Iran Early History

From the origins to the Arsacidic domination

The oldest political formation known to us on the Iranian territory is the Empire of the Medes, Iranian people who between the 8th and 6th centuries. BC dominated in the northern area of ​​the plateau. The supremacy of the Medes was first joined and then (mid-6th century) by that of the real Persians based in the southern part of the country. With the royal family of the Achaemenids and its progenitor Cyrus the Elder (first king of Anzan in Susiana, then king of Persia), the Persian Empire assumed a leading position in the history not only of Asia but of the whole world. ancient. Under Cyrus, the kingdom of the Medes was demolished (550), then the Lydian kingdom (546), and finally the Babylonian one (539). When in 528 Ciro died fighting on the north-eastern frontier of the Empire, it already extended from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean, from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. Cyrus’s son Cambyses undertook the conquest of Egypt (525), but died in 522, while returning to Persia. From the dramatic and dark events that followed (usurpation of the magician Gaumata, and conspiracy of the Persian nobles) emerged the cadet branch of the Achaemenids, ascended to the throne with Darius I, son of Histaspes (522-485), who accomplished the work of Cyrus, and brought the Persian Empire to the apogee of power. The reign of Darius is known to us not only for the Greek sources, but also for the inscriptions of the Great King themselves, especially for those of Persepolis. The immense empire was divided into 20 satrapies, connected by an admirable road network and governed by a firm and elastic bureaucratic organization, headed by the sovereign: the central power respected religious freedom and ensured the economic prosperity of the individual subjugated peoples, drawing once, with taxes and services in kind, the means for the sumptuous life of the court and for an impressive building activity (residences of Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis). The Persian expansion led Darius to war against the peoples of the North (Scythian expedition, about 514) and against the Greeks (Ionian insurrection: 498-94; punitive expedition of 490, battle of Marathon). Darius died or retired by abdication in 485, his anti-Hellenic policy was resumed by his son Xerxes (battles of Salamis, 480, and of Plataea, 479) and the further history of the Achaemenids up to the conquest of Alexander is known almost exclusively in function of Greek history, and narrated by Greek sources. The main episodes of this story are the disputes for the reign between Artaxerxes II and Cyrus the Younger, which ended with the defeat of this one in Cunassa (401), the peace of Antalcida of 386, which reaffirmed the Persian dominion over the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, and the wars of the 4th century, under Artaxerxes III (358-38), to tame the rebel provinces.

According to agooddir, the recovery of Greece, which put an end to the two-century duel of Hellenic Europe against Persian Asia, was then accomplished with the expedition of Alexander the Great and the collapse of the ancient Persian Empire (battle of Issus, 333; of Gaugamela, 331 ; death of the last Achaemenides, Darius III, 330). Alexander’s death in 323 ended for Persia, deprived of independence and sovereignty, the oldest period in its history. For a few decades it gravitated into the orbit of the Seleucid Empire, but these direct bonds of subjection quickly eased, and in the mid-3rd century. new political formations, more or less Hellenized, emerged on Iranian soil: in the far east, the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactriana, dissolved from the vassalage of the Seleucids, and remained for some time the extreme propugnacle of Hellenism in the heart of Asia; further west, the kingdom of the Arsacids of Parthia, whose eponym Arsace, assumed the title of king in 250, fixed his capital first at Dara (od. Kalat), then at Ecatompilo. Thus arose, with its center in Mesopotamia and Media, the feudal and military state of the Parthians, for five centuries the most vital and aggressive eastern adversary first of the Seleucids, then of Rome.

Artabanus V (224 AD) was the last Arsacide. In fact, in the first decades of the 3rd century. the old Arsacid team was attacked, from the south, by an internal movement of revolt which had its outbreak in Persis and its leader in Ardashīr, son of Papak, of a southern noble lineage that claimed to reconnect with the ancient Achaemenids. The triumph of Ardashir, who entered the Parthian capital Ctesiphon in 226, marked a reaffirmation of the purely national tradition against the Hellenized Parthians, and ushered in the last period of power of pre-Muslim Persia.


The name derives from that of Sāsān, ancestor of Ardashīr. The empire lasted four centuries, and in foreign policy it continued the Parthian tradition, in a chronic war against Rome first, and then, from the 5th century, against Byzantium. As regards the organization of the state and internal events, this period is better known than the Arsacidic one, through Greek, sire, Armenian and Arab sources, as well as for the remains of the Middle Persian national literature and epigraphic documents. In 613-616, Sassanid armies reached Damascus, Jerusalem and Egypt, as they had already before (570) arrived in Yemen ; but, between ebbs and flows, the substantial equilibrium between the two adversaries was maintained until the end, and neither was able to strike the death blow on the other. To the east, the Sassanids fought to stem the infiltration and offensive of the Turks, which appeared in the 6th century. in Anterior Asia. Inside, the full restoration of the Zoroastrian religious tradition took place under them, with Mazdeanism erected for the first time as the state religion, the establishment of the sacred canon, and a powerful organization of the clergy, now allied, now opposed to kings, persecuting of Christianity and of the new dualistic heresies (Manichaeism, Mazdacism). The major figure of the Sassanid dynasty is Khusraw I Anūsharwān (531-79), the contemporary and rival of Justinian: a magnificent and enlightened despot, whose memory remained very vivid in the later tradition, even in the Muslim era. Having known with him the highest degree of political power and cultural splendor (influences from India and China on the one hand, and to a lesser degree from Hellenistic philosophy and science), the Sassanid state fell in the following decades into a series of dynastic, economic and social crises, from which it no longer arose.


The invasion of raba, which began almost immediately after Muhammad’s death(632), wiped out the Sassanid Empire in a few years and inaugurated a new period of its history for Persia; Zoroastrianism rapidly declined in the face of intense Islamization. Around 650 the Arab conquest can be said to be over, except for some inaccessible areas of the Caspian coast. Persia proper was for almost two centuries a province of the empire of the caliphs, a frontier mark for further expansion towards the east. But Arab tribal rivalries and Iranian national and social ferments caused the revolution that overthrew the Umayyad caliphate (661-750) and replaced that of the Abbasids (750-1258), also Arabs, to explode in the 8th century. supported by Iranian military and civilian forces. A few decades later, those autonomous peripheral dynasties began to form in north-eastern Persia with which the disintegration of the unitary Islamic caliphate began. The purely Iranian dynasty of the Samanids (10th century) played a primary part in the resurrection of the Persian national and cultural conscience, albeit within the now immutable framework of Muslim civilization. The Samanids were succeeded by the Gasnavids (10th-11th century), Turks of lineage but culturally Iranian. The advent (11th century) of the Seljuks, Iranized Turks, recreated a great unitary state in the eastern provinces of the caliphate. The Seljuk state fell towards the middle of the 12th century. for the blows of the rival power of the Khuwarizmshāh, sultans of Transoxiana, but these too were overwhelmed by the whirlwind conquest of the Mongols of Genghiz khān (1220), which caused untold loss of life and property in the Iranian provinces. These same nomads were assimilated by Islamic civilization and both the Mongol state of the Īlkhān (1256-1349) and that of the Timurids (1369-1494) marked periods of renewed economic and cultural splendor for Persia. At the beginning of the 16th century. the reign of the Afavids (1502-1736) inaugurated historyof the Persian nation.

Iran Early History

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