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12 Kings of Persia Who Shaped History

Written By Anne Kostick
Last updated: February 13, 2024

Imagine stepping back in time, wandering through the grand halls where the Kings of Persia plotted to expand their empire, where powerful rulers crafted laws that would influence generations.

We're about to uncover stories of might, wisdom, and intrigue that turned these kings into legends. Fasten your seatbelt as we dive deep into the tales of the Achaemenid dynasty!

Who were these towering figures leading one of history's most formidable empires? They were leaders who not only commanded vast territories but also shaped the Persian culture and policy in ways that still echo through time.

From Cyrus's compassionate rule to Darius III's brave stand against Alexander the Great, each king etched his unique mark onto the pages of history.

The Architectural Foundations: 6th Century BC Kings Of Persia

In the grand tapestry of history, the 6th century BC stands out as a time when the foundations of one of the world's most remarkable empires were laid. We look back to acknowledge the Kings of Persia, architects of an empire that stretched across vast lands.

The Architectural Foundations: 6th Century BC Kings Of Persia

These rulers, belonging to the Achaemenid dynasty, not only conquered territories but created a legacy that influenced civilizations for millennia.

Their stories are not just about battles and conquests; they wove together masterful statecraft, innovative administration, and unifying humanity’s cultural richness under one rule. Understanding their reign helps us appreciate how they shaped an age that still echoes in modern times.

1. Cyrus the Great – Compassion as a Conquest Tool (550-530 BC)

We often think of conquerors as fierce and ruthless leaders, but Cyrus the Great broke this mold. He was the first of the powerful Kings of Persia and he started his rule around 550 BC. What set him apart was not just his might but also his kindness to those he defeated.

Cyrus the Great – Compassion as a Conquest Tool (550-530 BC)

Cyrus built an empire like no other, bringing together different lands under one rule. This might sound common, but it's how he did it that makes his story stand out:

  • Mercy for the Vanquished: When Cyrus took over a place, he didn't harm its people or their way of life; instead, he let them keep their customs and religions.
  • Freedom for all: Famous for freeing slaves, including thousands from Babylon, Cyrus believed in human rights way before they became a worldwide concern.
  • Respect for Cultures: Unlike some rulers who forced their ways on everyone, Cyrus respected different cultures and beliefs. This helped him win hearts and rule peacefully.

Cyrus's approach made people see him both as a liberator and a ruler who knew how to win without spreading fear - pretty unique at that time! By being kind rather than cruel, he could keep control over distant lands without always fighting.

2. Cambyses II – The Enigma Behind Expansionist Policies (530-522 BC)

Cambyses II, is a name that stands out when we talk about the Kings of Persia and their bold moves to expand the Achaemenid Empire. He ruled from 530 to 522 BC, and during this time, he led some very big military campaigns. His most famous one was against Egypt.

Cambyses II – The Enigma Behind Expansionist Policies (530-522 BC)

Now, let’s get into how Cambyses II made his mark:

  • He Marched Into Egypt: When Cambyses II became king, he did not sit back and relax. Instead, he set his eyes on Egypt. This land had wealth and power that could make his empire even greater.
  • Victory Was His: Cambyses II fought against the Egyptians and won 'big time'. He captured their cities and took control of their treasures.
  • Trouble began to Brew: While taking over Egypt made him strong, it also started some serious problems in his empire.
  • People Were Unhappy: Getting new land means having to manage more people who are not used to your rule. Some folks in Egypt did not like being under Persian control at all.
  • A Long Way From Home: As Cambyses II moved deeper into Africa, he found himself further away from home which made rules harder to enforce.
  • Strife At Every Turn: Rebellions flared up like fire in dry grass within parts of the empire that were not too keen on Persian rulers telling them what to do.
  • An End That Echoes: After ruling for only eight years, things went sour for Cambyses II as he lost his grip over the vast territory he conquered.

Cambyses II was a king who didn't shy away from a challenge; diving headfirst into foreign conquests with gusto, making him both dreaded by enemies and admired by strategists across history books discussing Persian rulers.

Also Read: Darius I, King of Persia

3. Bardiya – A Reign Shadowed by Controversy (522 BC)

When we take a close look at history, sometimes we find stories that are not so clear. This is true for Bardiya, one of the Kings of Persia. He was a ruler whose time in power was short and filled with doubts. Let's walk through the foggy path of his story.

Bardiya – A Reign Shadowed by Controversy (522 BC)

Bardiya, also known as Smerdis, got to be king after his brother Cambyses II. It was in 522 BC when he stepped into power, but things got messy really fast. There was talk all over that maybe this man on the throne wasn't really Bardiya at all.

Some said he was an imposter—a man named Gaumata who pretended to be the real king. This is where things get tricky because not all people agree if it's true or not. Imagine having someone ruling an empire and you're not sure if he's the real deal! During his rule:

  • The Real or Fake Drama: There were whispers that Bardiya had been killed and someone else took over by fooling everyone.
  • A Short Rule: Whether fake or not, this king didn't sit long on the throne, just a few months.
  • The End Comes Quick: A big leader named Darius didn't buy the whole act, if there ever was one, and led a coup to topple him.

This period is like a puzzle where some pieces might be missing or mixed up from another puzzle entirely! People who study old times can only guess so much from what little they find left behind by these ancient folks.

4. Darius I The Great – Setting Up An Empire To Last

Darius the Great was one of the most important Kings of Persia in the Achaemenid dynasty. He ruled from about 522 to 486 BC. When we talk about him, we can't just mention battles or how big the empire was. What makes him stand out are the changes he made for his empire to last long after he was gone.

Darius I The Great – Setting Up An Empire To Last
  • Satrapies: Darius divided his land into areas called satrapies. Think of them like states in a country today. Each satrapy had a governor, called a satrap. This man was responsible for judging legal matters, taking care of tax collection, and keeping peace in their area.
  • Currency Standardization: He also made money easy to understand and use geographically across his land by creating standard coins, called darics and sigloi, which helped trade and business grow because people from different parts knew what these coins were worth.
  • Road Network Expansion: Traveling around the big Achaemenid Empire wasn't easy before Darius's time. So, he built many roads that connected far places to each other, making travel faster and safer for traders and messengers; basically helping people get from Point A to Point B without trouble.

These steps by Darius I The Great shaped how things ran smoothly across different lands with diverse cultures under Persian rule. We think it's fair to say that his smart thinking about government structure, money, and transport left a big mark on history.

Also Read: Hecate The Triple Goddess

Shaping an Age: The Influence Of The 5th Century BC Kings of Persia

As we turn back the pages of time to the 5th century BC, we come across a period rich with remarkable leaders whose actions molded an entire era. The Kings of Persia during this time were not just rulers; they were shapers of destinies and architects of empires that spanned continents.

Shaping an Age: The Influence Of The 5th Century BC Kings of Persia

Their reach extended from the soft Indus shorelines to the rugged Greek terrains. With deft hands and unyielding spirits, these Persian rulers crafted a legacy that went beyond their lifetimes, influencing culture, politics, economics, and warfare in ways that can still be felt today.

In exploring their stories – from great wars that shook ancient worlds to wonders built stone by stone – we get a fuller picture of how they shaped an age for themselves and for future generations.

1. Xerxes I – Marking History with Wars and Wonders

Our journey through Persian empire history leads us to a powerful ruler known for his ambition. When we think about the Kings of Persia, one name that made a huge mark was Xerxes I. His time as a king is famous for two big reasons: massive wars and grand building projects.

 Xerxes I – Marking History with Wars and Wonders

Let's take a step-by-step look at what made Xerxes I's influence so strong:

  • He led his army in notable battles, most famously at Thermopylae.
  • Building work under him took the Achaemenid Empire to new heights with structures like gateways and towering columns that wowed all who saw them.
  • Xerxes I ruled over 20 different lands, making sure he had control over vast territories far from his homeland.
  • His stories are not just about winning wars, but also about bringing many different cultures together under one empire.

2. Artaxerxes I– Upholding An Empire Amidst Rebellion

Moving forward, we see Artaxerxes I coming into power during turbulent times for the Persian rulers - there were fights within his family for control and challenges from regions wanting to break free from Persia's grip.

Artaxerxes I– Upholding An Empire Amidst Rebellion

Here is what made Artaxerxes I stand apart:

  • He faced rebellion but stayed firm in keeping his lands together - steadfastness was key to his hold on power.
  • Artaxerxes saw fights even in his own family, still, he managed these high-pressure crises smartly - showing he could tackle trouble both near and far.
  • He realized talks could solve some fights better than swords could which is why diplomacy became an essential part of his rule.
  • Not changing course despite obstacles proved really central for keeping the Achaemenid dynasty going strong under Artaxerxes' watch.

Artaxerxes showed us how intelligence on the battlefield must match wits inside royal halls if a king wishes to keep ruling such an extensive empire through thick and thin woes.

Also Read: Omar Khayyam: Persian Mathematician, Astronomer, and Poet

Decisive Shifts Under Late Achaemenid Rule

As we explore the majestic tapestry of the Persian empire's history, it's clear that by the later years of the Achaemenid dynasty, significant changes began to take shape. The twilight era of this vast empire was marked by vital decisions and rulers who faced storms of adversity.

Decisive Shifts Under Late Achaemenid Rule

These Kings of Persia had to steer the empire through rough seas of rebellion, political upheaval, and shifting power dynamics. It was a time that tested their leadership and ultimately defined their legacy. In this turning point for the Achaemenid Empire, each ruler's story is unique, reflecting both triumphs and tribulations.

1. Darius II – Navigating Through Turbulent Waters

We now turn our attention to the times when the Achaemenid Empire was getting troubled from within. Darius II, a name less sung among the Kings of Persia, found himself at the helm amidst rough seas of rebellion and discontent. His story is a tangle we must unravel.

Darius II – Navigating Through Turbulent Waters
  • Internal Conflicts: The biggest troubles for Darius II came from inside his own empire. There were people who were not happy with him being king. Some thought he should not be ruler because they did not trust where he came from or who he was related to.
  • Family Strife: Like a tree with branches fighting each other for sunlight, Darius II's family was tangled in rivalry and jealousy. His half-siblings, especially his brother Cyrus the Younger, opposed his rule and even led rebellions against him.
  • Authority Undermined: Local leaders, called satraps, who governed different parts of Persia began to act more like they were kings themselves rather than servants of Darius II. They would sometimes ignore his orders or make their own rules.
  • Economic Pressures: Money problems are never good for any country or empire. Under Darius's rule, there was less money going into the kingdom’s treasure chest because some regions did not send in their taxes.

Dealing with all these matters made ruling quite hard for Darius II. It was like trying to sail a ship while plugging holes and keeping sailors from fighting at the same time.

2. Artaxerxes II—A Reign Defined By Civil War And Diplomacy

Artaxerxes II's time as one of the Kings of Persia was tough. He faced big problems right from the start. His own brother, Cyrus the Younger, did not want him to be king.

Artaxerxes II—A Reign Defined By Civil War And Diplomacy

This led to a huge fight not just in the family but across the whole Persian Empire. We call this fight the civil war. It started because Cyrus wanted to take over and be the ruler himself.

Here's what happened during Artaxerxes II's rule:

  • Brother Against Brother: Cyrus gathered an army with soldiers from different places, even some Greek fighters, aiming to snatch the throne from Artaxerxes.
  • The Battle of Cunaxa: This was a huge battle where Artaxerxes and Cyrus' forces fought against each other. In 401 BC, they came head-to-head near Babylon.
  • Cyrus Falls: Even though he was bold and had lots of fighters with him, Cyrus died in this battle.
  • An Empire Divided: After defeating Cyrus, things didn't really calm down for Artaxerxes II. The empire had weak spots now because people had seen there could be another ruler.
  • The King's Response: Artaxerxes knew he had to deal with these problems fast so that more rebels didn't pop up.
  • Building Connections: He used both force and smart ways like wedding deals and pacts to keep local leaders on his side.
  • Dealing with Neighbors: It wasn't just trouble at home; other places like Sparta were also causing worries for him.

Artaxerxes ruled for a long time – about 46 years! During this long haul, he slowly made it through each trouble by using his brain as well as brawn when needed.

Also Read: Hanging Gardens of Babylon: Unraveling the Ancient Wonders

3. Artaxerxes III—The Ironfisted Reformer

Artaxerxes III was one of the Kings of Persia who stood out for his strong way of ruling. His time as king saw big changes, as he worked hard to make sure all parts of his kingdom, the Achaemenid Empire, followed his orders. Here's a closer look at how he shaped the empire with his firm hand:

Artaxerxes III—The Ironfisted Reformer
  • Centralized Power: Artaxerxes III didn't trust other leaders to share power. He wanted to be in charge of everything himself. This meant he made changes so that all decisions had to go through him.
  • Forceful Methods: To make sure he kept control, Artaxerxes III often used force. He removed local leaders who he thought might try to take power away from him. Anyone who did not follow his rules faced harsh punishment.
  • Stronghold on Authority: By taking command and making strict rules, Artaxerxes III kept everyone in line. His style was tough but it made the empire more united because there was only one boss.

Artaxerxes III will be remembered as a ruler with an iron grip on his empire. He wasn't afraid to use tough methods to keep control and make sure everything ran just how he wanted it.

4. Artaxerxes IV—The Short-Lived Succession

Artaxerxes IV had a time as king that was quick and full of trouble. His real name was Arsames, and he became king after Artaxerxes III, his father, had died. This was a time when the Achaemenid Empire was shaky, with lots of secrets and fights for power behind the curtains.

Artaxerxes IV—The Short-Lived Succession

His Time As King:

  • Time period: He became king around 338 BC.
  • Length of rule: It wasn't long, only two years.
  • End of reign: He died in 336 BC.

What Happened In Those Two Years?

  • Power Struggles: Right from the start, Artaxerxes IV's grip on power was weak.
  • Family Fights: Some say his own mother and mentor were behind plots against him.
  • Death: It is believed that he was killed because someone close to him wanted power.

This short period tells us how unstable things can get when there is no strong lead or trust among those who should support the king. Sadly for Artaxerxes IV, his short story ended not with grand deeds or grand buildings but with a quick end that threw the empire into more chaos and paved the way for new rulers outside of Persia to take over.

Also Read: Unmasking the Conquistadors: A Dive Into Their History

The Sunset On A Dynasty: End Of Achaemenid Rule

As the warm glow of the setting sun signals the end of the day, so too did the last years of the Achaemenid Empire mark the closing chapter of a once-mighty dynasty. At its peak, this Persian empire stretched over vast lands and cultures, from India to Greece.

The Sunset On A Dynasty: End Of Achaemenid Rule

But all empires face challenges and eventually, moments come that signal an end is near. In our story of great empires, this moment is known as "The Sunset On A Dynasty."

The final rulers bore witness to trembling walls and eroding power in a world rapidly changing around them. Their struggle to keep hold of their territories marked a poignant end to centuries of Persia's majestic rule.

1. Darius III— Against Alexander’s Tide

 Darius III— Against Alexander’s Tide

Darius III was the last king of the once-great Achaemenid Empire. His time as a ruler faced great tests. One of his biggest challenges was going up against Alexander the Great. These battles were important moments in history. They were fighting for who would have power over Asia.

We see Darius III come into power at a time when the empire was not like it once was. However, he tried hard to keep things together.

Here is a close look at how Darius did this:

  • The Rise of a King: Darius grabbed the crown during hard times. He knew that trouble was coming.
  • Facing Alexander: When Alexander and his army came from Greece, they were looking to take over. Darius had to get ready fast.
  • The Battle of Issus (333 BC): This fight did not go well for Darius. His army lost, and they had to run away.
  • Daring Plans: Darius did not give up. He came up with new plans to take on Alexander but it wasn’t easy for him.
  • Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC): Again, Darius faced off with Alexander in a big battle. No luck—the army of Persia lost one more time.
  • The Escape: After losing again, Darius had no choice but to escape and try to put his empire back together on his own.

Our man, Darius, showed courage as he tried again and again to save what was left of his kingdom from these powerful newcomers.

2. Artaxerxes V — Desperation In the Face Of Invasion

Artaxerxes V, known also as Bessus, was the last of the Kings of Persia under the flagging Achaemenid Empire. His reign came about during a storm we could call history-changing. He faced not just any invader, but Alexander the Great himself, a name that echoed fear and might across the lands.

 Artaxerxes V — Desperation In the Face Of Invasion
  • Rise to Power: Artaxerxes V grabbed power in a way that would spark many tales. He took it after his predecessor's fall—Darius III who was betrayed and then met a brutal end.
  • Facing Alexander: With his grasp on power shaky at best, Artaxerxes V had to watch as Alexander’s forces advanced into his realm like water flooding through cracks.
  • Struggle for Control: Our Artaxerxes tried hard to keep hold of what was left of an empire breaking at its seams. Each day brought new challenges and less hope.
  • Sorrowful Tactics: Knowing well that going head-to-head against Alexander was akin to fighting a giant, he chose hit-and-run tactics instead, like small pricks at a beast hoping it would bleed enough to falter.
  • The Final Battles: Battles raged, mercy seemed a word lost in time, and with each clash, Persian resistance grew weaker while Greek morale soared like never-ending flames.
  • Capture and Demise: In what could only be seen as fate’s cruel twist, this last king got captured by those he once led—he had claimed kinship with Darius III whom he betrayed, and faced execution by none other than those claiming allegiance to Alexander.

Artaxerxes V's desperate grab for control amidst invasion is much like watching Twilight knowing well night must fall, it paints both gloom and a stark reminder of how empires rise but eventually, crumble under new tides.

Also Read: Pax Romana: Exploring the Era of Peace


As we reflect on the rich history of Persia and its rulers, it becomes clear that the Achaemenid Empire was shaped by a succession of Kings who each brought their unique blend of vision, power, and policy to forge one of history's most remarkable realms.

From Cyrus's compassionate conquests to Darius III’s final stand against Alexander’s forces, we see a tapestry woven with ambition, conflict, innovation, and sometimes tragedy. Their legacies remind us that leadership is as diverse as it is impactful, shaping not just an empire’s trajectory but also the pages of world history.

Charles Eames

Anne Kostick has been Editor-in-Chief since September 2007. Previously, Anne was a principal at Foxpath IND, a publishing, consulting and editorial services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content publishing and online content management, development and publishing. Her clients included trade book publishers, technology and financial services Web sites, and arts and cultural institutions. Previously, she worked as Licensing and Product Development Director, Senior Acquisitions Editor and Director of Electronic Publishing for Workman Publishing, and as Senior Acquisitions Editor for Harry N. Abrams/Stewart, Tabori & Chang. In the online world she worked as Director of Content Development for Anne has a B.A. in Greek and Latin, with a minor in Theater, from Beloit College. She is the author of several books for children, as well as a definitive collection of jokes.

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