9 Greatest Foes Of The Achaemenid Empire

Throughout its history, the Achaemenid Empire amassed several deadly enemies. This included rival kings, Scythian warlords, Greek generals, and finally Alexander the Great, who defeated the Persian Empire.

Apr 3, 2021By Edd Hodsdon, BA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological Trust
achaemenid empire foes persian empire
Alexander from the Alexander mosaic, c. 100 BC; with Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1622


For over two centuries of conquest, the Achaemenid Empire battled several famous enemies. From the Median King Astyages to Scythian rulers like Queen Tomyris, Persia clashed with bitter rivals. Then, during the Graeco-Persian Wars, a new cast of enemies emerged, from kings like the famous Leonidas to generals like Miltiades and Themistocles. The Persian Empire fought these deadly foes until the coming of Alexander the Great left the once-mighty empire in ruins. 


9. Astyages: The First Enemy Of The Achaemenid Empire

defeat of astyages
The Defeat of Astyages, by Maximilien de Haese, 1771-1775, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Before the dawn of the Achaemenid Empire, Persia was a vassal state under King Astyages of the Medes. It was against Astyages that Cyrus the Great revolted, attempting to secure Persia’s independence from the Median Empire. Astyages had succeeded his father, Cyaxares, in 585 BC.


Astyages had a vision that one of his grandsons would supplant him. Rather than wed his daughter to rival kings he considered as threats, Astyages married her to Cambyses, ruler of the small backwater state of Persia. When Cyrus was born, Astyages ordered him to be killed, fearful of what he would become. But Astyages’ general, Harpagus, refused and hid Cyrus to be raised in secret. Years later, Astyages discovered the youth. But rather than executing him, Astyages brought his grandson into his court.


However, as he grew older, Cyrus harbored ambitions to liberate Persia. When he became King, he rose against Astyages, who then invaded Persia. But almost half of his army, including Harpagus, defected to Cyrus’ banner. Astyages was captured and brought before Cyrus, who spared his life. Astyages became one of Cyrus’ closest advisors, and Cyrus took over Median territory. The Persian Empire was born.


8. Queen Tomyris: The Scythian Warrior Queen

head of cyrus queen tomyris
Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1622, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Cyrus conquered much of the Middle East, including the former powers of Lydia and Babylon. He then turned his attention to the Eurasian steppes, which were inhabited by pastoral tribes such as the Scythians and the Massagatae. In 530 BC, Cyrus sought to bring them into the Achaemenid Empire. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, this is where Cyrus the Great met his end.


The Massagatae were led by Queen Tomyris, a fierce warrior queen, and her son, Spargapises. Cyrus offered to marry her in exchange for her kingdom. Tomyris refused, and so the Persians invaded.


Cyrus and his commanders concocted a ploy. They left a small, vulnerable force in camp, supplied with wine. Spargapises and the Massagatae attacked, slaughtering the Persians and gorging themselves on the wine. Sluggish and drunk, they were easy prey for Cyrus. Spargapises was captured but took his own life in shame for his defeat.


Thirsty for revenge, Tomyris demanded a battle. She cut off the Persian’s escape route and defeated Cyrus’ army. Cyrus was killed, and some sources claim that Tomyris beheaded the Persian king in revenge for the death of her son. The rule of Persia passed to Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II.


7. King Idanthyrsus: The Defiant Scythian King

gold plaque scythian rider
Gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider, c. 4th-3rd Century BC, St. Petersburg Museum, via British Museum


After the death of Cambyses following a campaign in Egypt, Darius the Great took over the throne of Persia. During his rule, he expanded the Persian Empire to its greatest height and turned it into an administrative superpower. Like his predecessor Cyrus, Darius also tried to invade Scythia. Persian forces marched into Scythian lands sometime around 513 BC, crossing the Black Sea and targeting the tribes around the Danube. 


It’s unclear exactly why Darius began the campaign. It may have been for territory, or even as a retort against previous Scythian raids. But the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, evaded the Persians, unwilling to be drawn into open battle. Darius became irritated and demanded that Idanthyrsus either surrender or meet him in a fight.


Idanthyrsus refused, defiant against the Persian king. The lands his forces abdicated were of little value in themselves, and the Scythians burnt everything they could. Darius continued to pursue the Scythian leader and built a series of forts at the River Oarus. However, his army began to suffer under the strain of disease and dwindling supplies. At the River Volga, Darius gave up and returned to Persian territory.


6. Miltiades: The Hero Of Marathon

Marble bust of Miltiades, 5th century BC, the Louvre, Paris, via RMN-Grand Palais


Miltiades was a Greek king in Asia Minor before the Achaemenid Empire took control of the region. When Darius invaded in 513 BC, Miltiades surrendered and became a vassal. But in 499 BC, the Greek colonies on the Persian-controlled Ionian Coast revolted. The rebellion was aided by Athens and Eretria. Miltiades covertly facilitated support from Greece to the rebels, and when his role was discovered, he fled to Athens.


After a six-year campaign to restore order, Darius crushed the rebellion and swore revenge on Athens.  In 490 BC, Darius’ troops landed at Marathon. The Athenians desperately mustered an army to meet the Persians and a stalemate developed. Miltiades was one of the Greek generals and realizing they had to use unconventional tactics to defeat Darius, he persuaded his compatriots to attack. 


Miltiades’ bold plan was to weaken his central formation, instead adding strength to his wings. The Persians easily handled the Greek center, but their flanks were overwhelmed by the more heavily-armed hoplites. The Persian army was crushed in a vice, and thousands died as they attempted to flee back to their ships. Darius was furious at the defeat but died before he could launch another Greek campaign.


5. Leonidas: The King Who Faced The Mighty Persian Empire

leonidas thermopylae
Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814, The Louvre, Paris 


It would take a decade before the Achaemenid Empire attempted to invade Greece again. In 480 BC, Darius’ son Xerxes I crossed the Hellespont with a vast army. He rampaged through northern Greece until he met the forces of the Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae. 


Leonidas had ruled Sparta for a decade as one of its two kings. Despite being around 60 years old, he and his troops stood bravely against overwhelming odds. Alongside his 300 Spartans, Leonidas also commanded around 6500 other Greek troops from various cities. 


Herodotus numbered the Persians at over a million men, but modern historians put the number at around 100,000. The narrow pass at Thermopylae favored the tactics of the heavily-armed Greeks, who could hold their ground and funnel the Persians towards them.


For three days they held before a traitor showed the Persians a narrow path that allowed them to encircle Leonidas. Realizing the battle was lost, Leonidas ordered the majority of his forces to retreat. His Spartans and a few allies remained, defiant in the face of annihilation. They were slaughtered. But their sacrifice was not in vain, buying Greece time to mobilize and providing a unifying symbol of defiance.


4. Themistocles: The Cunning Athenian Admiral

bust themistocles
Bust of Themistocles, c. 470 BC, Museo Ostiense, Ostia


After the Battle of Marathon, the Athenian admiral and politician, Themistocles, believed that the Achaemenid Empire would return in greater numbers. He persuaded Athens to construct a powerful navy to counter the Persian fleet. He was proven right. Around the same time as Thermopylae, the Persian navy clashed with Themistocles at Artemisium, and both sides suffered heavy casualties.


As Xerxes marched on Athens and torched the Acropolis, many of the remaining Greek forces gathered off the coast at Salamis. The Greeks discussed whether to retreat to the Isthmus of Corinth or try and attack. Themistocles advocated the latter. To force the issue, he came up with a clever gambit. He ordered a slave to row to the Persian ships, claiming that Themistocles planned to flee and that the Greeks would be vulnerable. The Persians fell for the ruse.


As the overwhelming numbers of Persian triremes crammed into the straits, they became stuck. The Greeks seized the advantage and attacked, destroying their enemies. Xerxes watched from above the shore in disgust as his navy was crippled. The Persian King decided that burning Athens had been enough of a victory, and returned to Persia with the majority of his army.


3. Pausanias: Regent Of Sparta

death of pausanias
Death of Pausanias, 1882, Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History


While Xerxes retreated with many of his troops, he left a force behind under his general, Mardonius, to conquer Greece for the Persian Empire. Following the death of Leonidas and with his heir too young to rule, Pausanias became Regent of Sparta. In 479 BC, Pausanias led a coalition of Greek city-states on the offensive against the remaining Persians. 


The Greeks pursued Mardonius to a camp near Plataea. As had happened at Marathon, a stalemate developed. Mardonius began harrying the Greek supply lines, and Pausanias took the decision to move back towards the city. Believing the Greeks were in full retreat, Mardonius ordered his army to attack.


In the midst of falling back, the Greeks turned and met the oncoming Persians. Out in the open and without the protection of their camp, the Persians were rapidly defeated, and Mardonius was killed. With the accompanying Greek victory at the naval battle of Mycale, Persian power was broken.


Pausanias led several subsequent campaigns to drive the Achaemenid Empire out of the Aegean. However, after reclaiming the city of Byzantium, Pausanias was accused of negotiating with Xerxes and was put on trial. He was not convicted, but his reputation was tarnished.


2. Cimon: The Pride Of The Delian League

bust of cimon
Bust of Cimon, Larnaca, Cyprus 


One of Athens’ generals, Cimon, had also been part of these efforts to drive the Persians out of Greece. He was the son of Marathon hero Miltiades and had fought at Salamis. Cimon led the military forces of the newly-established Delian League, a collaboration between Athens and several of her fellow city-states. Cimon’s forces aided in liberating Thrace in the Balkans from Persian influence. But after Pausanias’ rumored negotiations with the Persian Empire, Cimon and the Delian League were incensed.


Cimon besieged Pausanias at Byzantium and defeated the Spartan general, who was recalled to Greece to be tried for conspiring with Persia. Cimon and his forces then continued to press the attack against the Persians in Asia Minor. Xerxes began to gather an army to attack. He assembled this force at Eurymedon, but before he was ready, Cimon arrived in 466 BC.


First, the Athenian general defeated the Persian ships in a naval battle at Eurymedon. Then, with the surviving sailors fleeing towards the Persian army’s camp as night fell, the Greeks pursued. Cimon’s hoplites clashed with the Persian army and overpowered them once again, as Cimon defeated the Achaemenid Empire twice in a single day. 


1. Alexander The Great: Conqueror Of The Achaemenid Empire

alexander the great
The Alexander Mosaic, depicting the Battle of Issus, c. 100 BC, Naples Archaeological Museum


Over a century after Eurymedon, another young general rose who would utterly destroy the Achaemenid Empire; Alexander the Great. Claiming he would take revenge for the damage to Athens, the young Macedonian king invaded Persia. 


At the Battle of the Granicus River, he defeated a Persian satrap. The Persian king, Darius III, began to mobilize his forces to repel the young invader. At the Battle of Issus, the two kings clashed. Despite being outnumbered, Alexander won through bold tactics. Alexander and his famous Companion Cavalry charged Darius’ position. The Persian king fled, and his army was routed. Alexander pursued Darius for two years, rejecting a peace offering to divide the empire between them. Finally, at the Battle of Gaugamela, the two kings met for the final time. 


Once again, Alexander charged straight for Darius, who fled as the Persian army broke. Alexander tried to give chase, but Darius was captured and left to die by his own men. Alexander gave his rival a royal burial. His reputation in Persia is that of a bloodthirsty destroyer. He looted and razed the mighty palace of Persepolis, bringing an inglorious end to the once-mighty Persian Empire.

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By Edd HodsdonBA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological TrustEdd holds a BA in Professional Writing, he has worked at the Dover museum as well as the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. He is most fascinated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire and has been interested in the Ancient world his entire life. His hobbies include walking, philosophy, history, photography, and writing fiction.