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The Persian Empire

Unknown author

The Medes

The area of Media was south of the Caspian Sea, and north-east of the Tigris River, north and east of the Babylonian empire. In 745-727, Assyria attacked some of the tribes of the Medes as they were a threat to them. Before this, in the 8th cent, Media provided many horses for the Assyrians.

In 722 BC, Sargon II placed many of the exiled people of Israel in the cities of the Medes (2 Kg 17:5-6, 18:11), which he controlled. As the Assyrian empire weakened, the strength of the Medes increased. In 615 Cyaxares marched on Nineveh and was repulsed. The Babylonian king Nabopolassar made a treaty with Cyaxares which was sealed by the marriage of Amytis, granddaughter of Cyaxares, to his son and heir Nebuchadnezzar, and together they took Nineveh three years later in 612 BC.

The Persians

At the time that interests us, the Persian peoples lived east of the Elamites and along the Zagros mountain range to the east. When the Assyrians were fighting along their eastern border they would often come across Persians along with other various tribes. Around 675 BC, the Persians gained freedom from the Median Empire under Kishpish. His title was "King, king great, king of the city Anshan". His older son became king over the area of Persia, while his younger son Cyrus, was given Anshan, the area east of Elam. The house of the younger served the older until the son of Cyrus, Cambyses I married the daughter of the Median king Astyages. Their first born son Cyrus II is one of the most celebrated kings in history, the one Isaiah called "my shepherd, and his anointed" (Is 44:28, 45:1).

In 559 BC, Cyrus II became king of Anshan and made an alliance with Nabonidus, the usurper of Babylon. Together, they conquered most of the land nearby and most of south west Asia. In 539, Cyrus overthrew Babylon from the insecure regime of Belshazzar (Dan 5). Nabonidus had made him regent while he was off on military campaigns in Arabia. (Darius the Mede mentioned in Dan 5:30 should not be confused with Darius, King of Persia from 521-486. This Darius is probably Gubaru, governor of Babylon under Cyrus).

The Babylonian Empire was in no condition to resist the Medes and Persians. Nabonidus had not even visited the city for fourteen years but left the administration to his son Belshazzar. the Persians took the city without a fight. He diverted the Euphrates, enabling the invaders to march in on the dried up river bed by night. When Cyrus entered, there was public rejoicing and a peace settlement was quickly reached.

Gubaru (Darius) was appointed sub-governor. Cyrus is seen as a man of generous and benevolent character. He ruled his empire by allowing each province a remarkable degree of autonomy and freedom of religion and custom. He built roads, cities, a postal system, and parks. The "Cyrus Cylinder" in the British Museum records how he captured Babylon without a fight and his edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem, as in Ezra ch 1.

In 530 BC, the kingdom passed to his son Cambyses II. He put down various attempts to put down the throne and extended the empire south-west into Egypt. It is thought that Cambyses II committed suicide in 522. The army supported a distant cousin named Darius. He was commander of the troops under Cambyses and was able to hold the empire. He built a palace at Susa, the ancient Elamite city. To the west Darius extended the empire to conquer the Greek coastal cities of Asia Minor. He reorganised the political system, dividing the empire into Satrapies. He introduced a new currency - the Daric.

In 490, Athens fought Persia, and defeated them at Marathon. In 485, Darius died and Xerxes ascended to the throne and dealt with an Egyptian revolt. Egypt was reduced to slavery. This Xerxes is the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther. In 480, he built a bridge across the Hellespont and invaded Greece. Later that year, he reached Athens but was defeated in battle at Thermopylae in 480 BC. The Persians were defeated the next year at Salamis and withdrew from Greece.

The reigns after Xerxes experienced increasing rebellion and had incompetent rulers. The Greeks, after the battles of 480 BC, realized that the only way to rid themselves of the Persians was to unite and fight. Philip of Macedonia planned such a venture. After his death, Alexander set out to bring Persia under Greek control. In November 333, Alexander won against incredible odds. He opened up the Hellenistic age, with the Greek language, customs and manners triumphing over all others. After the death of Alexander in 323, his four generals divided and fought over the empire. Persia fell to Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid Empire.

Kings of Media

Cyaxares 625 - 585
Astyages 585 - 550

Kings of Persia

Cyrus II 550 - 530
Cambyses 530 - 521
Smerdis 521
Darius I 521 - 486
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 486 - 464
Artaxerxes I 464 - 423
Darius II 423 - 404
Artaxerxes II 404 - 359
Artaxerxes III 359 - 338
Arses 338 - 336
Darius III 336 - 331

Government Administration

The Persian empire was divided into Satrapies (provinces) for the administration of the huge empire, which covered sixty nations. The number of satrapies varied between 20 and 29. The power of each satrap varied from area to area. Some minted their own silver, as the king did. Others commanded armies, repaired roads and collected taxes.

Each Satrapy was subdivided into secondary and tertiary units, to enable effective administration.

The secondary units were called Governorates ("medinah"), sometimes called provinces (Est 1:1). These were divided according to previous Assyrian and Babylonian districts. The number of these varies eg. 127 provinces (Est 1:1). Each was presided over by an official ("pihat") known as "His Excellency" (Neh 10:2, Ezra 2:63, Neh 8:9). In addition to the Governorates each Satrapy included a number of cities or regions ruled by local dynasties, territories of semi-nomadic tribes, and royal fortresses.

Governorates were subdivided into tertiary units called Districts which correspond to the administrative areas used by the kings of Judah and Israel. They consisted of one or two towns and a number of villages.

Disputes between various administrative units, and even civil wars between satraps were nothing unusual. We see it recorded in scripture, where Samaritan authorities interfered in the affairs of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7-23).

The administrative division of Palestine in the Persian period reflects the wisdom of Persian rule. Under the general supervision of the satrap at Damascus, autonomous nations governed by native governors, lived side by side with trading cities and royal fortresses, while around them, on the edge of the desert, roved nomad tribes, free allies of the King.

Official communications were made in Aramaic, but also translated into the relevant local tongues.

The Land beyond the River

The Fifth Satrapy was called "the land beyond the River" ("Eber Nari"), the river being the Euphrates. This Satrapy covered the area from the city of Posidium (Northern Syria) to the borders of Egypt, excluding the district of Arabia which was tax free. The Governor or Satrap resided in Damascus. Within Judah there were six districts and twelve subdistricts.

Judah was called Yehud, and was a province under the satrap of Eber Nari. The governor was assisted by the High Priest and Council of Elders. We know of only six of the governors of Judah:
1. Sheshbazzar (Ezra 5:14).
2. Zerubbabel. Called by the prophet Haggai, "governor of Judah" (Hag 1:1).
3. Nehemiah (Neh 5:14,18) (Artaxerxes I 465-425 BC)
4. Bigoai or Bagohi (408 BC)
5. Yehoezer
6. Ahio

The province of Judah was roughly the shape of a rectangle. It extended from north to south along the watershed of the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley, from Ramallah to the neighbourhood of Hebron; and in the east-west direction it stretched from the Jordan to the foot of the Mediterranean. (40 km N-S, 50 km E-W; total area 2000 sq km, of which a third was desert). The surplus of population, smallness of cultivable area, and the long period of peace under Persian rule lead to extension of Jewish settlements into the coastal plains and the mountains north of Judah.

Military Organisation

The Persian army was the chief support of the Empire's power. At first, only Persians themselves were used as soldiers. But as the Empire grew, men from every country within it began to take part. Commanders remained Persian, but the troops were made up of men from many different countries. Each specialized unit of fighters was arranged by nationality. Each soldier was permitted to use his own armour and weapons. Eventually this weakened the army considerably. Combinations of camel riders and chariots were not uncommon, and they could not function very well together in battle.

Capitals and Palaces

Palaces of the Persian king housed an extremely large number of people and animals. The king himself, his wives and concubines, members of the royal family and Persian nobles all lived in separate palace buildings. Guests, royal messengers and hundreds of servants lived in the palace area as well. Even horses, mules and camels were kept in palace stables, ready for immediate use. Other buildings on the palace grounds were for keeping royal records and maintaining the treasury.

Harems consisted of a courtyard with small, stuffy rooms around the sides, one for each concubine or wife. In a large harem there would be several courts, especially separating foreign policy wives, who each had their own area, wives for pleasure and concubines. The women spent their days in the courtyards. Women who displeased the king were locked up in their small room where they soon sickened and died. Others were executed or drowned.


Susa, the location of the Winter Palace, was Located in south west Iran. The climate was mixed, majestic mountains almost encircle the city and provide shield against frigid winter winds. Snow fed streams descending those mountains fed the fertile, rich soil. But the same mountains cut off cool northerly breezes for nine months of the year and Susa becomes hot, parched and breathless. The plant life was abundant and in the spring nurtured deadly snakes. The air was full of disease carrying insects. Once the home of elephants and wild cattle as well, the river thickets of Susa sheltered lions, bears, panthers and other wild creatures.

Today the mound of earth that once was the ancient city covers almost 5,000 acres. But this is only a fraction of the great city, which rose and spread over centuries to cover nearly 36,000 acres. The city was built in the shape of a falcon with its wings outspread.

The findings of archaeologists reveal that Susa was a fairly well-developed city even in early times. The earliest known code of law was found there, the Code of Hammurabi, named after a king of that period. The temples and palaces of many different rulers and peoples over many generations were built in Susa, which finally became the capital of the kingdom of Elam.

When Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, conquered Elam, he took possession of Susa. His successor, Darius the Great, restored many of the city's ancient palaces. He added new royal buildings, some directly on top of an Elamite graveyard.

The palace built by Darius was decorated with rainbow-glazed reliefs of mythical beasts and archers. Tapestries covered the walls in splashes of white, green and violet. The throne was 250 sq. ft. Guests feasted and lounged on couches of gold and silver, surrounded by objects made of precious stones and metals.

For two centuries, Susa was most important as the administrative capital of the Persian Empire. Filled with people from all over the Empire and from other countries, it rivalled Babylon as the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city in the area.

The other cities included, Ecbatana, where the king's Summer Palace was located; and Persepolis, which was the official capital. The palace was occupied only in the spring months.

Persian Kings

A person wanting to see the King made an appointment through the scribes and secretaries. On the day he was to visit the king, he was checked over by guards at the entrance, inside the palace, and even in the throne room itself. High-ranking people usually bowed or knelt on one knee before the King. Lower-ranking visitors, or a noble with a particularly urgent request, fell on the ground before the throne, prostrating themselves. The purpose of the visit was quickly stated, if necessary the king consulted with his advisors, the request was answered and the visitor took his leave. Unscheduled audiences were not permitted, the offender usually being arrested, tortured and put to death. The offender only became safe if the king held out his sceptre (Est 5:2). The sceptre was a long stick decorated, topped with a knob of gold or precious stone.

The king was believed to have descended from the gods, his person was thought to be sacred. His coronation day was considered his birthday as he was "reborn" as king and given a new throne name. From that time on he ate behind a gold mesh curtain to shield himself from the sight of others. He alone had the power to decree life or death. At his death, family and servants mourned so greatly at the loss of his "personal fire" that they sometimes maimed themselves or committed suicide.

Rings were used as signatures. Rings had a design on them representing that particular king and were used like a seal.

Michael Avi-Yonah. The Holy Land: From the Persian to the Arab Conquest. A Historical Geography
Edwin M. Yamauchi. Persia and the Bible. Baker 1990.
A Survey of the Old Testament : Introduction by Gleason L. Archer
The Book of Life Vol.15 : Return to the Land by V. Gilbert Beers