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6.5: Government and Trade in the Achaemenid Empire

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    Learning Objective

    • Discuss how the central government provided cultural and economic reform

    Key Points

    • Cyrus the Great maintained control over a vast empire by installing regional governors, called satraps, to rule individual provinces.
    • When Darius the Great ascended the throne in 522 BCE, he organized a new uniform monetary system and established Aramaic as the official language of the empire.
    • Trade infrastructure facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire, including the Royal Road, standardized language, and a postal service.
    • Tariffs on trade from the territories were one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, in addition to agriculture and tribute.


    Cyrus Cylinder

    An ancient clay artifact that has been called the oldest-known charter of human rights.

    Behistun Inscription

    An inscription carved in a cliff face of Mount Behistrun in Iran; it provided a key to deciphering cuneiform script.


    The governor of a province in the ancient Median and Achaemenid (Persian) Empires.


    The territory under the rule of a satrap.

    The Achaemenid Empire reached enormous size under the leadership of Cyrus II of Persia (576-530 BCE), commonly known as Cyrus the Great, who created a multi-state empire. Called Cyrus the Elder by the Greeks, he founded an empire initially comprising all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and eventually most of Southwest and Central Asia and the Caucus region, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. Control of this large territory involved a centralized government, territorial monarchs who served as proxy rulers for the emperor, and an extensive system of commerce and trade.

    Government Organization

    Cyrus, whose rule lasted between 29 and 31 years, until his death in battle in 530 BCE, controlled the vast Achaemenid Empire through the use of regional monarchs, called satrap, who each oversaw a territory called a satrapy. The basic rule of governance was based upon the loyalty and obedience of the satrapy to the central power, the king, and compliance with tax laws. Cyrus also connected the various regions of the empire through an innovative postal system that made use of an extensive roadway and relay stations.

    Cyrus the Great was recognized for achievements in human rights and politics, having influenced both Eastern and Western Civilization. The ancient Babylonians called him “The Liberator,” while the modern nation of Iran calls Cyrus its “father.”

    Cyrus Cylinder

    The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay artifact, now broken into several fragments, that has been called the oldest-known charter of universal human rights and a symbol of his humanitarian rule.

    The cylinder dates from the 6th century BCE, and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in 1879. In addition to describing the genealogy of Cyrus, the declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script on the cylinder is considered by many Biblical scholars to be evidence of Cyrus’s policy of repatriation of the Jewish people following their captivity in Babylon.

    The historical nature of the cylinder has been debated, with some scholars arguing that Cyrus did not make a specific decree, but rather that the cylinder articulated his general policy allowing exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples.

    In fact, the policies of Cyrus with respect to treatment of minority religions were well documented in Babylonian texts, as well as in Jewish sources. Cyrus was known to have an overall attitude of religious tolerance throughout the empire, although it has been debated whether this was by his own implementation or a continuation of Babylonian and Assyrian policies.

    Darius Improvements

    When Darius I (550-486 BCE), also known as Darius the Great, ascended the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 522 BCE, he established Aramaic as the official language and devised a codification of laws for Egypt. Darius also sponsored work on construction projects throughout the empire, focusing on improvement of the cities of Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Babylon, and various municipalities in Egypt.

    When Darius moved his capital from Pasargadae to Persepolis, he revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage and introducing a regulated and sustainable tax system. This structure precisely tailored the taxes of each satrapy based on its projected productivity and economic potential. For example, Babylon was assessed for the highest amount of silver taxes, while Egypt owed grain in addition to silver taxes.

    Persian reliefs in the city of Persepolis. Darius the Great moved the capital of the Achaemenid Empire to Persepolis c. 522 BCE. He initiated several major architectural projects, including the construction of a palace and a treasure house.

    Behistun Inscription

    Sometime after his coronation, Darius ordered an inscription to be carved on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in modern Iran. The Behistun Inscription, the text of which Darius wrote, came to have great linguistic significance as a crucial clue in deciphering cuneiform script.

    The inscription begins by tracing the ancestry of Darius, followed by a description of a sequence of events following the deaths of the previous two Achaemenid emperors, Cyrus the Great and Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, in which Darius fought 19 battles in one year to put down numerous rebellions throughout the Persian lands.

    The inscription, which is approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, includes three versions of the text in three different cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, which was a version of Akkadian. Researchers were able to compare the scripts and use it to help decipher ancient languages, in this way making the Behistun Inscription as valuable to cuneiform as the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    Behistun Inscription. A section of the Behistun Inscription on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in western Iran, which became a key in deciphering cuneiform script.

    Commerce and Trade

    Under the Achaemenids, trade was extensive and there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire. Tariffs on trade were one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, in addition to agriculture and tribute.

    The satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive stretch of which was the Royal Road, from Susa to Sardis. The relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote areas in 15 days. Despite the relative local independence afforded by the satrapy system, royal inspectors regularly toured the empire and reported on local conditions using this route.

    Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery. Trade in the Achaemenid Empire was extensive. Infrastructure, including the Royal Road, standardized language, and a postal service facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire.


    Cyrus the Great created an organized army to enforce national authority, despite the ethno-cultural diversity among the subject nations, the empire’s enormous geographic size, and the constant struggle for power by regional competitors.

    This professional army included the Immortals unit, comprising 10,000 highly trained heavy infantry. Under Darius the Great, Persia would become the first empire to inaugurate and deploy an imperial navy, with personnel that included Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriots, and Greeks.


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