The first kingdom, which was a federation of tribes,
created by the Iranians, about 700 BC, was that of the
Medes in western Iran. The rise of Media was hindered by
invasions from north of the Caucasus Mountains, first by
a Thracian people called Cimmerians, followed by Iranian
nomads called Scythians. About 625 BC a new attempt was
made by the Medes under Cyaxares to form a united
kingdom, and after defeating the Scythians, the Medes
turned against Assyria. An alliance was made between the
Babylonians and the Medes, and the allies stormed and
destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC, a
date used today by the Kurds, who claim descent from the
Medes, to begin their Kurdish era of time reckoning.
The Medes also subdued the Persians and other Iranians on
the plateau, but the Median empire lasted only until 549,
when the last Median king, Astyages (r. 584-549), was
defeated by his Persian vassal Cyrus The Great, who
became the heir of the Median king and ruled an even
greater empire from 549 to 530 BC. His son Cambyses II,
who ruled from 530 to 522, invaded Egypt. Following an
interregnum of a year, Dariush I took power by killing
the usurper Smerdis and established the Achaemenid empire
on a firm basis. He consolidated and further extended
Persian conquests (so that the empire stretched from
Egypt and Thrace in the west to northwestern India in the
east); established the system of satraps (local
governors) under firm centralized control; encouraged the
spread of Zoroastrianism; and was a great patron of the
arts. Darius's son Xerxes I (r. 486-465), after his
defeat by the Greeks in the Persian Wars, retired from
active government and set a precedent for future kings
who were kept in power by the efficient bureaucracy
organized by Darius. Constant revolts were put down, but
the weakness of the empire was apparent under Artaxerxes
I (r. 465-424), Xerxes II (r. 424-423), and Darius II (r.
423-404). Under Artaxerxes II (r. 404-359), the revolt of
his brother Cyrus The Youngeralmost cost him his throne.
Artaxerxes III (r. 359-338), an able although cruel
monarch, saved the empire from disintegration by
reconquering the provinces of Phoenicia and Egypt, which
had previously regained their independence. Unfortunately
for the Achaemenid empire, Artaxerxes III was poisoned,
and a puppet Arses ruled for two years. The last prince
of the Achaemenid family, Darius III Codomannus, assumed
the throne in 336. He was defeated twice by Alexander and
was murdered by his own followers in 330.
In the fighting among Alexander's successors, the
Diadochi, Iran fell to Seleucus I, who created a new era
of time reckoning by his march into Babylon in 312 BC.
The Seleucids established many Greek settlements in the
east, and under them Hellenism mixed with local cultures
to form a syncretic civilization in Iran. The Seleucids
never controlled all of the Iranian plateau, and the
south, present-day Fars province, was ruled by an
independent local dynasty with the title frataraka. In
the northern province of Azerbaijan, a Persian satrap
from the Achaemenid period called Atropates established a
local dynasty and gave his name to the province. In the
east the Greeks who settled in Bactria established an
independent kingdom about 246 BC, and the Parthians
declared their independence from Seleucid rule about the
Although the Seleucids were
able temporarily to regain the allegiance of both sets of
rebels during the reign of Antiochus III (r. 223-187 BC),
the Parthians were to emerge as their heirs.
The Arsacids, rulers of the Parthians, called themselves
phil-Hellene on their coins, and they continued using
Greek until the end of the dynasty in AD 224. The
Parthians were famous as cavalry soldiers with bows and
arrows against the Romans, and they lived in a feudal
society. The many small courts of the nobility provided
the background for the development of the Persian
national epic, which is filled with stories about heroes
from the Parthian period. Under the Parthians many small
kingdoms existed in uneasy allegiance to an Arsacid king
of kings. Among the vassal kingdoms ruled by Arsacid
princes was Armenia. The Parthians had to fight the
Romans in the west and the Sakas, or Scythians, followed
by the Kushans in the east. The lack of unity among the
Parthian princes aided the rise of the Sassanian dynasty.
The Sassanians were not phil-Hellene like their
predecessors but sought to establish a national Persian
renaissance in both culture and ideology. From the outset
Ardashir I, who killed his Parthian overlord in AD 224,
proclaimed a revival of ancient glory, although the
Sassanians had only the faintest memory of the
Achaemenids. The early buildings of Ardashir in Fars
province were massive, proclaiming imperial grandeur. The
centralization of power in the hands of the king of kings
was the opposite of the Parthian period of history. After
Shapur I 's victory over the Romans and capture of the
Emperor Valerian in 260, he proclaimed his power in a
series of rock reliefs in Fars depicting his victories.
Roman prisoners were employed in building dams and
irrigation projects in various parts of the Sassanian
empire. During Shapur's reign Zoroastrianism became the
official state religion.
Shapur's successors--his son
Hormizd Ardashir (r. 272-73), another son Bahram I (r.
273-76), his grandson Bahram II (r. 276-93), and another
son Nerseh (r. 293-302)--all sought to strengthen
dynastic power as opposed to the nobility. Under Hormizd
II (r. 302-09), SHAPUR II (r. 309-79), Ardashir II (r.
379-83), Shapur III (r. 383-88), and Bahram IV (r.
388-99), wars with Rome alternated with struggles against
nomadic invaders from the east. Yazdegird I (r. 399-421)
relaxed the persecution against Christians, who had been
suspected of having been secret allies of the Romans
since Shapur II . Bahram V (r. 421-39) was surnamed Gur
because of his skill in hunting the onager. Many stories
are told about him in the national epic, Shah Nameh, by
Firdawsi and elsewhere. Yazdegird II (r. 439-57), Hormizd
III (r. 457-59), Peroz (r. 459-84), and Balash (r.
484-88) had difficulties with the Hephthalites (White
Huns) in present-day Afghanistan. Under Kavad (r.
488-531) and his brother Zamasp (r. 496-98), a
communistic socioreligious movement led by the
"prophet" Mazdak gained adherents. It was
savagely suppressed by Khosru I (r. 531-79), who has been
called the greatest ruler of the dynasty. Hormizd IV (r.
579-90) was followed by Bahram Chobin (r. 590-91), the
only successful rebel against the Sassanian house. He was
overthrown by Khosru II (r. 591-628), the last great
Sassanian ruler. Khosru II tried to reestablish the
frontiers of the Achaemenid empire, but initial success
was followed by defeat at the hands of the Byzantine
emperor HERACLIUSand assassination. A succession of
rulers culminated in Yazdegird III (r. 632-51), under
whom the exhausted Sassanian empire succumbed to the
attacks of the Muslim Arabs.