The ancient Near East was the location of several impressive empires. From about 1500 until 1075 BC, Egypt’s New Kingdom spanned from the Levant (modern-day Israel and Lebanon) down through Egypt into most of Nubia (modern-day Sudan). The Assyrians then conquered all of Mesopotamia in the early first millennium BC and ruled over the Levant and Egypt before their empire collapsed in the late seventh century BC. The Neo-Babylonians inherited much of the Assyrians’ empire and were the dominant political force in the region until they were replaced in the sixth century BC by the Achaemenid Persians.
During its height in the fifth century BC, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the most vast than any empire that came before it and comprised the most diverse collection peoples in the world. It stretched from Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) in the east to Egypt in the west and from Anatolia in the north to Arabia in the south. Within that immense geographic area people from scores of different ethnic groups, who spoke different languages and followed different religions, were all subjects to the “Great King” of the Achaemenid Empire. The manner in which the Achaemenid kings were able to pacify such a large and diverse population for so long has been a subject of interest for modern scholars for some time.
An examination of the ancient sources, combined with archaeological discoveries, reveals that the Achaemenid kings followed a “hands-off” policy when it came to the cultures of their foreign subjects. The Achaemenids appointed satraps in the conquered provinces to collect taxes and to mitigate rebellious activity, but they left the native religious cults unmolested for the most part and sometimes even participated as a show of good faith. Since religion was of paramount importance in the ancient Near East, this policy ensured that that Achaemenid Empire would be the most enduring until the Romans conquered the Mediterranean and Near East about 500 years later.