Alongside the Mede people south of the Caspian Sea, was another Indo-European people: the Persians. The Persians had arrived from Central Asia sometime before 800 BCE, and they had come under the rule of the Medes. In the mid-500s the Chaldean Empire, centered at Babylon, supported a Persian rebellion in order to weaken the Medes. A Persian prince, to be known as Cyrus II, led the rebellion, and some in the Medes army joined his rebellion. Cyrus and his army deposed the Medes king, and Cyrus united the Persians and Medes under his rule.
With Cyrus the Chaldeans got more than they had bargained for: Cyrus was an able administrator and military leader. He consolidated his power over tribes in central Persia, and then he started building a greater empire. He moved his army of cavalry and light infantry into Asia Minor, and there, in 547, he overthrew King Croesus of Lydia, who had ruled all of Asia Minor west of the Halys River. Cyrus acquired all of the king's great riches, and in name he acquired all of his empire. The Greek cities on the western coast of Asia Minor submitted peacefully to Cyrus' rule, but, in the more rugged terrain in southwestern Asia Minor, Cyrus' generals had rebellions to crush.
Cyrus took annual tribute from the Greeks of Asia Minor while leaving them to their religion and customs. He connected his empire by a royal road that stretched from the city of Sardis in western Asia Minor to Susa, a road with post stations one day's ride apart, with riders covering as many as 1600 miles in a week (9.5 miles per hour, 24 hours per day). For six years Cyrus embarked on more expeditions, his army conquering eastward from central Persia. And, occupying the trade route between Europe and the Far East, Cyrus' empire prospered economically.
Cyrus' army was strengthened by warriors he had gained from newly conquered peoples, and he turned his greater army against the Chaldeans, based in Babylon. Cyrus claimed that Babylon's god, Marduk, had been awaiting a righteous ruler and that Marduk had called upon him, Cyrus, to become ruler of the world. The Old Testament gives a different interpretation of these events. It describes Cyrus as Yahweh's agent and claims that Cyrus was stirred by Yahweh into taking revenge against Babylon's wickedness and that Yahweh had "taken Cyrus by the right hand." note5
In October 539, Babylon fell to Cyrus without a struggle. According to the Old Testament the captive worshipers of Yahweh expected Cyrus to wreak Yahweh's vengeance upon the wicked Babylonians. But Cyrus failed to punish Babylon, and the disappointed Yahwist captives found Cyrus honoring Babylon's gods and treating Yahweh as just a minor god of some distant place.
Kings who had been vassals of Babylon's Chaldean king came and paid homage to Cyrus. A king of kings, Cyrus now ruled as far as Egypt. He saw himself as the benefactor of all those he ruled, and he permitted a captive named Zerubbabel – a descendant of one of Judah's former kings – to lead forty thousand or so Yahwist captives back to Judah.
In Jerusalem they found impoverishment, foreigners and few worshipers of Yahweh. Zerubbabel found people in Jerusalem unwilling to accept his authority and resenting the intrusions of those returning from captivity. Those who returned to Jerusalem began to lay a foundation for the new temple, believing that Yahweh would help them, but the hostility of local people led them to abandon the project.
Jerusalem appeared to be a barely significant place small out of the way dusty town. With Babylon, on the other hand, Cyrus had acquired control over a vast trading network: through Canaan, Arabia to the Red Sea, Egypt and Africa.
In his sixties, Cyrus sought additional territory farther east: in 529 he led his army across the Jaxartes River at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains. There a queen called Tomyris told him to rule his own people and to bear the sight of her ruling her people. During this expedition, Cyrus died, and his son, Cambyses II, succeeded him.
Cambyses II tried to win glory to his name by conquering new territory, and after four years of preparation he conquered a portion of Egypt, bringing an end forever to the rule of the pharaohs. Cambyses also absorbed the island of Cyprus.
The Greek Historian Herodotus wrote about Cambyses seventy-five years after his death, and modern Egyptologists question his account. Another source is the Demotic Chronicle, from 407, decades after Herodotus. The religion of Cambyses is described as opposed to the worship of idols, and Cambyses is said to have had the idols of the Egyptians burned to cure them of their superstitions. Cambyses is described as having killed with his own dagger the bull representing the Egyptian god Apis and as having opened royal Egyptian tombs.
The power and succession rivalries that had plagued the world's civilizations remain. Cambyses' stay in Egypt was disrupted by news of an attempted usurpation of his power in Persia. He had been away three years, and when he returned to Persia he found insufficient support against a formidable opposition. How he died – by suicide, assassination or disease – is an open question.
The rising against Cambyses was led by Darius, an exceptionally able soldier and a member of Cyrus' extended family – the Achaemenids. Darius had allied himself with some other aristocrats. A son of Cyrus – an heir to the throne – had been killed, and Darius claimed that it was Cambyses who had killed him. Darius presented himself as having thwarted a takeover by someone impersonating the murdered son, and he claimed that as a member of Cyrus' family he was restoring legitimate rule. Not everyone accepted Darius' claims, and in many places Darius had to combat uprisings and competing claims to the throne.
Succeeding at this, Darius turned his attention to expanding the empire he had acquired. Stating that his god had chosen him as king of the entire world, Darius extended Persian rule in Egypt and beyond into what is now Libya. And, attracted by tribal divisions and wars in India, in 517 BCE he extended Persian rule through the Khyber Pass to the Indus River.
Darius made his capital Persepolis, in the south of Persia. He built highways, maintained postal service across his empire and encouraged commerce. He built a canal 150 feet wide, linking the Red Sea and the Nile. He reformed the empire's money and revised its administration, dividing the empire into twenty provinces, called satrapies.
Darius carried with him a portrait of his beloved wife, Artystone. He respected the religions of the various peoples he ruled, and he wished for and won the good will of people across his empire. Inspired by the tradition of law that he found in Babylon, he codified what he believed were just laws for his empire, and he wanted the various peoples he ruled to have local laws that pertained to their own customs.
Darius spent his later years at his palace enjoying his expanded harem, which had women of various races. In 486, at the age of sixty-four, he fell ill and died, and he was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who ruled for twenty-one years. Under Xerxes, some women at court acquired great influence, and jealousies surrounded him. Then a eunuch commander of the guard conspired with others and assassinated both Xerxes and his first son. The conspirators put on the throne another of Xerxes' sons: an eighteen-year-old named Artaxerxes, the son of a foreign woman from the royal harem. Artaxerxes asserted his authority and had the eunuch commander executed, and Artaxerxes was to rule over his vast empire for forty-two years.
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