Great Kings, Strong Kings, Kings of the Four Quarters

Peter Green

  • Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 bce by Matt Waters
    Cambridge, 252 pp, £19.99, January 2014, ISBN 978 0 521 25369 7

In the early sixth century bce the Persians occupied a small region known as Parsa (Persis to the Greeks), now Fars, in south-west Iran. They were allies, perhaps subordinate allies, of the Medes, and had no apparent ambition for greater power. Yet under Cyrus II (559-30) they conquered Lydia, Ionia, Media and Babylonia – most of what today is known as the Near and Middle East – and drove northwards to the Russian steppes and eastwards almost as far as India. By the time Cyrus died, while campaigning beyond the Caspian Sea against the Massagetae nomads, Persia was the most powerful nation in Eurasia. Cyrus had been justified in calling himself ‘King of the World, Great King, Strong King, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters’.

His son, Cambyses II, succeeded him smoothly, and added Cyprus and Egypt to this sudden empire. But cut-throat intrigues were already at work. Cambyses died in mysterious circumstances in 522 and, to make matters worse, he did not leave a direct heir. The throne was finally won, after more than a year of battles, by a contender – one among many – called Darius. The unhappiness at his victory was such that he had to put down nine major rebellions immediately after his accession. Though he was of noble birth, Darius’ familial connection to Cyrus was dubious: it’s possible that he invented it. He claimed the otherwise obscure Achaemenes as an ancestor, and went out of his way, as Matt Waters points out, to insist that Cyrus, too, had been an Achaemenid, though Cyrus himself had never said anything of that sort. Darius became an even more dominant Great King and so, despite the possibly mythical status of Achaemenes, the rulers of the Persian empire became known as the Achaemenid dynasty.

That the prize Darius won was worth fighting for hardly needs saying. Herodotus, who spent the first half of his Histories exploring the many nations under Achaemenid rule, tells us that the annual tribute they paid was the equivalent of 14,560 talents; since the bulk of the sum was paid in gold and silver, with the talent set at a weight somewhere above 57 lbs, the Persian empire’s reputation for vast wealth wasn’t a literary myth. When Alexander raided the Achaemenid treasuries a century later, the takings funded his costly campaigns – including vast bribes to battle-weary veterans – for several years, and still left plenty for his successors.

The vast size of the empire didn’t diminish the effectiveness of its administration. In the last few years primary evidence for Achaemenid government and economics has revealed that a complex and highly sophisticated Persian bureaucracy – with a chain of command that spread outwards from the absolute fiats of the Great King, via the satraps of two dozen provinces, to the most remote villages of the empire – maintained a remarkable degree of control over the empire’s large and various territories. A network of good roads, with stations at the end of a day’s journey to provide fresh mounts, riders and refreshments, produced a courier service unrivalled for speed and efficiency in the Mediterranean world. An unusually tolerant laissez-faire attitude to local government, customs, languages, religious beliefs and culture in general seems to have proved a great success. When Alexander took over the Achaemenid administrative system virtually unchanged he wasn’t merely displaying his notorious lack of interest in the details of government.

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