able to win over Hypargus and much of the Median aristocracy when he revolted against Astyages and took over the Median empire in 550 BC. Cyrus bypassed the fortresses of Babylon and marched north to capture the Assyrian cities of Arbela and Ashur whose gods’ statues had been taken to Babylon. Harran, the city sacred to Nabonidus, must also have fallen, as Cyrus proceeded on to invade Cilicia, Cappadocia, and Armenia. In each of these cases Cyrus allowed native kings to retain power under his rule as he established satrapies.
Croesus, who held the regional power as king of Lydia, formed an alliance with Egypt’s Amasis, Babylon’s Nabonidus, and the Spartans who wanted to defend the Greek city states in Asia. Believing the Delphic oracle, which declared he would destroy a great empire, Croesus refused to be a king under Persian sovereignty. Croesus crossed the Halys River, which divided the empires, and began to devastate the Syrian lands in Cappadocia and enslave the inhabitants not driven out. The Median general Hypargus suggested placing camels in the front line which intimidated the Lydians’ horses and enabled the Persians to win a victory and take Sardis after a two-week siege. Herodotus told how Croesus was saved from being burned to death by rain and a reprieve from Cyrus. The great empire Croesus destroyed was his own Lydian empire. Croesus blamed Apollo for his defeat, saying, “No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace – in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”7 Yet he had chosen war.
Since Miletus was the only Greek city state to surrender, the others were conquered by the Persian army led by Hypargus; then the islanders surrendered. Cyrus once again was able to use local disaffection for another easy victory over a Mesopotamian power, this time Babylon, winning over their general Gobryas, who took Uruk in 546 and Babylon in 539 BC and become satrap of the new province of Babirush. Nabonidus was severely criticized by Persian propaganda, and the Akkadian gods were returned to their temples, as Cyrus tried to legitimize his taking the kingship of Babylon. Business went on without much change under Persian rule, but the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland under generous conditions that allowed them to take the precious utensils that had been stolen from their temple a half century before by the Babylonians. Cyrus had been heralded as the Lord’s anointed by Jewish prophets.
Cyrus also expanded the Persian empire greatly in the east to the edge of India; but if he was influenced by the new religion of Zarathushtra, it did not quell his desire for imperial conquest. Near the Jaxartes River he ran into the Massagetae led by Queen Tomyris who sent him the following message:
King of the Medes, I advise you to abandon this enterprise, for you cannot know if in the end it will do you any good. Rule your own people, and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine. But of course you will refuse my advice; as the last thing you wish for is to live in peace.8
In 529 BC a bloody battle was fought, destroying most of the Persian army and killing Cyrus.
Eight years before he died Cyrus had made his son Cambyses king of Babylon, while a second son Bardiya administered the eastern provinces. When Cambyses II succeeded his father, he had his brother Bardiya secretly assassinated and then invaded Egypt. With the advice of a defecting Greek general, Cambyses was able to get Bedouin help in crossing the desert. In a battle, in which Greek mercenaries fought on both sides, the Egyptian forces of Psamtik III fled to Memphis, which then fell to the Persians. From Egypt Cambyses tried to attack Carthage, but his Phoenician allies refused to fight against their own colony. According to Herodotus, a venture against a Libyan oasis failed because of a sandstorm. Cambyses did manage to invade Nubia, but the Persians suffered great losses on their return. Greek accounts of Cambyses’ atrocities in Egypt probably reflect Egyptian resentment for the Persian domination they suffered until 402 BC. In 522 BC a man saying he was Bardiya rose up and tried to rule in Persia, and Cambyses headed home but died on the way.
Darius, a prince and governor of Parthia who had commanded the ten thousand immortals against Egypt, led a group of seven Persian nobles, maintained control of the army, and put down the revolt, killing the false Bardiya two months after the death of Cambyses, though it took two years to put down the various revolts in the empire. Darius sent forces led by Otanes to help Syloson, the exiled brother of Polycrates, to retake the island of Samos. He appointed Zerubbabel governor of Judah, and when the order of Cyrus to restore the temple was discovered, Darius supported that project. In 519 BC Darius himself crossed the Caspian Sea and led the invasion of the eastern Scythians, and the following winter he marched to Egypt where he sought wise men and reinstated the former Egyptian laws. He also ordered the digging of a canal 150 feet wide from the Nile River to the Gulf of Suez.
After seizing a great empire Darius endeavored to judge it by establishing laws. The empire was divided into twenty provinces, each ruled by a Persian satrap and a commander-in-chief. The Persians were exempted from taxation, and India’s gold provided nearly a third of the total annual tribute valued at 14,500 talents of silver. Inspectors called “the ears of the king” kept him informed and had their own armed forces. The laws were intended to keep the stronger from destroying the weak. Judges were appointed for life unless they were removed for miscarriage of justice. Darius claimed that he loved what is right and hated lies and what is wrong, that he was not angry but restrained those who were angry. Those who injured he punished. Those who did not speak the truth he did not trust, believing that anyone who lies destroys. He even withdrew a death sentence when he realized that he had violated his own law not to execute anyone for only one crime, but in weighing the man’s services against his crime ended up making him a governor. However, the death penalty was used for offenses against the state or the royal family, and mutilation was common for lesser crimes.
Darius encouraged trade and economic development in a number of ways. He standardized weights and measures and coinage on a bimetallic system of gold and silver that had been introduced by Croesus in Lydia. Darius created a network of roads including a royal highway from Susa to Sardis in Lydia. He commended the satrap of Asia Minor and Syria for transplanting fruit trees from beyond the Euphrates. Sesame spread to Egypt, and rice was planted in Mesopotamia. Generally large estates were worked by serfs and war-captured slaves who belonged to the land. Industry not only produced luxury goods made from precious metals, but also trade of useful tools, household products, and inexpensive clothing raised the living standards of many people. However, the empire did have to be supported, and there were taxes on ports, internal trade, and sales as well as on estates, fields, gardens, flocks, and mines. The wages of skilled workers, laborers, and even women and children were strictly regulated.
The Indus valley had been subdued and made into the satrapy of Hindush by 513 BC when Darius crossed the Bosphorus and led an attack against the European Scythians. With the vassal help of hundreds of Greek ships the Persians defeated the Getae and got the Thracians to submit. However, the Scythians destroyed their own land and while retreating harassed the Persian army with arrows from horsemen. King Darius fled back to Asia but left behind 800,000 soldiers led by Megabazus, satrap of Dascyleium, to continue the fighting. The next year Libya was conquered after a nine-month siege of Barca, while Megabazus was taking the towns of Thrace one by one and deporting their warriors to Phrygia. -Internet
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