From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire

Patrick Lynch - March 30, 2017

The Achaemenid Empire was officially founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, and at its peak, it covered over 5.5 million square kilometers. It was one of the largest empires in history and the biggest ever at the time. During Cyrus’ reign, he defeated the Lydia, Medes, and Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Persian Empire reached its greatest extent during the reign of Darius the Great (522-486 BC) but suffered major defeats to the Greeks in the first quarter of the fifth century BC.

Over time, the delegation of power to local governments probably weakened the iron grip of the king. Local rebellions might have softened up the Empire to the extent that it was ripe for the picking when Alexander the Great launched his invasion in 334 BC. Other historians disagree and suggest that the legendary Macedonian and his army were simply too powerful for what was a strong Empire. In this piece, I will look at 6 important battles that shaped the Achaemenid Empire from its beginning to its demise.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire
Battle of Opis. World of Warriors

1 – Battle of Opis (539 BC)

This was one of the most important victories in Cyrus the Great’s career as his army defeated the Babylonian army. It was significant because, in 539 BC, Babylon was the only major power in the western Asian region that was free from Persian control. As you might expect from a battle that is over 2,500 years old, details are sketchy, but we do know that fighting took place over several days at the city of Opis which was located north of Babylon.

The main source of information for the Battle of Opis is the Nabonidus Chronicle which is one of the famed Babylonian Chronicles. According to this data, the battle took place sometime between September 27 and October 27. Cyrus led the Persian army in the field while Belshazzar, son of the Babylonian ruler Nabonidus probably led the Babylon forces. Even the size of the forces or amount of casualties is unknown, and the fate of Belshazzar is also a mystery although it is assumed that he died on the field.

The Chronicle refers to a massacre, but while some translators believe this refers to the Babylonian army, others suggest it relates to the citizens of Opis. Regardless of who was slaughtered, it is clear that Cyrus’ army was victorious as the Babylonian forces either fled the field or died while retreating.

The defeat at Opis practically ended the fierce Babylonian resistance to the Persian regime, and within two weeks, the city of Sippar surrendered without a fight. Apparently, Cyrus was even able to march into Babylon itself unopposed, so the enemy either laid down its arms or was annihilated at Opis. According to a Babylonian historian named Berossus who wrote in the third century BC, Nabonidus was spared by Cyrus and died in exile.

Cyrus presented himself as the new leader of Babylon, but far from ravaging the newly conquered territory, he released political prisoners and restored temples. During his reign which lasted between 29 and 31 years, Cyrus created the largest empire the world had seen to that point. Egypt was the only major western power left, but he died before launching any sort of invasion. It was left to his son, Cambyses II, to complete the job.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire
Cambyses II. ThingLink

2 – Battle of Pelusium (525 BC)

Cambyses II became the new ruler of the Persian Empire when his father, Cyrus the Great, died in 530 BC. Egypt was the only independent state left anywhere near Persian territory so it was only natural that Cambyses would try to follow in his father’s footsteps by expanding the empire. The Battle of Pelusium is possibly the first battle in world history that was won through the use of psychological warfare.

According to Herodotus, Cambyses declared war on Egypt as a reaction to what he perceived as deception by the enemy. He wanted to marry the daughter of Pharaoh Amasis II, but the Egyptian leader believed his daughter would probably become a concubine rather than a wife and did not want her humiliated. Amasis sent Nitetis, daughter of former Pharaoh, Apries, instead. However, Nitetis told Cambyses the truth, so he declared war on Egypt.

The Egyptian suffered a blow when Amasis died just as Cambyses was invading. His son Psamtik III (Psammenitus) became the new ruler and faced the threat of the Persians. Cambyses clearly did his homework on the enemy because he used their reverence of cats to his advantage. Apparently, the Egyptians worshiped cats to the point where killing one was an act punishable by death. It is difficult to know how true the story is but according to historian Polyaenus, the Persian leader ordered his men to paint the image of Bastet, an Egyptian goddess with the head of a cat and body of a woman, on their shields. He also placed other animals that the Egyptians revered in front of his men as they marched.

Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that the Persians routed the Egyptians at the Battle of Pelusium. Apparently, the Egyptian soldiers refused to fight in case they injured the animals in front of the enemy, so they fled the field instead. Unfortunately for them, the well-trained Persians routed them and slaughtered tens of thousands of Egyptians. Ctesias suggests that 7,000 Persians died compared to 50,000 Egyptians.

Cambyses captured Psamtik, but instead of executing him initially, he kept him as a prisoner and reportedly treated him well. However, Psamtik tried to launch a rebellion, and when it failed, he was killed. Cambyses also captured the city of Memphis and became the first Persian Pharaoh of Egypt. It was the beginning of over 120 years of Persian rule although Cambyses did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. His grip on power was weakened by a failed attempt to invade the Kingdom of Kush.

Apparently, his brother Bardiya or someone pretending to be him seized the throne and Cambyses marched against him. Some reports suggest that Cambyses committed suicide after realizing that he couldn’t win the war or else he died from an accidental wound in his thigh.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire
Battle of Marathon. Pinterest

3 – Battle of Marathon (490 BC)

The famed Greco-Persian Wars began in 499 BC and waged until 449 BC although the most important battles took place in the first half of the conflict. The Ionian Revolt of 499 BC (along with rebellions in areas such as Cyprus and Caria) involved an uprising against Persian rule. Aristagroas, the tyrant of Miletus, attempted to conquer Naxos and when he failed, he feared that he would be removed from office. As a result, he decided to incite the entire region of Ionia into rebellion against Persian king Darius I, also known as Darius the Great.

It took six years to quell the revolt and then Darius decided to punish Athens and Eretria. The Persians conquered and razed Eretria in 490 BC and turned their attention to Athens. Darius’ forces landed at the bay of Marathon some 25 miles from Athens. After a five-day stalemate, the Persians loaded their cavalry onto their ships as they intended to continue onwards to Athens.

It was a costly error as the Athenian commander, Miltiades, learned that the Persians were temporarily weakened, so he ordered an immediate attack. Even so, the Athenians were slightly outnumbered, but Miltiades used a bold strategy to win the battle. He weakened his center to strengthen the wings and gambled on his hoplites in the middle holding firm. Although the Athenian center eventually broke under pressure, it held together long enough for their forces on the wings to overwhelm the Persians. The Athenians then attacked the enemy from the rear causing widespread confusion.

The Athenians possessed better armor than the Persians, and the Battle of Marathon turned into a rout as they slaughtered the enemy with long spears. Herodotus wrote that 192 Athenians died against 6,400 Persians. While this is probably an exaggeration of the one-sided nature of the battle, there is no doubt that the Athenians enjoyed a significant victory.

Legend has it that an Athenian messenger ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to tell the city about the Persian defeat before dying from exhaustion. Herodotus claims that Pheidippides, a trained runner, covered 150 miles in two or three days as he traveled to Sparta to request assistance. The Persian fleet sailed to Athens anyway (sources disagree as to whether this happened before or after the Battle of Marathon). Regardless, the Athenians returned to their city to defend it and prevented the Persians from landing. A frustrated Darius ordered a retreat to Persia, and other problems prevented him from returning to Greece for the rest of his reign.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire

4 – Battle of Salamis (480/479 BC)

Although Darius I wanted revenge on the Greeks for the defeat at Marathon, uprisings in Egypt and Babylon took up much of his time. He died before he could launch another invasion, so it was left to his son, Xerxes, to deal with Greece. Xerxes became king in 486 BC, and once he handled the rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, he turned his attention to Greece.

The Achaemenid Empire had been at war with Greece since the 499 BC rebellion and enjoyed its fair share of successes. Darius’ forces swept through Greece only to suffer a decisive loss at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. When Xerxes returned, he won the famous Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC followed quickly by a win in the Battle of Artemisium when the Greek forces retreated to Salamis.

By now, the Persians controlled all of Boeotia, and the population of Athens was evacuated by the Greeks. Upon capturing Athens, Xerxes ordered it to be razed, and it appeared that total conquest of Greece was within his grasp. He was exasperated by the stubborn Greek defiance and resolved to destroy the enemy’s navy as soon as possible. The Greek alliance left their ships off the coast of Salamis because they believed a decisive win would bring an end to the Persian invasion.

In what was the first great naval battle in history to be recorded by historians, the Persian fleet of approximately 900-1200 ships greatly outnumbered the Greek alliance’s 300 or so ships. The commander of the Greek army, Themistocles, tricked the Persians by luring them into the narrow waters of the strait of Salamis. In this tight space, the vast Persian numbers proved to be their undoing as they couldn’t maneuver as well as the enemy. The Greek ships rammed and boarded the Persian ships and sank up to 300 of them while losing just 40 ships of their own.

The devastating loss scattered Xerxes’ fleet, and it took a year for him to assemble enough of an army to invade Greece once again. At that stage, the Greek states gained a significant amount of strength and won decisive victories at Plataea and Mycale in 479 BC. If the Persians had won at Salamis, the entire development of Ancient Greece would have been hampered along with that of western civilization. As a consequence, it is among the most important battles of all-time.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire
Alexander vs Darius at Issus. GJCL Classical Art History

5 – Battle of Issus (333 BC)

Given the extraordinary leadership ability shown by Alexander the Great during his conquests, you could say that the Achaemenid Empire was doomed as soon as the Macedonian general decided to include it in his list of conquests. Alexander had already defeated the Persians at Granicus and Halicarnassus, and by now, the Persian King Darius III believed his empire was at grave risk. This was a stark reversal of his attitude a year earlier when Alexander invaded. Darius believed the youthful invader was no real threat then but now knew the strength of the enemy.

Ancient estimates of the Persian strength are greatly overestimated; modern historians believe that Darius had an army of up to 108,000 and not the 600,000 reported by Arrian. Nonetheless, he still outnumbered Alexander who brought 40,000 men to the Battle of Issus. Darius had the advantage of choosing the battlefield, so he picked an area where a river ran through the middle, the Gulf of Issus to the West and mountains in the East.

Darius divided his forces into two staggered lines stretching to the mountains from the Gulf. The Persian king surrounded himself with the royal bodyguards and these men were flanked by around 30,000 Greek mercenaries. Also, Darius had his mobile light infantry to call upon while he placed his entire cavalry force on the right flank. Alexander countered by sending a relatively small force into the mountains to handle the enemy infantry. Ultimately, Alexander’s army stretched the length of the river.

On a wet and cold day, the armies faced off at the River Penarus. It was the ideal location for Alexander as it significantly reduced the mobility of the Persians. Not only did Darius refuse to listen to one of his best generals, the Greek Charidamus, who advised the king to split up his forces and allow him to face Alexander, but he also executed him!

Regarding the battlefield, Darius clearly chose poorly because his army was hampered from the start yet Alexander could use his tried and trusted Phalanx formation. Darius tried and failed to break through the enemy right flank, and Alexander used his cavalry to smash through the Persian left. Alexander saw Darius and tried to kill him, but the Persian king fled the battlefield on a chariot. At that stage, the Persian right flank was holding firm, but once they saw their leader flee, the men lost heart, and the line disintegrated.

Approximately 20,000 Persians died at Issus compared to 7,000 of Alexander’s men. Alexander found Darius’ wife and child in a tent, and while he didn’t harm them, he would not return them even though the Persian king offered half of his kingdom. Instead, Alexander wanted to meet his rival in battle again and got his wish with a significant win at Gaugamela in 331 BC.

From Power to Demise: 6 Critical Battles in the History of the Persian Empire
Alexander in Persepolis. Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

6 – Battle of the Persian Gate (330 BC)

Darius fled after the Persians suffered a rout at the Battle of Gaugamela in October 331 BC. Alexander proceeded to conquer Babylonia and Elam because he wanted to complete his invasion of Persia itself before winter arrived. Progress was smooth as his army crossed the River Marun without difficulty, but they eventually encountered resistance as they tried to cross the Persian Gate.

Although the outcome of this battle was predetermined given the impossible odds faced by the Persian defenders, it is still a fascinating fight as it highlighted the bravery of the Persians in what is an almost forgotten last stand. Although ancient sources claim the Persians had between 25,000 and 40,000 men, modern estimates suggest that they had between 700 and 2,000 soldiers. As a result, they were vastly outnumbered since Alexander arrived with at least 14,000 troops.

In what was the last major resistance to Alexander as he marched to the Persian capital of Persepolis, the small group of men, led by Ariobarzanes, held out for approximately one month. At one point, Persian archers killed thousands of Macedonians by firing arrows down on them from the southern slopes.

After suffering heavy casualties, Alexander finally found a way around the pass. One story claims that a group of local herdsmen showed him a secret route; this enabled them to attack the enemy from behind. It should be said; this tale sounds a lot like the story of the betrayal at Thermopylae, so it is hard to know if it is true. Even in their last throes, the Persians refused to go quietly. They apparently grappled with the Macedonians and even killed enemies with their own weapons. In the end, Ariobarzanes led a final charge with his men who all perished.

Alexander was now free to march on Persepolis, and he reached the Persian capital without any more problems. He took the city’s treasury and four months later, allowed his men to loot the city. In May 330 BC, Alexander ordered the burning of the royal audience halls and palaces of Persepolis. He wanted to find Darius III, but the king was murdered by a satrap called Bessus in July 330 BC. With Alexander’s conquest of Persepolis, the Achaemenid Empire officially fell.