Persia: Decay of the Empire

Decay of the Empire

In the time of Artaxerxes the difficulties of maintaining so wide an empire had begun to appear. Some of the satraps showed ambitions to rule, and the Egyptians, helped by the Athenians, undertook a long rebellion. Violence against the great king himself was a disturbing factor. Xerxes I had been murdered, and Xerxes II, son of Artaxerxes, was killed after a reign of 45 days by a half-brother, who was in turn overthrown by another half-brother, Darius II. In the reign of the second Darius the power of the satraps was shown in the careers of Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes, who interfered with some effect in the affairs of Greece.

When Darius II died, the most celebrated of the dynastic troubles occurred in the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger against Artaxerxes II, which came to an end with the death of Cyrus in the battle of Cunaxa (401 b.c.). Cyrus' defeat was recorded in Xenophon's Anabasis, and although the importance of Cyrus' revolt may be exaggerated it cannot be denied that there were signs of decay in the empire. Although Evagoras of Cyprus was brought to heel after the Peace of Antalcidas (386 b.c.; see Corinthian War) was dictated to Greece by the great king, Egypt, which had become independent again in 405 b.c., continued to revolt and the efforts of the armies of Artaxerxes II to reassert control were fruitless. Artaxerxes III, who gained the throne by massacring his brother's family, was more successful in Egypt, but his triumph was brief. He was himself killed by his counselor, the eunuch Bagoas.

Darius III in turn murdered Bagoas and ruled with considerable splendor after 336, but only for a short period. In 334, Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army crossed the Hellespont and routed the Persians on the Granicus. The battle of Issus followed in 333, and in 331 the battle of Gaugamela brought an end to the Achaemenid empire. Darius, last of the great kings, fled east before the conqueror to the remote province of Bactria, where he was assassinated by his own cousin, Bessus. Alexander also came east and, defeating Bessus, had the whole empire in his grasp. Alexander went on to India and created the greatest empire the world had yet seen. It lasted, however, only for the brief period of his life and then was torn apart by the quarrels of his successors (the Diadochi).

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient History, Middle East