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The Bactrians, Medes, and Persians: Medo-Persian Empire

Ancient history, from the beginning of historical information to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire (? B.C. - 476 A.D.). The Great Empires: Eastern Nations.
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Bactria, a territory nearly the same as that of the modern Balkh, to the north of the Paropamisus (Hindu Kush) mountains, was probably one of the original homes of the Aryans. Its capital, Bactra or Zariaspa, has been held to be the cradle of the religion of the ancient Persians. Still professed by the Parsis, the "fire-worshippers," as they are vulgarly called, this faith is really a monotheism, in which honour is paid to fire, as the purest and most perfect emblem of the Deity. The religion was founded or reformed by a man named Zarathustra or Zaradusht, in Greek "Zoroaster," who lived at an uncertain time not later than 800 b.c., perhaps much earlier, in or near Bactria. The main doctrine set forth in the sacred law, the Avesta, is that of a continuous warfare of good spirits, led by Ormuzd, against the evil spirits, headed by Ahriman, in regard to the life and destruction, welfare or misery, of man and the soul after death. Mithra, the sun-god, was held to be the equal of his creator Ormuzd. The priests, originally called Athravans, from athao (fire), became the Magi of the Medes and Persians, a powerful hereditary landed class, the keepers and propagators of the Avestan law. There was once a powerful Bactrian kingdom, but it has no history in the proper sense; there are only mythical accounts of the doings of its monarchs.

In Media we are on firmer ground. We have already seen the Medians, in the 9th century, dwelling by the Zagros range, east of Assyria proper. It is probable that, in the formation of the.Median nation, pure Aryans became a ruling class, a military aristocracy, among peoples mostly of non-Aryan race, and that the whole were, in course of time, called "Medes." In its greatest extent, the empire may have reached far into Asia Minor, and eastwards nearly to the Indus. At any rate, most of the countries in the eastern part of the plateau of Eran or Iran, as Hyrcania, Parthia, and Bactria, paid tribute to Media, and may have had Median governors. A king named Deioces, ruling from 708 to 655, is said to have founded the capital Agbatana (Ecbatana, the modern Hamadan), a place stated by Herodotus to have had seven-fold walls, each higher than the next outside it, and with battlements of a different colour. The inmost wall enclosed the citadel, with the treasury and the archives. The city became, from its cool mountain climate, the favourite summer residence of the Persian kings. Phraortes or Fravartish, the second king, has been seen as killed in fighting against Assyria, and his son Kyaxares (633-593 b.c.) as warring with Lydia and as aiding Babylon, in 608-606, to overthrow the Assyrian empire. Astyages, last king of the Medes (593-558), was deposed by Cyrus, whose chief exploits, with the rise of the Persian empire, we now relate.

The Persians were Aryans who, at an unknown time, migrated into the fertile plateau, to become under their dominion rich in fruit and corn, which bears their name. The uplands were watered by mountain-streams, and wooded pastures on the slopes and in the valleys gave abundant food for cattle. The soil and climate were thus well suited for the development of a prosperous people. An out-door life made them expert in riding and hunting, and the simple manly life of the warrior class or nobles is shown m the Greek historian's statement that "their sons were carefully taught to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth." The ruling class the Aryan conquerors, were dominant over a large subject population, so that their position somewhat resembled that of the Normans in the British Isles. In time hereditary monarchy arose out of the chieftainship of various clans or tribes, and a long line of sovereigns, that of the Akhaemenidae, had its first great representative in Kurush (Kei Khosroo), called by the Greeks and known in history as Cyrus. He is held to be the founder of the Persian monarchy in 558, having united under one sovereign the Median and Persian branches of the Aryan race. He was a conqueror and ruler of great ability, magnanimous, just, and mild, and soon made loyal subjects of the Medes. His conquest of Lydia has been related, and this was followed by the subjection of the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, and of Lycia and Caria. In eastern Iran (or Eran) the Bactrians, Hyrcanians, and other tribes or nations were added to the empire, and in 539-538 came the conquest of the Babylonian empire, as already told. The taking of the great city Babylon, surrounded by brick walls of enormous thickness and height, with a deep ditch in front, and gates of brass closing all streets leading to the river-banks, has been justly regarded as a warlike achievement of the highest class. There were in that age no military engines for the breaching of fortifications, and the large area of land within the walls grew food enough to enable the defenders to bid defiance to famine. Stratagem was the assailant's one resource, and this was aided either by carelessness or treachery on the part of some of the garrison. Cyrus resolved to turn the course of the Euphrates into the empty beds of a lake and canal near at hand. On a night when it was known that the whole city was given up to the reckless revelry of an annual feast, the high broad bank between the river and the empty lake and canal was broken down by a large division of the Persian troops. By midnight the work was done. The river-waters rushed into the receptacles provided; the bed passing through the city was left dry; and by this way other divisions marched into the heart of Babylon, through one or more gates left open at the street-ends abutting on the river. The palace was mastered in the midst of Belshazzar's orgie, as with "a thousand of his lords," and his princes, his wives, and the ladies of his harem, he drank wine from "the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem." This event occurred in 538 b.c., deriving added renown from the dramatic details concerning the letters of fire emblazoned on the wall. The conqueror displayed his politic clemency in the respect which he showed to the religion of his new subjects, sacrificing in the shrines of Babylon, and releasing the Jews, as already related, for the rebuilding of their city and Temple. Nine years later, this most admirable of Oriental potentates, Cyrus the Great, fell fighting in one of his eastern expeditions. The seven-years' reign (529-522) of his son Cambyses was notable only for his temporary conquest of Egypt.

The reign of Darius I., son of Hystaspes, from 521 to 485 b.c., was that of an administrator of great ability, a born ruler of men, and a captain of no mean capacity. He was not only one of Persia's greatest sovereigns, but one of the most distinguished monarchs of all time. The first task which confronted him was the suppression of revolts on every side. With the greatest vigour peace and order were restored in Babylonia, Asia Minor, Media, Parthia, Hyrcania, and even in Persia itself, the original province. In truth, the vast dominion which extended from the Nile to the Oxus, and from beyond the Hellespont to India, had not yet been organised by a master-mind. When the first needful work of compelling obedience was achieved, and six years had passed away, Darius devoted himself to the higher duty of a patriotic sovereign, that of improving the condition of his subjects. For seven years he displayed his genius as a statesman in organising a vast empire under a vigilant, active, and absolute central government, that prosperity for all might exist in a settled dominion. The whole territory was divided into 20 "satrapies," or governments, ruled by men selected from the highest nobility, whose sons were carefully trained, under the king's immediate supervision, for the tenure of high office. The governors had each command of the local troops in his own province, but royal soldiers garrisoned all the fortresses. The satraps were kept steadily to efficient work by the transmission to the sovereign of reports made by inspecting commissioners, and by the king's own observation during his tours. Speedy punishment then fell on satraps whose territories showed signs of oppression or neglect in poverty and discontent, fields unfilled, villages and buildings in a ruinous condition. The taxation was regulated and improved, and each province, through the governor, was bound to remit a fixed amount of tribute. Independent officials, the "royal judges," administered justice, and no interference with the religion, language, and local customs of the people was allowed. Under a system so enlightened and benevolent, wonderful to have been devised and carried out by an Oriental "despot" in that age, it is clear that misconduct in the local governors was alone responsible for lack of prosperity among the governed. The provincial revenue included an equitable land-tax founded upon careful survey, and payable in gold and silver specie or bullion, as well as tribute in kind - horses, mules, sheep, ivory, slaves, grain, and other matters. Dues were also levied on forests, mines, and fisheries. Rapid communication between the provinces and the central government, essential to safety and stability in so vast an empire, was for the first time attained by the construction of good roads throughout the whole dominion, connecting specially the capitals of provinces. There was a regular postal service for the use of the government, with stations at which saddled horses were kept ready at all hours for the royal couriers. These highways were, of course, of great importance for the movement of troops, and, as Darius knew and intended, for commercial interests. This enlightened monarch also planned, and carried out as far as possible, a uniform gold and silver coinage, and completed in Egypt the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea which had been put in hand ages before by Ramesses II. and continued centuries later by Necho I. This anticipation of the Suez Canal of our day was in advance of the wants of the age, and, after being cleared and deepened two centuries later, was first disused and then choked up. The chief cities or royal capitals of the empire were Babylon, as a winter residence; Agbatana or Ecbatana, on the high ground east of the Zagros mountains, as a resort during the summer heats; Susa, the "Shushan" of the Hebrew writers, the chief royal residence, east of Babylon; Pasargadas, in Persia proper, south-east of Susa, this being the cradle of the Akhsemenian dynasty, where the tomb of Cyrus is still to be seen; and Sardis, in Asia Minor, the former capital of Lydia. Darius I. formed a new capital and erected a magnificent palace at Persepolis, in the-'finest part of his native state, south-west of Pasargadse. The Persian style of architecture, midway between the, massive Assyrian'style and the artistic beauty of the Greek, was most finely shown5tat.Persepolis, where staircases of imposing grandeur, ones having above a hundred steps, each about four inches high, and wide enough for ten horsemen to go abreast, lead up to a platform of gigantic masses of marble masonry. The outer and inner walls of the stairs are profusely ornamented with sculptured figures in relief, and with rosettes. The "Hall of the Hundred Columns," in ten rows of ten tall and slender shafts springing from an inverted flower-base and with the bent necks of animals at- the top, was one vast apartment, 227 feet square, used as the throne-room and reception-hall, and the place for royal banquets on a large scale.

It was an evil day for Darius when he turned from the work of peaceful administration to the field of battle. His ambition, not sated with all of Asia that was within his reach, turned to Europe, and he longed for conquest in the vast Scythian plains. The accounts of the expedition, with a vast host of men under Darius' own command, show us the army crossing the Bosphorus and the Danube by bridges of boats, and the subjection of Thracia, followed by the rapid retreat of the Persian armament from lack of resources. The Scythians were in close pursuit when Darius and his men crossed the Hellespont on shipboard, the only result of the expedition being the conquest of the Greek colonies along the coast of Thrace and eastwards to the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea). The next event was one which led to the momentous contest between East and West, the Graco-Persian wars at the beginning of the 5th century. The Greek colonies in the west of Asia Minor revolted in 501, led by Histiseus, "tyrant" of Miletus. That city was besieged, taken, and almost utterly destroyed. The people were carried off to the shores of the Persian Gulf, youths and maidens being sold as slaves. The rebellious cities on the Hellespont were burned down. The whole Grecian world stood aghast at this retribution, which had so terribly displayed Persian power. Darius had also won a great victory at sea, in 495, in the battle of Lade, off Miletus, with the help of Phoenician galleys, over a fleet of 350 Greek triremes. One event of the five-years' war specially rankled in the mind of Darius. This was the capture and burning of Sardis by a Greek force which included troops from Athens. Resolute for vengeance on the insolent Hellenes beyond the AEgean, he prepared the expedition which invaded Attica under Datis and Artaphernes in 490 b.c. and was signally defeated at Marathon.

The death of Darius Hystaspis in 485 b.c. left the throne of Persia and the task of avenging Marathon to his son Xerxes, a man of greatly inferior ability and moral character. The events of the campaigns of 480 and 479 in the war with Greece, ending in the utter discomfiture of the Persians, will be given in the Hellenic history. The end of Xerxes came in 465, through assassination by the captain of his body-guard. His second son, Artaxerxes I., surnamed "Longimanus" (the "Long-handed"), reigned from 465 to 424. He had at once to deal with a formidable revolt in Egypt, which was suppressed by his satrap Megabyzus, and then there was warfare with the Athenians and other Greeks who had helped the Egyptians. The next Persian king of any note was Darius II., surnamed Nothus, a son of Artaxerxes I. He was much under the influence of his wife Parysatis, a strong-minded wicked woman, during his reign of 19 years, 424-405. The empire had seen its best days. The satraps, not controlled as under Darius I., provoked the subjects of the empire by oppression. Egypt revolted 'in 414, and remained independent for 60 years. Greek mercenaries were replacing the native troops in the Persian armies, and, highly paid by revolting satraps, helped them against the central government. The reign of Artaxerxes II. (405-362) is interesting for the revolt of his brother Cyrus the Younger, which, after the rebel's fall at the battle of Cunaxa, near Babylon, in 401, was followed by the famous "Retreat of the Ten Thousand," the Greets commanded by Xenophon, as related in his charming Anabasis. Other insurrections, with difficulty suppressed, showed the crumbling condition of the empire under weak rule. A change came for a time with Artaxerxes III. (362-338), a man of energetic and determined character. He sternly subdued revolting satraps, reduced Egypt again to vassalage, won back Cyprus, and conducted with success the war against Judea and Phoenicia, in which Sidon was taken and destroyed. He had planned an expedition to Greece in order to help the Athenians against Philip of Macedon, after having supplied the former foes of Persia with men and money, when he was murdered by his favourite Bagoas. In 336 Darius III., surnamed Codomanus, came to the throne, the last sovereign of Persia. He was succeeding to an empire revived by the genius and vigour of Artaxerxes, but was wholly unfit to maintain the advantage. He had, moreover, to cope with one of the "world-historical" men, one of the greatest in all history, and, if he had been far stronger in character and ability than he was, he would have succumbed in the end to an antagonist like Alexander the Great. The struggle will be dealt with in the history of Greece, and we need only here state that the last of the greater Oriental empires came to an end in 330 b.c.

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