Founding and Flourishing of the Achaemenian Dynasty

Reaching its peak under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid Dynasty dominated the region between India and Asia Minor.

Summary of Event

During the fifteen hundred years between the origins of the Persian Empire c. 705 and its conversion to an Islam state in the seventh century c.e., four major dynasties ruled present-day Iran: the Achaemenids, Seleucids, Parthians, and Sāsānians. The empire reached its peak with the reigns of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, the most dominant of the Achaemenid rulers; during this period, the empire stretched over much of the Middle East between present-day Turkey and India. Achaemenes
Cyrus the Great
Darius the Great

The origins of the Achaemenid Dynasty are shrouded in mystery and myth. Even the existence of a historical Achaemenes is based on indirect evidence. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century b.c.e., makes reference to a Persian ruler named Teispes, “son of Achaemenes (Hakhamanish),” the eponymous ancestor of the dynasty. Later, Darius the Great named one of his sons Achaemenes, appointing him satrap in Egypt. On the Behistun inscription, carved by Darius into the side of a cliff, Darius also provides an Achaemenian genealogy that begins with Achaemenes.

At the time of the founding of the Achaemenid Dynasty, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Mesopotamia) was a scene of war and chaos. The area was dominated by the Assyrians, who maintained an empire that stretched from Egypt to much of present-day Iraq. The Parsua (Persians) existed as a series of ten to twelve Aryan (Indo-European) tribes, of which one, the Pasargadae, included a clan known as the Hakhamanish; the Greek translation gave rise to the name Achaemenes.

The only source directly describing the origins of the Persian dynasty is a work by Herodotus. According to the Greek historian, the Parsua emerged from the mountain during the eighth century b.c.e., founding a new kingdom in the region previously dominated by the Elamite Empire. Herodotus’s only reference to Achaemenes is indirect, in relation to his son Teispes. Nevertheless, several sources note that Teispes was head of the royal house at the time of a revolt against Assyria by the weakened kingdom of Elam and several small kingdoms or vassal states. It is likely Teispes, the Great King in Anshan (Fars), was instrumental in establishing the dynasty within the region, following formation of an alliance with Elam.

Regardless of who actually represented the beginning of the dynasty, during the late eighth century b.c.e., the region referred to as the Land of the Medes (Madai) and Persians was one of turmoil. Not only were there periodic revolts against the Assyrian rulers, but also problems developed because of inherent differences among the people themselves. Both the Persians and the Medes, their close relations, had migrated from the steppes of Russia over a period of centuries, settling in the mountains of what was to become western Iran. It remains unclear as to which represented the dominant tribe; fighting between these peoples would continue until the region was united under Cyrus the Great.

Following the death of Teispes (c. 640 b.c.e.), it has been suggested that the kingdom was divided between his sons, with Cyrus I becoming king of Anshan and the younger Ariaramnes inheriting Parsua/Parsumash. However, the sites of Anshan and Parsua probably represent the same region north of the Persian Gulf, suggesting the younger brother was actually the ruler of a small kingdom somewhere in the region to the east. Elamite inscriptions from a later period, as well as contemporary Assyrian inscriptions, refer to Cyrus as king of the land of Parsumash, adding further confirmation to how the kingdom was divided after the death of Teispes. Little is known of the reign of Cyrus I. His son, Cambyses I, married Mandana, daughter of Astyages, the ruler of Media, in what was probably a marriage of convenience. Nevertheless, according to Herodotus, the Persians remained a vassal to the Medes.

The union of Mandana and Cambyses resulted in a son, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was arguably the most important of the Achaemenid kings, in part because of his founding of the Persian Empire. Much of what is known of Persian history from the period is derived from inscriptions on the Cyrus Cylinder, a clay cylinder probably deposited by Cyrus in the city of Babylon after its fall. In addition to extensive political propaganda, Cyrus inscribed a description of his conquests as well as his toleration of the religious rites of the conquered peoples. There are a number of references to Cyrus in the Old Testament, in which he is explicitly called the moshiach (Messiah) in granting permission to the Jews to return to their lands. An additional contemporary source was the Babylonian/Nabonidus Chronicle, which recorded events over a several-hundred-year period beginning about 745 b.c.e.

Cyrus began his rule in 559 b.c.e., shortly afterward leading a revolt against his grandfather, Astyages. He defeated the Medes in two decisive battles, the last in the plain of Pasargadae (550), where he later established his capital. Herodotus notes that Cyrus captured Astyages, allowing him to survive under “house arrest” for the remainder of his life. Cyrus spent much of his reign in extending his empire and establishing the roots of Persian culture throughout the region. In 547 b.c.e., he defeated the Lydians in the plain of Sardis. Then he turned east to face the empire of Babylonia.

In 540/539 b.c.e., Cyrus began the siege of the capital, Babylon. Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River that ran outside the city, allowing his troops passage into the capital. Reference to the event is found in Daniel 5 of the Old Testament. Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, was spared and sent into exile. The fair treatment of the conquered was characteristic of Cyrus’s rule. Cyrus, as well as his son Cambyses II, repaired the Babylonian temples, restoring sacred objects. He also gave permission for the Jews to return to Judaea, even providing funds for the rebuilding of the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

In 530 b.c.e., Cyrus began a campaign in the northeastern portion of his empire against Tomyris, queen of the nomadic Massagetae. By this time nearly seventy years old, Cyrus was killed in July of that year.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, often described as a tyrant. Under Cambyses, the empire reached its peak with the incorporation of Egypt. In 522 b.c.e., Cambyses died as a result of infection incurred from a fall from his horse. Leaving no male offspring, he was succeeded by Darius the Great, great-grandson of Ariaramnes, the younger son of Teispes.

Darius spent much of his reign putting down revolts in various parts of the kingdom. Among his achievements was construction of the Royal Road, a 1,700-mile (2,740-kilometer) road connecting the parts of his kingdom. It was Darius who was defeated by the Greeks at Marathon in 490. The remaining years of the dynasty were characterized by progressive decline in both culture and territory, as the Persian influence was gradually replaced by that of the Greeks. The last of the Achaemenid kings, Darius III, was defeated by Alexander the Great in campaigns during 331/330.


Cultural and social conditions established during the period of the Achaemenid rulers set the tone for much of the twenty-five hundred years of history of Persia/Iran. To a significant degree, it was during the reign of Cyrus the Great that cultural influences that continue until today were begun. By establishing an empire that consisted of much of what is now termed the Middle East, Cyrus was able to spread Persian art, writings, and even monotheism (via the Zoroastrian religion) over much of the region. Architecture that has withstood the passage of time still represents some of the most significant period art forms in existence in the region.

Further Reading

  • Adler, Richard. “The Achaemenid Dynasty.” Scott Stamp Monthly 9, no. 12 (October, 1991). A history of the dynasty as depicted on stamps, including the tomb of Cyrus the Great.
  • Boyle, J. A., ed. Persia: History and Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1978. An extensive description of early Persian development and history.
  • Gershevitch, Ilya, ed. Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. The definitive history of the subject.
  • Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. A history of Persian and Greek civilizations.
  • Huart, Clement. Ancient Persia and Iranian Civilization. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1972. Reprint of an earlier text. Extensively illustrated.
  • Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation. New York: Penguin, 1996. A history of both the Persian and Iranian periods.
  • Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. Emphasizes a cultural description of the empire and its effects in the region.
  • Yamauchi, Edwin. Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1990. An extensive view of ancient Persia as depicted in writings and archaeology.

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Alexander the Great; Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great; Nebuchadnezzar II; Sennacherib; Tiglath-pileser III. Achaemenian Dynasty