The Achaemenid Empire (550 - 330 BC)


Achaemenid Empire at its greatest extent, ca. 500 BC.

The Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BC) is often considered the first truly Iranian Empire both because its territory included modern-day Iran and because it laid the foundations (linguistic, religious, and artistic) for much of what would define later Iranian culture. Far surpassing the middling political power of the Elamites, the empire stretched from the Balkans and Libya in the west to Central Asia and the Hindu Kush in the east, spanning three continents at its height. The Achaemenid era witnessed the conquest of Babylon's Mesopotamian empire, the fall of Egypt under Persian control, and the famous battles of Marathon (490 BC) and Thermopylae (480 BC) in Greece, where Persian expansion was finally halted.

The Achaemenid realm was ruled by the Shahanshah (King of Kings or Great King), who oversaw a flexible administrative system with provinces ruled by viceroys, or satraps. Regions largely retained their local culture, creating a multiethnic, multireligious empire united under Persian political power.


Ruins of the palace of Darius the Great, Persepolis, ca. 500 BC

Rich, militarily powerful, and culturally sophisticated, the Achaemenids have intrigued both ancient and modern scholars. Although a wealth of material remains survives from the empire, internal textual sources are frustratingly sparse. The archaeological evidence includes art, architecture, seals, coins, and inscriptions. At the Achaemenid royal capitals of Persepolis, Pasargadae, and Susa, artists and materials imported from all over the empire merged the traditions of numerous disparate peoples, including Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Elamites. The art created in these capitals is distinctly Iranian, while also reflecting the multicultural origins of its makers, encapsulating Achaemenid culture in miniature.

In the mid-4th century BC, after suffering from a grueling satrapal revolt and worsening economic conditions, the Achaemenid empire was indisputably in decline. It was perfect timing for Alexander III (or Alexander the Great), the newly crowned king of Macedon. In 334 BC, he launched one of the most successful military campaigns in history, marching across Persian territory and undoing Achaemenid conquests one by one, until he reached the capital, Persepolis. Within just ten years of the beginning of Alexander's campaign, the destruction of the Persepolis and the death of the final Great King ended the Achaemenid dynasty.

Although the Macedonian invasion led to the swift dissolution of the Achaemenid Empire, its cultural and political legacy left a deep imprint on regional cultures throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Echoes of Achaemenid art and administration crop up in many regional cultures, and memories of Iranian greatness inspired imitation and admiration in subsequent Persian empires. 

The Achaemenid Empire