The Age of the Great Kings


By Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

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A stunning portrait of the magnificent splendor and enduring legacy of ancient Persia 
The Achaemenid Persian kings ruled over the largest empire of antiquity, stretching from Libya to the steppes of Asia and from Ethiopia to Pakistan. From the palace-city of Persepolis, Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and their heirs reigned supreme for centuries until the conquests of Alexander of Macedon brought the empire to a swift and unexpected end in the late 330s BCE. 
In Persians, historian Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones tells the epic story of this dynasty and the world it ruled. Drawing on Iranian inscriptions, cuneiform tablets, art, and archaeology, he shows how the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the world’s first superpower—one built, despite its imperial ambition, on cooperation and tolerance. This is the definitive history of the Achaemenid dynasty and its legacies in modern-day Iran, a book that completely reshapes our understanding of the ancient world.



Line Drawings

1. A Greek hoplite prepares to violate a Persian soldier. ‘Eurymedon Vase’, Attic red-figure oinochoe, a wine jug attributed to the circle of the Triptolemos Painter, c.460 bce. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.

2. Cyrus I of Anshan defeats his enemies. Seal impression (PFS 93*).

3. Winged and crowned apkallu (guardian) from the gateway into the garden-palace of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.

4. The Bisitun Relief, a pictorial imagining of the victory of Darius the Great.

5. The Great King, in his guise as a Persian ‘hero’, kills a mythical monster (part lion, part eagle, part scorpion) representing the chaos of ‘drauga’ (the Lie). From a door jamb of the Hall of a Hundred Columns, Persepolis.

6. Seal impression of Parnakka (PFS 9).

7. Seal impression of Zishshawish (PFS 83*).

8. Second seal impression of Parnakka (PFS 16*).

9. Second seal impression of Zishshawish (PFS 11).

10. Gold daric showing an image of a Great King armed with a bow and arrow and a spear, 460 bce. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Public Domain).

11. Impression of a cylinder seal depicting a female audience scene. Possibly from Susa, c .490 bce. Louvre, Paris.

12. Impression from a seal belonging to Rashda, the chief steward of the household of Irdabama, the mother of Darius the Great (PFS 535).

13. Impression of a seal belonging to Artystone (PFS 38).

14. Impression of a seal belonging to Shalamana, chief steward to Artystone (PFS 535).

15. Detail taken from the so-called ‘Treasury Relief’ at Persepolis; the Great King and crown prince are shown in royal audience.

16. Two Magi, their mouths covered, conduct sacrificial rituals at an altar. They hold wands of balsam wood. From Dascylium, c .450 bce. Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul.

17. A seal impression depicting Xerxes decorating a tree with offerings of jewellery. Musée des Armures, Brussels (SXe).

18. A seal impression of a Great King killing a Greek hoplite. This was probably produced in Asia Minor and is carved in a ‘Greek’ style.

19. Seal impression depicting a Persian soldier killing nomadic warriors. Ahuramazda hovers above the scene. British Museum.

20. Seal impression of Artaxerxes I shown as the master of Egypt. Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Colour Plates

1. Darius the Great worships Ahuramazda in front of a fire altar. He is lifted up on a takht (throne bench), supported by representatives of the empire. Tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-i Rustam. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

2. Huge cruciform-shaped royal tombs carved into the rock face at Naqsh-i Rustam. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

3. The modest remains of Cyrus’ magnificent garden-palace at Pasargadae. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

4. Sculpted stone flowers and plants depicted on the walls of Persepolis remind us of the Persian obsession for gardens and gardening. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

5. The Cyrus Cylinder: antiquity’s most egregious PR exercise. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

6. Glazed bricks adorn Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, built by Nebuchadnezzar II. Dragons and bulls strut and snort and protect the sacred city. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

7. The vast spectacle that is Persepolis easily ranks among the greatest ruins of antiquity. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

8. Carved high into the rock face at Mount Bisitun are the inscription and relief which record Darius I’s version of his accession to the throne. His account is a masterpiece of alternative facts. Photograph by Keivan Mahmoudi.

9. Enormous human-headed winged bulls stand guard at Xerxes’ magnificent Gate of All Nations at Persepolis. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

10. The eastern staircase of the Apadana at Persepolis is richly carved with human, animal, and plant figures. They were once painted in vivid colours. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

11. An over-life-size, now headless, statue of Darius the Great was once part of a pair. Made in Egypt, but moved to Susa by Xerxes, the statue was unearthed at the royal gateway into the Susa palace in 1972. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

12. A small turquoise head found at Persepolis depicts a royal woman, or perhaps a young man, or maybe a eunuch. It is impossible to be certain. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

13. Carved into a door jamb at the palace of Darius in Persepolis is this elegant figure of a young eunuch. He carries a perfume flask and a towel. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

14. Beautifully rendered human-headed sphinx from Persepolis. Photograph by Pejman Akbarzadeh.

15. A delegation of Lydians brings gifts of tableware, jewellery, and horses to the Great King. Persepolis, eastern staircase of the Apadana. Photograph by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

16. Syrians offer gifts of textiles and shaggy-fleeced rams. Persepolis, eastern staircase of the Apadana. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

17. A Persian courtier leads an Armenian diplomat by the hand. The gift he brings the king is a stocky Nisaean horse. Persepolis, eastern staircase of the Apadana. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

18. A Bactrian leads a grumpy camel by a rope. Persepolis, eastern staircase of the Apadana. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

19. A silver dish belonging to Artaxerxes I. A cuneiform inscription in Old Persian runs around the interior of the rim and reads: ‘Artaxerxes, the Great King, King of Kings, King of Lands, son of Xerxes the king, Xerxes son of Darius the king, the Achaemenid: in his house this silver bowl was made’. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1947. (Open Access – CCo).

20. A silver rhyton (a drinking vessel with a spout at the bottom) in the shape of a kneeling ram ibex. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Norbert Schimmel Trust, 1989. (Open Access – CCo).

21. A colourful glazed-brick wall panel from Susa depicting royal bodyguards, or ‘Immortals’. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.

22. The Sasanian monarchs associated themselves with the Achaemenids by carving huge reliefs close to the tombs of their illustrious predecessors at Naqsh-i Rustam. Photograph by Laurent Galbrun.


Persepolis 488 bce

If now you should think: ‘How many are the countries which King Darius held?’, look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne, then shall you know, then shall it become known to you: the spear of the Persian man has gone forth far; then shall it become known to you: the Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia.

Inscription from the tomb façade of Darius the Great

At the Nowruz festival in the spring of 488 bce, the time in which the Persians celebrated their New Year with feasting, partying, and gift-giving, Darius, Great King, King of Kings, King of All Lands, the Achaemenid, sat on his throne in the heart of his palace-city of Persepolis and magnanimously received the homage of his empire. Huge bronze trumpets ripped the air with triumphant fanfares and an orchestra of drums, cymbals, and sistra, accompanied by harps and lyres, created a rhythmic march which heralded the commencement of the glittering ceremonies that were central to the joyful festival. Foreign diplomats had travelled from far and wide to Persepolis in order to bring Darius their tribute: from Libya they came, from Pakistan, from the southern Eurasian Steppe, Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and India; they came carrying gold, turquoise, lapis lazuli, wool tapestries, silk coats, cotton tunics, and spices, and leading horses, camels, sheep, and even lions into the lofty throne room. They prostrated themselves on the floor in abject humility in front of the Great King, grasped the hem of his robe, and loyally kissed his feet.

Darius the Great took enormous satisfaction in surveying his empire in this way, as ambassadors and diplomats paraded before him, one delegation following another in strict formation, displaying the bounty of so many far-off lands. He must have smiled at his success, for he was indeed a mighty king, the unrivalled ruler of the Seven Climes. The evidence of his prowess was right there, marching before his eyes. So what if squalid little Greece had avoided capture and remained out of reach? There would be other opportunities to bring that wretched outpost of civilisation under heel. Besides, proof of the success of his empire-building was parading before him, and if evidence were needed of its good order and efficiency, Darius only had to observe the spectacular – and very well-disciplined – presentation ceremony in which his subject peoples so readily participated. For they were not humiliated slaves, thrust to the ground in oppression and trembling in terror before their overlord, but willing partners in a glorious imperial enterprise. They enthusiastically offered Darius their loyalty, their service, and their tribute. Or so he chose to believe.

The diplomatic gift-giving ceremony was so intrinsic to his understanding of empire that Darius had it represented in painted stone reliefs on the staircases which led up to his massive throne hall at Persepolis, the so-called Apadana. At nearby Naqsh-i Rustam, on the façade of his rock-face tomb, which he had commissioned in preparedness for the day when it would inevitably be needed, Darius had his artists sculpt a variation on the same theme. He was shown in the act of worshipping his divine protector, the god Ahuramazda, standing on a throne platform (a takht, as it was known in Persian) which was raised high above the heads of representatives of the different peoples of the empire in a joyous act of reciprocal collaboration. It was a visual celebration of the diversity of Darius’ empire. An inscription carved into the rock in Old Persian cuneiform lettering invited the viewer to count the figures who represented the various geographical regions which made up the empire (each one clothed in ‘national costume’ to make the point clearer). To make sure that none were missed, the artist carefully labelled each of them:

This is the Persian; this is the Mede; this the Elamite; this is the Parthian; this is the Areian; this is the Bactrian; this is the Sogdian; this is the Chorasmian; this is the Drangianian; this is the Arachosian; this is the Sattagydian; this is the Gandaran; this is the Indian; this is the drug-drinking Saca; this is the Pointed-Hat Saca; this is the Babylonian; this is the Assyrian; this is the Arab; this is the Egyptian; this is the Armenian; this is the Cappadocian; this is the Sardian; this is the Ionian; this is the Scythian from across the sea; this is the Thracian; this is the sun-hat-wearing Ionian; this is the Libyan; this is the Nubian. This is the man from Maka. This is the Carian. (DNe)

The royal rhetoric propounded on Darius’ tomb emphasised the notion that all conquered nations were united in service to him, the Great King, a warrior king whose ‘spear has gone forth far’, whose laws they obeyed, and whose majesty they upheld. Darius the Great was thusly lauded not only as the ‘Great King’ and ‘King of Kings’, but also ‘King of countries containing all kinds of men’, ‘King of many countries’, as well as ‘King in this great earth far and wide’. All subject peoples were put under Darius’ rule and he made it clear that he would tolerate no trouble or brook no resistance: ‘What I said to them,’ he stated with gravitas, ‘that they did, as was my desire.’ Yet by projecting an image of harmonious cooperation, Darius propounded that his empire worked best when it pulled together and was unified in purpose. The empire functioned well when all the peoples he ruled bought into his notion of ‘family’. When they cooperated, they unequivocally benefited from the security of a Pax Persica – a ‘Persian Peace’.

In the Nowruz celebrations of 488 bce, when the 62-year-old Darius sat upon his throne and received the ambassadors’ homage and accepted their much-valued gifts, he was accompanied by his son and chosen successor, Xerxes. This young man, good-looking, independently minded, and pious, had already served in the empire’s administration as a satrap, or regional governor, in Parthia, where he had honed his skills as a bureaucrat (there was nothing Darius admired more than a good record-keeper) and as a judge. Aged thirty, Xerxes was now back at court at his father’s side and was functioning as the Achaemenid heir-elect. He was not Darius’ eldest son, however; nor was he even a second son. No, for Darius had many sons who were much older than Xerxes. These men had been born to the numerous women of his harem, but Xerxes was the first boy born to Darius after he had ascended Persia’s throne and so it was fitting that the Achaemenid empire should pass to him, the first royal baby born into the purple. Besides, through his esteemed and clever mother, Atossa, Xerxes carried the blood of Cyrus the Great in his veins; this alone qualified him, more than any of his brothers, for the kingship. Darius was confident that the Achaemenid line would flourish under Xerxes, whose own principal consort, Amestris, had already borne a brood of healthy boys and who herself was to prove to be a contentious dynastic matriarch. In the spring of 488 bce the Achaemenid family’s future was secure.


This is a history of ancient Persia. It is unlike other histories of Persia (not that there have been many). This history uses genuine, indigenous, ancient Persian sources to tell a very different story from the one we might be familiar with, the one moulded around ancient Greek accounts. This story is told by the Persians themselves. It is Persia’s inside story. It is the Persian Version of Persia’s history.

What emerges is new. Far from being the barbarians of the Greek imagination, the Persians emerge here as culturally and socially sophisticated, economically strong, militarily powerful, and intellectually gifted. The Persian Version (a phrase I borrow from the title of a 1945 ‘conflict poem’ by Robert Graves) grounds us in a new reality. It provides us with an original, sometimes startling, understanding of Persia’s place in antiquity and highlights Iran’s contribution to world civilisation.

In this book, we will travel through time and space, plotting the rise, spread, and consolidation of the Persian empire from its modest beginnings as a tribal society in south-western Iran to the time it dominated the earth as history’s first great superpower. We will examine the lives of its monarchs, the Great Kings of Persia, the autocratic rulers of the mighty Achaemenid family, and explore the way in which dynastic politics affected the governance of the empire at large. As we encounter a rich panoply of memorable characters – kings, queens, eunuchs, soldiers, prisoners, tax-collectors, and concubines – we will pause to explore the world they inhabited: their religious ideas, their political thoughts, their territorial aspirations. We will discover how and where they lived, what they ate, how they dressed, what they thought, and how they died. This book is both a political history of ancient Iran’s first great empire and a socio-cultural exploration of the world of the Persians.

The creation of the Persian empire made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West and prepared the ground for the later empires of antiquity. Its importance in the conception of what a successful world-empire should be cannot be overstated. The Persian empire opened up, for the first time in history, an international dialogue, for, by and large, the Persians were enlightened despots. They employed a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards their imperial authority. Unlike the Romans or the British who were to follow them as enthusiastic imperialists, the Persians had no desire to impose their language upon conquered peoples. British settlers, soldiers, merchants, and administrators carried the Queen’s English to every continent and forced it on captive nations. From Britannia to Syria, the Romans employed Latin as the language of business, finance, and law and order; to be anybody in the Roman empire, Latin was required. The Persians never forced their language on subject peoples. They preferred to utilise local languages for their decrees and they employed Aramaic as a form of lingua franca throughout the imperial territories to help facilitate effective – unbiased – communication. In the realm of religion, too, the Persian kings were careful to appear as active upholders of local cults, if only to ensure control of the wealthy sanctuaries and the adherence of powerful priesthoods. Even in small administrative regions, the Persians granted temple privileges and acknowledged the support their local gods had given them. Nor was a Persian ‘look’ imposed upon the architecture of the empire in the way that, under the Romans and the British, a visual brand was employed across their realms. This remarkably modern and enlightened mindset can be summed up by a single Old Persian word that Darius the Great used to describe his empire: vispazanānām – ‘multicultural’.

Ancient Persian imperial inscriptions delight in emphasising the diversity of the empire (although they always privilege Persia at its heart). As an inscription of Darius puts it, ‘this is the kingdom which I hold, from the Saka who live beyond Sogdiana, from there all the way as far as Ethiopia, from India, from there all the way as far as Sparda’ (DPh). Another text, found at Persepolis, demarcates Persia as the centre of the world, but shows that the empire was bestowed on Darius as a gift by Ahuramazda, ‘the Wise Lord’, the chief deity of the Persian pantheon, who entrusted the king with this most precious present:

Ahuramazda is a great god. He made Darius king and gave to King Darius the kingship of this wide earth with many lands in it – Persia, Media, and the other lands of other tongues, of the mountains and the plains, of this side of the ocean and the far side of the ocean, and of this side of the desert and the far side of the desert. (DPg)

Darius and his successors controlled an empire which stretched out of Persia to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and to India in the east. It extended south to the Gulf of Oman and far north into southern Russia. The empire encompassed Ethiopia and Libya, northern Greece and Asia Minor, Afghanistan, and the Punjab up to the Indus River. It was rich in countless farmlands. Barley, dates, lentils, and wheat were grown, and the lands of the empire groaned with precious materials – copper, lead, gold, silver, and lapis lazuli. There was no kingdom on earth to rival its wealth.

The Persians ruled the largest of all ancient-world empires. All more remarkable then is its rise to greatness. It ascended out of a minuscule tribal territory in what is now the modern province of Fārs in south-west Iran. In the Old Persian language, the area was known as ‘Pārs’ or ‘Pārsa’. This was later heard by the ancient Greeks as ‘Persis’ and it is that name which has come down to us as ‘Persia’. The ruling family of the Persian empire, the focus of this book, was the Achaemenids, who took their name from an eponymous founder, ‘Achaemenes’, an alleged ancestor of both Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. ‘Achaemenes’ was also a Greek rendering of a Persian name: ‘Haxāmanish’, which in turn was derived from the Old Persian words haxā-, ‘friend’, and manah, ‘thinking power’. Formed of a patronymic, the dynasty was known to the speakers of Old Persian as ‘Haxāmanishiya’ – ‘Achaemenids’.


  • “In his effort to give ‘ear to a genuine ancient Persian voice,’ Llewellyn-Jones synthesizes what can be gleaned from artifacts, inscriptions and fragmentary accounts… The dead, Llewellyn-Jones argues convincingly, have been snubbed long enough.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “A gripping and more Persian-centric story…Llewellyn-Jones is very good at righting the record.”—Sunday Times
  • “A lively and highly readable revisionist history of the rule of the Persian ‘Great Kings.’”—Literary Review
  • “Meticulously researched, Persians tells the extraordinary story of this superpower of the ancient world. In a narrative that stretches back thousands of years and across vast stretches of land, Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones presents a skillful and engaging history of the Achaemenid dynasty.”—All About History
  • “There is a long legacy of misinformation around ancient Persian empires, the lives of its leaders, and greater Persian society. However, by examining the artifacts and monuments that remain, historian Llewellyn-Jones brings forth a view of ancient Persia that is rich in tradition and historical significance.”—Library Journal
  • “Immersive… Llewellyn-Jones expertly illuminates the decentralized, multicultural nature of the Achaemenid empire and offers valuable perspective on the modern Middle East, where the great kings of ancient Persia still feature in Iran’s national self-image. This is a valuable contribution to the understanding of ‘history’s first great superpower.’"—Publishers Marketplace
  • “A brilliant feat of resurrection, restoring to the Persian Empire the color, brilliance, and complexity that renders it one of the most fascinating and influential of ancient civilizations, and of which for so long, in most histories of antiquity, it has been bled.”—Tom Holland, author of Dominion
  • "Always lively, often challenging, this is a very welcome exploration of one of the greatest empires and cultures of the ancient world. Highly recommended."—Adrian Goldsworthy, author of Philip and Alexander
  • “Superb, authoritative, and compelling, a fresh history of the Persian Great Kings that combines exuberant storytelling with outstanding scholarship that is both entertaining and bracing revisionist, filled with a cast of ruthless conquerors, queens, eunuchs, and concubines that brings the Persian world blazingly to life through Persian instead of the usual Greek sources. The result is a tour de force.”—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography
  • “Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones brings the men, women, and rich history of ancient Persia alive in technicolor splendor with energy, passion, and real understanding. This is immersive time travel of the highest order.”—Samira Ahmed, journalist and broadcaster
  • Persians is a wonderful introduction to the ancient world’s largest and most consequential empire. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is one of the foremost scholars of Achaemenid history, and he gives us a gripping account of the history of ancient Persia, tracking how a small tribal society in southwestern Iran came to be the world’s first superpower.”
     —Touraj Daryaee, University of California, Irvine
  • “This is an engaging, pacy account of the Persian Empire which is based on a rich range of sources. Going right up to the use of Cyrus the Great in modern Iran, the ‘Persian Version’ on which Professor Lloyd-Jones focuses has much to tell us about how different cultures create history and use it to tell their stories.”—Helen King, professor emerita, Classical Studies, The Open University
  • “A masterful account and evocation of the history and culture of the first true world empire.”—Aidan M Dodson, Hon Professor of Egyptology, University of Bristol
  • “For too long, the world of Achaemenid Persia has been viewed through the eyes of often hostile foreigners. In this compelling investigation, Llewellyn-Jones draws on a wealth of evidence—from imposing cliff-cut inscriptions to tiny seal-rings—to reveal the Persian Version of its empire’s stirring history, far removed from the traditional stereotype. Spotlighting not just the royal dynasty but a wealth of other characters (including ambitious courtiers, a wily Egyptian administrator, a Greek slave-girl enmeshed in Persia’s great power game) he brings to vivid life a sophisticated, highly complex, tightly run society with an acute sense of its place within the cosmos, where devotion to the Truth could coexist with cruelty and violence, and imperialism with cultural and religious tolerance. Clear, convincing, and meticulously researched, Persians: The Age of the Great Kings is not just a timely reassessment of the world’s first superpower—it’s a wonderfully accessible page-turner to boot.”—David Stuttard, author of A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives

On Sale
Apr 12, 2022
Page Count
448 pages
Basic Books

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

About the Author

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones holds the chair in ancient history at Cardiff University. The author of Persians, he has published widely on ancient history and lives in Taff’s Well, Wales.  

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