Friday, November 30, 2018

Economy of the Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Persian Empire established the largest land Empire the ancient world had ever seen until the rise of Alexander the Great. More than the largest land empire, it could also boast itself as the largest economy in the ancient world with various luxury goods and commodities traded in the market and employment given in many works provided by the imperial government.

History of the Persian Empire

The Achaemenid Empire traced its roots from the labors of Cyrus II (r. 559 – 530 BCE). He ruled the Persians who at the start of his reign served the Kingdom of Medes as their overlord. Cyrus, however, changed the situation with his rebellion that turned the tables in the relation between the Medes and Persians. The Persians ruled and the Medes joined them to form the Persian Empire. He then embarked in campaigns incorporating to his realm Anatolia, the Levant, Babylon, and lands to the east reaching as far as the Syr Darya River.
Cyrus II
Cyrus’s successors continued the expansion. Persian Empire placed Egypt and parts of North Africa and Nubia into its fold. By the time of Darius I (r. 522 – 536 BCE), the Persian Empire stretched from the Indus River up to Egypt and from the Caucasus and Syr Darya River up to Nubia and the Persian Gulf. Darius ruled Persia at its peak with its military poised to invade Greece. But alongside with military achievement and land gains, the Persian economy grew with each additional resources from the lands it conquered and many Persia prospered as a result.
Darius I
Persian Economy
Beginnings of the Persians

The Persians began as nomads in the Zagros Mountains in modern day Iran until they uncovered the secret of extracting water from the mountains by building tunnels called Qanats. This allowed them to become farmers and began to settle in fertile lands. They grew barley which became their main staple as most in Mesopotamia and grew fruits such as dates and apricot. They traded their fruits and woods such as oak and elm for additional necessities. Trade flourished with Medes who had replaced the Assyrians as the superpower of the region until the time of Cyrus II the Great. Since then, every land conquered added new goods that the Persians controlled and traded with neighboring people to finance its military campaigns and enrich the King and the Persian Empire.

Height of the Empire

By the time of Darius the Great’s reign, vast resources fell to the Persians’ disposal. The Empire created a sense of security that led to robust internal and external trade.

From different reaches of the empire, goods from different regions went to Persian city centers such as Pasargadae, Susa, Ectabana, Sardis, and finally Persepolis. From Anatolia gold, silver and tin from the Taurus Mountains allowed the Persian to produce bronze. From Phoenician cities, the Persians had access to the famous purple dye and cider trees. From the Levant and Armenia, wine quenched the thirst of Persians, yet they also have the option of beer from Babylon and Egypt. Besides beer, Babylon also gave the Persians a supply of wool and oil from vegetable and palm. The mountains of Bactria offered its mines of tin, gold, and silver as well as the beautiful blue semiprecious stones called lapis lazuii from the Sar-e-sang mines. Egypt’s Nile Delta served as another bread basket of the Persian Empire besides the rich fertile crescent of Mesopotamia.

With the extensive reach of the Persian kings, it also allowed trade with faraway lands for exotic goods. Egypt became the gateway for trade with Africa that provided ivories from Nubia, salt from Libyans, and animal skins for decoration and clothing. Trade caravans in the east returned with goods from India like spices, precious stones, gold and silver. The Persian fostered good relations with the Arabians that the incense trade of frankincense and myrrh flourished. Pearls also went into the market and some fashioned into necklace with remnants found in Susa and Pasargadae. As the Empire placed further diverse people of various color, culture, and language under its protection, so as the goods that it controlled and claimed.

With trade growing, prosperity led to flourishing of the arts. Sculptors of statues found a roaring trade as well as pottery makers expanding due to the increasing volume of commerce across the empire. Smiths of many metals employed to fashioned gold and silver into ornaments as well as to make iron and bronze to manufacture weapons for the Persian military. Jewelers also found profit as elite Persians commissioned the crafting of precious stones into vibrant accessories that flaunt the empire’s material wealth. Finally, gardeners also found jobs to beautify homes and palaces of affluent Persians from royalty, temple and government officials, as well as from the nobility.
Persian Nobleman and Soldiers
Of course, the Persian imperial government worked to maintain order within the Empire and support the growth of the economy. Darius proved himself as a builder. Under his orders, a highway connected Sardis to the Persian capital of Susa. This highway called the Royal Road became a major thoroughfare for trade and communication complete with guards and rest stops along its route to provide accommodation and security to travelers. Darius also ordered the construction of the Suez Canal that connected the river Nile to the Suez gulf connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean more than a millennia before the construction of the modern Suez Canal.

Darius’ build, build, build projects led to further employment of skilled Persians and other subjects as masons and master builders. These masons and builder as well as laborers also built irrigations and qanats across the empire that led to an increase in agricultural production. They also built fortifications to secure the Empire from both within and without. Lastly, their labor also led to the rise of numerous temples and palaces, with the palace of Persepolis with its huge halls with tall and wide columns and wonderful reliefs glorifying the Empire and its Kings, testifying to the Empire’s majesty.

Besides infrastructure, the Persian Kings also expanded their coffers through various means. King Darius expanded trade and improved taxation when he standardized the Empire’s currency by issuing gold and silver Darics. It became a major medium of exchange along with the traditional barter, though the transition suffered from difficulties as recorded in the Persepolis Treasury Tablets. It also became another means of paying officials, soldiers, scribes, and laborers along with salaries in kind such as sheep and wine. The currency became a powerful tool of expanding Persian soft power when its daric became highly use even outside the Empire like in Europe. Robust trade and growing trade volume led also in increase of customs collections. Commodity taxes collected from transaction of various goods such as slaves also soared.

Another source of revenue for the Persian imperial government came from tributes from its satraps. Cyrus the Great organized the Persian Empire into several satraps until Darius the Great expanded its numbers to 20. Each satraps delivered to the Persian kings the designated annual tribute. A satrap had the difficult task of balancing the needs of the locals to the needs of the kings as Elspeth Dusinberre wrote:
“The satrap therefore had to ensure the productivity of the land in order to be able to collect taxes: this required maintaining a sufficiently high level of satisfaction and capability among the people tending the land that they might husband it to good effect”

Nonetheless, satraps allowed the king to delegate local management to his chosen officials with the task of making sure the satraps manage their jurisdiction efficiently and well remaining.

The biggest source of income within the empire, however, remained agriculture. It provided the food that fed the military and kept the people away from raising rebellions. And in agriculture land became a prime commodity. Kings had the power to reward lands to the officials. The practice became known as Hatru or bow land. The King gave out lands in exchange for service with the size equaling the magnitude of the service to be given. The practice had started with the Babylonians, but the Persians used it in a larger scale.

Some who received land owned several in different places in between long distances. In this situations they employed stewards to manage the lands during their absence such as the case of Murashu who recorded his business of managing the lands of notables in exchange for a percentage of the harvest as commission. Land managers such as Murashu, sometimes provided advance payments to their clients in exchange for additional commissions. Thus, land managers became to-go persons for credit creating basic financial services.

Land managers and the state worked to make sure the lands remained productive. Persian imperial government as well as satraps supported farmers through infrastructure projects as well as with credit, incentives, and research for new techniques, methods, and seeds. They made this measures to ensure the Empire remained well-fed to keep fires of discontent and rebellion at bay.

Economic Decline

The prosperity of the Persians, like others in history, did not last forever. War drained the Empire’s resources with the Greco-Persian War as an example. King Darius and Xerxes poured vast amounts of resources to the conflict even though they secured victories in Thermopylae and captured Athens, they lose in Marathon and Salamis. In the end, Persia failed to incorporate the Greeks into its Empire.

Following the failed invasion of Greece, internal strife plagued the empire. Poor financial management led to depleting coffers. Rebellions began to increase in numbers with Egypt declaring its independence several times. Satraps became powerful and began to rebel against the central government. Succession crisis also marred the Achaemenids with several kings came and went until Darius III came to power and bring order back to the fractured empire.

However, Darius III went against a formidable foe. During Darius III’s reign, the Greeks returned the favor by invading Persia. Alexander, King of Macedonia, commanded the Greek forces. At the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius III fielded the largest army assembled numbering at quarter of a million displaying the resources and manpower held by the Persian Empire. Alas, his numbers failed to stop the military genius that was Alexander. In 330 BCE, Persian generals murdered Darius III and so ended the Achaemenid Empire.

Summing Up

The economy of the Persian Achaemenid Empire did not just boasted the largest land empire but also the largest economy of the ancient world. It placed under its domain numerous amount of resources both necessities and luxuries that financed a powerful army to expand and maintain the Empire. The Empire proved that efficient administration and security with tolerance gave rise to prosperity. Prosperity in turn provided more security and funded the flourishing of the arts and crafts. Eventually, not all economic prosperity last forever. When the tide turns, Persia failed to stop the ambitions of Alexander the Great ultimately leading to its end.

See also:
Rise and Fall of the Persian Empire

Avery, Peter William et. al. “Iran.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on October 3, 2018. URL:

Covington, Richard.” Mesopotamian Masterpieces.” In Accessed on October 13, 2018. URL:

Fernand, Beverly.  The History of Pearls in the Middle East and Europe. In Harlequin Beads & Jewelry. Accessed on October 13, 2018. URL:

Wilford, John Noble. “Enduring Mystery Solves as Tin is Found in Turkey.” In NYTimes. Accessed on October 13, 208. URL: 

Dusinberre, Elspeth R.R. Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Schneier-Madanes, Graciela & Marie-Francoise Courel (eds.). Water and Sustainability in Arid Regions: Bridging the Gap Between Physical and Social Sciences. New York, New York: Springer, 2010.

Waters, Matt. Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BCE. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

General Reference:
Cameron, George. “Persepolis Treasury Tablets.” In the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publication Volume LXV. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1948.

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