Religious Ideology and the Persian Attempts To Create an Empire


In the Cyrus cylinder, the Persian king presents himself as a perfect ruler through his conquest of Babylon. The Persian king shows the significance of good governance and the ideas he copies from the Babylonians. Despite religious ideology playing a fundamental role in enhancing good governance, the Persian king is highly motivated by the desire to bring peace, justice, and prosperity. Similarly, in the Behistun, Darius I the Great shows a primary motive of restoring the Achaemenid dynasty to its former glory and the preservations of its power. Despite the religious ideology playing a role in the movement for Persian kings to create an empire, political interests emerge as the primary motivator for the formation of an empire.

The Cyrus Cylinder presents Cyrus as a just ruler, carefully copying Babylonian ideas about good governance (1-14). Marduk, the Babylonian god, introduces Cyrus as a new righteous king. He is pronounced the King of Ansan, whose main goal was restoring justice and peace to Babylon (12). As a prince of peace, Cyrus demonstrated his desire to restore justice by relieving the Babylonians of their weariness and freeing them from their service (26). He also promises to increase offerings to the gods, build walls, and restore religious sites (37-44). These acts show that Cyrus’s primary motivation was to bring peace and prosperity to his subjects rather than appease the gods.

The Cyrus Cylinder also clarifies that Cyrus was motivated by political ambition when he presented himself as a great conqueror, declaring that his vast army marched into Babylon without a fight (16) and that all the world’s kings brought their heavy tribute before him (28). In another incident, the Persian King demonstrated his political motivation by addressing claims that he settled all lands in peaceful abodes. Although Cyrus was a follower of the Babylonian religion, he does not claim to have been ordained by the gods to create an empire. He presents himself as a king of the four quarters Marduk chose to bring peace and prosperity to his subjects (20-21). Therefore, he showed massive interest in expanding power and consolidating his empire rather than religious ideology.

In the Behistun translation, Darius I the Great claims that the Persian Achaemenid dynasty has from antiquity been noble and from antiquity has our dynasty has been royal (i.3). This statement presents religion as a motivating factor for Darius’ attempts to create an empire, with Ahuramazda’s blessing being the source of his power. However, a close examination of the Behistun inscription reveals that religious ideology was not the primary motivation for Darius’ attempts to create an empire. Instead, Darius’ primary motivation was restoring the Achaemenid dynasty to its former glory and preserving his own power.

Darius’ commitment to restoring the Achaemenid dynasty is demonstrated by the numerous rebellions he recounts in his inscription, such as the two rebellions that occurred shortly after he ascended to the throne. The first was a rebellion in Elam led by Ina, who claimed to be the king of Elam (i.16). Phraortes, who claimed to be a member of the Cyaxares family, led the second rebellion in Media (ii.24). In Section II, Darius describes two other Armenian revolts led by Dadari and Vaumisa (ii.26-30). In these instances, Darius’ primary motivation for suppressing rebellions was not religious ideology but rather the restoration of Achaemenid rule.

Preserving his power was the driving force behind Darius’ decision to establish an empire. In his description of Gaumata the Magian’s rebellion, Darius’s determination to preserve his power is evident. Darius describes in Section I how Gaumata was able to seize the throne by claiming to be Smerdis, the son of Cyrus and brother of Cambyses (i.11). In response to this revolt, Darius took matters into his own hands and marched against Gaumata, eventually slaying him and restoring the Achaemenid dynasty to its former glory (i.13-15). Hence, despite following the religious path, Darius’s primary motivation for forming the empire was more political than religious ideology.

Herodotus (1.189) further demonstrates Cyrus’political desire that drove his intentions towards creating an empire. For instance, Herodotus (1.189) describes Cyrus’s advancement to the city of Babylon to stage a battle to conquer the city. The Persian King divided River Gyndes into 360 channels. As he advanced to the city of Babylon, the Babylonians marched out and waited for him, for they had prepared well for the battle. The conquest of Babylon was not religiously instigated but rather politically motivated.

In conclusion, religion was vital to the Persian people and their rulers. It was a symbol of leadership and provided a forum for addressing the beliefs of the Persians. During the formation of an empire, the Persian nations observed significant religious events. Religion is one aspect that guided the Babylonians. However, the Persian Kings advanced the creation of an empire by focusing on political motivation. They achieved goals by attacking and conquering other territories.

Works Cited

Herodotus, and Blaise Nagy. Herodotus Reader : Annotated Passages from Books I-IX of the Histories. Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2011.

Livius.org. “Behistun (3) – Livius.” Livius.org, 2019, www.livius.org/articles/place/behistun/behistun-3/.

—. “Cyrus Cylinder Translation – Livius.” Livius.org, 2020, www.livius.org/sources/content/cyrus-cylinder/cyrus-cylinder-translation/.

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