6

Mechanics of Empire

Kings, Queens, and the Royal Court

The power and importance of the King is a recurring theme throughout the book, and the particular ideology that evolved from and shaped the King’s status will be discussed in a separate section (pp. 147–151). The King of kings was the sun around whom all else revolved. From his physical stature to his dress and presentation, all was carefully managed and controlled to highlight his august position. The King’s robe and accoutrements marked him from others, mainly by a special type of crown, a tiara called in Greek thekidaris. Most of our descriptive evidence comes from Greek sources, though the archaeological record – especially the sculptures from Persepolis – is of course of critical importance. Quintus Curtius Rufus (3.3.17–19) describes the King’s elaborate attire as including a purple tunic interwoven with white, a gold-embroidered cloak, and a gold belt from which he often wore a special dagger, called in Greek an akinakes. This dagger was one of Elamite-style, suggesting a carryover from the preceding period; remains of two scabbards have been found in Central Asia. Garb and accessories would differ, of course, depending on the occasion and whatever function (ceremonial, military, cultic) in which the King was engaged at that time. Some elements of the King’s wardrobe were not unique to him, such as the akinakes (Figure 6.1), the wearing of which signaled royal favor. The King and members of the nobility also frequently wore false beards and are portrayed with such in the iconography, a tradition that was very old. The King’s beard, though, was generally longer and more elaborate than others.

Figure 6.1 Dagger (akinakes) Worn by the King’s Weapon-Bearer on the Treasury Relief (and see Figure 7.1), Persepolis. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

The court apparatus of the King’s nobles, advisers, guardians, scribes, and a multitude of others, were all cogs in the imperial machine. They all worked toward the same goal, and all were dependent on each other for success. The King’s centrality was all-important – among other ways this is seen in battle, when the safety of the person of the King overrode other considerations – but nevertheless the King was dependent on an elite class of nobles for his power and successful government. But this dependence worked both ways: members of the nobility were absolutely dependent upon royal favor for their positions and prerogatives, and such could be removed. Herodotus tells the story of one of Darius’ helpers against the magus, Intaphernes, who overstepped his authority in dispensing punishment to some of Darius’ guards when they prevented Intaphernes from seeing the King (3.118–119). Darius viewed this act as a threat to his position, and Intraphernes was put to death, along with several members of his family.

Stunning displays of the disbursement of royal favor are found in descriptions of the royal table, elaborate feasts that involved veritable armies of attendants and entertainers as well as enormous quantities of food and drink. Numerous Greek and Roman sources refer to the phenomena, and Elamite and Babylonian documentation allude to the requisition of foodstuffs and other supplies.1 Gifts distributed, marks of royal favor, might include grants of land; special clothing, precious metalwork, or jewelry (markers of elite status); an akinakes; or any number of other objects, even bequests and favors. In the Intaphernes anecdote just mentioned, Herodotus specifically notes that Intaphernes used his akinakes to cut off the ears and noses – compare the similar punishments meted out by Darius as described in the Bisitun Inscription – of the King’s guards. That akinakes was a sign of high favor; it would of course been taken from Intaphernes immediately upon his arrest: not simply because it was a weapon but also for its symbolic significance, the loss of royal favor and the loss of his position.

The queen held a similarly august position to the King but one that is harder to track. The King could have several wives and concubines, but only one would be primary, the queen herself. She and the queen mother were prominent in a hierarchy that included secondary wives, concubines, and palace staff. The royal women were enormously powerful and influential, but in ways that often defy the stereotypes rampant in Greek sources. Their influence was both social and bureaucratic, as documents from Persepolistestify to their range of landholdings and economic activity. The Persepolis Fortification tablets (see discussion later in this chapter) contain dozens of references to the royal women Irtashduna and Irdabama. These women controlled significant landholdings with large retinues of staff and servants, interacted constantly with high (male) officials on official and private business, and went on long journeys.2 Irtashduna has been identified with the Artystone of Greek sources, the daughter of Cyrus whom Darius married upon taking the throne. Irdabama appears to have been even more influential, another one of Darius’ wives or perhaps even his mother; she has not been confidently identified with any women named in the Greek tradition.

Direct influence of the royal women on royal policy or the like is anecdotal and stems mainly from the Greek tradition, more appropriate to the study of Greek literary tropes than Persian politics. Herodotus provides a good example when he attributes Darius’ decision to attack Greece to Queen Atossa’s influence (3.134), a scene that Herodotus nicely sets in the king and queen’s bedroom. One might compare Hera’s machinations to distract Zeus from the Trojan Wars (Iliad, Book 14, lines 300f.). Without a doubt the Persian court saw its share of court intrigue and jockeying for influence, but the particulars are difficult to assess.

Greek sources revel in a Persian court overflowing with sexual intrigue and, as a consequence of the projected dominance of the women and eunuchs, they portray an overarching sense of effeminacy. According to this perspective, the queens and concubines were sequestered, a perspective that (at least for royal women) does not match up with other evidence such as that for Irtashduna and Irdabama alluded to earlier in this chapter. Athenaeus, writing around 200 CE but attributing his information to a fourth-century BCE Greek writer named Heracleides, claims that the Persian kings slept all day in order to be awake all night to indulge in music and sex with his concubines. To note that this is exaggerated seems superfluous, but Greek and Roman audiences loved it. A similar perspective underlies the biblical Book of Esther, which hinges on finding a new queen, or favorite, a process that involves King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) vetting his numerous concubines to discover Esther.3

The Greek fascination with opposites and inversion also found ready application in the eunuchs of the Persian court. Eunuchs seem to play an outsized role in almost every aspect of court politics and intrigue. In Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (7.5.59–65), Cyrus the Great gives a long disquisition on eunuchs and their virtues for upholding royal security, an idealized justification of their existence and utility. Ctesias’ Persica also highlights eunuchs, especially their influence and prominent roles at court. Greek fascination with eunuchs and an overestimation (willful or not) of their influence did much to foster the widespread view of the Achaemenid Empire as effeminate and lacking vigor. Our sources attest to numerous instances of eunuchs in lower-level domestic staff positions, as attendants of princesses or concubines and tutors of royal children. Castration of young males who were to become eunuchs occurs usually in contexts of tribute or punishment, and only in exceptional cases did a eunuch rise to a significant position. One example is Hermotimus, who was highly honored (as Herodotus phrases it, 8.105) by Xerxes; but many questions remain about the historicity of this episode as well.

Eunuchs as portrayed in Greek sources more often than not correspond to literary prototypes, extremes exemplifying unwavering loyalty or base treachery. A certain eunuch Bagapates, prominent in Ctesias’ Persica (Fragment 13 §9, §13, §15–16, §23), typified both. Bagapates held an influential position under Cyrus and Cambyses, arranged for the magus to take Cambyses’ place, then helped Darius and his coconspirators to kill the magus, and in the end died after sitting beside Darius’ tomb for seven years. This is taken to mean that Bagapates served as the tomb’s caretaker in an utmost expression of loyalty. In light of dramatic twists and turns of his long career, one cannot help but view him as a literary composite to appeal to a Greek audience. Other examples abound. Not only were eunuchs liminal figures because of their physicality (as castrated males) but frequently because they were placed in the middle (literally and figuratively) of competing interests at the royal court. The excess of eunuchs in the Greek accounts may also be attributed to Greek conflation and confusion of official titles at the Achaemenid court. But there seems to be as many difficulties in the modern historiography on these issues as there are in the original source material. Achaemenid court titles, of course, would not have been Greek but rather Persian – or Assyrian, Babylonian, or Elamite for those labels and court functions inherited from their imperial predecessors. Uncertainty over translation of titles and the functions implied by them has magnified the confusion in identifying actual eunuchs named in the Classical sources.

Administration of the Empire

The Persians displayed their ingenuity in their organizational and administrative systems, adopted and adapted from their predecessors. Any study of the Empire’s administration starts with the King, whose power was absolute. He was the focal point of a complicated nexus of bureaucracy and personal relationships by which the Empire was ruled. A main difficulty in understanding the administration of the Achaemenid Persian Empire is the assessment of the kings’ so-called “dahyu-lists.” The Old Persian worddahyu (plural dahyU+0101va) is best understood in context – it may mean either “people” or “country,” and is usually translated as the former. The context is not always clear. The royal inscriptions vary in number of dahyU+0101va given. Some of these dahyU+0101va may have corresponded roughly to provincial territories within the preceding empires, territories that the Persians incorporated via conquest. In scholarly literature they are sometimes called “satrapy-lists” or the like.

There are several dahyu-lists from the inscriptions of Darius and one from Xerxes. Each list includes both peoples and places, the latter not necessarily synonymous with the boundaries of a formal satrapy. In Figure 6.2 they are generally listed as regions.4 It is not always clear whether a particular term (i.e., the name of a dahyu) refers to a group of people or the land in which they live, or both. For example, to most Persians the Greeks – living in hundreds of independent city-states in Ionia and Greece itself – were mostly indistinguishable, and they were labeled generically by the Old Persian word Yauna, a rendering of the word “Ionia.” There are many ambiguities and peculiarities; for example, it is not entirely clear to whom Darius refers by “those of the sea” (DB §6). Some lists (DPe and XPh) attempt to differentiate these fractious Yauna, distinguishing the Ionians who lived in the sea (islanders) from those who lived across the sea, whose location is not specified – north of the Black Sea, in parts of Thrace, in Greece proper? One group of Ionians is even identified by the type of hat the people wore (DNa §3). Scythians (Saka) were also sometimes differentiated by their taste in hats or their use of a particular beverage (haoma, associated with Zoroastrian ritual contexts). It becomes clear that classification was not necessarily consistent across these lists.

Figure 6.2 Lists of dahyU+0101va in Royal Inscriptions.

Some scholars have attempted, by comparing these dahyu-lists in Darius’ and Xerxes’ inscriptions, to track the territorial expansion or contraction of the Empire, but such attempts are often as vain as they are ingenious. Beyond the Bisitun Inscription, it is impossible to date any royal inscriptions with precision. That the descriptions of dahyU+0101va seem to vary – based on parameters that we do not fully understand – causes historians no small vexation. Many assume that Xerxes’ list (XPh §3) dates after his failed invasion of Greece. If so, it does not appear to have affected the inclusion of various Yauna in his list. We should not expect it to. Because these inscriptions are expressions of imperial ideology, one may infer that the lack of specificity (as we seek it) was not necessarily unintentional. In other words, these lists portray the King’s idealized perception of his dominion and do not necessarily delineate actual, imperial control, especially on the fringes of the Empire. For example, the territorial extent of the King’s dominion over the Scythians (OP Saka) is unclear. The King may have received gifts and tribute from these Scythians, but his view and their view on their formal incorporation into the Empire may have been different.

Tribute to the King and Coins

Herodotus 3.89–95 offers an overview of the Empire’s satrapies and their respective tributes, broken down into specific amounts. This passage is an important, if often misunderstood, piece of evidence for the Empire’s organization. Whether Herodotus’ tallied tribute – a total of 14,560 talents, an absolutely staggering sum of money into the billions of dollars in today’s terms, though any such conversions are extremely difficult and notoriously unreliable – has any basis in reality is open to debate. Significant components thereof were more likely to have been paid in kind rather than in coin or precious metal, so some of the numbers must be estimated equivalents.

On what was Herodotus’ list based? For a long time, this account formed the core of any discussion of Achaemenid satrapal organization, and it is certainly a starting point for assessing the extent and wealth of the Empire. Nonetheless, scholars are still divided over its interpretation to this day. Some view it as a reasonably coherent overview of the satrapy system but one that is heavily Hellenized and, as a consequence, contains several irregularities. Other scholars assert that it has no historical worth whatsoever and is, rather, entirely a creation of Herodotus based on Greek literary conventions, including those of Greek epic.5

Revenues of all sorts poured into the satrapal capitals and from there to the king. The assessment and collection of tribute, or revenues in general, was a complex system that is difficult to categorize succinctly. The organizational elements were attributed to Darius I, but even if he reformed the system there was certainly tribute collected by his predecessors; it was a long standing practice before the Achaemenids. Terminology is not always straightforward, since Herodotus distinguishes some peoples as having given gifts (Greek dU+0101ra) instead of tribute (Greek phoros and variants), such as the Ethiopians. The distinction may have been relative. Beyond this, tribute might also include additional elements such as troop levies and what we would term taxes: payments from royal holdings (granaries, fisheries, mines) either in kind or in coin, for the maintenance of government officials.

There was no one size fits all approach. A people called the Uxians, who lived in the mountains between Khuzistan and Fars, presumably had a special relationship with the King whereby they were given gifts not to harass the Persians, who could not control them. This perspective – which fits the Greek stereotype of the weakness of the Persian king – comes once again from later Greek sources (e.g., Arrian 3.17) and is misleading. A special relationship may have applied here through a gift exchange: to the effect that the Uxians retained their internal autonomy but acknowledged Persian suzerainty. Such an arrangement was hardly unique. A multitude of sources in Elamite, Babylonian, and Aramaic reveal the complexity of the system, the extent of Achaemenid reach and effective control.

The application of coinage to the payment of tribute is also a subject of frequent discussion, though, as noted, payment in kind or in weighted precious metals was more common. Coined money had been in use in Lydia and Greece for some time before Darius I, who appears to have been the first to command minting silver or gold royal coinage. We find the most references to Persian coins (and not only of Persian issue) in context of payments to Greek mercenaries in the later fifth and fourth centuries, although that usage was hardly exclusive. The most famous type was the gold daric: it portrayed the King in various poses as an archer, sometimes also with a spear (Figure 6.3), another striking image of the royal ideology. But this type of coin was worth a lot of money and would have been difficult to use in daily exchanges where, if coinage was used, it would have been in silver. Gold darics could be used in commerce, but they may have been primarily prestige items, doled out as a sign of royal favor.

Figure 6.3 Persian gold daric. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY.

Satraps and Provincial Personnel

The satraps, the “protectors of the kingdom,” were the King’s most important officials, typically members of the Persian elite if not the extended royal family. The word “satrap” (Old Persian xU+0161açapU+0101van) may be considered equivalent to the governor of a province, one level below the King, while the term “satrapy” (from the Greek satrapeia, derived from the Old Persian term) refers to a province. Classical sources use different words when referring to the political hierarchy of the Achaemenid Empire, and this engenders confusion; for example, it is uncertain whether the Greek title hyparchos (variously translated as “governor,” “lieutenant governor,” or even “ruler”) refers to a Persian satrap or an official who reported to the satrap. Since various Greek authors used the terms so fluidly, it is no wonder that modern scholars have such difficulty with them. But we are not reliant only on Greek evidence. For example, the archive of Arshama (Greek Arsames), the satrap of Egypt during the later fifth century, offers extensive information on the day-to-day operations of that important satrapy’s administration (see p. 189).

The formal creation of the Achaemenid satrapy system has been attributed to Darius I, but it has become increasingly clear that Cyrus and Cambyses initiated the system through adoption and adaptation of preexisting structures. The resulting administrative units were occasionally modified in light of political circumstances but remained relatively intact throughout the Achaemenid period. It is not possible to demarcate fixed boundaries of satrapies, especially on modern maps, but they frequently coincided with natural ones such as major rivers. Creation of a satrapy usually involved the replacement of the previous king or ruler of a region by a Persian satrap, appointed by the King. Thus the King became an additional level of administration superimposed upon previous kingdoms and territories now incorporated into the Persian Empire. Local officials were often retained but became subordinate to the satrap.

Continuity of satrapal rule through generations of the same family indicates that the appointment became almost dynastic in some areas, whether the satrap was initially a local ruler, as in the case of Mausolus in fourth-century Caria (southwestern Anatolia), or a royal appointee from a Persian elite family, as in the case of Artabazus in Hellespontine Phrygia (in northwestern Anatolia). Artabazus and his descendants provide an unbroken line from 479 BCE well into the fourth century. Artabazus was a cousin to the royal family, thus a part of the extended Achaemenid clan, and this connection underlines the Persian nobility’s stake in the Empire. The King depended upon his satraps’ loyalty for the Empire’s smooth functioning and stability, and the satrap depended upon the King for his position. There were occasions when a satrap spurred destabilization through revolt, especially in the context of a disputed royal succession.

While satraps had a great deal of independence in the day-to-day operation of their provinces, foreign policy was another matter. The satrap was ultimately responsible to the King. It is easy – because we have voluminous evidence of various types – to visualize frequent and ongoing communications between the King’s court and the satraps on a variety of matters. Each satrapy had its own administration that was connected with the overarching administrative net through which the King controlled the Empire. Satraps were not only responsible for the security of their provinces but also for the collection and delivery of taxes and tribute as well as for the maintenance of roads and other networks of communication. When the King sought military forces for a major campaign, it was the satrap’s responsibility to assemble the requested forces from his area.

Royal secretaries and military personnel, responsible directly to the King, were key components of satrapal administration. These individuals and their retinues helped to govern the satrapy and to maintain consistent and reliable communication with the King. They also served as tangible reminders that the satrap owed his position to the King. Greek sources contain many examples of a satrap’s deference to the King in matters of foreign affairs, in response to one or another request by a Greek city-state for assistance or a change in policy. It is easy to interpret such hedging as a satrap’s evasion, but the realities of Achaemenid hierarchy and bureaucracy insist otherwise. Herodotus’ story of Darius I’s handling of the recalcitrant Oroites (see p. 78) provides a paradigmatic example of the King’s authority in the provinces: a mechanism of royal control and an illustration of the consequences of insubordination.

The stereotyped view of the detached or cloistered King, prominent in much of twentieth-century scholarship, has become much less compelling. There is ample reason to assert that the King was well-informed of his satraps’ activities, and that a satrap in good standing (i.e., one not in open rebellion) consistently deferred to the King on any matters beyond his jurisdiction or prerogative. A fine line may separate satrapal independence from satrapal revolt, but the weight of the evidence indicates satrapal adherence to royal directives. In other words, satraps were aware not only of their responsibilities to the royal administration but also of the sorts of initiatives they could, or were expected to, undertake. Evidence from Greek, Aramaic, and Elamite sources attests to a high degree of imperial organization and control.

The functioning of the Empire demanded reliable communications between center and periphery. Finds such as bullae from Daskyleion (the satrapal capital of Hellespontine Phrygia, in northwestern Anatolia) and Aramaic documents from Bactria attest to bureaucracies, comparable with and connected to the central one, even in the far-flung provinces.6 Access to provisions and storehouses along the royal roads required authorization, as demonstrated by a number of documents in Aramaic and Elamite, along with Herodotus’ more widely-known description of the Royal Road from Sardis to Susa (see discussion later in this chapter). Herodotus’ account finds corroboration in an Elamite administrative document from the central administration in Persepolis, a disbursement from the satrap Artaphernes for a group traveling to Persepolis.7 This mundane communiqué illustrates the control the king and his satraps had over their officials in these far-flung areas.

The Persepolis Tablets: Persian Administration, Economy, and Stratification

In the 1930s CE, excavators at Persepolis found two stashes of tablets, one from the so-called Treasury in the southeastern part of the terrace and the other deposited within the fortification wall of the northeastern part of the terrace. Thus the names Persepolis Treasury Tablets (PTT) and Persepolis Fortification Tablets (PFT) indicate the find spots, not the contents, of the tablets. The first group (PTT) is relatively small, 129 useful texts (not including additional fragments), which range in date between 492 and 457 BCE, from the reigns of Darius I to Artaxerxes I. The second group (PFT) is enormous in number but more limited in chronological scope (c. 509–493 BCE, during the reign of Darius I). The number of PFT documents ranges from 4,000 to 30,000 or more, but this depends upon who is counting and with what parameters. Higher counts often include fragments (pieces of broken texts). Studies devoted to the Fortification archive emphasize the variety in the corpus: tablets with Elamite (cuneiform) text; tablets and tags written in Aramaic (ink and incised); and many un-inscribed tablets. Only a portion of the Elamite tablets has been published. There are also a few but important anomalies, including tablets inscribed in Greek, Akkadian, Phrygian, and even Old Persian.

Another important component of the Fortification archive is the diversity of seals applied to the tablets. There are more than 1,100 distinct seals impressed on the published Elamite tablets and many more on the unpublished ones. The seals are an integral part of the administrative process, as the sealings on a tablet may in themselves communicate the agents involved in the transaction as well as the specific locale. The seals portray a range of activity, and their rich iconography is invaluable as an index for Persian visual arts and culture. While the breadth of the archive necessitates its piecemeal study, each piece must be considered part of a cohesive administrative unit. Even though enormous strides have been made in our understanding of the archive, in many respects this venture is still nascent. What follows is only an introduction to the evidence and what it offers for the study of Achaemenid history.

Nearly half of the Fortification texts date to the years 500–499 BCE and almost two-thirds of the Treasury tablets date to the year 466. The administrative region concerns mainly the wider Persepolis region itself, of course, but the corpus contains references to almost all parts of the Empire between Sardis and India, especially those texts that deal with supply distributions for travelers on official business. It should be emphasized that these clay tablets were only one part of the administrative apparatus. The nature of cuneiform texts makes them more durable than parchment, wax boards, and the like, on which a great deal of record keeping was also done. Despite the size of the Fortification archive, once again we are reminded that we have only a piece of the entire puzzle.

The Fortification texts deal mainly with foodstuffs and livestock – their collection, storage, and redistribution. The tablets provide important data on the organization of labor; economy and fiscal management; the demography and cartography of the Empire’s core; operations of state institutions at a basic level; religious practices and cultic personnel; travel on state business; and a host of other social and cultural aspects of Achaemenid Persian history. None of this incredible detail and sophistication should be too surprising. Such advanced organizational control had persisted already for several centuries in both Mesopotamian and Elamite traditions, traceable as far back as 2100 BCE and the Ur III period.

Workers were generally labeled kurtash, an Elamite word that escapes consensus as to its exact translation. It may be misguided to narrow the term’s definition too much. Workers were of varying sorts: those who worked in the fields and shops controlled by the administration and those who labored on the massive, ongoing construction projects at Persepolis. They encompassed varying levels of specialization and socioeconomic status. Usually a given worker’s specialty is not indicated, only the amounts of rations received, which for most workers amounted to a subsistence wage. Disbursements to workers were usually in-kind, meaning quantities of foodstuffs, though some Treasury tablets record payment of silver.

Another interesting feature of the kurtash is the range of their ethnicities: Arabs, Bactrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Elamites, Ionians, Thracians, among several others. Who were these people and why were they working at Persepolis? How did they get there? These questions have no easy answers. Some of the royal inscriptions – for example Darius I’s “foundation charter” from Susa (DSf) – associate specific ethnic groups with specific materials or craftsmanship, an inclusive manifestation of the Empire and its diversity. People of varying ethnicity mentioned in these tablets may have been brought to Persepolis for similar reasons, whether by virtue of a specific call or by force, required to work on select projects for the King. Deportations may have been one means of their presence, such as the Eretrians (see p. 89) labeled by the central administration with the generic term “Ionian” used for all Greeks. But as reasonable as such a suggestion seems, it is not obvious that such specific populations of deportees were among thekurtash. That even Persians could be labeled kurtash gives pause to any assumption that the word indicates deportees.

The man in charge of the Persepolis administration from 506–497 BCE was named Parnaka (Greek Pharnaces), identified by two inscribed seals in Aramaic on numerous tablets. The first one (labeled in the literature PFS 9* for “Persepolis Fortification Seal number 9,” Figure 6.4) labels him simply as “Parnaka.” A second seal (PFS 16*, Figure 6.5), substituted by official order in an Elamite tablet (PF 2067), replaced the first one and bears the label: Parnaka, son of Arsham. Aramaic Arsham is Old PersianArshamaand Greek Arsames. Scholars generally agree that, based on Parnaka’s evident high rank and his filiation, he is none other than Darius I’s uncle, brother of Darius’ father Hystaspes. Further, this same Parnaka is the father of Artabazus, whom Xerxes made satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia.

Figure 6.4 Collated line drawing of PFS 9* from the Persepolis Fortification Archive. Courtesy Persepolis Seal Project.

Figure 6.5 Collated line drawing of PFS 16* from the Persepolis Fortification Archive. Courtesy Persepolis Seal Project.

Parnaka oversaw a vast hierarchy of officials who supervised, in turn, discrete areas of the administrative organization. It is to these various functionaries that Parnaka, or his immediate subordinates (also of high rank), sent orders for disbursements. Instructions thus followed a chain of command, and there was generally a clear allocation of responsibility and accountability. Officials in charge of warehouses – where grain, wine, or other goods for disbursement were stored – were required to keep careful records. Every year accountants prepared inventories that were sent to the central office in Persepolis where the “books” were kept. Parnaka or his lieutenants thus had relatively easy access to information about inventories at any of the warehouses throughout the districts linked to this central administration.

High-ranking officials received commensurately greater allocations than lower-level workers. For example, three texts (PF 654, 665, 6698) give a glimpse of Parnaka’s own allocations and allow us to reconstruct his daily “payment”: two sheep, 90 liters of wine, and 180 liters of flour. The quantities provided are obviously too great to be consumed by one person. Other elites similarly received quantities far too high for any one individual to consume. Such disbursements may have been redistributed to that individual’s subordinates, credited for future withdrawals as necessary, or perhaps exchanged for other commodities or silver. Large outlays may also have been applied to special occasions or feasts at the royal table, which was attended by a careful hierarchy and performance, with many layers of significance. It is likely that some of the large disbursements to the elite may have been meant for just such purposes, though the tablets themselves generally only indicate the materials disbursed, not the intended use.

The Persepolis texts offer insights into the stratification of Persian society, but of course the emphasis is on a bureaucratic hierarchy and the people who work within it or for it. Rations (payments) distributed to kurtash workers at Persepolis varied in amount by age and gender, though amounts could vary widely based on locale and jobs performed.9 Pregnant women received special rations, and in some cases those who bore sons then received higher amounts than those who bore daughters. We assume the kurtash lived in families, but the circumstances of these families elude us. What happened when the children grew up? Did they remain kurtash and start their own families through marriages at the same social level or status?

And the evidence for other members of Persian society, even the lower echelons of citizens, is slimmer yet. All people, regardless of social status, were the king’s bandakU+0101, the Old Persian word that is sometimes translated as “slaves” but is usU+0101ually better rendered as “subjects” or “servants.” Archaeological evidence offers enormous insight into daily life but at very specific locations.10 The scope and diversity of the Empire also does not lend itself easily to broad categorizations, though the daily life and tasks of a small farmer may not have differed much in Fars than in central Anatolia. The royal inscriptions refer in general terms to “the strong” and “the weak,” but even moving beyond the inscriptions’ ideological context such classifications are not very useful in understanding Persian social stratification beyond a very general level. When members of the lower classes appear in the documentary evidence, it is usually in anecdotal contexts; for example, the Roman Aelian writing circa 200 CE tells the story of a Persian man, Siniates, who met Artaxerxes II unexpectedly and scrambled to find a suitable gift for the King. Siniates scooped some water from a nearby river, named after Cyrus, and offered it to the King with a benediction for his long reign and a promise of more suitable gifts once Siniates returned home. Artaxerxes received the gift with full approval, and he rewarded Siniates for this piety with gifts of his own: a Persian robe, a gold cup, and a hefty sum of money (Aelian, Varia Historia 1.32). Of course, this anecdote tells us more about the relationship between king and subjects than it does about Siniates’ way of life.

The Persian Army

Persian military forces were drawn from all areas of the Empire, members of the elite corps (see Figure 6.6 for an example) as well as conscripts levied for local action or for major campaigns. Thus the label “Persian” is not to be understood as describing the ethnic makeup but rather the troops’ allegiance, fighting under Persian officials or commanders. As has been seen, however, the command structure was not thoroughly Persian by any means either, save at the very top of the hierarchy, including most satraps and of course the King himself. The Old Persian word kU+0101ra may be translated either as “army” or as “people.” This reveals the army’s ultimate origin – among the Persians themselves, many of whom came to form the corps of the standing army – as it results in occasional confusion in modern translation. When kU+0101ra appears in a text, it is not always evident to us whether the people as a collective group or the specific subset of the army is meant.

Figure 6.6 Frieze of Archers, Palace of Darius, Susa. © RMN – Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Herodotus gives a full and colorful account of the vast and diverse forces of the imperial levy, the full army and navy of Persians and subject peoples, when he tallies the vast forces that Xerxes arrayed against Greece in 480 BCE. Herodotus also names many of the commanders, an elaborate depiction of the peoples of the Empire with descriptions of their clothing and equipment (7.61–100). For example, both Persians and Medes were arrayed in felt caps, colored tunics over scale mail, trousers, wickerwork shields, and a variety of weapons. Ethiopians (Nubians) wore leopard or lion skins and carried large bows. Paphlagonians wore woven helmets and carried small shields and spears. That Herodotus’ entire portrayal better describes a parade than a battle array has long been understood. But it typifies the diversity of peoples and weaponry that the Persian commanders had to weld into an effective fighting force. Persian forces, both infantry and cavalry, were renowned for their use of the bow: a frequent tactic was the unleashing of storms of arrows from behind a shield wall or for horsemen to harry the enemy with volleys of arrows.

Scholars debate the effectiveness of the Persian forces’ armor and tactics especially in the context of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 and Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire in the late 330s. Herodotus (9.62) describes the final crush of the Persians against the Spartans at the Battle of Plataea in 479:

On the one hand the Persians were no less than the Greeks in courage

and strength, but the Persians were without shields and, beyond this,

were unskilled and not the equal of their opponents in experience.

This passage offers just one example of the persistent problems of source evaluation. When Herodotus says that the Persians were “without shields” (Greek anoploi), what does that mean? Were the shields lost in battle? Was this contingent of the Persian army simply not carrying shields? And which group was it, ethnic Persians or some other? Some translate anoploi as “without armor,” which adds another layer to the problem. The Spartans were the most (by far) professionalized Greek soldiers of their day, so even the elite corps of the Persian army would have had their hands full against them. Beyond the elite, levied troops from the provinces of course did not have the same sort of armor, weaponry, or tactics as did, for example, the Persian Immortals and similar contingents. Numerous other passages in Greek sources provide similar perspectives: heavily armed Greek infantry, fighting in tight phalanx formations, trumped the (as generally described in Greek sources) light armed, less experienced, inferior Persian infantry every time – except when they did not. It is difficult to sift the Greek stereotypes from the realities of individual battles. That the Persians were able to conquer and retain so much territory for so long testifies to their army’s effectiveness.

The elite Persian force, numbering 10,000 according to Herodotus (7.83), was called the Immortals. Whenever one of their number died or was wounded or ill, another would take his place so the number of the battalion always remained 10,000. They were the most effective, and feared, Persian infantry force, and clearly comprised elite members of Persian society: men of prominent families or high rank. One thousand of them had gold pomegranates on their spears, some of whom comprised the king’s personal bodyguard, and the other 9,000 had silver. Herodotus’ incidental detail that the Immortals were conspicuous for their gold (bracelets or other marks of status and honor), and that they were accompanied by wagons bearing concubines and many servants, indicates that we are not dealing with the rank and file. Prestige items are frequently mentioned in conjunction with Persian officers and nobles, a phenomenon that also fed Greek stereotypes of Persian effeminacy and weakness. But these items were more symbolic than practical and communicated entirely different messages – honor and status – in a Persian context.

Greek sources often highlight the prominence and skill of Greek mercenaries, and from that perspective it was only thanks to better trained and better equipped Greek professionals that the Empire was able to field any sort of worthwhile fighting force in the fourth century. This trope contributed heavily to the stereotype of the effeminate, decaying Persian Empire before its fall to Alexander the Great. And even though Greek mercenary forces were an increasing phenomenon in the fourth century, and certainly used by Persian commanders, their significance often seems overestimated in Greek sources.

Communication Networks – The Royal Road

Reliable and efficient communications throughout the Empire were a necessary component for its success (see Map 1.1). The construction, maintenance, and guarding of an extensive network of roads and bridges required a great deal of engineering expertise, manpower, and expense. The Persians adopted and adapted their predecessors’ systems, and greatly expanded them, to facilitate communication across vast distances. Individuals or groups on state business carried sealed documents that allowed access to supplies or provisions en route to their destination.

The most famous of these roads, though it was only one of many, was what Herodotus called the Royal Road from Susa in Elam to Sardis in Lydia (5.52–53). Any “royal” road would have, in fact, run through Persepolis and points eastward, so Herodotus’ terminology reflects a Greek view, which usually viewed Susa as the main Achaemenid capital. From the west it ran through Cappadocia and Cilicia in Anatolia to Armenia and then south through Arbela – along the Tigris River – and on toward Susa. Herodotus notes that there were 111 royal staging posts interspersed on it and mentions several of them specifically (5.52). By his calculations this route ran roughly 1,500 miles and took a journey of ninety days. That was for a traveler in no great haste. Royal dispatches could move with surprising speed, a relay system with fresh horses and messengers at each staging post. Herodotus also describes these royal messengers: “There is nothing mortal that travels faster than these messengers … for as many days as the whole route there are horses and men stationed, one horse and one man set for each day. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night hinders them from accomplishing the course laid before them as quickly as possible. After the first one finishes his route, he delivers the instructed message to the second, the second does likewise to the third; from there in rapid succession down the line the message moves.” (8.98)

There were similar routes in all directions from the Empire’s core in Fars.11 Ctesias alludes to other roads running from Mesopotamia and Persia proper to Central Asia. The primary route to Bactria across northern Iran is called in modern works either the (Great) Khorasan Road or, for later periods, by its better known appellation the Silk Road. Administrative documents from Persepolis, Syro-Palestine, and Egypt record disbursements to travelers in all directions. From the Persepolis documentation we gain a sense of the itineraries of a number of the network of roads running between Susa and Persepolis. An Aramaic document tracks travelers journeying from northern Mesopotamia to Damascus and on into Egypt, with several stops along the way listed by name.

Large work crews were involved in the construction and maintenance of these roads. Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece describes roadmakers at work, not infrequently the army on campaign. The main roads, constructed wide enough to allow chariots or wagons to travel on them, served to move military forces quickly, but they were also used by travelers or merchants to transport cargo. Roads also at times had to cross obstacles such as rivers. Some permanent bridges, such as one spanning the Halys River in Anatolia, were guarded by a fort. Pontoon bridges allowed crossing of other rivers, for example, at many spots on the northern Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. Temporary pontoon bridges afforded the means for Persian armies to cross into Europe: Darius I over the Bosporus on his campaign against the Scythians and Xerxes’ bridge over the Hellespont against the Greeks. Of course, rivers and larger waterways were sometimes part of the route. Diodorus Siculus (14.81.4) records a journey on a well-known route at sea along the coast of Cilicia, on land from northwestern Syria to the Euphrates, then down the river to Babylon. Similar sea trading routes connected other parts of the Empire to the core, such as through the Persian Gulf and along the southern coast of Iran to the Indus Valley.

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