Ancient History & Civilisation


The king—The nobles—The army—Law—A savage punishment—The capitals—The satrapies—An achievement in administration

The life of Persia was political and military rather than economic; its wealth was based not on industry but on power; it existed precariously as a little governing isle in an immense and unnaturally subject sea. The imperial organization that maintained this artefact was one of the most unique and competent in history. At its head was the king, or Khshathra—i.e., warrior;* the title indicates the military origin and character of the Persian monarchy. Since lesser kings were vassal to him, the Persian ruler entitled himself “King of Kings,” and the ancient world made no protest against his claim; the Greeks called him simply Basileus—The King.34 His power was theoretically absolute; he could kill with a word, without trial or reason given, after the manner of some very modern dictator; and occasionally he delegated to his mother or his chief wife this privilege of capricious slaughter.35 Few even of the greatest nobles dared offer any criticism or rebuke, and public opinion was cautiously impotent. The father whose innocent son had been shot before his eyes by the king merely complimented the monarch on his excellent archery; offenders bastinadoed by the royal order thanked His Majesty for keeping them in mind.36 The king might rule as well as reign, if, like Cyrus and the first Darius, he cared to bestir himself; but the later monarchs delegated most of the cares of government to noble subordinates or imperial eunuchs, and spent their time at love, dice or the chase.37 The court was overrun with eunuchs who, from their coigns of vantage as guards of the harem and pedagogues to the princes, stewed a poisonous brew of intrigue in every reign.38 The king had the right to choose his successor from among his sons, but ordinarily the succession was determined by assassination and revolution.

The royal power was limited in practice by the strength of the aristocracy that mediated between the people and the throne. It was a matter of custom that the six families of the men who had shared with Darius I the dangers of the revolt against false Smerdis, should have exceptional privileges and be consulted in all matters of vital interest. Many of the nobles attended court, and served as a council for whose advice the monarch usually showed the highest regard. Most members of the aristocracy were attached to the throne by receiving their estates from the king; in return they provided him with men and materials when he took the field. Within their fiefs they had almost complete authority—levying taxes, enacting laws, executing judgment, and maintaining their own armed forces.40

The real basis of the royal power and imperial government was the army; an empire exists only so long as it retains its superior capacity to kill. The obligation to enlist on any declaration of war fell upon every able-bodied male from fifteen to fifty years of age.41When the father of three sons petitioned Darius to exempt one of them from service, all three were put to death; and when another father, having sent four sons to the battlefield, begged Xerxes to permit the fifth son to stay behind and manage the family estate, the body of this fifth son was cut in two by royal order and placed on both sides of the road by which the army was to pass.42 The troops marched off to war amid the blare of martial music and the plaudits of citizens above the military age.

The spearhead of the army was the Royal Guard—two thousand horsemen and two thousand infantry, all nobles—whose function it was to guard the king. The standing army consisted exclusively of Persians and Medes, and from this permanent force came most of the garrisons stationed as centers of persuasion at strategic points in the empire. The complete force consisted of levies from every subject nation, each group with its own distinct language, weapons and habits of war. Its equipment and retinue was as varied as its origin: bows and arrows, scimitars, javelins, daggers, pikes, slings, knives, shields, helmets, leather cuirasses, coats of mail, horses, elephants, heralds, scribes, eunuchs, prostitutes, concubines, and chariots armed on each hub with great steel scythes. The whole mass, though vast in number, and amounting in the expedition of Xerxes to 1,800,000 men, never achieved unity, and at the first sign of a reverse it became a disorderly mob. It conquered by mere force of numbers, by an elastic capacity for absorbing casualties; it was destined to be overthrown as soon as it should encounter a well-organized army speaking one speech and accepting one discipline. This was the secret of Marathon and Plataea.

In such a state the only law was the will of the king and the power of the army; no rights were sacred against these, and no precedents could avail except an earlier decree of the king. For it was a proud boast of Persia that its laws never changed, and that a royal promise or decree was irrevocable. In his edicts and judgments the king was supposed to be inspired by the god Ahura-Mazda himself; therefore the law of the realm was the Divine Will, and any infraction of it was an offense against the deity. The king was the supreme court, but it was his custom to delegate this function to some learned elder in his retinue. Below him was a High Court of Justice with seven members, and below this were local courts scattered through the realm. The priests formulated the law, and for a long time acted as judges; in later days laymen, even laywomen, sat in judgment. Bail was accepted in all but the most important cases, and a regular procedure of trial was followed. The court occasionally decreed rewards as well as punishments, and in considering a crime weighed against it the good record and services of the accused. The law’s delays were mitigated by fixing a time-limit for each case, and by proposing to all disputants an arbitrator of their own choice who might bring them to a peaceable settlement. As the law gathered precedents and complexity a class of men arose called “speakers of the law,” who offered to explain it to litigants and help them conduct their cases.43 Oaths were taken, and use was occasionally made of the ordeal.44 Bribery was discouraged by making the tender or acceptance of it a capital offense. Cambyses improved the integrity of the courts by causing an unjust judge to be flayed alive, and using his skin to upholster the judicial bench—to which he then appointed the dead judge’s son.45

Minor punishments took the form of flogging—from five to two hundred blows with a horsewhip; the poisoning of a shepherd dog received two hundred strokes, manslaughter ninety.46 The administration of the law was partly financed by commuting stripes into fines, at the rate of six rupees to a stripe.47 More serious crimes were punished with branding, maiming, mutilation, blinding, imprisonment or death. The letter of the law forbade any one, even the king, to sentence a man to death for a simple crime; but it could be decreed for treason, rape, sodomy, murder, “self-pollution,” burning or burying the dead, intrusion upon the king’s privacy, approaching one of his concubines, accidentally sitting upon his throne, or for any displeasure to the ruling house.48 Death was procured in such cases by poisoning, impaling, crucifixion, hanging (usually with the head down), stoning, burying the body up to the head, crushing the head between huge stones, smothering the victim in hot ashes, or by the incredibly cruel rite called “the boats.”* Some of these barbarous punishments were bequeathed to the invading Turks of a later age, and passed down into the heritage of mankind.49

With these laws and this army the king sought to govern his twenty satrapies from his many capitals—originally Pasargadae, occasionally Persepolis, in summer Ecbatana, usually Susa; here, in the ancient capital of Elam, the history of the ancient Near East came full circle, binding the beginning and the end. Susa had the advantage of inaccessibility, and the disadvantages of distance; Alexander had to come two thousand miles to take it, but it had to send its troops fifteen hundred miles to suppress revolts in Lydia or Egypt. Ultimately the great roads merely paved the way for the physical conquest of western Asia by Greece and Rome, and the theological conquest of Greece and Rome by western Asia.

The empire was divided into provinces or satrapies for convenience of administration and taxation. Each province was governed in the name of the King of Kings, sometimes by a vassal prince, ordinarily by a “satrap” (ruler) royally appointed for as long a time as he could retain favor at the court. To keep the satraps in hand Darius sent to each province a general to control its armed forces independently of the governor; and to make matters trebly sure he appointed in each province a secretary, independent of both satrap and general, to report their behavior to the king. As a further precaution an intelligence service known as “The King’s Eyes and Ears” might appear at any moment to examine the affairs, records and finances of the province. Sometimes the satrap was deposed without trial, sometimes he was quietly poisoned by his servants at the order of the king. Underneath the satrap and the secretary was a horde of clerks who carried on so much of the government as had no direct need of force; this body of clerks carried over from one administration to another, even from reign to reign. The king dies, but the bureaucracy is immortal.

The salaries of these provincial officials were paid not by the king but by the people whom they ruled. The remuneration was ample enough to provide the satraps with palaces, harems, and extensive hunting parks to which the Persians gave the historic name ofparadise. In addition, each satrapy was required to send the king, annually, a fixed amount of money and goods by way of taxation. India sent 4680 talents, Assyria and Babylonia 1000, Egypt 700, the four satrapies of Asia Minor 1760, etc., making a total of some 14,560 talents—variously estimated as equivalent to from $160,000,000 to $218,000,000 a year. Furthermore, each province was expected to contribute to the king’s needs in goods and supplies: Egypt had to furnish corn annually for 120,000 men; the Medes provided 100,000 sheep, the Armenians 30,000 foals, the Babylonians five hundred young eunuchs. Other sources of wealth swelled the central revenue to such a point that when Alexander captured the Persian capitals after one hundred and fifty years of Persian extravagance, after a hundred expensive revolts and wars, and after Darius III had carried off 8000 talents with him in his flight, he found 180,000 talents left in the royal treasuries-some $2,700,000,000.51

Despite these high charges for its services, the Persian Empire was the most successful experiment in imperial government that the Mediterranean world would know before the coming of Rome—which was destined to inherit much of the earlier empire’s political structure and administrative forms. The cruelty and dissipation of the later monarchs, the occasional barbarism of the laws, and the heavy burdens of taxation were balanced, as human governments go, by such order and peace as made the provinces rich despite these levies, and by such liberty as only the most enlightened empires have accorded to subject states. Each region retained its own language, laws, customs, morals, religion and coinage, and sometimes its native dynasty of kings. Many of the tributary nations, like Babylonia, Phoenicia and Palestine, were well satisfied with the situation, and suspected that their own generals and tax-gatherers would have plucked them even more ferociously. Under Darius I the Persian Empire was an achievement in political organization; only Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines would equal it.

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