PERSIA (Heb. פָּרָס, Paras), empire whose home coincided roughly with that of the province of Fars in modern Iran. Its inhabitants, calling themselves Persians, are first mentioned in Assyrian records of approximately 640 B.C.E. According to these records, the king of "Parsuwash" acknowledged the
suzerainty of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. According to the Persian tradition followed by Herodotus, the Persians had submitted to the *Medes in the second quarter of the seventh century. Several central terms of political life, such as the word for king and even the name Pārsa, appear to show Median peculiarities. On the other hand, the Persians came under the cultural influence of *Elam, and it was in the Elamite language that accounts were kept in the Persian treasury at Persepolis, in the Persian homeland, as late as 459 B.C.E. The Persians' dependence on the Medes was terminated by *Cyrus II who rebelled against the last of the Median kings, Astyages. Astyages marched against him, but the Median army revolted and handed over their king to Cyrus in 550. Plundering Ecbatana (now Hamadan), the Median capital, Cyrus became ruler of Media. According to official Persian tradition, he was a maternal grandson of Astyages and was supported by Median nobles. To the outside world, his seizure of the Median crown looked like a mere change of dynasty. Media, which in alliance with *Babylon had destroyed the Assyrian Empire in 612, was a great power, whereas the Persians had been unknown before Cyrus. Therefore, foreigners (e.g., Herodotus) continued to speak of "Medians" when meaning "Persians." In Daniel 8:3 the two-horned ram is a symbol of Media and Persia.
Cyrus went on to conquer the Lydian kingdom of Croesus in 547, and the Babylonian Empire of *Nabonidus in 539. His son *Cambyses II (525) added Egypt to the Persian dominions, which now extended from the Nile to the Syr-Darya (Jaxartes) and the Indus. The death of Cambyses (522) was followed by a civil war, won by *Darius I, a distant relation of Cambyses. Direct descendants of Darius I ruled the empire for six generations after him. *Darius III, from another branch of
Cyrus 559–530 B.C.E.
Darius I 522–486
Xerxes I 486–465
Artaxerxes I 465–424
Xerxes II 424–423
Darius II 423–404
Artaxerxes II 404–359
Artaxerxes III 359–338
Darius III 336–330
The paramount fact in the history of the Achaemenids was the failure of Darius I in 490 and Xerxes I in 480–479 to conquer Greece. The Athenians and their allies wrested the Aegean coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean Islands from the Persians during 479–469, and also supported the Egyptian revolt in 459–454. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (432–404) allowed Persia to recoup its territorial losses, but economically and culturally the Greeks remained preeminent. Greek silver, and in the fourth century its imitation, was the money used in the Persian Empire; Greek merchandise, as illustrated by finds of Greek vases, dominated the foreign commerce of Persia; and Greek mercenaries became an essential part of Persian armies. For the first time in history, the monarchical, hierarchical, and priestly "East" faced the republican, egalitarian, and secular "West," and the Persian bowman following his king was always outdone by the Greek infantryman ready to die in obedience to the law of his city.
The king ruled "by the favor of Ahuramazda," the supreme god, and his power of life and death was unlimited. Nevertheless, once fixed in a certain prescribed form, his decisions could not be revoked by him, "according to the law of the Medes and the Persians" (Dan. 6:9). In practice, the king consulted his counselors (Ezra 7:14; cf. Esth. 1:13; Jonah 3:6), and could not afford to offend the Persian nobility. He could execute a wicked judge, and with his skin upholster the judge's seat, but it was a son or another relative of the judge who would be appointed to judge from the same bench (Herodotus 5:25). Though the high officials, the royal guard, and the standing army were recruited from among Persians and Medes, non-Iranians could occupy high posts. Of the 23 high royal officers (ustarbar) who are mentioned in the *Murashu documents, only eight have Iranian names. Though the Achaemenian king stressed that he was a "Persian, son of a Persian, Aryan of Aryan lineage," the Persians were not "nationalists." "Nationalism" in the ancient Near East meant belonging to a city (e.g., Babylon, Jerusalem) and its deities. The Persians were tribesmen; their grandees were not citizens, or even inhabitants of a city, but lived on their estates. Being aristocrats, they did not need to be "nationalists," and used the talents of their subjects freely and easily.
Cyrus and his heirs, following the Assyrian practice, used Aramaic as the language of administration throughout the Persian Empire. As the Persian kings and their grandees were illiterate, the written language of administration was of no concern to them. Even in the ritual, the written language was Aramaic (R.A. Bowman, Aramaic Ritual Texts from Persepolis, 1970). The interpreters were on hand to translate the Persian orders into Elamite or Aramaic and to read aloud in Persian, an Indo-European language, the documents written in Aramaic or Elamite. The Persian script, borrowed indirectly from the Babylonians, was also cuneiform and as such inconvenient for writing on papyrus or leather. It seems to have been used only for monumental inscriptions engraved on stone or on metal.
The empire was divided into enormous administrative units known as satrapies. The satrapy "Beyond the River" (Abar-Nahara, e.g., Ezra 5:3), to which Judah belonged, extended from the *Euphrates to the Mediterranean. The satrap was the head of the administration, commander of the troops, and supreme judge and tax collector of his satrapy. Each satrapy had to pay a fixed tribute to the king, in cash and/or kind. The provinces within the satrapies had to maintain the troops, the administration of the satrapy, and the viceroy. Nehemiah, governor of the miniscule province of Judah, had to feed over 150 men daily (Neh. 5:17). There were various taxes (Ezra 4:13; 7:24), and taxation was heavy (Neh. 5:4). In addition, there was the baksheesh (Mal. 1:8). The satrap was virtually omnipotent in his satrapy, as the story of the temple of *Elephantine shows, but he had to consult his advisers and it was prudent to submit controversial questions to the king (Ezra 5:6). However, the dimensions of the satrapy made local self-administration necessary, and Nehemiah in his quarrel with the neighbors of Jerusalem does not appeal to the satrap of Abar-Nahara ("trans-Euphrates"), but mobilizes the Jewish militia (Neh. 4:7ff.). Self-administration extended to private law, and the scribes drafting private contracts made the Aramaic common law prevalent throughout the Persian Empire.
In Ezekiel 27:10 and 38:5, the name "Persia" is probably a corruption. Deutero-Isaiah expected that Cyrus would rebuild Jerusalem (44:28; 45:1). Having conquered Babylonia, Cyrus reversed the Babylonian policy and returned captive gods and their worshipers to their homes. However, by taking care of *Marduk in Babylon and of "the God who is in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:3), Cyrus became the legitimate successor of the kings of Babylon and of the kings of the House of David. After the restoration of the Temple and Darius I and until the revolt against Rome in 66 C.E., the priests of Jerusalem offered a sacrifice daily for the welfare of the heathen overlord of Zion. Written in the first half of the fourth century B.C.E., the work of the Chronicler (Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah) expresses this recognition of alien domination: the Temple was restored "by command of the God of Israel and by order of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes, king of Persia" (Ezra 6:14). However, Jerusalem was an insignificant town in an enormous empire, and if the Persian kings took the trouble to humor the God of Jerusalem, they did it rather for the sake of the Babylonian
Again, almost nothing is known about contacts between the Persians and the Jews. Yet Gadal-Yama (Gadal-YHWH, Gedaliah), who in 422 was called upon to serve as a cuirassier to the royal army in a campaign at Erech (Uruk) and was the beneficiary of a fief, must have had Iranian comrades. One source indicates that a Persian magus was on friendly terms with a servant of the Lord in Elephantine (E.G. Kraeling, Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953), 4:24, 175). Because so little is known about the Iranian religions in Achaemenian Persia, it is difficult to determine the nature and extent of their influence on the Jews in the Persian period. The Jews preserved a favorable memory of the Persian kings, as their rule brought them two centuries of peace. By favoring the clergy, the Persian king laid the foundation for the later role of the high priests. For the first and last time, Jerusalem and the whole Diaspora, from the Indus to the Nile, remained under the sway of the same overlords. From Babylonia, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah came to the aid of Jerusalem. The Jews at Elephantine could ask Jerusalem for assistance. When, after the death of *Alexander, the unity of the political world of which the Jews were a part was destroyed, the religious and spiritual link that had been forged between Jerusalem and the Diaspora under the Achaemenids remained, and it has persisted for 23 centuries.
PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD: J. Obermeyer, Die Landschaft Babylonien (1929); Neusner, Babylonia (incl. bibl). MUSLIM PERIOD; W.J. Fischel, Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Medieval Islam (1937, 19692); idem, in: Tarbiz, 6 (1935), 523–6; idem, in: Zion, 1 (1935), 49–74; 2 (1937), 273–93; idem, in HJ, 7 (1945), 29–50; 8 (1946), 66–77; idem, in: Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950), 203–30; idem, in: JSOS, 12 (1950), 119–60; idem, in: HTR, 45 (1952), 3–45; idem, in: Ha-Kinnus ha-Olami le-Madda'ei ha-Yahadut 1947 (1952), 477–86; idem, in: Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 111–28; idem, in: PAAJR, 22 (1953), 1–21; idem, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews (19603), 1149–90; idem, in: JAOS, 85 (1865), 148–53. 19th–20th CENTURIES: H. Levy, Tarikh Yahud Iran, 3 vols. (1956–60); A. Ben-Jacob, Yehudei Bavel (1965); I. Ben-Zvi, Meḥkarim u-Mekorot
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.