(puhr' shuh) As a nation, Persia corresponds to the modern state of Iran. As an empire, Persia was a vast collection of states and kingdoms reaching from the shores of Asia Minor in the west to the Indus River valley in the east. It reached northward to southern Russia, and in the south included Egypt and the regions bordering the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. In history, the empire defeated the Babylonians and then fell finally to Alexander the Great.
The nation was named for the southernmost region of the area, called Parsis or Persis. It was a harsh land of deserts, mountains, plateaus, and valleys. The climate was arid and showed extremes of cold and heat. Gold and silver and wheat and barley were native to the area.
The region was settled shortly after 3000 B.C. by people from the north. An Elamite culture developed which, at its peak in 1200 B.C., dominated the whole Tigris River valley. It lasted until 1050 B.C. After its destruction, other northern groups entered the area. Among these groups were tribesmen who formed a small kingdom in the region of Anshan around 700 B.C. It was ruled by Achaemenes, the great great-grandfather of Cyrus II, the Great. (Thus, the period from Achaemenes to Alexander is called the Achaehymenid period.) This small kingdom was the seed of the Persian empire.
When Cyrus II came to his father's throne in 559 B.C., his kingdom was part of a larger Median kingdom. The Medes controlled the territory northeast and east of the Babylonians. In 550 B.C. Cyrus rebelled against Astyages, the Median king. His rebellion led to the capture of the king and gave Cyrus control over a kingdom stretching from Media to the Halys river in Asia Minor. Soon Cyrus challenged the king of Lydia. Victory there gave Cyrus the western portion of Asia Minor. Then, in 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus due to his skill and internal dissension in the Babylonian Empire. See Babylon.
Cyrus died in 530 B.C.; however, the Persian Empire continued to grow. Cambyses II, Cyrus' son, conquered Egypt in 525 B.C. Cambyses' successor Darius I expanded the empire eastward to the Indus and attempted to conquer or control the Greeks. Darius lost to the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C. This was the greatest extension of the empire. Later emperors did little to expand the empire. They even had difficulty holding such a far-flung empire together.
The Persian Empire is important to the history and development of civilization. It had major effects on religion, law, politics, and economics. The impact came through the Jews, the Bible, contacts with the Greeks, and through Alexander the Great's incorporation of ideas and architecture from the Persians.
Politically, the Persian Empire was the best organized the world had ever seen. By the time of Darius I, 522-486 B.C., the empire was divided into twenty satrapies (political units of varying size and population). Satrapies were subdivided into provinces. Initially, Judah was a provincein the satrapy of Babylon. Later, Judah was in one named “Beyond the River.” The satrapies were governed by Persians who were directly responsible to the emperor. Good administration required good communications which called for good roads. These roads did more than speed administration, though. They encouraged contacts between peoples within the empire. Ideas and goods could move hundreds of miles with little restriction. The empire became wealthy and also gave its inhabitants a sense that they were part of a larger world. A kind of “universal awareness” developed. The use of minted coins and the development of a money economy aided this identification with a larger world. The emperor's coins were handy reminders of the power and privileges of being part of the empire. Also, the Persians were committed to rule by law. Instead of imposing an imperial law from above, however, the emperor and his satraps gave their authority and support to local law. For the Jews this meant official support for keeping Jewish law in the land of the Jews.
The Persian Empire affected the Jews and biblical history a great deal. Babylon had conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he allowed the Jews to return to Judah and encouraged the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1:1-4). The work was begun but not completed. Then, under Darius I, Zerubabbel and the high priest, Joshua, led the restored community with the support and encouragement of the Persians. (Ezra 3-6 tells of some of the events while Haggai's and Zechariah's prophecies were made during the days of the restoration.) Despite some local opposition, Darius supported the rebuilding of the Temple which was rededicated in his sixth year (Ezra 6:15). Also, both Ezra and Nehemiah were official representatives of the Persian government. Ezra was to teach and to appoint judges (Ezra 7:1). Nehemiah may have been the first governor of the province of Yehud (Judah). He undoubtedly had official support for his rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
The Jews had trouble under Persian rule, too. Although Daniel was taken into Exile by the Babylonians (Daniel 1:1), his ministry continued through the fall of the Babylonians (Daniel 5:1) into the time of the Persians (Daniel 6:1). His visions projected even further.
Daniel 6:1 shows a stable government but one in which Jews could still be at risk. His visions in a time of tranquillity remind readers that human kingdoms come and go. Esther is a story of God's rescue of His people during the rule of the Persian emperor: Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes I). The story shows an empire where law can be used and misused. Jews are already, apparently, hated by some. Malachi, too, is probably from the Persian period. His book shows an awareness of the world at large and is positive toward the Gentiles and the government.
Throughout the period, the Jews kept looking for the kind of restoration promised by prophets such as Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40-48). Prophets such as Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi helped the Jews to hope, but these men of God also reminded their hearers of the importance of present faithfulness and obedience to God. See Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48; Ezekiel 40-48.
Albert F. Bean