The Migration of Iranian Peoples into Persia
Whilst the Persians were the famous enemies of the Greeks during the Classical Age, they actually shared a common ancestry. Both the Greeks and the Persians were descended from Indo-European migrants that came from the North of their respected countries.
The Iranic branch of the Indo-Europeans arrived in Persia in around 1,000 BC, at about the same time that the Greek speaking peoples arrived in Greece. Two of the most important Iranic tribes were the Medeans who settled in Medea and the Persians who settled in Persis. (See map 1: I,000 BC) Of these two groups the Medeans were the first to establish a great Empire, they subjugated all the surrounding peoples including the Persians. (See Map 2: 552 BC)
The Formation of the Persian Empire
In 552 BC, the Persians rebelled against Medean rule, established their independence and then went on the offensive against Medea. The Persian King Cyrus the Great marched through the Medean Empire and took the Medean capital Ecbatana in 549 BC. Cyrus then went on to conquer both the Lydian Empire of Anatolia and the Neo-Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia, (See Map 2: 552 BC) creating the largest Empire the world had yet seen. (See Map 3: 525 BC) He proclaimed himself to be King of the "Four Corners of the World" and established the first of many massive Empire centered in Persia. Historians refer to this first Persian Empire created by Cyrus the Great as the Achaemenid Empire to distinguish it from later Persian empires. 'Achaemenid' was the family name of the ruling dynasty who had descended from a semi-mythical king known as Achaemenes about 5 generations prior to Cyrus the Great.
The Death of Cyrus the Great
After conquering the established powers of the Middle East, Cyrus then waged war on the Nomadic peoples of Central Asia in the area where his own ancestors had originated all those centuries before. According to the account of Herodotus, Cyrus invaded the territory of the Massagetae tribe who were unfamiliar with alcohol. Learning this, Cyrus set a trap. He left a small portion of his army in a camp filled with food and wine, the Massagetae tribe easily overan the camp and began feasting on the food and wine where upon they became inebriated and were easily defeated when Cyrus returned with the rest of his army. When the Queen of the Massagetae, Tomyris, heard of this under-hand tactic she swore vengeance upon Cyrus and counter-attacked with an even larger army, Cyrus himself was killed and his head was presented to Queen Tomyris on a platter.
The Conquest of Egypt
Cyrus was succeeded by Cambyses II, who extending the domains of the Persian Empire by conquering Egypt in 525 BC. Herodotus recounts that after the conquest of Egypt, Cambyses II sent his army out into the Western Desert where it vanished without a trace. (See Map 3: 525 BC) With the conquest of Egypt, the Persian Empire now controlled the entire Middle East.
Persian Religion and Culture
Originally, the Persians of the Achaemenid Era worshipped 3 main deities: Ahura Mazda, who was considered to be the King of the Gods, rather like the Greek Zeus and would later evolve into the deity of the Zoroastrian faith which would come to dominate Persian religion in subsequent centuries; Mithra: a sun God equivalent to the Greek Apollo who would in later centuries evolve into the deity worshiped by the Mithraic Cult, one of the main competitors to Christianity during the Roman Era; and Anahita: a water and fertility Goddess, similar to the Greek Artemis.
In a step to further legitimize his rule, the Persian usurper king Darius the Great, began to promote the Ahura Mazda deity as a single, supreme deity and himself as his single, earthly representative. This was a major step in the development of the Zoroastrian religion which in turn would have profound influences on the development of official Monotheistic State religions such as Christianity and Islam. In Persian Fire, Tom Holland argues that Darius the Great pioneered the ideas that foreign enemies could be crushed as infidels, that warriors could be promised paradise in the afterlife, and that conquest in the name of God could be considered a moral duty.(Holland, pg. 56) Nevertheless, the Persian rulers continued to tolerate all religions within their large empire, as was the norm in the ancient world. So that Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish religions continued unaltered in their respective regions.
The Achaemenid Kings were patrons of the arts. They built many sumptuous palaces and gardens full of artistic reliefs. One of he most impressive examples of Persian art that has survived is located at the ruins of their ancient capital: Persepolis. Here Darius the Great built the Apadama Palace, the walls of which are covered with reliefs depicting all of the many different peoples of the vast empire presenting tribute to the Persian King.
Conflict with the Greeks
It was under the reign of Darius the Great that the Persian Empire reached its greatest territorial extent. Darius the Great invaded Europe and conquered Thrace, he then marched on Greece to subdue the various independent City-States there. (See map 4: 500 BC) Upon seeing the Persian invasion force, the Greek runner Pheidippides ran down to various cities to warn of the invasion so that the Greeks could assemble an army. The Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon and then Pheidippides ran the 26 miles back to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians. This event is what forms the basis of the modern Marathon. The Persians however returned and would continue to struggle with the Greeks in a series of wars known as the Greco-Persian wars. Nevertheless the Persian Empire never managed to subdue the Greeks, and it was a Macedonian Greek known as Alexander the Great that would eventually invade and conquer the entire Persian Empire in the subsequent century.