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The Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE)

Map of the Persian Empire at its greatest extent showing the principal provinces and the route of the royal road from Susa to Sardis. Images © Trustees of the British Museum

Gold coin (daric), 500–480 BCE. Place of discovery unknown, acquired by the British Museum 1919. British Museum, 1919,0516.15

Gold plaque showing a priest, 500–330 BCE. From the Oxus Treasure, found in Tajikistan. Gold. A. W. Franks bequest 1897, British Museum, 123949

Beliefs in the Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid kings from Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE) onward worshipped Ahura Mazda, an ancient Iranian god. This deity is also associated with the Zoroastrian religion, founded by the prophet Zarathustra (Greek: Zoroaster) around 1400–1200 BCE (traditionally dated 660–583 BCE), who reformed an ancient Iranian religion. Although the Achaemenid kings worshipped Ahura Mazda, it is uncertain whether they knew the teachings of Zarathustra. Still, it was at this time that the Zoroastrian religion took root in Iran. Today, there are about a quarter million Zoroastrians (also called Parsis) worldwide, with their largest community in Mumbai, India.

Currency in the Achaemenid Empire

Gold, silver, tin, copper, and even barley were traditionally used in ancient West Asia for economic exchange. These commodities were typically weighed rather than counted. From the period of Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE) onward, standard coins in the modern sense of currency began to be used across wider territory. The Achaemenids were introduced to coins when Cyrus captured the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia (in modern Turkey) in 546 BCE. Although the Lydians had a long history of using coins, their circulation was limited to western Turkey. Lydian coins continued to circulate until the time of Darius I, when new designs and weight standards were introduced. The new Achaemenid coins had the image of the so-called royal archer on the front, and a rectangular depression on the back. Over time, the archer’s details changed on Achaemenid coins, but they continued to show a figure wearing a crown and holding a bow.

Writing in the Achaemenid Empire

Old Persian, an Indo-European language and an indirect ancestor of modern Persian (or Farsi, which is still spoken in Iran and parts of Afghanistan), was used during the Achaemenid period. It had not previously been written down, and under the rule of Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE), a new system of signs and values was invented for writing Old Persian in cuneiform script. Old Persian inscriptions often appeared alongside inscriptions in the Elamite and Babylonian languages and sometimes Egyptian hieroglyphs—all containing the same text. These multilingual texts not only indicated linguistic diversity in the ancient world, but also aided modern scholars in the translation process.

Old Persian was the official language during the Achaemenid period, but Aramaic was also widely used. A Semitic language related to Hebrew, Aramaic was written in an alphabetic script with twenty-two characters. It was the language that Jesus most likely spoke, in which parts of the Talmud and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) were written. Because Aramaic was so much easier to read and write than the cumbersome cuneiform writing systems, it began to be used in the pre-Achaemenid period alongside cuneiform for administration and communication. It became more widely used in the time of the Persian kings. Aramaic letters were sometimes incised on metal objects and stone seals. In many respects Aramaic became the common language of interaction in the Persian empire.


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