Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: Ancient Persia

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

Learn about the complex history of Persia (modern Iran and beyond).

Inhabited for 100,000 years ago, Persia developed complex urban society under the Elamites. The Medes were the first to politically unify the region in 625 BC. Cyrus the Great subsequently founded the Persian Empire in 550 BC. His heirs would expand Persian power to incorporate much of the ancient Middle East, creating a multi-ethnic Commonwealth that lasted 200 years. The Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanid Empires produced important architectural and artistic traditions which would have long lasting influences in the region.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss the chronology of Persia
  • explore the material culture of ancient Persia
  • describe the Zoroastrian religion
  • discuss why the Sassanid’s were unable to withstand the Arab invaders of the 7th Century.


1. Iran from the earliest time to The Medes

The Iranian Plateau has a rich cultural heritage dating back to the Middle Palaeolithic times when the Neanderthals lived in caves. A Neolithic farming economy begins around 8000 BC at settlements like Tepe Sialk. In Bronze Age strata, archaeologists have found the remains of the ancient Elamites at sites like Susa. The Indo-Europeans arrived in the early Iron Age and their first great kingdom was that of the Medes with its capital at Ecbatana.

2. The rise fo the Persian empire

Cyrus the Great overthrew the Medes, going on to conquer the Babylonians and the Lydians to create the mighty Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC). Cyrus’s new capital was at Pasargadae in central Iran. His son Cambyses would conquer Egypt but die shortly afterwards. Darius I consolidated the Empire and began construction of a new state capital at Persepolis. Stunning works of craftsmanship were created under the patronage of the new royal regime.

3. The decline and fall of the Persian empire

Persian King Xerxes attempted the conquest of Greece but failed to incorporate it into the Empire. From the mid 5th Century BC the Persian Empire went into a century of slow decline, and the edges of the Empire broke away. Between 334-331 BC the Macedonian King Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and central Iran became incorporated into the Hellenistic world as part of the Seleucid Kingdom. During this period Greek culture was infused throughout Iran.

4. The Parthians

The Arsacid Parthian Dynasty (247 BC – AD 224) gradually assumed control of the Iranian Plateau, adopting the architecture, art and religion of their predecessors, claiming to be the heirs of the Achaemenids. Westward expansion saw repeated conflict with Armenia and the Roman Empire for control of Syria. Parthian history is known mainly from external sources but there is a rich heritage of archaeological remains.

5. The Sassinads

In AD 224 the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V was overthrown by Ardashir I of Fars who established the Sassanid Empire (AD 224-651). The early Sassanid rulers successfully competed against the Roman Empire and even captured the Emperor Valerian. Ongoing conflict would continue with the Byzantine Empire for control of the Middle East. Sassanid art and architecture would be highly influential in medieval times.

Intended audience

Interested members of the public.

Delivery style

  • Five interactive lectures delivered over one-day
  • Talks and discussion
  • Topic areas will be illustrated by relevant maps, plans and photographs


You will be provided with course handouts in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

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