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Achaemenid Persians

Expansionist to their core, the Persians understand that an empire can stand the test of time if it embraces its citizens' religious and cultural diversity.

Starting in the sixth century BCE, the Persian provinces would be the birthplace of empires that would dominate Mesopotamia. In less than a century, the Achaemenid kings, originally from the southwest of modern-day Iran, would supplant their Median overlords and build the largest empire to have ever existed at that time.

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The rise of the Achaemenid kingdom began inside the Median Empire, when Cyrus II controlled all of Persis. From this territorial base, he assembled troops with which conquered the Median territories (modern-day Iran and Upper Mesopotamia) before taking control of Lydia (Turkey), Bactriana (Afghanistan-Tajikistan), the kingdom of Babylonia (Lower Mesopotamia), and Assyria (Syria). His successors Cambyses II and Darius I continued to expand the empire until 486 BCE. At its peak, it encompassed an area from the Indus river to the mouth of the Danube and from Samarkand all the way to the Nile Valley. The reign of Darius I (521–486 BCE) saw a period of administrative organization in the Empire. In order to retain control of this gigantic territory (comprising nearly 23 population groups with different languages and religions), following conquest he made use of the preexisting elites and administrative systems. Even the ruler’s title refers to this great diversity of different peoples, with Darius presenting himself as the “lord of the multitudes.” Kings by divine right that practiced the Zoroastrian rites, the Achaemenid monarchs were, nevertheless, celebrated in Greek texts for their religious tolerance.

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The empire’s success relied as much on the colossal armies it could assemble as on its very substantial financial resources. Persian kings often preferred to buy the allegiance of an independent kingdom’s ruling class. For example, the Persian daric was a gold coin specifically created to pay the Greek ruling classes and mercenaries.