Inspired by a new book: The Persians, by G.R. Garthwaite.
Fifty thousand years back, a group of Africans moved into Asia and Europe. When the last ice-age ended 10,000 years ago; a group of those migrants created the first world civilization (Sumer) in today’s Iraq. Later on, the Sumerian civilization was flooded by waves of Semitic immigrants (forefathers of today’s Jews and Arabs) and at about 5,000 years ago, morphed into the Akkadian civilization. The Akkadians in turn were defeated and absorbed into the Assyrian and Babylonian states.
The first Iran-based civilization was created by the people of today’s Khuzestan (the Elamites), at 3,000 BC and around the main city of Susa, near today’s Shush-e-Daniel. Elamites were neither Semite nor Indo-European, but (like the Sumerians) indigenous and unique. Influenced by their neighbours’ militancy for 2,000 years; Elamites waged wars against their Mesopotamian rivals, but were finally defeated and decimated by the Assyrians in 640 BC.
The population vacuum left by the annihilation of Elamites was quickly filled by two Indo-European (Aryan) migrant tribes of Medes and Persians. Those nomadic tribes had moved into the Iranian plateau since 1,500 BC, but were relentlessly haunted by the Assyrian warlords. Finally, the Medes grew strong enough to establish a central power near today’s Hamadan (Ecbatana), and defeated the great Assyrian empire at their own game (610 BC). Consequently, the Persians who had moved into the Elamite lands in today’s Fars, became allied vassals to the Mede kings.
Persians and Medes went to war in 550 BC, which resulted in a spectacular victory by Cyrus II (the great) who captured Ecbatana and sent the Mede king (his maternal grandfather) to exile. Cyrus’s victory had a lot to do with his brilliant diplomatic skills, which could attract most of the Mede nobles and generals to his cause and against the cruel old king. For the next twenty years, Cyrus continued with a string of incredible military expansions and established the fabled Persian Empire.
In 545 BC, Cyrus defeated the Greek city-states of Asia Minor (Lydia), and captured the legendary treasures of their king (Croesus). That defeat effectively crippled the Greek civilization in today’s Turkey, and lead to the looting and destruction of a number of their grand cities and monuments.
Next in 540 BC, Cyrus’s army (greatly assisted by local sympathizers) easily defeated the despised Babylonian king and took over the Mesopotamia. Unlike their previous rulers, Cyrus freed the varied Mesopotamian minorities to practice their cultures and religions, which also included the release of Jews and assistance for their return to Zion (today’s Israel).
Cyrus then focused his attention to expanding the Eastern frontiers of the empire, but was killed during a fierce battle with the nomadic Scythians (530 BC). Cambyses II succeeded his father, and conquered the ancient civilization of Egypt, in a brutal campaign. However, unlike his father, the cruel Cambyses was unable to gain the respect of his new subjects or the loyalty of his generals. He was assassinated during the eighth year of his bloody reign, and the multinational Persian Empire fell into numerous rebellions by its subjugated peoples.
After Cambyses, another son of Cyrus (Bardia) came to power, but was challenged by a group of Persian princes led by Darius, who successfully overthrew and killed him and his Median followers and Magi. This coup brought a new dynasty to power, who claimed a common ancestry (Achaemenid) with Cyrus.
Unlike Cyrus, who was more interested in conquering new realms and then leaving each nation’s organization to the subdued local nobility; Darius created a truly centralized government. He first forcefully crushed all the rebellions in the subject nations and vanquished a dozen of their leaders. Darius then turned each nation into a Satrapy (province), strictly governed by his Persian appointees, who directly reported to the Shah-an-Shah.
To govern that vast empire, which included Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Mede, Phoenician, Armenian, Jewish, Sogdian and Scythian nations; Darius built a network of roads, postal service, common currency, regular army and navy. Although Cyrus is credited with starting the Persian domination, Darius was the king who built it into a functioning empire!
Among the rebellious subject nations during Darius’s reign, were the Greek cities of Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). However, Darius’s army suppressed that uprising, and then shipped an expeditionary attack force (20,000 strong) to punish the mainland Greek city-states who had helped their Asian kindred. This ignited the legendary Persian-Greek wars of the antiquity that is most famously remembered by the Marathon defeat of the Darius’s army.
After 35 years of Darius as Shah-an-Shah, his son Xerxes (Khashayar) became emperor and tried to finish what his father had started, i.e. take over the mainland Greece. Xerxes summoned the largest army in the near East history (some 200,000); complete with a contingent of the subjugated Egyptian navy. However, despite initial victories and even the capture and looting of Athens; the Greek city-states who had united since the battle of Marathon, sank the Xerxes navy and decimated the stranded Persian army in 480 BC. Subsequently, the discredited and cruel Xerxes was assassinated in an internal Persian court conspiracy.
For the next 140 years, the Persian Empire continued a fierce rivalry against the Greek city-states, until the latter were captured or united under the domineering Macedonian king, Phillip. After the suspicious assassination of Philip, his son Alexander accused the Persian Shah (Darius III) of the murder, and summoned a formidable Balkan force to take revenge, liberate the Asian Greek cities and pillage the riches of Persia.
Unfortunately, by that time, the Achaemenid dynasty had severely deteriorated under the absolute corruption of the absolute rule; continuously falling into brutal royal murders, court intrigues and state blunders. Hence, Alexander the great defeated Darius III and conquered Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia.
However, Alexander’s empire lasted for only ten short years; and after his death, it was broken into many small kingdoms under his feuding generals (the Seleucids). Seleucids controlled most of Iran for the next 100 years, but their power declined with civil wars and uprisings.
An Eastern Iranian tribe (the Parthians) prevailed upon the Seleucids, from 240 BC onwards; and created the Arsacid dynasty. Finally, the Arsacid king Mithridates struck the final blow to the Mesopotamian Seleucids, capturing their prosperous cities and establishing Ctesiphon as his winter capital.
At the same time, the Roman Empire was inflicting mortal wounds on the weakened Greco-Seleucid kingdoms and by capturing the whole of Greece and Asia Minor, became neighbors with the Parthians. Rome with 500 years of glorious civilization and militancy, considered the Arsacids as barbarians that had to be brutally suppressed, in order to annex the Mesopotamia to the Roman realm. However, the Parthians established both a formidable cavalry and a strategic alliance with the Greek populace which was fleeing the Roman subjugation.
The most famous Roman-Parthian war occurred in 53 BC, when the mighty Roman Council Crassus led an invasion of Mesopotamia. The Roman army’s most formidable force was their infantry (Legion), while the most versatile Parthian contingent was the horse archers with their fabled Parting Shots. At the Battle of Carrhae, Crassus was defeated by the Parthian general Surena. Crassus and his son were killed and most of their forces were massacred or captured as slaves. This battle was the worst Roman defeat since Hannibal had decimated their armies, 160 years prior.
Unfortunately, the Parthian nobility were in constant rivalry with one another; and for example their great general Surena was killed by the suspicious king, soon after the Carrhae victory. The unrelenting battle against the Romans also weakened the Arsacid dynasty, preparing Iran for take over by a second Persian dynasty.
After 100 years of the Macedonian (Seleucid) rule and 400 years of the Parthian (Arsacid) dynasties, the Sassanians revived the Achaemenid Persian Empire and traditions. Sassanians despised the Greek-loving Arsacids and their feudal and decentralized kingdoms. Ardashir Babakan, the ambitious Persian governor of Fars rebelled against the weakened Parthian king (Ardavan) and defeated him in 224 CE, capturing Ctesiphon in 226 and crowning himself as the new Shah-an-Shah.
Ardashir’s son (Shahpor) who came to power in the year 240; even excelled his glorious father in statesmanship and military prowess. He defeated the by then corrupt Rome, and quite incredibly killed or captured three Roman Emperors! Those victories revived the legendary Persian rule from Asia Minor to India and from Arabia to Armenia.
Like Cyrus the great, Shahpor was considerate towards his new subjects and the Roman captives, who were settled in different parts of the empire and were encouraged to build new cities and buildings, based on the more advanced Roman techniques. Shahpor’s religious tolerance even led to the proliferation of Christianity and Manichaeism in Iran.
Sadly, after Shahpor’s death, there was a bloody power struggle among his sons. In 274, the victorious son (Bahram) who had prevailed with the backing of the chief Zoroastrian priest (Kartir) executed many Christians and the Persian prophet Mani.
Over the next half century, the preponderance of Zoroastrian priests and the privileged nobility, created a very wealthy upper class (caste) and a very disadvantaged populace. Moreover, the institute of monarchy was often shaken through the wars of succession and numerous priestly conspiracies.
Ultimately, in the year 310, there was no living male successor (son, brother or cousin) to the dying Sassanian king. Hence, an unborn royal child was crowned in the womb, with his mother as the viceroy. Good fortune was that the child (Shahpor II) was of great aptitude and revived the Persian rule through his long kingship (to 379 CE).
Shahpor II defeated the Arabtribes who had captured the Western half of the empire and its capital (Ctesiphon); and was nicknamed Zol-a-Ketaf (binder of arms), by his Arab captives. The great boost provided by Shahpor II lasted for about 100 years, but by then the major foreign threat had moved from West (Romans and Arabs) to East (Mongols and Turks).
The Mongol raids broke the Sassanian army and treasury, and reduced the Persian kings to weak vassals. The loss of manpower and cash caused a decline in agriculture and several years of chronic famines followed. The destitute masses turned to the radicalized poor Zoroastrian priests, who lead by Mazdak, advocated the confiscation of land, properties and even harems from the rich priests and the nobility.
The ensuing revolutionary riots caused the king (Ghobad) to relinquish his riches and even free his slaves and concubines. For forty yeas, the Persian king lived like a hostage to his external (Mongol) and internal (Mazdak) challengers. Ghobad, openly showed obedience to his captors, but his son (Khosrau) began to scheme against them!
In 531, Khosrau (Noshirvan) came to power and started with a brutal suppression of Mazdak and his followers. However, despite eliminating thousands of those ancient socialists; Khosrau did not return the confiscated lands and riches to the defunct nobility. Instead, he instituted a new class (Dehghan) out of the numerous landowners, who now each had a small local influence. Khosrau then made peace with the Turks and jointly invaded and captured the Mongol territories. During the 40 years of his reign, Noshirvan behaved like a typical ‘benevolent-dictator’, i.e. both brutish and constructive.
Unfortunately, like so many other dictators, Khosrau could not escape the corrupting influence of absolute power and near the end, turned neurotic and suspicious. He abolished his grand vizier and trusted deputies, and left the succession in the incapable hands of a murderous son. The ensuing decade of mayhem and unrest, led to a major uprising by the prominent Parthian tribes of Khorasan. Their leader (Bahram Chobin) toppled the new Sassanian prince (Khosrau II), and for a short time re-established the Arsacid dynasty.
Khosrau II (Parviz) fled to the Byzantine court, which had inherited the Eastern Roman empire after the collapse of the mainland Rome at the hands of the barbaric Anglo-Germanic tribes. Apparently, he even converted to Christianity and married one of the Byzantine princes, to prove his allegiance to the Western way of life. In return the Roman emperor Maurice supported him with army and funds, which enabled Khosrau Parviz to successfully fight the Parthians and revive his kingship, in 591 CE. This led to a decade of Roman-Persian friendship and religious toleration that, unfortunately, ended with an internal Roman conspiracy which toppled Maurice and killed him and his entire family.
Khosrau Parviz saw a great opportunity during the ensuing power struggles in Byzantine; thus attacked and pillaged their Asia Minor, Mesopotamian, Eastern Mediterranean and even Egyptian territories! In reply, the Romans united behind a new emperor (Heracles) who had revenged Maurice’s death. Heracles joined forces with the Armenian Christians and executed a sneak attack through their territory, towards the Persian capital. The surprise attack on Ctesiphon caused a great deal of mayhem, and the rebellious Sassanian court conspired and assassinated the king, in 628 CE.
The desperate new Persian king signed a hastily and humiliating truce with the Romans, while relinquishing all the territorial gains and paying an exorbitant amount of land and gold in damages! Sadly, that half century of murderous court conspiracies, civil wars and foreign wars, drained both the Sassanian dynasty of blood, and the country of men and resources. Between 628 and 632, five different kings and two queens came to power. The short reigns of those two queens were due to the relentless royal bloodletting (brother against brother, father against son), which again had emptied the court of all the male Sassanians!
At the same time in Arabia, a new prophet (Mohammad) had emerged, and soon the expanding Muslim army filled the power vacuum that was left by the battling and bleeding Roman and Persian empires. The new universal faith of Islam drew upon the strongest Jewish and Christian traditions, to build a spiritually vibrant and fanatically militant powerbase. In 636 CE, the Arab forces broke the resistance of the Sassanian army at Qadessieh, which led to the capture and pillage of Ctesiphon; and subsequently the collapse of the Persian Empire.