Kings of Persia: These 12 Achaemenid Rulers Led an Empire

The Achaemenid Kings of Persia ruled over the largest empire in the Near East. These are the 12 Kings who led the empire, from its founding to its fall.

Jul 18, 2020By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
persian kings necropolis
Achaemenid King Tombs in the ancient Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis


In the Classical period, there were many Kings of Persia, but few were ever as powerful as the Achaemenids. As Kings of Persia, they ruled over the largest empire the ancient world has ever seen, which stretched from the Indus River in the east to the Balkan Peninsula in the west. The Kings of Persia were able to draw on enormous resources from all across this vast empire and exert influence far beyond their borders.  Arranged chronologically, these are the twelve men who held the title “King of Persia” from the founding of the Achaemenid Empire to its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great


6th Century BC Kings Of Persia: Start Of The Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus the Great (r. 550-530 BC)

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae, 529 BC, UNESCO World Heritage Site


Founder of the Achaemenid Empire, much of Cyrus’ life is shrouded by myth and legend. He was the son of the king of the Persians and the grandson of the king of the Median Empire. Following the death of his father, he revolted against the Medes and was able to overthrow them. This led Cyrus down the path of a conqueror and he embarked on a series of campaigns that saw Lydia, Western Anatolia, Elam, Babylonia, and much of Central Asia added to his domain. As King of Persia, Cyrus now ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen.


Cyrus also embarked on a number of administrative reforms and building projects. He famously allowed the Jewish people to return to Judea, thus ending the Babylonian captivity, and issued a general proclamation of freedom of worship and religious tolerance. He began the satrapy system to govern his kingdom and created the 10,000 Persian Immortals as the most elite warriors of his army. Cyrus met his death at the hands of the Massagetae, a nomadic tribe from Central Asia. After his death, he was buried in a relatively simple tomb, which belies his status as King of Persia and founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus the Great is one of the most admired kings of Persia and has exerted a profound influence on politics, religion, and philosophy from the ancient world to now.


Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BC)

Egyptian 27th dynasty terracotta figures of mounted Persian Rider, 525-332 BC, via The British Museum, London


Cambyses II was the eldest son of Cyrus and his beloved wife Cassandane. After the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC Cambyses was appointed governor of northern Babylonia; a position he held for nine months before being dismissed for unknown reasons. He later participated in Cyrus’ ill-fated expedition against the Massagetae but was sent home before his father’s death. As King of Persia, Cambyses soon came into conflict with Egypt, the last great power in the Near East. Cambyses II at first worked to isolate Egypt from its allies in Greece and Caria, as well as seizing Cyprus which served as an important Egyptian base. He also worked to subdue the approaches to Egypt through the Sinai. Cambyses II launched his Egyptian invasion in 525 BC and despite fierce resistance conquered the country after several months. Further campaigns added Cyrene and portions of Libya to the Persian Empire, but an invasion of Ethiopia failed.

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Cambyses II assumed the title of Pharaoh and worked to reduce the power and privileges of the Egyptian temples. There is little evidence to suggest he engaged in the sacrilegious killing of the Apis Bull, but the Egyptian priests still had reason to dislike him. His reputation as a mad despot is likely the result of later propaganda and his concentration of power in his person. In 522 BC Cambyses hurriedly left Egypt to deal with a rebellion in Persia led by his younger brother Bardiya or an imposter claiming to be Bardiya. On his way to deal with the rebellion Cambyses received a wound on his thigh; either as the result of an accident while whittling or mounting his horse or as the result of an assassination attempt by supporters of Bardiya or the later Darius I. The wound turned gangrenous and Cambyses II died of an infection eleven days later. 


Bardiya (r. 522 BC)

 Achaemenid Bisotun Inscription depicting Darius I standing on the figure of Gaumata, 521 BC, UNESCO World Heritage Site


The son of Cyrus and brother of Cambyses II, Bardiya remains one of the most controversial kings of Persia. On his deathbed, Cyrus made Bardiya satrap of the eastern provinces, while Cambyses II became king. According to later sources, shortly before his own death Cambyses II had Bardiya executed out of jealousy but kept it secret. While Cambyses was still away in Egypt, Bardiya, or a Median Magi named Gaumata pretending to be Bardiya, began a revolt in Media which soon spread to other parts of the empire. Since Cambyses II had been a despot, and this Bardiya promised to remit all taxes for three years he was greeted with open arms. Before Cambyses II could act he died of an infected wound and Bardiya became undisputed King of Persia.


However, a group of seven Persian noblemen decided to overthrow him as they felt he favored the Medes too highly, having transferred the seat of government to Media, and claimed he was an imposter named Gaumata. The seven conspirators—Otanes, Intaphrenes, Gobryas, Hydarnes, Megabyzus, Aspathines, and Darius—murdered Bardiya at one of his fortresses in Media. To decide which of the conspirators would now become King of Persia, they lined up on their horses facing the rising sun; whoever’s horse was the first to neigh and greet the sun would be king. To ensure his master’s victory, Darius’ groom had rubbed his hand on the genitals of a horse favored by his master’s. When the time came he placed his hand by the horses’ nostrils, causing it to grow excited and neigh.   


Darius I The Great (r. 522-486 BC)

Fragment of a limestone corner block depicting a Persian King (Most Likely Darius I), Persepolis, 6th-5th century BC, via British Museum, London


Darius I was the eldest son of Hystaspes, satrap of Bactria, and rose to become the personal spear bearer of Cambyses II. Originally from a much junior branch of the Achaemenids, the story of Darius I’s rise to power is hazy at best. After the death of Cambyses II, Bardiya or the Magi Gaumata became King of Persia but was assassinated by Darius I and his six companions. Following his ascension to the throne Darius I faced revolts across the empire in Bactria, Babylonia, Elam, Media, Parthia, Assyria, and Egypt which were suppressed with the aid of his co-conspirators. Following this Darius I led several military expeditions to complete the annexation of Egypt and incorporate much of Central Asia and the Indus Valley into the Persian Empire. He also launched a major expedition against the European Scythians, who he pursued into Thrace, across the Danube, and around the Black Sea as far as the Volga river; after several months he was forced to give up as the Scythians refused to give battle.


Darius I also incorporated Macedonia and a number of Aegean islands with their Greek cities into his empire. In 499 BC many of these rose in revolt against the King of Persia and were joined by rebels in Cyprus and Caria. With Athenian and Eritrean support the rebels were able to fight on until 493 BC. Darius I’s subsequent campaign to pacify and chastise the rebels and their allies culminated in the Persian defeat at Marathon in 490 BC. Along with his military campaigns, Darius I carried out a number of major reforms of the empire. He divided the empire into twenty satrapies and appointed governors with wide powers to oversee them, created a bureau of royal inspectors, set up a chancery with many branches, established a universal currency, built a system of royal roads and canals, instituted a new tax system, and built numerous temples and palaces throughout the empire. Darius I is also the first King of Persia known to have been a firm believer in Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism.


5th Century BC Kings Of Persia

Xerxes I (r. 485-465 BC)

Relief of a Persian Guard from the Persepolis Palace of Xerxes 485-465 BC, via The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The son of Darius I and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, Xerxes was named as his father’s successor prior to an expedition against rebels in Egypt. Though not the eldest son of Darius I, he ascended the throne as King of Persia on the basis of his mother’s lineage and the fact that he was the first son born to Darius I after Darius I had become the king.  After becoming King of Persia Xerxes I ruthlessly suppressed revolts in Egypt and Babylonia, before turning his attention to Greece. Xerxes I spent three years gathering supplies and soldiers from across his empire, while also preparing roads and canals to assist the passage of his army. After brief delays and the loss of part of his fleet at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes I was able to capture and burn Athens. However, a reverse at the battle of Salamis and word of unrest in Babylon caused Xerxes to withdraw along with most of his army.


A second Persian defeat at Platea in 479 BC ended Xerxes I invasion of the Greek mainland; the fighting now spread across the Aegean and into Egypt and Cyprus as well. Known as the War of the Delian League, this conflict would rage on from 477-449 BC. In the meantime, however, Xerxes I returned to Persia where he oversaw the completion of a number of large building projects and other affairs of the empire. However, in 465 BC Xerxes I was assassinated by Artabanus, commander of the royal bodyguard after Artabanus was able to win support amongst the harem and religious leaders of the court. Artabanus had placed his seven sons in key positions throughout the empire in a bid to dethrone the Achaemenids. The plot failed after the general Megabyzus threw his support behind Xerxes I’s son Arses.  Xerxes I is one of the most popular Kings of Persia in literature, appearing in the Biblical Book of Esther, Aeschylus’ play The Persians, and numerous other operas, films, TV shows, comic books, and works of historical fiction.   


Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BC)

Achaemenid Scaraboid with a Persian King fighting a Greek Hoplite and its impression, 450 BC, via the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Arses was the third son of Xerxes I and became King of Persia following the death of his father at the hands of Artabanus. Depending on the source, Xerxes I’s eldest son Darius was killed either by Artabanus or Arses. After ascending the throne as Artaxerxes I, he was faced with a major revolt in Egypt (460-454 BC) which was led by a Libyan prince and had Athenian assistance. As King of Persia, Artaxerxes I inherited a war with the Greeks which had been fought to a standstill. Unable to make much headway militarily he began the practice of providing funds to play each Greek state off against each other. This practice helped to motivate the Athenians to relocate the Treasury of the Delian League to Athens. By 449 BC, Artaxerxes was able to conclude the Peace of Callias with Athens and Argos, ending the war that began under his father.


Artaxerxes I also provided sanctuary to Themistocles, an architect of the Greek victory of Salamis, after his exile from Athens. Themistocles so impressed the King of Persia that he was granted several cities in Asia Minor. Artaxerxes I is also believed to be the Artaxerxes mentioned in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In these books Artaxerxes I granted Ezra permission to teach Jewish law to the people living in Jerusalem while Nehemiah was given permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls. Artaxerxes I even provided timbers for the citadel and temple in Jerusalem.


Darius II (r. 424-404 BC)

Achaemenid Clay Bulla with a stamp seal depicting a Persian King spearing a Greek Hoplite, 550-331 BC, via The Boston Museum of Fine Arts


Following the death of Artaxerxes I, his son Artaxerxes became Xerxes II, King of Persia, but only ruled for 45 days and was only recognized as king in Persia. He was murdered by his brother Sogdianus, who in turn was murdered by his illegitimate half-brother Ochus after a reign of roughly six months over a territory that consisted of little beyond Persia and Elam. Ochus had been the satrap of Hyrcania, and after killing his brother Arsites who had attempted to emulate his example, took for himself the name Darius II, King of Persia.


Not much is known of the reign of Darius II as he generally kept out of Greek affairs until the Athenian defeat at Syracuse. Following this event, and annoyed that the Athenians had supported rebels in Anatolia, he sent his satraps against the Greek cities of Asia Minor which had previously enjoyed Athenian protection. He also offered financial support to the Spartans, which was critical to their efforts against the Athenian fleet at the close of the Peloponnesian War. 


4th Century BC Kings Of Persia

Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BC)

Achaemenid Golden Daric depicting a running Royal Archer, 5th -4th century, via The British Museum, London


Shortly after the death of his father Arsaces, now as King of Persia Artaxerxes II, faced a rebellion led by his younger brother Cyrus who had risen to great fame while campaigning in Asia Minor. Cyrus led a large army bolstered by 10,000 Greek mercenaries, including the historian Xenophon who left an account of the expedition, against his brother. The King of Persia, despite initially hoping to resolve the conflict peacefully, emerged victorious. Cyrus’ rebellion left Artaxerxes II too weak to directly confront the Spartan king Agesilaus II’s invasion (396-387 BC), forcing him to instead subsidize their enemies in mainland Greece. He also had to deal with a rebellion in Egypt which began at the beginning of his reign and had by 380 BC seen the Egyptians declare independence. A failed attempt to reconquer Egypt led to a series of revolts by the various satraps of Anatolia between 372-362 BC which were eventually put down.


As the King of Persia, Artaxerxes II exerted a continued influence over the Greeks by offering subsidies and arbitrating their disagreements almost as though he were their overlord. He also engaged in numerous building and renovation projects across the empire. In addition to architectural achievements, Persian art, and craftsmanship, including the weaving of exquisite Persian rugs, were hallmarks of the cultural legacy of the Persian Empire. His greatest shortcoming, however, was in his family life, as plots amongst his harem led to the deaths of many of his beloved sons and other family members. 


Artaxerxes III (r. 358-338 BC)

Plaster Cast of an Inscription of Artaxerxes III, Achaemenid, 4th Century BC, Persepolis, British Museum


Ochus was a younger son of Artaxerxes II and satrap of Phoenicia who ascended the throne as Artaxerxes III largely because his older brothers had all been eliminated in various plots. To secure his position as King of Persia, Artaxerxes III soon executed around 80 of his family members. Most of Artaxerxes III’s reign was spent dealing with rebellions across his empire. After making peace with Athens he attempted to disband the powerful satrapal armies of the Anatolian satraps; the ensuing revolt took two years to put down. Artaxerxes III then turned his attention to the re-conquest of Egypt but was defeated. This massive defeat led to revolts in Anatolia, Phoenicia, and Cyprus. It took seven years for the King of Persia to reassert control, but once he had it was time for another attack of Egypt. This time Artaxerxes III was successful and after subduing the region he embarked on a campaign to punish the Egyptians for their resistance.


Once Artaxerxes III had dealt with these rebellions, he set about solidifying his power and rewarding his followers. None rose as high as the eunuch Bagoas who was given vast estates and rose to the position of vizier and was responsible for overseeing much of the empire. The King of Persia also extended his influence into the Aegean, conquering many islands, and into Thrace where he subsidized friendly princes. Much to the dismay of Athens and the rising power of Macedonia under its king, Philip of Macedon, the Achaemenid Empire was growing strong. However, it all came crashing down when Artaxerxes sought to curb the power of Bagaos who in response conspired to poison the king and much of his family.


Artaxerxes IV (r. 338-336 BC)

Relief of Median courtier and tribute bearers, Achaemenid Persepolis, ca. 550-331 BC, Boston Museum of Fine Arts


Aršaka or in Greek Arses was the youngest son of Artaxerxes III and his wife Atossa and as such was not expected to ascend the throne. Under the guidance of Artaxerxes III, the Achaemenid Empire had been experiencing a general revival of fortunes as it was reorganized and various revolts were suppressed. Much of this was thanks to the efforts of the Eunuch Bagoas, who rose to the position of vizier and was the real power behind the throne.  When Bagoas fell out of favor with Artaxerxes III he conspired with the royal physician to poison the King of Persia and most of his family.


With the death of Artaxerxes III, his only surviving son Aršaka became King of Persia and took the name Artaxerxes IV.  This sudden change in leadership along with the youth and inexperience of Artaxerxes IV weakened the Achaemenid Empire. Seizing upon this weakness Philip of Macedon demanded that the King of Persia pay reparations for Achaemenid support of his rivals. When Artaxerxes IV refused, Philip sent 10,000 troops into Asia Minor in 336 BC. At the same time, the King of Persia attempted to rid himself of Bagoas, who poisoned Artaxerxes IV and the rest of his family in response. Later Macedonian propaganda would depict Artaxerxes IV as the last true King of Persia.


Darius III (r. 336-330 BC)

Detail from Battle of Alexander and Darius at Issus Mosaic, Late 2nd century AD, via Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli


The last of the official Kings of Persia, Darius was originally from a slightly more junior branch of the Achaemenid royal family and went by the name Artashata. Prior to becoming King of Persia he had distinguished himself in a combat of champions, served as a royal courier, was appointed satrap of Armenia, oversaw the entire Achaemenid Postal System, and became of the King’s “Friends” at court. Following the murders of Artaxerxes III & IV, Artashata was made King of Persia and adopted the name Darius III.  Quickly demonstrating his independence as King of Persia, Darius III forced Bagoas, the vizier and murderer of Artaxerxes III &IV to drink the poison he had intended for Darius III.  With little chance to settle into his new position as King of Persia, Darius III soon faced an invasion in the west.


The same year Darius III became King of Persia, Philip of Macedon invaded Asia Minor and “liberated” a number of Greek cities in the region. Following Philip’s assassination, his son, Alexander the Great, renewed the campaign after a short pause in 334 BC. Darius III hoped that the local satraps could deal with Alexander while he fomented rebellion in Greece and used the Persian fleet to cut Alexander’s supplies. When this failed Darius faced Alexander in battle at Issus in 333 BC, and Gaugamela in 331 BC, and was disastrously defeated on both occasions. Having twice precipitously fled the battlefield, Darius III was betrayed and killed by his remaining satraps; one of whom then assumed the title “King of Persia.”


Artaxerxes V (r.330-329 BC)

Bessus brought into the Presence of Alexander by the school of Ciro Ferri 1649-1689, via The British Museum, London


Unlike the other Kings of Persia, Artaxerxes was a self-proclaimed leader. He was originally the satrap of Bactria named Bessus. A relative of Darius III, he had commanded the left-wing of the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC). The following year he and his fellow satraps betrayed Darius III, placing him in golden chains. It may have been their intention to offer Darius III to Alexander, or perhaps they were simply disillusioned with his leadership. However, the rapid approach of Alexander’s army caused the satraps to panic. Darius III was stabbed and left dying on the road. Bessus immediately proclaimed himself King of Persia, since as satrap of Bactria he was next in the line of succession.


Bessus took the name Artaxerxes V and as the new King of Persia fled to the few provinces in Central Asia not yet captured by the Macedonians. As Artaxerxes V continued his retreat, he was abandoned by his troops; eventually, a group of local chieftains seized him. Brought before Alexander he was questioned about his betrayal of Darius III and executed. Thus, the last Achaemenid king of Persia met his inglorious and ignoble end.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.