"Persepolis is captured and burned!"
So cried the swiftest of couriers who sped the news to the centers of civilization. To the world of 2,300 years ago, the message's import was simple yet shattering: the Persian Empire, for 200 years the vastest realm the world had known, was no more.
The story of the destruction of Persepolis is the capstone of two centuries of heroic leaders and famous battles familiar to every school child. In their own time, the four kings who spanned those 200 years were called "the Great" by their subjects. History books ever since have agreed. The battles, both land and sea, that led to the fall of Persepolis still intrigue military strategists.
The roll call of kings rightfully begins with Cyrus the Great, creator of the vast empire. In the fifth century B.C., Cyrus pushed his dominion outward from the borders of Persia, known then as "Parsa." The imperial domain thus created dwarfed older Middle Eastern sovereignties and was wisely ruled by Cyrus.
Cyrus died in 529 B.C. Some of the custodians of his empire were talented leaders; others allowed discord and revolt. Darius I, called "the Great," was Cyrus' son-in-law and cast in the same mold. Persian nobles chose Darius as king in 521, because Darius, like Cyrus, belonged to the Achaemenid house, rulers of Persia since the seventh century B.C.
With Darius' firm hand over the Middle East, order was restored in Babylon, the administration of the Empire was reorganized, taxation overhauled, roads built and a postal system introduced. To serve as a showcase for the power and pride of his reign, Darius commissioned the finest artists of the realm to build a palace city. Near what is now Shiraz, in southwestern Iran, Persepolis began to rise in a mountainous setting that offered safety and privacy.
Darius was not to see his palace city completed. Far to the west, in Greece, a new power challenged the conquests of the Persian kings. By 492 B.C., the struggle for Middle Eastern supremacy was under way. At Marathon two years later, Darius' army was defeated by the Greeks, and a courier named Pheidippides ran 22 miles to Athens to spread word of the victory. While sculptors and laborers were still at work on half-finished Persepolis, Darius died in the midst of preparations for another expedition against the Greeks.
Xerxes I, Darius' son, accepted his father's ambitions as his own. He continued both the struggle against Greece and the building of Persepolis. In gray marble symmetry, the palace city rose on a stone platform 40 feet high, 1,500 feet long and 900 wide. Every building demonstrated the eclectic Persian taste in architecture, combined and refined with the best of Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian styles.
For a time the war against Greece went well for Xerxes the Great as his legions marched through Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly. After a setback at Thermopylae, the Persian army captured and burned Athens. But the defeat of his fleet at the classic battle of Salamis, a favorite among naval historians, forced Xerxes to return home, where he was put to death by the captain of his guards.
A succession of court intrigues brought Darius III to the king's throne in Persepolis in 336 B.C. He was not destined to be called "the Great." As one historian put it, "Cyrus and Darius created Persia, Xerxes inherited it, his successors destroyed it."
The Persian Empire was ripe for plucking. The Greeks, led by Alexander of Macedonia, were on the march eastward. Darius III was no match as statesman or soldier for the youthful Alexander, whom history would know as Alexander the Great. At Granicus, the Greeks lost 115 men, the Persians 20,000. As Alexander pushed deeper into the Persian Empire, Darius marshaled 600,000 warriors, with 600 mules and 300 camels to carry the royal purse. At Issus, 30,000 Greeks methodically destroyed 110,000 Persians when Darius blundered into battle on ground where only a small fraction of his hordes could fight at one time.
In quick succession Alexander overran Babylon, Jerusalem, Egypt and Tyre. Spurning a peace offer from Darius, he thrust his legions straight into the heart of the Persian Empire—Persepolis. No one knows what prompted Alexander to plunder and burn the splendid palace city. Perhaps it was out of revenge for Xerxes' burning of Athens, or perhaps he ordered it, as Plutarch suggests, to satisfy the whim of a court lady named Tha'is. Whatever the reason, the glories of Persepolis were consumed in flame.
Alexander completed the destruction of Persian power at the battle of Arbela. Once again the superbly trained Greek army, numbering 7,000 cavalry and 40,000 infantry, overwhelmed a Persian force 20 times greater than itself. Darius was lulled by his own generals, and Alexander reorganized Persia into a province of the Macedonian Empire. But Persepolis was never rebuilt.
Alexander died of fever in Babylon just seven years after he ordered the sacking and burning of the Persian palace city. The curtain had fallen on the 200-year drama launched by Cyrus. With its grandeur reduced to solitary columns and fallen sculpture, its halls empty of tribute-bearing envoys from all the known world, Persepolis sleeps away the ages. But modern visitors who come upon the ruins in the mountains of Iran find that even in disarray the once proud capital still stands as impressive testimony to the majesty of that city from a long-ago age of heroes.