Through the Lens of History 5 – The Great King

15 October, 2009

Welcome to the Ides of October and

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming

Vision 5: The Great King – The Persian Empire

The lens returns to the ancient world and the vast and successful Empire of Persia. The first Persian Empire lasted two hundred years and, at its height, it spread from Egypt to the border of India, from the Caucasus to the Persia Gulf. It endured due to its ability to successfully rule over diverse peoples without facing continuous revolts.

Later empires would emerge in the same region and claim their succession from the Persian Empire to bolster their claim to legitimacy. Down even to the Shah of Iran in the 20th century. The Shah claimed to be the direct heir of 2,500 years of Persian, not Islamic, tradition (perhaps ironically, this claim was one of the things that alienated him from the dedicated Moslem believers who would overthrow his reign in 1979).

Ancient Persia eventually fell before the military genius of Alexander the Great, who took the same titles as the Persian emperor and intended to meld Hellenistic culture with Persian government. Alexander’s death ended that dream and his empire was carved up among his generals, but that is another vision.

Part I – The History

The Persians were part of the ancient peoples who spoke languages similar to modern Iranian and that probably originated in Central Asia as nomadic herders. By the tenth century BCE, the Persians had settled and where they were under the control of the powerful kingdom of Elam. This state of affairs lasted until the mid-seventh century when the Assyrians Empire weakened Elamite power enough for the Persians to achieve autonomy.

Persia emerged as a regional power under Cyrus (or Kyros) II “the Great” (also known as “the Shepherd”). Cyrus became king in 559 BCE and when his Kingdom was attacked by the Median King, Astyages, Cyrus convinced the Median troops to turn against their ruler. He then proclaimed himself king of Media and went on to conquer Assyria, Babylon and Lydia. Cyrus took the titles of great king and king of kings to show his status as ruler of a multi-national empire. Cyrus’ career ended in 530 BCE when he was killed while fighting to subdue a revolt on the eastern frontier.

Along the way Cyrus freed the Jews who had been taken in captivity to Babylon allowing them to return to Palestine and to their traditional worship. This was part of Cyrus’ strategy for controlling his Empire. Unlike the Assyrians who moved populations and forced them to follow the Assyrian state religion, the Persians did not care what gods you worshiped as long as you obeyed the emperor and paid your taxes. The Persians even left some governments in place as long as they obeyed the laws of the empire. However, each region was overseen by a satrap appointed directly by the emperor who insured that his region acted as part of the empire, providing taxes and troops as needed.

Cyrus was succeed by his son Kambyses, who added Egypt to the Persian empire. It was a great victory over the Pharaoh Amasis who had attempted to lead an alliance, including Athens, against Persia. On his return from Egypt in 522 BCE, Kambyses fell from his hose and died. The circumstances of his death were suspicious. Kambyses was succeed by his brother Bardiya but he was assassinated in a place coup by Darius (Dareios), an ambitious aristocrat. This plunged the empire into over a year of civil war and revolt which was efficiently suppressed by Darius.
For all of Darius usurpation of power, he proved to be a successful emperor. Darius expanded the empire into Asia and north-west India and into Europe by conquering parts of Thrace. Darius mounted the first Persian expedition into Greece after Athens supported a revolt, soon crushed, by the Ionian Greek city-states in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) against their Persian overlords. Darius’ expedition was defeated at the battle of Marathon (490 BCE). A revolt in Egypt kept Darius from returning to punish the Greeks for their insolence.

While in Egypt, Darius died of natural causes and his son, Xerxes, became king. Xerxes made sure of the solidity of his position and began raising an army to invade Greece. Xerxes’ army was one of the largest the Ancient world had ever seen, likely between one hundred and one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers and over four thousand ships. Xerxes personally commanded the expedition. It was to end in failure.

Delayed by the Spartans and their allies at Thermopylae, the Persian army captured and sacked Athens before their fleet suffered defeat at the battle of Salamis (480 BCE). As the year was ending, Xerxes left the bulk of his army to deal with the Greeks while he traveled south to suppress a rebellion in Babylon. However, Xerxes’ general, Tigranes, even with superior numbers was unable to defeat the Greeks; he lost both the battle and his life at Plataia (479 BCE).
Such defeats only stopped the expansion of the empire, they never seriously threatened its survival. Continued Greek, primarily Athenian, adventures against the Empire led to the Peace of Kallis (449 BCE) in which the Greeks agreed not to war against the great king and the Persians abandoned any claims on the Greek cities.

The Persian empire survived until the fourth century BCE, when Alexander the Great and his superb Macedonian army defeated the forces of the Persian Emperor Darius III. Over the course of four years (333-330 BCE) Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. But Alexander had every intention of adapting the Persian Empire to his own use, proclaiming himself great king and even retaining satraps who surrendered to him in his service. Alexander’s death ended his grand experiment as his empire was divided up among his generals. It would be several hundred years before another group of nomadic horsemen, the Parthians, would seize upon the Persian name to give their rule over the same area an aura of tradition and legitimacy.

The Persian Empire was divided up into administrative units called satrapies, each ruled by a satrap. From the time of Darius I twenty of these regions comprised the empire. Satrapies were composed of both subject states and lands ruled directly by Persian nobles. The satraps oversaw taxation –keeping for themselves that which did not go to the emperor’s coffers– and maintaining the satrapal military. Since each satrap was such a power in his region the emperor watched them very carefully. The great king maintained a system of inspectors known as the King’s Eye and the King’s Ear (as well as less obvious spies), who watched for signs of disloyalty and impending rebellion. Persian nobles were often given land in conquered regions with the right of direct appeal to the emperor as a further check on satrapal power. For all of the great king’s efforts, there were often revolts. Egypt with its long tradition of self-rule, was particularly prone to rebellion.

The Persian region was the only part of the empire exempt from taxes. The empire relied upon the Persians to provide administrators and loyal soldiers. As traditionally a Persian boy was taught the skills of a warrior: to ride, to shoot a bow and to speak the truth. These customs dated from the time when the Persians were still a nomadic people, though success and luxury slowly eroded such traditions, the empire continued to rely upon the Persian aristocracy for the backbone of the empire’s army.

The Persian empire drew its military from the Persian aristocracy scattered throughout the empire and from its subject nations. Each subject nation provided their own troops depending on their skills. The Phoenicians, for example, provided naval forces as their wealth was based on coastal and sea borne trading.

The Persian armies were organized into forces of 10,000 men (which the Greeks called a myriad), divided down into ten units of a 1,000, then into units of hundreds and lastly tens. Units rarely matched up to this neat scheme and were usually under-strength. The only unit that was always kept at 10,000 men was the emperor’s elite, the Immortals, comprised of Persian soldiers of proven skill and ability, including 1,000 spear-bearers who followed the king’s chariot in official processions.

The Persian empire issued standardized coins to facilitate trade, imposed universal laws, maintained roads and suppressed bandits. All of this made the empire extremely wealthy. But communication and coordination remained a problem, news could travel no faster than a horse and rider. The Royal Road, a network of roadways, which radiated out from Susa facilitating communication. Susa was the administrative capital of empire as well as the center of a network of messengers, spies and merchants.

Keeping the vast empire together was always a challenge. Nationalist tensions and personal ambitious were always seeking to pull it apart. Cyrus’ choice to allow each subject kingdom their own religion and traditions solved many problems but it also prevented the empire from being able to coalesce into a greater whole; each subject kingdom was a separate part just waiting to be free to pursue its own destiny again. But for all of the forces attempting to pull the empire apart, it was military conquest that would destroy the Persian empire, the same way the empire had been forged.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

The Persian empire provides an excellent model for a fantasy empire that allows its subject races to maintain their own traditions and religions. In a fantasy world, it would be an empire that could have dwarves, elves, humans and orcs under its umbrella without any problem (from the point of view of the empire, some of the subject races might not be too pleased with the imposed peace). The empire may not be able to force traditional enemies to become friends but it can enforce peace among them.

A Persian styled empire can be an interesting counterpoint to a traditional all conquering ‘evil empire.’ Perhaps the characters’ homeland is trapped between the two empires, how much power over their home are the characters willing to trade to keep the evil empire from overrunning them? Or will they try to go it alone? Will the Persianesque empire decide that it is better to fight in the characters’ homeland to save the empire itself from the ravages of war?
Within an empire modeled upon there are many sorts of political games that can be played, the characters may be potential rebels (or freedom fighters), or agents of the great king sent to suppress rebellion and ferret out treason. An ambitious campaign would be to play a satrap, trying to balance personal goals against the needs of the empire and of your satrapal subjects Alternately a campaign could be structured around a young aristocrat attempting to make a name for him or herself within the empire.

Supplemental d20 Material:

The equipment of the Persian army varied by nationality, but the Immortals would be equipped with a long spear and short composite bow with padded armor and a light shield, at some times the Immortals were equipped with axes. (In a standard D&D game it would be wise to increase their armor to chain mail.) A standard tactic would be for part of the unit to use their spears to fend off attacks while the rest of the unit used their bows.

New Feats

Immortal [General]
You are a member of the king’s military elite, you are expected to fight and die without hesitation in the service of your king.

Prerequisites: Level 5th, being recognized for your military talents while in service to the king, martial weapon proficiency, Chr 10.

Benefit: You are afforded respect from you status, you receive a +1 circumstance bonus to Diplomacy, Intimidate and Knowledge (nobility) checks.  If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +2 for that skill.  While fighting under the king’s gaze or direction, you receive a +4 morale bonus to saves against fear, a +1 morale bonus to Fortitude and Will saves and a +1 morale bonus to damage.

Special: This feat also comes with the restriction that you are subject to the orders of the king, as such it is more suited to NPCs. The DM has final decision of what actions are considered to be under the king’s direction.

Persian Noble [General]

You are a member of the ruling aristocracy of multi-cultural Empire, you have been trained to deal with many different types of people.

Prerequisites: Growing up in an Imperial Persian-type culture and being a member of the aristocracy, Intelligence 10, Charisma 10.

Benefit: Diplomacy and Ride (horse) are always class skills for you and you are proficient with both the short bow and the short composite bow.  You gain a +1 bonus to Diplomacy, Intimidate and Linguistics checks.  If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +2 for that skill. Lastly, you may choose an additional language known at 1st level from the languages spoken in the Empire.

Special: Usually this feat can only be chosen at 1st level.

Notes: The Persian Empire was a great inspiration to the way the Draconic Imperium of the Sea of Stars is structured.


  1. Excellent post. I love me some Persians!

  2. […] And lastly, in the category of “go ahead, lay some history on me” we have an amazing article on the Persian Empire from the Sea of Stars blog… This is another one I’m going to have to devour a piece at a time to milk as much as I can out of it. Through the Lens of History 5: The Great King […]

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