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THE DIMENSIONS OF THE SUBJECT
The Median and Achaemenid periods define a critical disjunction in history. Some would argue that the ancient Near East ended when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon; others assert that the Persian empire was itself the final expression of the old Near East, which died only when Alexander burned Persepolis. Whichever view one prefers it remains true that significant and lasting changes in the historical course of both the Near East and Europe are associated with the earliest rise of the Iranians to power.
First, an entirely new people had arrived on the scene, with two notable effects. For the first time the Iranian plateau became politically unified, shattering the old balance of power within the Near East, a balance whose principal weights, with rare exceptions, had always been Mesopotamia and Egypt. What was true politically was also manifest culturally in the extent to which this new linguistic and ethnic group, with innovative forms of government, society and art, made its mark on the shape of civilization in the Near East.
Second, the Achaemenid empire achieved a greater quantitative and qualitative unification of the Near East than had any previous multinational polity. For the first time people of Central Asia beyond the Oxus owed allegiance to the same government as did Libyans, and a remarkable number and variety of ethnic groups experienced for something over two hundred years both the benefits and drawbacks of central authority. It has been argued, perhaps convincingly, that the Achaemenid Persians created the first real empire in the Mediterranean World.
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