The Achaemenids: Iran's Greatest Empire

Before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century CE, Iran had been the centre of several of the world’s greatest empires. Of these, the empire of the Achaemenids was the first and arguably the most powerful and extensive. Formed largely by the conquests of the first three Achaemenid Kings—Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius—this “Persian” empire extended from the shores of the Mediterranean as far east as modern Pakistan and into Central Asia. Nevertheless the heartland of the empire always remained Iran where the great palaces at Parsagadae, Susa, and Persepolis served both as dwelling places for the Great King as well as repositories of fabulous wealth from all parts of the empire.


  • This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom.
  • This course requires students to have an email, a reliable internet connection, a microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.

The Achaemenids

  • L. Allen, The Persian Empire. A History, British Museum Press, 2005.
  • M. Brosius, The Persians. An Introduction, Routledge 2006
  • J. Curtis & N. Tallis (eds.), The Forgotten Empire. The World of Ancient Persia, British Museum Press, 2005.
  • J. Curtis, Ancient Persia, British Museum Press, 2000 (multiple reprints)
  • Herodotus, The Histories.
  • M. Waters, Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Alexander’s Campaigns

  • Arrian (Flavius Arrianus Xenophon), The Campaigns of Alexander.
  • Bosworth, A.B. Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Heckel, W. The Conquests of Alexander the Great, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Wood, M. In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, BBC Books [and DVD], 1997.


  • THE RISE OF THE ACHAEMENIDS: The widespread movement of peoples from the north-east into Iran that occurred during the second millennium BC saw the formation of formidable tribes of whom the Medes were the most powerful. In this session we will consider these migrations and observe how another tribe – the Achaemenids – was able to emerge from Median control and, under Cyrus the Great, form an empire that extended from the shores of the Aegean as far east as modern Pakistan.
  • DARIUS THE GREAT – ACHAEMENID SAVIOUR: With the death (in mysterious circumstances) of Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, the Achaemenid house descended into chaos, only to be revived by Darius the Great who may not have been of royal lineage. We shall examine here the rise and rule of Darius as well as some of his greatest monuments such as the imposing rock relief at Bisitun (the key to the decipherment of Old Persian by Rawlinson), his palace at Susa, and his imposing tomb (sadly plundered) at Naqsh-i Rustam, the traditional burial place of the Achaemenid kings.
  • THE VAST EMPIRE OF THE PERSIANS: The fifth century saw the apogee of Achaemenid power that, contrary to the opinion of some scholars, extended well into the fourth century. In this lecture we shall consider various aspects of this vast empire, including the ultimately unsuccessful campaigns of both Darius and Xerxes against Athens. We shall also explore Persepolis which, despite its burning by Alexander the Great, is by far the best preserved. Here, just as in Antiquity, one can still pass through Xerxes' Gate of All Lands, guarded by pairs of carved winged human-headed bulls, wander through the Apadana (audience hall) many of whose immense columns still stand, and gaze at the monumental relief sculptures which cover the palaces of Darius and his successors.
  • SHOCK AND AWE. ALEXANDER AND THE PERSIAN WORLD: The dashing conquests of Alexander the Great extended to the limits of the Persian world. In the space of some 10 years he led his men from the familiar shores of the Aegean to the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia and onwards across the great Iranian plateau and rugged Hindu Kush before turning westwards at the river Beas to die at Babylon. In this session we shall examine the background to Alexander’s conquests and then follow the progress of his campaigns against the Achaemenid ruler Darius III and his huge armies.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Be aware of the remarkable cultural diversity within the Achaemenid empire and how this influenced its rule.
  2. Discuss the most important rulers and events in Achaemenid history, including the attempted conquest of Greece.
  3. Identify the major Achaemenid monuments and palaces.
  4. Have an understanding of the events leading to the rise and demise of Achaemenid kingship.
$145 Limited / $131

<p>Before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century CE, Iran had been the centre of several of the world’s greatest empires. Of these, the empire of the Achaemenids was the first and arguably the most

30 Jul

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