Previous page Page 2 of 7 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Rivalries with Greece
     Darius and the Greeks
     Lesser emperors
     Cyrus and Xenophon
     Destruction of the Persian empire
     The legacy of Alexander
     New routes to the west
     The dwindling Greek presence

Parthians and Byzantines
Turks and Mongols
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Darius and the Greeks: 514-486 BC

Amid all the successes of Darius's reign, his only real failure is at the hands of the Greeks.

It is one of profound significance for Persia's future. Since about 545 Greek-speaking Ionia (modern southwest Turkey) has been part of the Persian empire. To protect this western region against nomads raiding from the north, Darius attempts in 514 to extend his power in this direction. He crosses the Bosphorus and pushes northwest. By the time he withdraws, Thrace and Macedonia are within the empire. Greece itself is now clearly under increasing threat from Persian intentions.


In 499 BC the cities of Ionia rebel against their Persian satrap. They are supported to a limited extent by Athens. The rebellion continues fitfully until finally put down in 493. But this region is now established as an area of friction between Persia and Greece. Geographically Ionia seems a natural extension of Persia's great land empire. But culturally the Ionians are linked to all the other Greek-speaking peoples round the Aegean Sea.

Athens becomes the main target of the Persian emperor's hostility - partly because of her support for the Ionian rebels, but also because the tyrant Hippias, expelled from Athens, is at the Persian court offering treacherous encouragement. In 490 Darius launches his attack.


The astonishing Greek victory at Marathon causes the Persians to withdraw. They have every intention of returning. But Darius dies in 486, and his death delays the renewed invasion of Greece. It is eventually launched in 480 by Darius's son and successor, Xerxes I. It has an early success (the capture and destruction of the city of Athens) but soon ends like its predecessor in total disaster, after defeat at Salamis and Plataea.

The defiance of the emperor by the small independent Greek states severely damages Persia's aura of invincibility - a significant loss in the difficult matter of controlling any far-flung empire.


Lesser emperors: 486-334 BC

The reign of Xerxes marks a change in the ruling house of Persia, following a pattern familiar in the story of many empires. The hard men who create empires tend to be followed by descendants growing up in isolated splendour, pampered by palace eunuchs and surrounded by intrigue and corruption.

Xerxes is murdered in 465 by a palace official, and two of his successors in the following century suffer the same fate. Meanwhile other emperors are weakened by a succession of rebellions - usually by ambitious provincial satraps, but on one occasion by the emperor's younger brother.


Cyrus and Xenophon: 401 BC

The attempt by Cyrus the Younger to seize the Persian throne (from his elder brother Artaxerxes II) is famous, beyond its importance, because it is the subject of the world's first book of eyewitness history.

In 401 Cyrus gathers at Sardis (in western Turkey) an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries. Among them is Xenophon. Cyrus marches east with his army. Only when he reaches Mesopotamia does he reveal to the Greeks that his treacherous purpose is to topple his brother. They meet the imperial Persian army at Cunaxa, and in the battle Cyrus is slain. The defeated Greeks are a thousand and more miles from home. Xenophon, in his Anabasis, tells the story of their five-month trek to safety.


The main effect of the escape of Xenophon and his army, from a distant and supposedly powerful Persian province, is on the Greeks rather than the Persians. The gossip now in the streets of Greece, full of exciting anecdote and often based on direct personal experience, is that the great empire to the east is soft-centred.

The smouldering Greek resentment of Persia, the bully of the neighbourhood, is eventually carried forward into decisive action by the Macedonians - themselves rough provincials in the eyes of civilized Greece. In 334 Alexander the Great marches east from Macedonia and crosses the Hellespont, entering the empire now ruled by Darius III.


The destruction of the Persian empire: 333 - 330 BC

Within a mere eighteen months Alexander has cleared the Persians out of Anatolia, which they have held for two centuries. The conqueror now moves south along the coast through present-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The ports here are the home bases of the Persian fleet in the Mediterranean. By occupying them he intends to cripple the fleet and deprive it of contact with the cities of the empire, including Persepolis. Most of the Phoenician towns open their gates to him. The exception is the greatest of them all, Tyre, which he besieges for seven months (see the Siege of Tyre).

By the autumn of 332 Alexander is in Egypt. The Persian governor rapidly surrenders.


In the spring of 331 Alexander is ready to move northeast into Mesopotamia, where he meets and defeats the Persian emperor Darius in the decisive battle of Gaugamela. His way is now open to the great Persian capital city of Persepolis.

In a symbolic gesture, ending conclusively the long wars between Greeks and Persians, he burns the palace of Xerxes in 330 (legend maintains that he is prompted to this act of vandalism by his Athenian mistress, Thaïs, after a drunken party). To make plain who now rules the Persian empire, Alexander adopts the ceremonial dress and court rituals of the emperor.


The legacy of Alexander: from 323 BC

Alexander dies in Babylon in 323. He has no heir, so after his death his generals set about carving up the new Hellenistic empire (see the Hellenistic age).

After prolonged warfare two of them emerge with sizable portions. Ptolemy establishes himself in Egypt. And Seleucus wins control of a vast area - Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia and the eastern part of the empire, including at first even the territories in India.


The region acquired by Seleucus proves impossible for his descendants to hold, even with the help of new Greek cities. These are established in strategic places and are populated with soldiers and administrators imported from Greece and Asia Minor.

As early as 305, within the lifetime of Seleucus, the Indian conquests of Alexander the Great have to be abandoned. Within the next half century much of Anatolia asserts its independence (of many small new states Pergamum is the most significant), soon to be followed by Parthia and Bactria to the northeast. But the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia are at first secure.


New routes to the west: from 300 BC

The presence of Greeks in Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean encourages a new trade route. To ease the transport of goods to Greece and beyond, Seleucus founds in 300 BC a city at the northeast tip of the Mediterranean. He calls it Antioch, in honour of his own father, Antiochus. Its port, at the mouth of the river, is named after himself - Seleucia.

Here goods are put on board ship after arriving in caravans from Mesopotamia. The journey has begun in another new city, also called Seleucia, founded in 312 BC by Seleucus as the capital of his empire. It is perfectly placed for trade, at the point where a canal from the Euphrates links with the Tigris.


Doura-Europus, a frontier town: from the 3rd century BC

The first major stopping point for the caravans on the route from Mesopotamia to Syria is the old Babylonian town of Doura, on the west bank of the Euphrates. Rebuilt by Seleucus in about 300 BC, it is given the new name of Europus.

This settlement later becomes of great importance as a frontier post, when the Euphrates is the boundary between successive empires.


Palmyra: from 300 BC

The other great staging post on the route to Antioch is also an important site, and today a much more visible one. It is Palmyra, famous as one of the great ruined classical cities.

From Doura-Europus, on the Euphrates, the caravans strike west through the desert to the Mediterranean coast. Palmyra is an oasis half way across this difficult terrain. Its wealth derives from its position on the east-west axis from Persia to the coast, in addition to being on the older routes up from Mesopotamia. In the 1st century BC, when Palmyra is on the verge of its greatest prosperity, a rich new supply of goods begins to arrive from the east along the Silk Road. But by now neither Persia nor Mesopotamia are Greek.


The dwindling Greek presence: 3rd-1st century BC

From the middle of the 3rd century BC the Seleucid empire is under constant pressure from Ptolemaic Egypt in the south, from the increasing might of Parthia to the east and from Rome, a new power in this region, to the west. It is gradually reduced until it comprises just Syria.

Eventually Rome and Parthia squeeze the Seleucids to extinction. Their dynasty officially lasts until the Romans annexe Syria in 64 BC. The Euphrates then becomes the dividing line between the Mediterranean empire of Rome and the Persian empire of the Parthians. The frontier town of Doura-Europus, on the Euphrates, bears witness to the rich blend of cultural influences in this historic region.


Previous page Page 2 of 7 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF IRAN (PERSIA)