In this episode we discuss the first superpower the world has seen, The Persian Achaemenid. Founded by Cyrus the Great, a cult figure in Iran even still today, roughly 2,500 years after his death. Cyrus laid the foundation for how all empires after his Persian Empire would rule, he set the template for centralized bureaucratic administration. Making a cameo are the Ancient Greeks, whose culture and history were often at odds and even envious of the Persian Empire it later eclipsed.Support the show
Podcast #9-12 US-Iranian Relations (ancient Persia)
Donald Trump is a very divisive character, In my lifetime ive never seen someone so polarizing… either loved or hated. Last year was a weird one… I think everyone can agree on that probably one of the worst years in my and many of your lives… To me one of the highlighted days of 2020 (and there were many) was
January 3rd 2020 the United States President Donald J Trump authorized a drone strike on Major General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the infamous Iranian Quds force. The strike killed Five Iraqi nationals and four other Iranian nationals alongside Soleimani.
Soleimani was the 2nd most powerful person in Iran, behind only Supreme leader (and the Iranian voice of God on earth) Ali Khameni.
US officials justified the Soleimani strike claiming it was necessary to stop an “imminent attack” and Iranian officieals replied by calling the assassination a “violation of international law” as well as an act of “state terrorism”
The attack was apart of the larger conflict known as the 2019-2021 Persian Gulf Crisis. The Crisis has seen a breadown in relations between Iran – and the USA. Including numerous seizures of oil tankers, acts of violence and accusations of drone strikes.
This got me thinking why are the relations between Iran and the Usa so poor?
Iran is a country as rich in history as the USA is economically. The Persians (the historic name for the Iranian people) have been called the “First Historical People” due to their ancient history which has spanned millennium Dating back as far as 7000 BC. The first true global superpower was the Persian, Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) you might remember them as the bad guys from the movie 300. Founded by Cyrus the Great, or the much cooler Persianized version of the name Kourosh (the ancestor of Xerxes the Ripped godking in 300). Iran has continually reasserted its national identity throughout the centuries and has developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.
The earliest found artefacts in Iran have been dated back to 10,000 years ago during the Stone Age found in the ancient village of Elam (located on the modern day Persian Gulf).
(for comparison, the oldest known writing form was that of ancient Sumerian dating back about 5,000 years ago)
Apart of Iran is located in the Fertile Crescent or Mesopotamia, where humanity’s first major crops were grown and civilizations popped up. Susa (the Elamite capital and major point of interest in the subsequent Persian empires) was one such city.
Susa is one of the oldest-known settlements of Iran and the world. the time of foundation of the city can be dated back to as early as 4395 BC.
Not much is known about this time, its difficult for us to understand history through archeology (before written history) because all we can go off are estimates. The more ancient writing we find the clearer the picture becomes. (provided we can translate, thank you Rosetta stone)
In the 20th century BC (2000 BC) The historical picture got a little bit clearer, the Assyrians arose in the Mesopotamia and conquered into the fertile crescent and the regions we now consider Iran. Not traditionally Iranian people they did mix and intermingle with them. The Assyrians constructed a great library in their capital of Nineveh because of this we were able to find some of the ancient scripts from this time. The Assyrians are most famous for being “the Nazi’s of the old world” for their brutality. They were fierce warriors and cruel overlords.
Some of the Assyrian cuneiform tablets that have been left behind, have displayed horrible things, one such cuneiform tablet located in the British Museum shows One especially gruesome panel with military captives having their tongues cut out to reduce the screams when they were later skinned alive
Throughout history the Assyrian empire fell and rose again.
The final great Assyrian empire was the Neo-Assyrian empire, it came back in the 900bc -600bc and caused the city states of western iran to form into a centralized state to defend itself. These people would become an important part of the Persian identity, they were the Medes
The Medes are credited with establishing Iran as a nation and hitherto was the largest of its day until Cyrus the Great.
CYRUS THE GREAT
Cyrus II was born about 600 BC in the ancient city of ANSHAN. His parents were royalty, His father was the king of Anshan and his mother was a daughter of the King of the Median Empire. Its difficult to say what happened during his childhood, there are detailed accounts but what comes down to us is mostly from Herodotus (Herodotus was kinda the dramatist of the ancient world Nevertheless thanks to him we have a 3D vision of History compared to the 2D vision we have of the Ancient Assyrians and Babylonians)
According to Herodotus The Marriage between Cambysis (Cyrus’s father) and Mandane (his mother) occurred after The King of the Medes had a prophetic dream where water flowed from Mandane (his daughters) woom and flooded his kingdom (after consulting an oracle about this it was decided that this dream was a dark prophetic vision about the destruction of the Median empire)… The King of the Medes wanted to get rid of his daughter to prevent his prophecy so he married her off to Cambysis, The King of Anshan, a weak and small city state far away.
The King of the Medes then had a second dream where Vines spurted out of his daughters woom and covered his empire. He concluded that his grandson must die.
He gave the baby Cyrus to one of his trusted servants to murder him, instead the servant gave the baby to a cow herder named Mitradates to do the job. Mitradates could not bring himself to do it and adopted the baby cyrus. His wife had recently had a stillborn baby and so they replaced cyrus with the dead baby.
Cyrus lived an ordinary life as the son of a cow herder for 10 years until one day he was found out. Acting aristocratic Cyrus gave an order to one of the other village boys who refused to obey. Cyrus then beat the boy into submission… The people believed that this aristocratic personality must come from the son of a king and the boy who was beaten’s father reported to the king of the Medes.
Cyrus got off easy, the king decided that since he had become king of the village boys the prophecy had been fulfilled and so he allowed Cyrus to live, and even sent him to live with his birth parents in Anshan
The Servant who disobeyed the king of Medes did not, however. The king invited him to a banquet in his honor, feeding the servant round after round of food, after the servant couldn’t eat anymore the king revealed on a dish the head of the servant’s son… and that he had been eating his own son as revenge for not following the kings orders all those years ago. The Servant thanked the king and quietly took what was left of his son home to bury.
In 559 BC Cyrus ascended to the throne of Anshin. The Kingdom of Anshin was a vassal state of The Median Empire and so Cyrus had to continue paying tribute to the Medes.
As the legend goes, the Servant who saved Cyrus’s life and had been fed his son by Cyrus’s grandfather (the king of the Medes) began to persuade Cyrus to rebel against the Median Empre. Cyrus agreed to this, but he needed to unite the Persian people (Think of the Persians like the ancient Greek city states, disunited but unified by a common language and culture).
He Invited all the kings and laid out a metaphor. He had all the kings clear out a medow taking an entire day and the following day they feasted and had a banquet in the medow. He asked the kings which day they preferred and they unanimously agreed the day spent feasting. Cyrus replied the first day was life under the Medes, a life of slavery and servitude and the 2nd day was the life under a united Persian empire. His metaphor worked and he united the Persians into a rebellion against the Medes.
The Median king must not have been the smartest because he assigned the Servant who he fed his son to years before as general of his army. The Servant conspired against The Median King and many of the soldiers in the kings army rebelled and joined Cyrus and the Persians. In 550 BC Cyrus marched on the capital city Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) captured it and allowed his grandfather to live. Cyrus always being liberal and open to new things then married The Median king (His grandfathers) daughter… His aunt Amytis, strengthening his legitimacy as a ruler.
Cyrus thus became the first Persian Shahanshah or King of Kings as It translates into English
With his conquest of the Median Empire Cyrus Officially proclaimed the First Persian Empire in 550 BC. From here he set his attentions to the western Lydian Empire (in modern day Turkey)
Well according to Herodotus, The Lydian King set his attention on Cyrus and the Persian empire. The Lydian King who was the brother in law of the now abdicated Median King was worried about Cyrus expanding into Lydia. He went to the famed oracle of Delphi to ask what he should do… The Oracle told him “If Croesus (kreesus) goes to war then he will destroy a great empire” (Creosus being the name of the Lydian king). Quite an Ambiguous message, which of course Creosus misinterpreted.
The Lydians launched a preemptive strike and captured one of the Persian Border towns in 547 BC. Cyrus formed an army to reclaim his lost lands and met him in the field of battle. The two fought to a stalemate, and with winter fast approaching the Lydian king returned back to his capital, never thinking Cyrus would or could attack in the winter season. Cyrus knew he had to destroy The Lydians before the spring came and they were able to rebuild their forces and rally their allies (The Egyptians, Babalonians, and Greeks), so he did just that.
After winning the battle, The Lydian king fell back to the capital of Sardis, where Cyrus led a 14 day siege and Croesus eventually surrendered. The Lydian king was allowed to live out the rest of his days and Cyrus’s courtier.
Its difficult to say what happened next, the main sources of information we have about this time (besides Herodotus) are clay or stone tablets written around 2,500 years ago. For example we aren’t 100 % sure the Persians conquered the Lydians, the Nabonidus chronicle (a stone tablet which has broken down with time) states that “in the year 547 or 546 BC during the month of Ajaru (April or may) Cyrus marched against a country, killed its king, and took its possessions” the inscription is partially damaged and so the name of the country cant be read.
What we do know is that after conquering Lydia, Cyrus continued to conquer other kingdoms in Asia Minor until the only major power left was the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The only large scale battle that we know of took place in 539 BC and it was a decisive victory for the Persians. On the Cyrus Cylinder (another stone tablet taken from this period) it is claimed that Cyrus entered Babylon without a fight and was greeted as a liberator.
After Conquering Babylon The Persian Empire was officially the largest empire hitherto in the world. In order to control such a large empire, Cyrus had a system of satrapies established
you can think of it like a primitive federal government. Carving his empire up into 26 locally run satrapies. The satraps had a decent amount of power but not complete and were answerable to the king. Army generals for example were answered to the king not the satraps. A government official known as the Eye of The King would go to each satrap and make inspections for the king.
The reign of Cyrus lasted about 30 years. Besides carving out the worlds largest Empire he is known for his policies of tolerance and clemency. In contrast to the Assyrians who ruled with fear… Cyrus learned that people if treated right are more likely to be content and not make problems. In Cyrus’s empire people were free to follow their own religions and customs as long as they paid taxes to the king.
We know of this tolerance from the numerous religious and historical texts about cyrus we have found. For example after conquering Babylon he participated in a Babylonian celebration of the God Marduk, earning his favor. a religious ceremony that would be followed by the Persian Zoroastrian king of kings until Xerxes I
Before cyrus in 597 BC Nebuchadnezzar (The king of Babylon) pillaged Jerusalem and its Temple and took Jeconiah (The Jewish king), his court and other prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon. Jehoiakim's uncle Zedekiah was appointed king in his place, but the exiles in Babylon continued to consider Jeconiah as their Exilarch, or rightful ruler.
Jerusalem revolted again under Zedekiah, and in 587 BC, the Babalonians returned and destroyed the city
Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city wall and the Temple, together with the houses of the most important citizens. Zedekiah and his sons were captured and the sons were executed in front of Zedekiah, who was then blinded and taken to Babylon with many others
Cyrus is the only Non-jew to be listed as “messiah” or anointed one in both the Christian and Jewish religions. He is mentioned 23 times by name and alluded to several times more. According to the Bible, .
“In the first year of his reign he was prompted by God to decree that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt and that such Jews as cared to might return to their land for this purpose. also, he showed his interest in the project by sending back with them the sacred vessels which had been taken from the First Temple and a considerable sum of money with which to buy building materials”
According to the book of Ezra, the Persian Cyrus the Great ended the exile in 538 BCE, the year after he captured Babylon. The exile ended with the return under Zerubbabel the Prince (so-called because he was a descendant of the royal line of David) and Joshua the Priest (a descendant of the line of the former High Priests of the Temple) and their construction of the Second Temple in the period 521–516 BC
Cyrus is credited with bringing Zoroastrianism (depending on the time to varying degrees) as the state religion of the Persian empire. Zoroastrianism thanks to Cyrus would be credited with being a very tolerant religion.
Zoroastrianism was a religion of the ancient world, which still has about 100,000 followers to this day that centers on the spiritual leader Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra).
The Greeks placed Zoroaster at living around 6,000 years before the death of plato, so 6,347 BCE, modern scholars place him sometime between 2,000 BCE-1,400 BC
Whenever Zoroaster lived, he lived at a time of turbulence and unrest… the land of ancient Iran was ripe with bandits and marauders and the people lived in constant fear. Zoroaster one day went to the river to fetch water and he was greeted by a being of Pure light and goodness, Ahura Mazda..
Ahura Mazda spoke to him and revealed that he was the creator, of Love, Kindness and all that is good in the universe. This message was new to the world…. It was Monotheism.
Ahura Mazda was supported by 6 holy immortals, Kind of like Archangels
Contrary to Ahura Mazda is Angra Mainyu, he represents all that is bad in the world, Death, pollution, and Deceit.
Zoroastrianism is Centered on Deulistic cosmology, Good Vs Evil.
We as humans have the free will to choose truth or the lie.
Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu before time existed together, Ahura Mazda created the Earth and Angra Mainyu was tricked into going into it to corrupt things, Angra Mainyu created all that is bad in the world and we as humans have the free will to challenge him. With our Good deeds thoughts and actions.
Zoroastrians believe in a soul as well as Heaven, Hell and Purgatory… when we die we cross a bridge to heaven and below us is hell. Our good Deeds are weighed on a scale and if our good deeds outweigh the bad deeds we can cross into Heaven with Ahura Mazda, however if our bad deeds outweigh our good deeds we fall off the bridge to spend eternity with Angra Mainyu in hell.
When a Zoroastrian dies their bodies are given a ritual by a Zoroastrian Magi (or priest). their bodies will decompose and thus become pollution, so as not to pollute the sacred earth, the body is taken to the top of an open tower where it is rested to be feasted on by vultures. Giving your body as food to the vultures is a last good deed of charity to enter heaven.
The final portion of Zoroastrianism is the Apocolypse. The final battle between Ahura Mazda, and Angra Mainyu, Good and Evil. A savior will be born to a virgin mother who will lead the people against the forces of evil and bring about the end times. Earth will become a ball of molten lava and the good who followed the savior will ascend to heaven and the bad will be left on Earth to be destroyed by fire and lava.
If you see some similarities between the Abrahamic religions, Judaisim Christianity and Islam, you aren’t alone.
It’s possible that Judaism and Christianity borrowed some of their ideas from Zoroastrianism, or vice versa.
The Book of Isaiah, in the ancient Hebrew bible, possibly written in the 7th century Bc. First mentions Yahweh as a single creator god, like Ahura Mazda… this is all speculation of course and which religion came first Judaism or Zoroastrianism is hotly debated to this day
Many believe that Cyrus’ treatment towards the Jews and offer to rebuild the temple destroyed by the Babylonians was out of respect for a fellow monotheistic religion.
Death of Cyrus and succession
Cyrus died in the year 529 BC, the circumstances regarding his death are unknown. Herodotus claims Cyrus went to war with the Massegatey a nomadic Scythian tribe led by the warrior queen Tomyris. Cyrus ambushed Tomyris’s forces and slew the son of the queen. Angered by this Tomyris met the Persians in a fierce battle where she was triumphant. They slew most of the Persians including Cyrus. Following this she decapitated Cyrus and dipped his head in a pool of blood so that the kings bloodlust , the bloodlust which caused the queen, her son’s life, might finally be over.
Another account is from the Greek mercenary Xenophon who said Cyrus did not die in battle and he returned to the capital to live out the rest of his days peacefully.
Whatever is the truth about the death of Cyrus we will never know,
Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. The Achaemenid influence in the ancient world eventually would extend as far as Athens, where upper-class Athenians adopted aspects of the culture of the ruling class of Achaemenid Persia as their own. Today Cyrus is seen as a cult figure amongst modern Iranians. His tomb is a spot of pilgrimage for millions of people.
Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses his reign would be much shorter than Cyurse’s lasting only 7 years. However he would continue his fathers dream of expansion. Turning his vision to the west and last great empire besides the Persian Empire, Egypt. Cambyses offered to marry the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh who agreed and deceitfully sent the daughter of the previous pharaoh, who this pharaoh usurped the title from, in his daughters place…
Angered, Cambyses marched on Egypt and with a force consisting of the Tyrant of Samos and the towns of Cyprus.
The Arab king allowed him to pass through their lands peacefully and even provided the Persians with water in the barren desert.
When Cambyses arrived in the Egyptian land he besieged the modern day town of Gaza. And continued towards the Egyptian capital of Pelusium. While the Tyrant of Samos and the Cyprotian’s blockaded the seaports Cambyses army attacked Pelusium… in the battle the Persians used cats to instill fear in the Egyptians who saw them as sacred…
In the ensuing battle the Persians fought fiercely and At the end of the battle the Egyptians lost 7 men for every Persian downed,
The remaining Egyptians retreated to the nearby town of Memphis, (joke) where they quit fighting and all joined Jazz and blues bands… Just kidding.
Cambyses followed the Egyptians and utterly destroyed them, this time killing 10 Egyptians for every 1 Persian. The Pharaoh was captured and allowed to live under Persian watch but he instead committed suicide putting an end to the 26th Dynasty of Egypt.
The conquests of Egypt was a major moment in world history, Egypt had been one of the birthplaces (along with Persia) of human history, along with the equally ancient kingdom of Elam it was the only major power to survive the collapse of the Bronze age.
Cambyses annexed Egypt and became the new Pharaoh having conquered the last great kingdom and the known world he was the first true earner of the Persian title “Shahanshah” (King of Kings)
We cant be sure what happened for the remaining 3 years of Cambyses life, what records we have aren’t clear… there is some evidence that he sent a failed invasion into the Kushite kingdom of southern Egypt and that he attempted an invasion of the city of Carthage requesting the Phoenician navy who refused on the grounds that they wouldn’t fight their own kin… we can’t be sure if either are true but what we can be sure of is Cambyses died either from an accident or a self-inflicted leg wound in 522.
Darius Ascension is confusing, and like Cyrus’s death there are numerous accounts of it… Cambyses II died childless, according to the Behistun Inscription, one of the rock inscriptions found in Persia.
Cambyses II lost his mind and in a fit of madness murdered his brother and would be successor Bardiya, soon after Cambyses died of his leg wound… A usurper named Gaumata came and lied to the Iranian people claiming to be Bardiya. Darius, who had served Cambyses as his lance-bearer until the deposed ruler's death, prayed for aid and in September 522 BCE, along with Otanes, Intaphrenes, Gobryas, Hydarnes, Megabyzus and Aspathines, killed Gaumata in the fortress of sikayauvati.
DARIUS THE GREAT
After the assassination of Gaumata, Darius and the other 6 nobles discussed what would become of the empire. They discussed which form of government should take place, a republic, oligarchy and monarchy were all pushed… they decided that a republic would lead to corruption and civil wars, while a monarchy could have 1 person in charge… and as the saying goes “too many cooks spoil the broth”
Out of the 7 nobles Otanes abstained from being monarch, as he had no interest in being king. The other 6 gathered outside the palace and mounted on their horses at sunrise… the man whose horse neighed first in recognition of the rising sun would become king.
According to Herodotus, Darius cheated, he had a slave rub his hand over the genitals of a mare that Darius’s horse wanted. When they gathered for the test the slave placed his hand besides the nostrils of Darius’ horse. Who immediately became excited and neighed. lightning and thunder occured, leading the others to dismount and kneel before Darius in recognition of his apparent divine providence. In this account, Darius himself claimed that he achieved the throne not through fraud, but cunning, even erecting a statue of himself mounted on his neighing horse with the inscription: "Darius, son of Hystaspes, obtained the sovereignty of Persia by the sagacity of his horse and the ingenious contrivance of Oebares, his groom."
Now If Cyrus is the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty you might be asking yourself why the Dynasty is called the Achaemenid and not the Cyrid Dynasty… The reason is because of Darius I, who is more commonly known today as Darius The Great.
Generally it is acknowledged that Darius’ rise to power was deceitful and a usurpment of Cyrus’ rightful successor Bardiya. To Legitimize his rule Darius had a common origin fabricated between himself and Cyrus by designating Achaemenes (his great-great-great-grandfather) as the eponymous founder of their dynasty. In reality Darius was not from the same house as Cyrus.
If you are having a problem following the story I am sorry, Ancient History can be very difficult to follow… The reason it is so difficult is because we don’t know what is real and what is propaganda. We are much like our forebarers in the sense that “History is written by the victor”. Take Darius for example, He is celebrated as “The Great” had he been cut down in his Usurptation attempt, maybe history would have been very different and this episode would be titled The Cyrid Dynasty and I would spend a large portion on it on Bardiya the Great… Whatever the truth is Darius became king and he did earn the title “The Great” through his impressive deeds…
The same year as Cambyses II death Darius I ascended the throne. In the first year of his rule 522 BC a minimum of 9 known rebellions occurred, even one of his famous 7 nobles Intraphernes was killed as an alleged assassin, attempting to kill Darius.
After Darius quashed the rebellions, he focused on reforming the empire. During the times of Cyrus and Cambyses the Satraps had a large amount of autonomy leading to decentralization. He increased the number of Satraps from 26 – 36. Darius improved taxation methods, Aramaic was made the imperial language which helped to standardize legal interpretation and commerce, he introduced a universal currency and measurements to boost commerce and trade, built canals and a royal road to boost commerce, formed a postal system for the empire and enacted massive civic construction projects all over the empire.
The nomadic peoples of The Russian Great Steppe were always a thorn in the side of the Persians, the Scythians, who remember according to Herodotus slew Cyrus, king of kings.. Launched a military campaign against the city dwelling Persians, in 513 BC. Darius marched a great army to meet them in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He found himself frustrated with their hit and run tactics, and personally wrote a letter to Scythian king saying
“Thou strange man, why dost thou keep on flying before me, when there are two things thou mightest do easily? If thou deemest thyself able to resist my arms, cease thy wanderings and come, let us engage in battle. Or if thou art conscious that my strength is greater than thine - even so thou shouldest cease to run away - thou hast but to bring thy lord Earth and water, and to come at once to a conference.”
To which the Scythian king replied;
“This is my way, Persian. I never fear men or fly from them. I have not done so in times past, nor do I now fly from thee. There is nothing new or strange in what I do; I only follow my common mode of life in peaceful years. Now I will tell thee why I do not at once join battle with thee. We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in a hurry to fight with you. If, however, you must needs to come to blows with us speedily, look, you now there are our fathers' tombs'[note 1] - seek them out, and attempt to meddle with them. Till ye do this, be sure we shall not join battle, unless it pleases us. This is my answer to the challenge to fight. As for lords, I acknowledge only Jove, my ancestor,[note 2] and Hestia, the Scythian queen.[note 3] "Earth and water", the tribute thou askedst, I do not send, but thou shalt receive soon receive more suitable gifts. Last of all, in return for thy calling thyself my lord, I say to thee, "Go weep".
I’m Not sure why Darius sounds like a character in a shakespear play and The Scythian King sounds like Leonidas
Darius followed them into southern Russia subjugating the lands of Thrace (southern Bulgaria and European Turkey) where he established 8 forts. He was able to Tire the Scythians who after using scorched earth tactics angered their allies and agreed to a peace.
Even with a state ideology like tolerance in effect maintaining such a large empire can never be easy, The Egyptians rebelled at this time and the rebellion was subdued… Darius then turned his attention to the Indus valley (located in modern day India and Afghanistan) he was successful in invading and conquering cities east of the Indus River establishing Satraps there.
By 500 BC the Empire stretched from Greece to modern day Pakistan, truly an achievement. It compounded peoples from all over the world. In the western most portion of the Empire (modern day Turkey) the inhabitants were not Turkish peoples but the Greeks. They were ruled from a Satrap based in the city of Sardis.
Many of the Greek peoples located on modern mainland Greece were independent, a Greek Tyrant by the name of Aristagoras was under the rule of Darius. He tried an invasion of the island Naxos and failed. Seeing his overthrow in the near future he blamed the Satrap in Sardis and united the Greeks into open rebellion against Darius. In 498 BC the Greeks under the rule of the Athenians and Eritreans, raised Sardis. This event is known as the Ionian revolt.
Darius being a usurper had spent considerable time extinguishing revolts against his rule. The Ionian revolt threatened the integrity of his empire and therefore angered Darius greatly. he vowed to punish those involved.
Darius responded by sending Mardonius one of his leading generals to crush the uprising, he conquered Macedonia but allowed the country to stay autonomous in his empire.
In 491 BC, Darius sent emissaries to all the Greek city-states, asking for a gift of 'earth and water' in token of their submission to him. Having had a demonstration of his power the previous year, the majority of Greek cities duly obliged. In Athens, however, the ambassadors were put on trial and then executed; in Sparta, they were simply thrown down a well.
In 490 Darius assembled another army, This is where Herodotus gives us a much more dramatized version of events. A historic tale of good vs evil.
They assembled an armada of 600 ships carrying an army of about 26,000 professional soldiers from about 30 different ethnic backgrounds.
They first took retribution against the city of Naxos, the defiant city that resisted Aristagoras and caused the Ionian revolt 9 years before. They raised the city and sold the surviving people into slavery. Next attempting a strategy of Island hopping (the Ageaen is filled with numerous islands) they attacked the island city of Delos, the people there surrendered without a fight and were spared.
The Persians next arrived in Eritrea and got their revenge against one of the two cities that sacked Sardis. Finally all that was left was Athens. The Persians landed on the Plain of Marathon about 40 kilometers (or 1 marathon) from the city of Athens.
The Athenians on short notice raised an army of about 11,000 hoplite heavy infantry and set up camp outside of the Persian camp. Realising they were outnumbered and without archers or heavy cavalry the Athenians sent a runner to request aid from Sparta.
The Spartans agreed to help but were in the middle of a religious festival and therefore couldn’t arrive for 10 days.
Both the Persians and the Greeks were at a stalemate. The Athenians had a very good defensive position with their flanks secured and being hoplite soldiers would have destroyed any head on charge from the Persians and the Persians with their heavy cavalry and archers would have destroyed any attack from infantry.
They waited 8 days, until the Greeks decided to attack, The Persian cavalry had been away foraging leaving the Persian army vulnerable.
The Greeks marched until a distance of 200 meters, within the Persian archers range. Once the Persian archers loaded and fired the Greeks Charged, surprising the Persian army. The Greeks first broke the wings of the Persian army and caused a rout and then enveloped the Persian core. This caused all of the Persians to rout…
The battle of Marathon has since become one of the most famous and mythologized battles in western Culture. At the time people would simply say “We Ran” and it was something that people would understand as “this guy is a badass, he fought at Marathon”
Legend has it that after the battle of Marathon the Athenians needed to let the people know that they won a stunning victory and that the Pro-Persian political faction in the city should not surrender Athens to the Persians.. The Athenians sent a runner who ran the distance of 1 marathon (26 miles), once he got to the city he screamed “NIKE!” the Greek god of victory and then fell over and died.
Darius was assembling a second invasion of Greece when in 486 he died. Darius earned the Title “The Great” as the Persian Empire had reached its height under his leadership. He is most remembered for his numerous construction projects.
His son Xerxes inherited, Xerxes is best known today as the 7 foot god king from 300. One of the problems with hereditary monarchy… A problem that Xerxes father would exploit. And the Persian Shahanshah would face throughout history was whenever a king died, the region would become unstable and this happened to Xerxes upon his succession.
Uprisings in Egypt Babylon and Bactria all took place putting Xerxes skill and talent to the test. The rebellions were quashed with ferocity…
For example before Xerxes Persian kings went by the extended title King of Kings, Great King, King of Persia, King of Babylon, Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Countries” after this rebellion Xerxes took the sacred statue of Marduk (the most important god of Babylon) to Persepolis where he had the statue melted down. No longer did the Shahanshah include “king of Babylon” in his title
Xerxes then turned his attention to Greece. He then formed up until this point most ethnically diverse army the world had yet seen, Herodotus gives the names of 46 countries which were mentioned in his army. Xerxes had the worlds best engineers construct pontoon bridges so that his army could martch deep into the Hellispont (the Dardanelles strait, connecting Europe and Asia). Xerxes also established a 2 kilometer canal roughly 30 meteres wide on his march to Athens. It can still be seen to this day.
In 481 BC Xerxes began his march into Greece… His bridge didn’t last however as the weather changed. It collapsed infuriating Xerxes and it is said that he had the Dardanelles strait lashed 300 times in retaliation.
Xerxes marched again in 480. Herodotus claims with an army of 2.5 million soldiers and 1,000 ships… It was said that Xerxes camped and watch his army pass for 7 days. The Army was said to drink rivers dry, Trampled fields into raw earth, Ravaging the land as they marched on towards Greece… “we shall so extend the empire of Persia that its boundaries will be gods own sky so that the sun will not look on any land that is not ours”
This is clearly not true and scholars hotly debate the true numbers of the Persian army to this day, estmates vary from between a massive 5 million to an average sized army of 70,000. Most schollars have settled around the number 200,000-500,000. Most modern scholars tend to reject these high figures based on knowledge of the Persian military systems, their logistical capabilities, the Greek countryside, and supplies available along the army's route.
Many of the Greek city-states submitted, with the remaining states led by Athens and Sparta.
Athens was famed as the birthplace of thought and reason, with great sailors and Sparta was famed for having the best warriors in the world. The prestige Athens gained from The battle of Marathon helped boost their image as a leader of the Greek world. Together they fielded about 80,000 soldiers
Greece is a rugged and mountainous country, making the movement of large armies difficult. An Athenian general by the name of Themistacles proposes that the Greeks block the advancing Persian army at Thermopyles (the hot gates). The only area large enough for a large army to pass through.
A Spartan king named Leonidas personally took charge of the army of 7,000 men (often times misunderstood as being smaller than it really was… 300 was the number of the spartans who fought at Thermopyles but there were actually an additional 6,700 men)
This battle has, like Marathon become mythologized in western culture with some of the most amazing lines from history such as when…
Xerxes' demand that the Spartans lay down their arms. Leonidas' reply was two words,
Molon labe: "Come and get them."
There is an epitaph on one of the monuments at the site of the battle with Simonides's epigram
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie
And we'll let Herodotus have the last word:
"Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. Dienekes, however, quite undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade.' "
What exactly was said at Thermopalae we will never know,
We do know that Leonidas held off the superior Persian forces for 7 days until a Greek traitor told the Persians of a way to flank the Greek defenders. Leonidas ordered the bulk of his army to retreat while he remained with 1,000 (300 spartans, 700 thespians) to hold off the attacking Persians. Leonidas held out for an additional 2 days before being overrun.
The most famous Persian soldiers at the battle of Thermoplayea are known as the Immortals, The same soldiers from 300 who had teeth as sharp as fangs and looked like monsters… whilst that wasn’t true ( they were humans not mutants) they were elite shock troops who earned the awesomely named title “immortals” due to their large numbers
Herodotus wrote about them, “They were called the Immortals, for this reason, that when any one of them fell out of the number by force of death or sickness, another was chosen, and so they were never more or fewer than ten thousand.” perhaps the movie 300 had an accurate portrayal of the immortals.
The traditional Persian numbering system had a base of 10, which meant that soldiers would be grouped in groups of 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000. We know that at least one of the immortals brigades reached 10,000 (the Immortals who fought at Thermopylae)
Quoting from Herodotus about The Persian Immortal Brigade “Behind Xerxes 10,000 that were foot soldiers, Chosen out of the rest of the Persians. 1,000 of these had golden pomegranites on their spear shafts instead of a spike and surrounded the rest; the 9,000 who were inside them had silver pomegranites.”
Their armor consisted of Tall whicker shields (which was particularly good at fending off arrow volleys), scaled armor, torques and bracelets. They were essentially heavy infantry, able to use both the bow and arrow and a short spear for close combat, they also carried a sword as their last resort.
In combat they would form a defensive perimeter around the army’s archers, and themselves being proficient with the bow would fire at the opposing enemy. After this they would draw their spears and march towards the enemy, similar to the Greek hoplites. With agile cavalry to protect their flanks.
The Immortals were the shock troops of the Persian empire, being the fiercest and Best trained they would be deployed to the most dangerous areas of the battlefield.
Persian commanders also fought on the battlefield alongside their troops and would normally be accompanied by the immortals for protection.