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While the Athenians were taking the first steps toward
creating a democracy, a new power was rising in the
East. This power, the Persian Empire, would one day
attack Greece. But early in their history, the Persians
were an unorganized nomadic people. It took the
skills of leaders like Cyrus the Great and Darius I to
change that situation. Under these leaders, the
Persians created a huge empire, one of the mightiest
of the ancient world.
Early in their history, the Persians often fought other
peoples of Southwest Asia. Sometimes they lost. In
fact, they lost a fight to a people called the Medes
(MEEDZ) and were ruled by them for about 150 years.
In 550 BC, however, Cyrus II (SY-ruhs) led a Persian
revolt against the Medes. His revolt was successful.
Cyrus won independence for Persia and conquered the
Medes. His victory marked the beginning of the Persian
Cyrus conquered much of Southwest Asia,
including nearly all of Asia Minor, during
his rule. Included in this region were
several Greek cities that Cyrus took over.
He then marched south to conquer
Cyrus also added land to the east. He led
his army into central Asia to the Jaxartes
River, which we now call the Syr Darya.
When he died around 529 BC, Cyrus ruled
the largest empire the world had ever
Cyrus let the people he conquered keep
their own customs. He hoped this would
make them less likely to rebel. He was
right. Few people rebelled against Cyrus,
and his empire remained strong. Because
of his great successes, historians call him
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus was successful in his conquests
because his army was strong. It was
strong because it was well organized
and loyal.
At the heart of the Persian army were the Immortals,
10,000 soldiers chosen for their bravery and skill. In
addition to the Immortals, the army had a powerful
cavalry. A cavalry is a unit of soldiers who ride horses.
Cyrus used his cavalry to charge the enemy and
shoot at them with arrows. This strategy weakened
the enemy before the Immortals attacked. Working
together, the cavalry and the Immortals could defeat
almost any foe.
Cyrus’s son Cambyses continued to
expand the Persian Empire after Cyrus
died. For example, he conquered Egypt
and added it to the empire. Soon
afterward, though, a rebellion broke out in
Persia. During this rebellion, Cambyses
died. His death left Persia without a clear
Within four years a young prince named
Darius I (da-RY-uhs) claimed the throne
and killed all his rivals for power. Once he
was securely in control, Darius worked to
restore order in Persia. He also improved
Persian society and expanded the
Darius organized the empire by dividing it into 20
provinces. Then he chose governors called satraps (SAYtraps) to rule the provinces for him. The satraps collected
taxes for Darius, served as judges, and put down
rebellions within their territories. Satraps had great
power within their provinces, but Darius, remained the
empire’s real ruler. His officials visited each province to
make sure the satraps were loyal to Darius. He called
himself king of kings to remind other rulers of his power.
After Darius restored order to the empire, he made
many improvements to Persian society. For example, he
built many roads. Darius had roads built to connect
various parts of the empire. Messengers used these
roads to travel quickly throughout Persia. One road,
called the Royal Road, was more than 1,700 miles
long. Even Persia’s enemies admired these roads and
the Persian messengers system.
Darius also built a new capital for the
empire. It was called Persepolis. Darius
wanted his capital to reflect the glory of
his empire, so he filled the city with
beautiful works of art. For example,
3,000 carvings line the city’s walls.
Statues throughout the city glittered with
gold, silver, and precious jewels.
During Darius’s rule a new religion arose in the
Persian Empire as well. This religion, which
was called Zoroastrianism (zawr-uh-WAS-treeuh-nih-zuhm), taught that there were two
forces fighting for control of the universe. One
force was good, and the other was evil. Its
priests urged people to help the side of good
in its struggle. This religion remained popular
in Persia for many centuries.
Like Cyrus, Darius wanted the Persian Empire
to grow. In the east, he conquered the entire
Indus Valley. He also tried to expand the
empire westward into Europe. However, before
Darius could move very far into Europe, he had
to deal with a revolt in the empire.
In 499 BD several Greek cities in Asia
Minor rebelled against the Persian rule.
To help their fellow Greeks, a few citystates in mainland Greece sent soldiers to
join the fight against the Persians.
The Persians put down the revolt, but
Darius was still angry with the Greeks.
Although the cities that had rebelled were
in Asia, Darius was enraged that other
Greeks had given them aid. He swore to
get revenge on the Greeks.
Nine years after the Greek cities rebelled,
Darius invaded Greece. He and his army
sailed to the plains of Marathon near
Athens. This invasion began a series of
wars between Persia and Greece that
historians call the Persian Wars.
The Athenian army had only about
11,000 soldiers, while the Persians
had about 15,000. However, the
Greeks won the battle because they
had better weapons and clever
According to legend, a messenger ran
from Marathon to Athens—a distance of
just over 26 miles—to bring news of the
great victory. After crying out “Rejoice! We
conquer!” the exhausted runner fell to the
ground and died.
Ten years after the Battle of Marathon,
Darius’s son Xerxes I (ZUHRK-seez) tried
to conquer Greece again. In 480 BC the
Persian army set out for Greece. This
time they were joined by the Persian
The Greeks prepared to defend their
homeland. This time Sparta, a powerful city
state in southern Greece, joined with Athens.
The Spartans had the strongest army in
Greece, so they went to fight the Persian
army. Meanwhile, the Athenians sent their
powerful navy to attack the Persian navy.
To slow the Persian army, the Spartans sent about 1,400
soldiers to Thermopylae (thuhr-MAH-puh-lee), a narrow
mountain pass. The Persians had to cross through this pass
to attack Greek cities. For three days, the small Greek force
held off the Persian army. Then the Persians asked a
traitorous Greek soldier to lead them through another pass.
A large Persian force attacked the Spartans from behind.
Surrounded, the brave Spartans and their allies fought to
their deaths. After winning the battle, the Persians swept into
Athens, attacking and burning the city
For the Persians, this defeat was
humiliating, but it was not a major blow. Their
empire remained strong for more than a
century after the war. For the Greeks, though,
the defeat of the Persians was a triumph.
They had saved their homeland
Although the Persians won the battle in the pass, the
Greeks quickly regained the upper hand. A few days after
Athens was burned, the Athenians defeated the Persian navy
through a clever plan. They led the larger Persian navy into
the narrow straits of Salamis (SAH-luh-muhs). The Persians
had so many ships that they couldn’t steer well in the narrow
strait. As a result, the smaller Athenian boats easily sank
many Persian ships. Those ships that were not destroyed
soon returned home
Soon after the Battle of Salamis, an army of
soldiers from all over Greece beat the Persians
at Plataea (pluh-TEE-uh). This battle ended the
Persian Wars. Defeated, the Persians left

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