Cyrus (Kurush) is the son of a Persian chieftain and a Median princess who united the various Persian tribes and overthrew the Median monarch sometime around 550 B.C.E. Over the course of two decades, charismatic Cyrus (r. 550-530 B.C.E.) redrew the map of western Asia, performing feats such as controlling all of Anatolia, sweeping into Mesopotamia, and integrating with Babylonian cultures. Cyrus is significant because he was the most powerful and influential Persian king of all time, and by expanding his kingdom to great sizes while assimilating with other cultures he demonstrates how one can gain political legitimacy through respect and wise usage of power.
Darius I (Darayavaush) succeeded Cyrus from 522-486 B.C.E. He extended Persian control eastward as far as the Indus Valley and westward into Europe, where he bridged the Danube River and chased the nomadic Scythian peoples north of the Black Sea, while also promoting the development of maritime routes. Darius I is significant because his success in crushing many early challenges to his rule was a testimony to his skill, energy, and ruthlessness, illustrating how political legitimacy can also be maintained through undeterred conquest of other competitors.
Xerxes (r. 486-465 B.C.E.) succeeded Darius and soon turned his attention to the Greeks, setting out with a huge invasionary force of the Persian army in 480 B.C.E. Crossing the Hellespont and journeying across Thrace, the Persian throng descended into central and southern Greece, and Xerxes sent messengers to the Greek states bidding them to offer up "earth and water" as tokens of submission. Xerxes is significant because he took care of the rising situation in Greece, thus showing how by taking enemies into submission one can gain political legitimacy.
Satraps are Persian governors, each in charge of one of the twenty empire provinces created by Darius I. Satraps are likely to be related or connected by marriage to the royal family; their most important duty is collecting and sending tribute to the king. Satraps are significant because they have the important role of taking care of precious metals, and may have been related to the eventual downfall of the economy due to hoarding, taxation, and official corruption of the goods.
Susa was the ancient capital of Elam, in southwest Iran near the present-day border with Iraq. It was to Susa that Greeks and others went with requests and messages for the king, but it took a group of Greek ambassadors at least three months to make the journey to Susa, totaling up the entire travel time to at least a year. Susa is significant because the dedication of an ambassador to partake in the year-long journey to Susa indicates the administrative government's loyalty to the king.
Persepolis (Parsa) is the location of a ceremonial capital constructed by Darius. It consisted of an artificial platform, with palaces, audience halls, treasury buildings, and barracks built on top. Persepolis is significant because its luxurious infrastructure served as an advertisement of the king's wealth and power, indicating another example of gaining political legitimacy through displaying one's prosperity.
Zoroastrianism was one of the great religions of the ancient world—it preached belief in one supreme deity, held humans to a high ethical standard, and promised salvation. Its main god was Ahuramazda, and the religion itself traveled across western Asia with the advance of the Persian Empire, and may have exerted a major influence on Judaism and indirectly on Christianity. Zoroastrianism is significant because it illustrated the Persians' respect for nature and superior forces, and also their positive outlook towards life.
During the Archaic period (800-480 B.C.E.), Greece consisted of hundreds of independent political entities known as polis (city-state), consisting of an urban center and the rural territory it controlled. Important characteristics of the polis include a hilltop acropolis as an emergency refuge, an agora (gathering place), government buildings, an open marketplace, and fortification walls. The polis are significant because they show the central government structure in Greece, as well as the fierce independence of different city-states that eventually lead to welfare and internal collapse of the country.
Athens, in comparison with other Greek city-states, possessed an unusually large and populous territory, making it one of the two preeminent Greek city-states of the late Archaic and Classical periods. By 500 B.C.E., it had a population of 300,000 people, and was suitable for trading because of its close location to the sea. Athens is significant because its port-convenient location and large population proved advantageous in gaining power as a city-state
Sparta differed from other city-states in that instead of attacking other polis and gaining territory, it maintained an active military and isolated itself from the economic, political, and cultural renaissance taking place in the Archaic Greek world. Spartans practiced an isolationist and cautious foreign policy, training skilled soldiers and trying to maintain peace. Sparta is a significant city-state because it took up a completely different method of gaining power and respect by developing its own unique culture and military separate from outside influences.
Hoplites are heavily armored infantrymen who fought in close formation, developed in seventh century B.C.E. by the Greeks. They were protected by a helmet, a breastplate, and leg guards, and held a shield and a spear; also, the key concept of combat was to break open the enemy's line while holding close formation with other soldiers. Hoplites are significant because they demonstrate a more aggressive and efficient way of attacking, showing that Greeks are intent upon competition with other city-states and maintaining power.
In the mid-seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. in one city-state after another, an individual tyrant—a person who seized and held power in violation of the normal political institutions and traditions of the community—gained control. Greek tyrants were often disgruntled or ambitious members of the aristocracy, backed by the emerging middle class and played an important role as hoplite soldiers in local militias. Tyrants are significant because they demonstrate power (a recurring motif in ancient Greece) even in the individual states, and introduce a new method of getting political legitimacy through hereditary position.
Humanism—a valuing of the uniqueness, talents, and rights of the individual—developed in Archaic Greece and remains a central tenet of Western civilization. It emerged with the combination of individualism and focus on one's own power. Humanism is significant because it illustrates the strong focus upon the individual in ancient Greece, which is a stark contrast to the gloomy view on humans as opposed to gods in Mesopotamia.
Herodotus (ca. 485-425) is considered to be the "father of history", his main work being the Histories, published in mid-fifth century B.C.E. Although early parts of this work are filled with geographic and ethnographic reports, legends, and folktales, but in later sections Herodotus questions the cause between Greek and Persian rivalry, thus directing the all-purpose techniques of historia to the service of history in the modern sense of the term, narrowing the meaning of the word. Herodotus is significant because he completely changed the meaning of history to what we know it as today, focusing it upon the cause between events.
Plato was the disciple of Socrates (ca. 428-347 B.C.E.) who wrote down dialogues with Socrates as the protagonist, questioning the meaning of values; he also founded the Academy, a school where young men could pursue a higher course of education. His philosophical views in brief were that our own sensible world is but a pale reflection of the "initiates" in the world of ideas—everything derives from a perfect form. Plato is significant because not only did he preserve Socrates' accomplishments by writing them down (preventing them from being lost forever), but developed a new way of philosophy that changed the outlook we have of the world.
Socrates was a humble philosopher (ca. 470-399 B.C.E.) who practiced the art of discourse, or conversing with other people and by way of asking questions, revealing the holes behind each person's thinking. However, he was brought to trial on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and not believing in the gods of the city; consequently, even though he denied the crime, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Socrates is significant because he believed in himself until the very end, never giving in to pressure and setting a future example for philosophers to come: the only thing one can know is that he knows nothing.
Pericles (ca. 495-429 B.C.E.), who dominated Athenian politics from 461 B.C.E. until his death, must have created an effective political organization that got out the vote on every important occasion. He focused on the assembly of all citizens and councils to maintain order. Pericles is significant because he created a successful political organization that served as a basis for our government council discussions.
The Persian Wars are two Persian attacks following the Ionian Revolt in early fifth century B.C.E. The first attack was led by Darius in 490 B.C.E., who dispatched a naval fleet to punish Eretria and Athens; the second attack was led by Darius' son Xerxes, who summoned contingents from all parts of the Persian Empire in 480 B.C.E. to central and southern Greece, demanding tokens of submission. The Persian Wars are significant because they demonstrate the fierce rivalry between Greece and Persia, and each culture's determination to have power over the other, similar to the battles for domination in the world today.
In the late sixth century BCE, the Greek warship Pentekonter, powered by 50 rowers, was replaced by the trireme, a sleeker, faster vessel powered by 170 rowers. The design of the trireme measured about 115 by 15 ft., and was fragile; also, rowers using oars of different lengths and carefully positioned on three levels so as not to run afoul of one another were able to achieve short bursts of speed of up to seven knots. With the invention of the trireme, the Athenian navy became the best in the eastern Mediterranean, giving Athens an efficient way to project power father than with a citizen militia.
Historians call the epoch ushered in by the conquests of Alexander the "Hellenistic Age" (323-30 B.C.E.) because the lands in northeastern Africa and western Asia that came under Greek rule tended to be "Hellenized", or powerfully influenced by Greek culture. This was a period of large kingdoms with heterogeneous populations, great cities, powerful rulers, pervasive bureaucracies, and vast disparities in wealth between rich and poor, a stark contrast from the small, homogenous, and independent city-states of Archaic and Classical Greece. The Hellenistic Age is significant because it is a major landmark in the cultural and political change of Greece, illustrating the powerful effect a strong leader can have on his country.
The Ptolemaic dynasty was one of the three kingdoms that prevailed following Alexander's death. This group ruled Egypt (capital, Alexandria) and the people belonged to only one ethnic group and were fairly easily controlled because the vast majority of them were farmers living in villages alongside the Nile. The Ptolemies are significant because the location of their capital Alexandria near the westernmost branch of the Nile which is technically "beside Egypt" emphasizes the gulf between rulers and subjects.
Alexandria was one of the cities established by Alexander the Great in Egypt, and was the capital of the Ptolemaic period of the Hellenistic Age. The orientation and status of this city says much about Ptolemaic policies and attitudes: Memphis and Thebes, the capitals of ancient Egypt, were located upriver, but Alexandria was situated near to where the westernmost branch of the Nile runs into the Mediterranean Sea and clearly was meant to be a link between Egypt and the Mediterranean world. Alexandria is significant because it was located "beside Egypt", and emphasized the gulf between rulers and subjects.