Ancient Civilizations: The Persian Empire

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13081

The Persians went from roaming the plains to ruling one of the largest empires in history. Take a virtual tour of their capital city, and find out if Cyrus the Great was really that great!


World, World

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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One day, while King Belshazzar of Babylon was holding a banquet, he suddenly saw a hand appear and write on the wall in front of him before disappearing again. The writing was strange, and no one could understand it. The king offered rich gifts to the person who could tell the meaning of the mysterious writing.

A young man named Daniel came up and said that he didn't want the kings' gifts, but he could read the message to him.

Daniel said that it was a message from God, a warning to King Belshazzar. The message said: "Your reign is almost over. You have not done well. Your kingdom will be given to the Medes and Persians".

Did that prophecy really come true?

The Persians took over the Babylonian Empire, expanded it into the largest empire at that time, and ruled it for 250 years.

  • So, the prophecy did come true!

The Persians began as herdsmen, riding horses and hunting on the plains between the Tigris River and the Persian Gulf. While the Babylonians were in charge, the Persians began to settle down in cities, to become more united, and to become interested in government. They were related to another group of people, called the Medes, who had settled in a different area.

The man who brought the Medes and Persians together and made them part of a great empire was King Cyrus, often called Cyrus the Great. He conquered many other lands, until the empire stretched from India to Europe — over 3,000 miles!

,the Persian Empire

Cyrus was considered a good, kind, and wise king. He allowed the Israelites to return home after the Babylonians had held them captive for about 70 years. A king releasing his captives was unheard of in the ancient world! Not only that, but he let them rebuild their capital of Jerusalem, and its temple!

  • What do you think the Israelites thought of him?

Other peoples in the empire were content to have the Persians rule over them. They made laws to protect everyone, and the taxes were not terribly high. Cyrus let the people keep their religions and customs, and even their local governments as long as they paid their taxes to Persia.

Here is an image of the different peoples of the empire carrying their tribute (taxes and gifts) to the king.

bas relief of Persians

Like the Assyrian kings, the Persians built several capital cities. Cyrus built one at Pasargadae, then rebuilt Babylon for another capital. Then Darius I built a capital at Susa and another at Ecbatana. Finally, he built the great city of Persepolis (meaning "City of the Persian People").


Accomplishments and Culture

The Persians worked hard to keep their empire together. They divided the kingdom into 20 provinces, each ruled by a governor. The governor was usually a man from that area, who had proven his intelligence and ability. A special inspector, called "the King's Eye," made surprise visits to make sure everything was done properly. A governor was quickly dismissed (or killed) if he was found to be cruel, unjust, or unwise.

There were also army stations throughout the empire to keep order, and a navy made up of Phoenicians and Greeks who lived near the sea.

They had a special branch of the army whose job it was to guard the king. These were called the "Immortals," and there were 10,000 of them! They were the strongest and toughest of the soldiers. If one was killed or injured in battle, another stepped in to take his place; it seemed as if they could never be defeated.

The Persian kings built roads that stretched across the empire. One road, called the Royal Road, was 1,600 miles long! They also created a system to send messages by keeping riders and fast horses at stations along the way. The historian Herodotus said: "There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers."

The Persians were the first people to use coins widely (thought they did not invent them). This was important for trade. Using the same money system throughout the empire made it easier to buy and sell things.

They also loved to create art, especially sculptures and relief carvings (where the figure stands out from the carved surface). And they were famous for their brilliantly colored textiles (cloth or woven fabrics).

These are textiles from modern-day Iran, but they probably look very similar to those of the Persians. What do you think of them?

carpet market

The Persians followed the religious teachings of a man named Zoroaster, who taught that there was a good god and a bad god, and that everyone took a part in the battle between good and evil. This was very different from most other religions of the time, which taught that there were many gods.

End of the Persian Empire

A series of weak kings and bad military decisions brought an end to the Persian kingdom.

After several battles with the Greeks, the Persian King, Xerxes, decided to do away with them for good.

In 480 BC, he took a fleet of 1,000 ships and an army of 100,000 men to Greece. The army defeated the Greeks on land, but the Greek navy was too strong for the Persians. They tricked the Persians into going through a narrow waterway, where their ships were crowded together. Their fleet was destroyed, and without their ships, the Persians could not deliver food and supplies to their army. The army was eventually defeated.

In 465 BC, someone assassinated King Xerxes, and then the empire began to fall apart. Several men fought over the throne until a man named Alexander, King of Macedonia (later known as Alexander the Great), came from the west and conquered the once-great Persian Empire.

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you will make a map of the Persian Empire and explore the great city of Persepolis!

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