Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


First Empires

ca. 7000 B.C. - 200 A.D.


The Middle East was the cradle of mankind's first advanced civilizations. In Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, which extends in an arc from the north of the Arabian Peninsula east through Palestine to Mesopotamia, the first state structures emerged in parallel with the further development of animal husbandry, agriculture, trade, and writing. The first great empires, such as those of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Persians, evolved at the beginning of the third millennium B.C., out of small communities usually clustered around a city. Similar development also occurred on the Indian subcontinent and in China, where quite distinct early advanced civilizations took shape as well.


The golden mask of Tutankhamun, a jewel of ancient Egyptian artwork,
 showing the pharaoh in a ceremonial robe decorated with the heraldic animals, the vulture and cobra, ca. 1340 B.C.



The Medes and the Persian Empire of the Achaemcnids

ca. 800-330 B.C.


The Indo-Iranian tribes of 1 Medes and Persians settled in the western highlands of Iran on the border of Mesopotamia beginning late in the second millennium B.C. The Persians annexed Media in 550 B.C. and founded the last great empire of the Ancient Orient, which survived until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. The historical assessment of the Persians' rule has often been biased and has judged them to be despotic. This is to overlook the fact that under their rule an immense integrated cultural and economic region was provided with security and stability.

Persian and Median soldiers,
stone relief from Persepolis, fifth ˝ B.C.

The Medes and the Rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus II

Building on the conquests of his Median ancestors, Cyrus II created a world empire.

The only sources of information about the early period of the Medes are Assyrian accounts of conflicts with various mountain tribes. It wasn't until the eighth century B.C. that these tribes were united as a nation under a king.

Media fell under Assyrian and later under Scythian domination. King Cyaxares freed himself from this rule and. together with the Babylonians, destroyed the Neo-Assyrian Empire between 614 and 612 B.C. He and his son Astyages extended their rule all the way to Asia Minor, where they agreed with the Lydians to recognize the Halys River as their common border.

3 Medians paying tribute to the Assyrians

The 5 Median kingdom stretched eastward to Bactria (present-day Afghanistan).

5 Cultivated fields, landscape of the former Media,
northwest Iran

Among the vassals of the Medes were the Persians. Astyages married one of his daughters to the Persian king Cambyses I, the great-grandson of the legendary founder of the Persian ruling house, Achaemencs. Later, however, Cyrus II, the son of Cambyses I, rebelled against Astyages and by 550 had conquered the Median kingdom.

From then on, the Medes were equals with the Persians, who adopted many elements of administration, 7 court ceremony, and 2 art from their former rulers.
Cyrus II's conquests continued. In 546 B.C. he defeated Croesus of Lydia and subjugated the Greek coastal cities of Asia Minor (Ionia). In 539 he conquered the Neo-Babylonian Kingdom.

BabylonŚwith the ancient Persian capitals of 6 Susa and Pasargadae and the Median capital EcbatanaŚthereafter became one of Cyrus's preferred residences.

He allowed the 8 Jews, living in Babylon since their deportation in 587 B.C., to return to their homeland.

7 Persian (left) and
Median (right) dignitaries

2 Clay model of two harnessed animals
with a driver, art from the
Persian culture, ca. 1100 B.C.

6 Procession of archers, life-size frieze
from Darius I's palace in Susa, ca. 500 B.C.

8 Cyrus II with the Jewish prophet Daniel, painting by  Rembrandt, 17th century

Cyrus Il's last campaign took him north, where he 4 died in 530 fighting the Massagetae.

4 The tomb of Cyrus II, located in the royal capital city of Pasargadae

Cyrus the Great allowed the Hebrew exiles to resettle and rebuild Jerusalem,
earning him an honored place in Judaism.


The Persian Empire under Darius I

Under Darius I (the Great), perhaps the most significant ruler of the Ancient Orient, the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids experienced its golden age.

Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus II, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C. In order to foil an attempted coup, he had his younger brother Smerdis (Bardiya) secretly murdered. In the absence of the king, a Magus named Gaumata pretended to be Smerdis and claimed the throne. Cambyses II died on the return march from Egypt in 522 B.C., but his cousin Darius stopped the crowning of the "false Smerdis" and restored the rule of the Achaemenids.

With the turmoil around the throne settled, Darius I consolidated his empire from within. He established provinces, which were required to pay taxes. Although the province governors, called satraps, had much latitude, they were controlled by a system of 9 officials and spies.

A well-developed network of roads equipped with a message and postal service and protected by patrols provided improved communications.

Darius also reformed the rule of law and introduced an empire-wide coinage, the daric. In 497 B.C. he completed the construction of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea that had been begun by the pharaohs.

9 Persian official in robes,
stiver statuette, fifth century B.C.

10 Darius I on a throne, painted vase,
late fourth century Ô.˝

In Persia he laid the cornerstone for the 13 palace city of 11 Persepolis, which would be developed further by his 12 successors.

Darius I also promoted 14 Zoroastrianism without suppressing the other religions of his multinational empire.

Private palace of Darius I in Persepolis

11 The ruins of Persepolis



12 Darius I with crown prince Xerxes, stone relief, ca. 485 Ô ˝

14 Darius I hunting lions, protected by the god Ahura Mazda, round seal print, ca 500 Ô.˝

Darius I pushed the boundaries of the Persian Empire to the Indus River in the east and to the Danube in the northwest of Thrace and subjugated Macedonia in northern Greece. He was not always successful in his military undertakings, however, failing in his campaign against the Scythians in 513-512 B.C. From 500 to 494, Darius was forced to suppress the "Ionian Rebellion" of the Greek city-states in Anatolia, and a punitive expedition to Greece ended with his defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490. Darius I died in 486 while preparing for another war against the Greeks.



King Darius Says:

"Ahura Mazda, when he saw this earth in commotion, thereafter bestowed it upon me, made me king; I am king. By the favor of Ahura Mazda I put it down in its place; what I said to them, that they did, as was my desire.

"If now you shall think that 'How many are the countries which King Darius held?' look at the sculptures [of those] who bear the throne, then shall you know, then shall it become known to you: the spear of a Persian man has gone forth; then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far from Persia."

Rock tombs of (from left) Artaxerxes I (or Darius II),
Xerxes I (or Artaxerxes I), and Darius I at Naqsh-i-Rustam, near Persepolis



The Persian Empire under the Later Achaemenids

Rebellion in the provinces and intrigue within the royal house weakened the power of the Persians under the successors of Darius I. Warfare against the Greeks remained inconclusive until Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 330 Ô.˝

At the beginning of his rule in 486 B.C., 1 Xerxes I, the son and successor of Darius I, had to crush a rebellion in Egypt.

1 Xerxes receives a Median dignitary

He then attempted to carry out his father's plans for the conquest of Greece. Xerxes only succeeded in advancing as far as Athens, and ultimately his fleet was defeated at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., and his army was routed at the Battle of Plataea the following year.

By then, Xerxes had already returned to his 3 capital, where he remained from then on, dedicating himself especially to building activities. He was murdered during a palace revolt in 465.

3 The Propylaia of Xerxes I, the
"gate to all countries," Persepolis, fifth ˝. Ô.˝.

Xerxes' son Artaxerxes I ended the conflict with 2 Greece by signing the Peace of Callias in 448 b.c.

2 The Athenian Themistocles and Artaxerxes I,
steel engraving, 1842

The Persians subsequently shifted their support from one belligerent to another during the Peloponnesian War and in the disputes between Athens, Sparta, and Thebes of the fourth century B.C. In return for this decisive support, the Greek powers fighting Sparta handed over the Ionian cities to the Persians in the "King's Peace" the Peace of Antalkidas.

The Persians were expelled from Egypt in 404 b.c, but 4 Artaxerxes III recaptured it in 343 B.C.

4 Artaxerxes III's tomb, carved into the rock face,
near Persepolis

He also supported the opponents of Philip II of Macedonia, who had united the Greeks and planned to wage a war against the Persians. Artaxerxes III and his son and heir were both poisoned in palace intrigues. Whereupon Darius III, a member of a minor branch of the Achaemenids, assumed the throne in 336, becoming the last Persian king.

In 334 b.c, Alexander the Great of Macedonia opened the campaign against the Persians planned by his father Philip II.

Darius III suffered crushing defeats in 333 at 6 lssus and in 331 at Gaugamela.

Following these reverses he fled to the north of Iran, where he was betrayed and  murdered in 330.

5 By 324, Alexander had conquered the whole of the Persian Empire. The Seleucid dynasty that ruled the area after Alexander's death was succeeded by the Arsacids. They presided over a revival of Achaemenid traditions, and this continued under the Sassinian kings who overthrew them in 230 b.c.

6 Darius III at the Battle of lssus

5 Alexander the Great before the Corpse of Darius III, 330 BC,
by Francesco Guardi



Persia in Greek Historiography

Persian history was retold in Europe in Herodotus's Histories and in the Anabasis by Xenophon.
Xenophon was one of thousands of Greek mercenaries who took part in the coup attempt by Cyrus the Younger against his brother, King Artaxerxes II, in 401 B.C.
After Cyrus was defeated and killed he led the survivors back to safety.




Religion in the Persian Empire

Zoroastrianism flourished under the Achaemenids. The Zoroastrian concept of the afterlife had a significant influence on both Judaism and Christianity.

see also text

ZARATHUSTRA "Zoroaster Hymns of the Zend Avesta"

The ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism recognized a great number of gods and was probably related to the Vedic religion of ancient India. The rituals of the Magi, a hereditary priestly cast, predominated in the cult. Their name is derived from the Magoi, a Median tribe whose members were renowned for their spiritual practices.

The prophet 7 Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek) appeared around 600 B.C., probably out of the ranks of the 8 Magi, to proclaim the teachings of the one god 11 Ahura Mazda.

Zarathustra criticized the Magi for, among other things, their bloody 9 animal sacrifices and thus earned their enmity.

7 Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509, showing Zoroaster (left, with star-studded globe).

Praying man with goat,
golden statuette, twelfth century B.C.

Two sphinxes carry Ahura Mazda, cylindrical seal vamp, ca. 590-330 B.C.

Ritual sacrifice of a goat, detail from stone relief,
end of the fifth century B.C.


Symbol of Ahura Mazda, the Persian God

King Darius I became a follower of Zarathustra's teachings after thwarting the coup attempt of the Magus usurper Gaumata. Over time, the Magi adapted to Zoroastrianism and were able to defend their monopoly on religious worship.

According to Zarathustra, Ahura Mazda is the almighty creator of the cosmos and judge at the end of time. He represents the original, right, and good world order and is identified with "the Good Spirit" that opposes "the Evil Spirit." Man is free to decide between these two options but will be judged according to his deeds at the Last Judgment. Along with this dualistic value system, strict purity of ritual is particularly characteristic of Zoroastrianism.

Priests were allowed to approach the 10 eternal flame that burned in the temples in honor of the god only with their mouths covered so they wouldn't desecrate it with their breath. Fire, earth, and water were considered holy elements.

During the time of Persian dominance, the jews came in contact with the concepts of heaven, hell, and a "last judgment," which became an important tenet of Judaism, and later of Christianity and Islam. Manichaeism was formed out of a fusion of Zoroastrianism with Christian and Buddhist teachings and was, for a time, early Christianity's strongest competitor.

Zoroastrianism once again experienced a golden period as the state religion in the Sassanid empire from the third to seventh centuries A.D., only to disappear from Iran almost completely after the Arab invasions that introduced Islam. Many followers of the teachings of Zarathustra emigrated, primarily to India, where they were called "Parsis" after their land of origin, Persia. Today there are around 200,000 Parsis, about half of them in India.

Fire altar, Achaemenid temple, known
as the Kaaba of Zarathustra, fifth ˝ B.C.

Lance bearers in Persian and Median dress under the winged sun of Ahura Mazda,
stone relief from Persepolis, fifth century B.C.


Ahura Mazda (right, with high crown) invests Ardashir I (left) with the ring of kingship. (Naqsh-e Rustam, 3rd c. CE)



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