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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > P > Persia


The history, religion, and civilization of Persia are offshoots from those of Media. Both Medes and Persians are Aryans; the Aryans who settled in the southern part of the Iranian plateau became known as Persians, while those of the mountain regions of the north-west were called Medes. The Medes were at first the leading nation, but towards the middle of the sixth century, B.C. the Persians became the dominant power, not only in Iran, but also in Western Asia.

Persia (in the Sept. persis, in the Achæmenian inscriptions Parsa, in Elamitic Parsin, in modern Persian Fars, and in Arabic Fars, or Fâris) was originally the name of a province in Media, but afterwards — i.e., towards the beginning of the fifth century B.C. — it became the general name of the whole country formerly comprising Media, Susiana, Elam, and even Mesopotamia. What we now call Persia is not identical with the ancient empire designated by that name. That empire covered, from the sixth century B.C. to the seventh of our era, such vast regions as Persia proper, Media, Elam, Chaldea, Babylonia, Assyria, the highlands of Armenia and Bactriana, North-Eastern Arabia, and even Egypt. Persia proper is bounded on the north by Transcaucasia, the Caspian Sea, and Russian Turkestan; on the south by the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf; it is over one-fifth as large as the United States (excluding Alaska) and twice as large as Germany, having an area of about 642,000 square miles. The whole country occupies a plateau varying in height from 3000 to 5000 feet, and subject to wide extremes of climate, its northern edge bordering on the Caspian Sea and the plain of Turkestan, its southern and south-western on the Persian Gulf and the plains of Mesopotamia. The ancient Persians were vigorous and hardy, simple in manners, occupied in raising cattle and horses in the mountainous regions, and agriculture in the valleys and plains. The four great cities were Ecbatana, in the north, Persepolis in the east, Susa in the west, and Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the south-west. The provinces and towns of modern Persia will be given below.


Historians generally assign the beginnings of Persian history to the reign of Cyrus the Great (550-529 B.C.), although, strictly speaking, it should begin with Darius (521-485 B.C.). Cyrus was certainly of Persian extraction, but when he founded his empire he was Prince of Elam (Anzan), and he merely added Media and Persia to his dominion. He was neither by birth nor religion a true Persian, for both he and Cambyses worshipped the Babylonian gods. Darius, on the other hand, was both by birth and religion a Persian, descended, like Cyrus, from the royal Achæmenian house of Persia, and a follower of the Zoroastrian faith. The ancestors of Darius had remained in Persia, whilst the branch of the family of which Cyrus was a member had settled in Elam.

The history of Persia may be divided into five great periods, each represented by a dynasty:

A. The Achæmenian Dynasty, beginning with the kingdom of Cyrus the Great and ending with the Macedonian conquest (550-331 B.C.);
B. The Greek, or Seleucian, Dynasty (331-250 B.C.);
C. The Parthian Dynasty (250 B.C.-A.D. 227);
D. The Sassanian Dynasty (A.D. 227-651);
E. The Mohammedan period (A.D. 651 to the present).

The Achæmenian dynasty (550-331 B.C.)

Towards the middle of the sixth century B.C., and a few years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar (Nabuchodonosor) the Great, King of Babylon (605-562 B.C.), Western Asia was divided into three kingdoms: the Babylonian Empire, Media, and Lydia; and it was only a question of time which of the three would annihilate the other two. Astyages (585-557 B.C.), the successor of Cyaxares (625-585 B.C.), being engaged in an expedition against Babylonia and Mesopotamia, Cyrus, Prince of Anzan, in Elam, profiting by his absence, fomented a rebellion in Media. Astyages, hearing of the revolt, immediately returned, but was defeated and overthrown by Cyrus, who was proclaimed King of Media. Thus, with the overthrow of Astyages and the accession of Cyrus to the throne, the Median Empire passed into the hands of the Persians (550 B.C.). In 549, Cyrus invaded Assyria and Babylonia; in 546 he attacked Croesus of Lydia, defeated him, and annexed Asia Minor to his realm; he then conquered Bactriana and, in 539, marched against Babylon. In 538 Babylon surrendered, Nabonidus fled, the Syro-Phoenician provinces submitted, and Cyrus allowed the Hebrews to return to Palestine. But in 529 he was killed in battle, and was succeeded by Cambyses, the heir apparent, who put his brother Smerdis to death. In 525 Cambyses, aided by a Phoenician fleet, conquered Egypt and advanced against the Sudan, but was compelled to return to Egypt. On his way home, and while in Syria, being informed that Gaumata, a