What methods and institutions did the Persians use to amass and maintain their Empire?

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The Persian Empire was a remarkable organization, by far the largest government in the world at the time of its founding about 2500 years ago. It included a huge variety of different ethnicities, cultures, languages, and religions that lived in relative harmony and prosperity.

A major key to its success...

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The Persian Empire was a remarkable organization, by far the largest government in the world at the time of its founding about 2500 years ago. It included a huge variety of different ethnicities, cultures, languages, and religions that lived in relative harmony and prosperity.

A major key to its success was the satrap system. A satrap, or governor, would be responsible for one of the thirty-six provinces of the Persian Empire, reporting only to the emperor himself. Each satrap was responsible for levying taxes, some of which would be used in his own province and some of which would be sent to the capital, as well as calling up armies to fight wars. Each satrap would be responsible for major criminal and civil decisions and judgements, for putting down rebellions, and for keeping roads and canals functional throughout his province.

Since each satrapy (province governed by a satrap) had previously been conquered by the empire itself, there was always a risk of rebellion. The Persian Empire was famous for its leniency, allowing local custom, law, and religion to be maintained in areas that it conquered, so long as taxes came in, armies could be conscripted, and the general function of the region remained steady. However, this was also a risk: when the power of the emperor himself waned (or was thought to be weak), the satraps could operate as independent kings of their own nation, sometimes raising the entire province in revolt.

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Leaders of the Persian Empire employed different methods and strategies to consolidate and advance their Empire. Cyrus the Great and the founding father of the Persian Empire escaped death as a baby and lived to organize a successful revolt by the Persians against the Medes. After the overthrow of the Medes, Cyrus went on a conquering spree to amass territory and wealth. He employed a variety of creative military strategies against his neighbors to grow the Empire. For instance, he used camels to frighten the Lydian charging horses. He took advantage of social dissent in Babylon and attacked the region.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses, who continued with his father’s territorial conquest. Cambyses was succeeded by his cousin, Darius I, after he led a successful revolution against him.

Darius consolidated the Persian Empire and instituted numerous reforms in running the vast empire. Darius established a strong communication network within the empire and reigned in on the provincial governors. He achieved this by limiting access and correspondence from the treasury and the military to his office. This ensured that the empire remained united with minimal risk of rebellion. Darius also employed tolerance when dealing with Persian subjects to reduce the chances of a revolt. Persian kings also employed a number of spies to gather intelligence with regards to the state of the Persian society and general opinions among the people.

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