Persian Empire, 490 B.C., map from United States Military Academy, West Point
By Jay Holmes
As an intelligence operative, I have a passion for history because if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. In my last post, we began an analysis of the current situation in Iran, which means taking a look at Iran’s past. (See Iran’s Present is Iran’s Past – Part I.) Today, we look at the Persian Empire up through the Islamic Arab Invasion.
c. 1,000 B.C.
The struggle between Babylonian kingdoms and the Elamites continued, but it created an opportunity for outsiders. Fierce nomadic horsemen entered the Iranian plains from the north. They spoke a language that is believed to be the root language for modern Persian. They were very mobile and avoided direct confrontations with large armies from Babylon and from what remained of Elam.
The largest and most organized of the invading nomads were known as the Medes. They formed the foundation of what would become a strong military group that lent strength to a Persian expansion.
c. ? Who Knows When
Somewhere between 6,000 B.C. and 100 B.C. a man known in the West as Zoroaster founded what most historians believe to be the first organized monotheist religion to survive to modern times.
Zoroastrian religion states that God (Ahura Mazda) is benevolent and compassionate. Man may only enter the kingdom of heaven through acts of compassion and kindness. It is a religion that preaches cooperation and free thought. According to Zoroaster, all people have and should embrace free will. Based on available historical literature, the religion has roots as far back as 1,800 B.C. Zoroastrianism had a strong developmental influence on Persian civilization and economy.
The Babylonians helped the Medes capture the Assyrian center of Nineveh, a city in the north of modern Iraq. The Assyrian Empire collapsed.
c. 600 B.C.
The now-settled Median people formed an alliance state with Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt. The great federation allowed for more organized trade and agriculture. Arts flourished across the region. Wealth increased.
c. 590 B.C.
Cyrus the Great was born in Anshan, Iran. In Persia he was known as Kurus. He grew up to change the course of south Asian history.
c. 559 B.C.
Cyrus ascended the Achaemenid throne. He ruled under the over-lordship of the powerful Medians.
Cyrus raised a revolt against the Median overlords. He used remarkable diplomatic skill and inspired various tribes from fringe areas to join him.
Cyrus’ army defeated the city of Ecbatana and completed his conquest of the Medians. Cyrus was wise and magnanimous in conquest. He co-opted many of the most popular and most skilled Medians and allowed them local rule under his over-lordship. Cyrus allowed for local religions and customs to continue unmolested.
Cyrus defeated Lydia at the battle of Tymbra, thanks to good but unusual advice from his general, Harpagus. With the wind at his back, Cyrus placed his malodorous dromedaries in the front of his main army to lead the charge against Lydian cavalry. The Lydian horses had never been near dromedaries before. The horses panicked, and the Lydian cavalry were defeated.
Before defenses could be organized, Cyrus moved quickly against Lydian strongholds, and he defeated Lydia decisively by the end of the year.
Cyrus ordered his laborers to dig a canal to lower ground from the Euphrates River. The river was a natural protective barrier for the east side of the otherwise walled city. The river receded to a passable level, and Cyrus’ troops entered Babylon by crossing the river. They forced the surrender of the Babylonian garrison.
Two thousand, three hundred years later, General Sherman remembered Cyrus’ achievement and attempted to use the Mississippi River to form canals that allowed the flanking of Vicksburg from beyond the range of her guns above the cliffs.
Cyrus the Great died in battle in central Asia. His son, Cambyses II, took his place.
Persia conquered Egypt. The Persians eventually extended their conquests until their kingdom stretched from India to modern day Libya. Trade flourished. Local customs were tolerated. The people under Persian rule enjoyed a higher standard of living and more rights than most of them had known under their previous rulers.
The Royal Spear Bearer Darius became the Emperor Darius I and married both the widow of Cambyses and the daughter of Cyrus. He put down internal revolts using diplomatic skills and decisive military actions. Darius wisely divided the kingdom into regions to be governed by local Kings who he selected and who served under his over-lordship.
Darius founded Persepolis as a new capital of Persia. He better controlled court politics in a city of his own design and with a population that he selected. He had canals built to connect the Red Sea to the Nile. Darius also coined a universal currency of standard measure for the Empire, which further promoted trade and a growing economy. A renaissance in architecture spread across the Persia.
Darius conquered the Punjab area of India. He used advanced chariot tactics to extend Persian rule further into Libya.
The armies of Darius I reached the lower Danube River in modern Bulgaria. This marked the greatest limit of expansion for the great Persian Empire.
Persia attacked Greece, but the invasion failed.
Darius I died and Xerxes took the throne. Xerxes outsourced his engineering needs. He searched for foreign architects to add to the diversity and development of Persian architecture.
Persia invaded Greece again. After a delaying action by a small Spartan force at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, the Persians reached Athens and sacked the Parthenon.
Small, maneuverable Greek naval vessels defeated reinforcing Persian amphibious forces at the Battle of Salamis. The Persian invaders retreated as the Greeks organized more resistance.
Two thousand, four hundred years later, a young American naval genius from Boulder, Colorado named Arleigh Burke devised tactics based on the lessons of that ancient battle and the land tactics of the Greeks that allowed him to gain naval victories against far superior Japanese forces in the waters north of Guadalcanal in 1943.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and Persia. The city of Persepolis was destroyed on Alexander’s orders. When touring the ruins, he was filled with regret for the destruction of the magnificent city.
A committee of some of Alexander’s generals set up the Seleucid Dynasty to rule Persia.
247 B.C. – 224 B.C.
The Parthians of northwest Iran rose up, and by using something of a “throw the foreigners out” propaganda campaign and concentrating their forces at strategic locations for quick offenses, they defeated the Seleucid dynasty. The Parthians introduced advanced horse breeding and developed horses that were capable of carrying fast, armored archers.
Painting reached new heights in Persia, and Persian artists produced highly representative and remarkably detailed paintings of historical events.
A Persian army took advantage of its highly skilled, mounted archers and defeated Mark Anthony of Rome in Azerbaijan.
A young American tank commander by the name of George Patton, as well as German armored tactician Hans Guderian, studied this battle and used its lessons to great effect in WWII.
208 A.D. – 224 A.D.
The Sassanians, elite members of Parthian society who were trained for military service and high government office, took over Iran. They developed a highly organized military system with specialist reservists backing up elite, well trained units.
The system relied on rapid communication via messengers, mirror messages, and trumpet calls to mobilize in time to meet threats from foreign armies. The system at the same time allowed for the maintenance of a large, professional army without paying salaries to reservists during periods of peace. These trained reservists were able to use their engineering skills in their local communities to promote the building of roads, bridges, agricultural canals etc.
Under the Sassanians, art continued to progress. They developed the vaulted dome, which later became a symbol of Islamic culture.
450 A.D. to 484 A.D.
Huns from central Asia repeatedly attacked Persian towns and sometimes cities. The Huns used fast, light cavalry tactics and never remained in one place long enough for an army to form up and challenge them.
Mohammad was born in Arabia. He founded the Islamic religion. At about the same time, the oldest known surviving Persian carpet was produced in Iran.
Persian King Khosrow II revived the Persian Empire with westward campaigns into Byzantium.
Khosrow II captured Jerusalem.
Khosrow II reached Alexandria, Egypt. This signified the last high water mark of the great Persian Empires.
At the Battle of the Qadisiya on the banks of the Euphrates River, Islamic Arab invaders defeated Persian General Rustam and his soldiers. This signified the beginning of the end of the Persian Empire.
My next article will look at the Arab dominance of Persia.