Burial chamber of Cyrus The Great, near Persepolis
The Persians settled on relatively poor and remote lands where they were seldom troubled by first the Elamites to their west; then the Assyrians (who destroyed the Elamites around 640 BCE); then the Medes (to their north); and finally the resurgent Babylonians who conquered Assyria in 609 BCE. Throughout this period, the various petty Persian kings were vassals of the richer and more advanced Medes—another ancient Iranian people. Cyrus II became king of the small Persian kingdom of Anshan in 559 BCE. Within ten years he had subjugated the eastern part of Persia and established a reputation among even his rivals as a natural leader to whom men gravitated. When the Median king attempted to reassert control over Persia around 550 BCE, the Median army revolted on the battlefield, handing over their king to Cyrus and surrendering their own capital at Ecbatana. The Median Empire, stretching across northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia, underwent a nearly bloodless change of management. Cyrus II was now Cyrus the Great
, the first monarch of the Achaemenid Empire, named after Achaemenes (the legendary first ruler of what is referred to as the Achaemenid Kingdom dating back to circa 700 BCE). In quick succession, Cyrus then conquered the Lydians of Asia Minor (led by the King Croesus of legendary wealth who was said to have invented coins), Greek colonies on the Aegean coast, the Parthians, and the Hyrcanians to the north. In 541 BCE, he marched into the steppes of Central Asia, establishing a fortified border along the Jaxartes River.
Antique engraving of the Persians taking the citadel of Babylon, 539 BCE
In 540 BCE, his 19th year as king, Cyrus turned on his onetime ally, Babylon. After one battle, the army and people of Babylon surrendered (in 539 BCE) their king, city, and empire that stretched from southern Mesopotamia to the Phoenician city-states of the Levant. Before Cyrus could expand into Egypt or toward Greece, however, he was killed fighting nomadic tribesmen who were threatening his eastern provinces. The first successors to Cyrus conquered Egypt, gathered new provinces in North Africa, and extended the empire into India up to the banks of the Indus River. They turned next against the Greeks, who were commercial rivals of Persian Phoenicia. In 513 BCE, a huge floating bridge was built across the Bosporus Strait, linking Asia and Europe. The Persian army took Thrace and Macedonia in an effort to cut off the Greek city-states in Attica and the Peloponnese from access to northern grain; but the Persians could not subjugate the elusive Scythians (the vast empire of nomadic warriors to Persia’s north in the central Eurasian steppes). The start of the 5th century BCE was the peak of the Persian Empire—an empire containing nearly 50 million subjects (approximately 44% of the world’s total population at that time). The stage was set for the mighty struggle with the comparatively much smaller city-states of Greece. (To learn about the Battle of Plataea—the epic showdown between the Persian Empire and the allied Greek city-states—watch the Age Up video The Man In The High City