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Where was Ancient Iran?

File:Iran map.pngAchaemenid-Empire

Above: Modern-day Iran as compared to Iran at the height of its expansion, ca. 500 BC

Today, Iran is a country that stretches from Iraq and the Zagros mountains in the west to the deserts and mountains shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.  But its borders shifted over time, and unlike Greece and Rome, so did its capital and cultural centers. During the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550-330 BC), "Iran" stretched all the way to Egypt, and in the last phase of its pre-Islamic period, for instance, the Sasanian Empire (ca. 224-651 CE), its capital was in the city of Ctesiphon, close to modern-day Baghdad in Iraq.  

To help you trace the evolution of Ancient Iran, we have divided the project into five main phases:

  • Early Iran (ca. 2000-550 BC) - The Elamite kingdom and various Iranian peoples.
  • The Achaemenid Period (ca. 550-330 BC) - Iran at its greatest extent.
  • The Seleucid Period (ca. 312-63 BC)
  • The Parthian Period (ca. 250 BC-224 CE)
  • The Sasanian Period (ca. 224-651 CE)

Early Iran


Elam was the first state built in Ancient Iran. From the early 3rd millennium BC, the Elamites occupied much of southwestern Iran and competed with the Mesopotamian civilizations to the west. The Elamites spoke what is known as a “language isolate” - one that has no known relation to other recorded languages - and developed unique cultural traditions (Languages, Poster 1). Elam’s strategic position -- covering both the fertile plains of lowland Khuzestan and the defensible Zagros Mountains -- helped it survive the tumultuous Bronze and Iron Ages until their cities were taken in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Their technological innovations laid the groundwork for later Iranian Empires (Technology, Posters 1 - 4).


Elam’s relationships with neighboring countries were often defined by warfare. This is especially the case with the Akkadians, who under Sargon the Great (arguably) came to form the first empire in human history. They did so with an iron fist, repeatedly sacking and bullying nearby peoples. The Elamites themselves saw their capital city of Susa burned and ruined by the Akkadians. However, they maintained their sovereignty throughout these hardships and even made incursions of their own in Mesopotamia (Art and Archaeology, Poster 1).


Fast forward a few centuries. The Achaemenids, a people from southern Iran, conquered the Median and Babylonian Empires in the north and quickly established the largest empire the world had yet seen (Warfare, Poster 1). The Achaemenid world stretched from Macedon and Egypt in the west to the Indus Valley in the east thanks to a massive and diverse military that was nearly impossible to counter (Warfare, Posters 3 - 4). An incredibly long road connected the western half of the empire, which is where many Achaemenid kings focused their administrative efforts (Coins, Poster 2). The Achaemenids cemented what would become a hallmark of Ancient Iran -- a tradition of monarchy. Powerful kings orchestrated battles, made coins, and ran the empire (Silk Road, Poster 1; Coins, Poster 1).

The might of the Achaemenid Empire went unchallenged for two hundred years until Alexander the Great and his Greek-Macedonian army systematically invaded and destroyed it, infamously burning Persepolis to the ground in the 320s BC (Art and Archaeology, Poster 5). Alexander won battle after battle with his strategic planning and revolutionary tactics, but he eventually left the campaign trail to appease his homesick troops. In his new capital at Babylon, Alexander adopted many elements of Achaemenid kingship -- including Iranian titles, a court harem, and even Persian clothes (Coins, Poster 3). Nonetheless, Alexander ushered in Greek language, religion, and colonists, transforming the cultural landscape of Ancient Iran (Languages, Poster 6).


Though Alexander died soon after returning to Babylon, his successor Seleucus managed to secure the vast majority of his conquests, namely Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau, and south-central Asia. The newfound Seleucid Empire oversaw pieces of the Iranian world for about two and a half centuries and normalized Hellenistic art, religion, and social norms (Languages, Poster 6). Greek deities were worshipped across the empire and integrated into existing Iranian pantheons. The Greek language became the tongue of aristocrats and administrators. The empire was both established and maintained through use of military force; the Seleucid kings needed to constantly tour their territory to squash rebellions and prop up borders (Coins, Poster 4). The one rebellion the Seleucids failed to defeat, however -- the Parthians, or Arsacids, who came from the northeastern extent of their empire -- would come to overthrow them.


A tribal leader named Arsaces began his conquest of the Seleucid Empire in the 240s BC. His descendants, using a radical strategy involving horseback-riding archers, eventually evicted the Seleucids entirely and established a new empire (Warfare, Poster 5). They controlled almost as much territory as the Achaemenids, but were tempered in the west by the Roman Empire. Having cemented their place as a world power with a devastating victory over Rome in 53 BC, the Arsacid kings spent much of their time fighting or negotiating with the much more powerful Roman emperors (Warfare, Poster 6). Outside of this conflict, the Arsacids were relatively weak monarchs whose job was to oversee a diverse, loosely united empire. They kept its loyalty by evoking the memory of the Achaemenid kings that came before (Coins, Posters 5 - 6).  


The Arsacid period came to an end with the rise of the Sasanian dynasty. Lead by Ardashir, a noble from the modern-day province of Fars in the south of Iran, the Sasanians emerged from the heartland of the Iranian Plateau and accused the Arsacids of failing to uphold the royal standard set by the Achaemenids, which they revered (Art and Archaeology, Posters 6 - 7). What began as a local rebellion quickly led to the execution of the final Arsacid monarch. The resulting Sasanian Empire was massive, at one point pushing the borders of their rivals, the Byzantine Romans, all the way to Constantinople. The Sasanians were devout Zoroastrians; Zoroastrian priests were made very powerful local officials, inspired prophets preached to the masses, and neighboring lands were proselytized (Zoroastrianism, Posters 5 & 7). Their empire was a commercial hotspot, containing much of the Silk Road and allowing them access to many ports and waterways (Silk Road, Posters 2 - 5).


The Sasanian Empire became vulnerable when an attempt at sacking Constantinople backfired, bankrupting the country and exposing Ancient Iran to invasions from both the Romans and the newly formed Rashidun Caliphate. The Rashiduns, led by a series of caliphs and their generals over the second half of the 7th century CE, dismantled the Sasanian Empire, swiftly conquering Mesopotamia, Iran, and Central Asia.

After supplanting the Sasanian Empire, the Rashidun Caliphate oversaw much of its former territory. As they were new rulers themselves, the Rashidun conquerors used many elements of Sasanian government. Among other things, they held onto Sasnian coin styles, roads, fashion, textile and glassware production, and mythical stories (Legacies, Posters 1 - 2, 4, 9). While the infusion of Islam would pave the way for many cultural innovations in Iran’s future, the legacy of Ancient Iran was preserved in almost every facet of Rashidun society.