The Persian Empire
The Empire's Expansion
It was Cyrus, of the Achaemenid family, originally king of Anshan in Persia, who was responsible for bringing into being the Persian (Achaemenian) Empire. This vast empire ultimately stretched from the region of Sogdiana in the north‐east to the Aegean Sea in the west and incorporated all of the former Babylonian Empire. One biblical writer went so far as to refer to Cyrus as God's anointed, who was about to bring about God's purposes for his people in exile in Babylon (Isa. 45: 1–7 ). According to the Book of Ezra, one of his first acts was to permit the return to Judah of the Jewish exiles (Ezra 1: 1–4 ). It is also indicated that it was from Ecbatana that Cyrus issued a decree, permitting the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and ordering that the costs be defrayed from the royal treasury (Ezra 6: 1–5 ).
There was further expansion under Cyrus’ son, Cambyses (530–522), who invaded Egypt, won a victory at Pelusium, took Heliopolis and Memphis by siege, and marched along the Nile. Other territories in North Africa submitted. Aramaic papyri discovered at Elephantine (Yeb) provide evidence of the existence there at this time of a Jewish military colony.
Darius I (522–486) commemorated victories over his enemies in a huge inscription carved into the cliff face at Behistun. This inscription, in Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, provided the key to the deciphering of Akkadian (see ‘Writing Systems’). Darius built Persepolis as his capital, and brought under his control parts of western India which became the province of Hindush. Such a huge empire required an efficient system of communication, and to this end relays of horsemen travelled the Royal Road which ran through a vast tract of the empire. He also developed the existing administrative system based on satrapies, districts under the control of a ‘satrap’ (the word means ‘protector of the country’), a Persian noble who was the king's personal representative. In c.513, Darius entered Europe, passing through Thrace and crossing the Danube. Thrace and Macedonia submitted to him. When Miletus led an Ionian revolt, it was dealt with severely in 494. In 490 a Persian expedition which landed in Greece, at Marathon, was defeated by the Athenians. Subsequently Xerxes (486–465) carried out a full‐scale invasion of Greece, defeating the Spartans at Thermopylae and occupying Athens. But he met a severe defeat in the naval battle of Salamis, and Greece retained its freedom.