Achaemenid Society and Culture
By: T. Cuyler Young, Jr.
Achaemenid society and culture was in reality the collective societies and cultures of the many subject peoples of the empire. From this mosaic it is sometimes difficult to sort out that which is distinctively Persian or distinctively a development of the Achaemenid period and therefore perhaps an early Iranian contribution to general Middle Eastern society and culture.
The languages of the empire were as varied as its peoples. The Persians, at least originally, spoke Old Persian, a southwestern dialect of Iranian (Median was a northwestern Iranian dialect), but they were illiterate. Their language was first written when Darius commanded that a script suitable for this purpose be invented so that he might inscribe the record of his rise to power at Bisotoun (the inscriptions in Old Persian are attributed to earlier kings as either late historical forgeries or as probably written during the reign of Darius). That few could read Old Persian might be the reason why Darius at Bisotoun established the tradition that royal inscription should be trilingual in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Old Persian was never a working written language of the empire. Elamite, written on clay tablets, appears to have been the language of many of the administrators in Fars and, it may be assumed, in Elam. Archives of administrative documents in Elamite have been found at Persepolis. Aramaic, however, was the language of much of the empire and was probably the language most used in the imperial bureaucracy. The beginnings of the strong influence of Aramaic on Persian, which is so evident in the Middle Persian of Sassanian times, can already be seen in the Old Persian royal inscriptions of late Achaemenid times.
Little is known of Iranian social organization in the period. In general, it was based on feudal lines that were in part drawn by economic and social function. Traditional Indo-Iranian society consisted of three classes, the warriors or aristocracy, the priests, and the farmers or herdsmen. Crosscutting these divisions was a tribal structure based on patrilineal descent. The title king of kings, used even in the 20th century by the shahs of Iran, implies that the central authority exercised power through a pyramidal structure that was controlled at levels below the supreme authority by individuals who were themselves, in a certain sense, kings. Traditionally the king was elected from a particular family by the warrior class; he was sacred, and a certain royal charisma attached to his person.
Such a method of organizing and controlling society undoubtedly changed under the influences and demands of imperial power and underwent much modification as Iranians increasingly borrowed social and political ideas from the peoples they ruled. Even in later times, nevertheless, there is evidence that the original Iranian concepts of kingship and social organization were still honoured and remained the ideals of Persian culture.
Iranian religion in the pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid periods is a subject on which there is little scholarly agreement. When the Iranians first entered the semilight of the protohistoric period, they were certainly polytheists whose religious beliefs and practices closely paralleled other Indo-Iranian and Indo-European groups at the same stage in history. Their gods were associated with natural phenomena, with social, military, and economic functions, and with abstract concepts such as justice and truth. Their religious practices included, among others, animal sacrifice, a reverence for fire, and the drinking of the juice of the haoma plant, a natural intoxicant.
Probably about 600 BCE there arose in the northeast of the plateau the great Iranian religious prophet and teacher Zoroaster. The history of the religion that he founded is even more complicated and controversial than the history of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion. Yet certain features of his religious reform stand out. He was an ethical prophet of the highest rank, stressing constantly the need to act righteously and to speak the truth and abhor the lie. In his teaching, the lie was almost personified as the Druj, chief in the kingdom of the demons, to which he relegated many of the earlier Indo-Iranian deities. His god was Ahura Mazda, who, it seems likely, was a creation in name and attributes of Zoroaster. Though in a certain sense technically monotheism, early Zoroastrianism viewed the world in strongly dualistic terms, for Ahura Mazda and the “Lie” were deeply involved in a struggle for the soul of man. Zoroaster, as might be expected, attempted to reform earlier Iranian religious practices as well as beliefs. He first rejected and then perhaps allowed the practice of the haoma cult in a modified form, he clearly condemned the practice of animal sacrifice, and he elevated to central importance in the ritual a reverence for fire. Fire worship, however, is a misnomer since the Zoroastrians have never worshipped fire but rather have revered it as the symbol par excellence of truth.
The crucial question is: were the Achaemenids Zoroastrians or at least followers of the prophet in the terms in which they understood his message? Possibly Cyrus the Great was, probably Darius I was, and almost certainly Xerxes and his successors were. Such a simple answer to the question is possible, however, only if we understand that Zoroastrianism as a religion had already undergone considerable development and modification since Zoroaster's lifetime, influenced by beliefs and practices and by the religions of those people of the Middle East with whom the expanding Iranians had intimate contact.
The god of the Achaemenid kings was the great Ahura Mazda, from whom they understood they had received their empire and with whose aid they accomplished all deeds. Xerxes and his successors mention other deities by name, but Ahura Mazda remains supreme. Darius I names only Ahura Mazda in his inscriptions. More significant, however, is Darius' tone, which is entirely compatible with the moral tone of Zoroaster and, in some instances, even compatible with details of Zoroaster's theology. During the reigns of Darius and Xerxes, the archaeological record reveals that religious rituals were in force that were also compatible with an evolved and evolving Zoroastrianism. The haoma cult was practiced at Persepolis, but animal sacrifice is not attested. More important, fire clearly played a central role in Achaemenid religion.
There may have been religious overtones in the quarrel between Cambyses and Darius on the one hand and the false Bardiya, a Magian or Median priest, on the other. Certainly there were religious as well as political motivations behind Xerxes' suppression of the Daeva worshippers and the destruction of their temple. It is possible that there was some conflict among the royal Achaemenids, who were followers of one form of Zoroastrianism, the supporters of a different version of Zoroastrianism as practiced by other Iranians, believers in older forms of Iranian religion, and foreign religions, which in the light of the Prophet's teachings were reprehensible. Compromises and syncretism, however, probably could not be prevented. Though the Zoroastrian calendar was adopted as the official calendar of the empire in the reign of Artaxerxes I, by the time of Artaxerxes II, the ancient Iranian god Mithra and the goddess Anahita had been accepted in the royal religion alongside Ahura Mazda.
Thus, in a sense, the Achaemenid kings were Zoroastrians, but Zoroastrianism itself was probably no longer exactly the religion Zoroaster had attempted to establish. What the religion of the people beyond court circles may have been is almost impossible to say. One suspects that a variety of ancient Iranian cults and beliefs were prevalent. The Magi, the traditional priests of the Medes, may have wielded more influence in the countryside than they did at court, and popular beliefs and practices may have been more deeply influenced by contact with other peoples and other religions. Later classical Zoroastrianism, as known in the Sassanian period, was an amalgam of such popular cults, of the religion of the Achaemenid court, and of the teachings of the Prophet in their purer form (see also Zoroastrianism and Iranian religion).
Achaemenid art, like Achaemenid religion, was a blend of many elements. In describing, with justifiable pride, the construction of his palace at Susa, Darius says,
The cedar timber—a mountain by name Lebanon—from there it was brought . . . the yak(-timber was brought from Gandara and from Carmania. The gold was brought from Sardis and from Bactria . . . the precious stone lapis-lazuli and carnelian . . . was brought from Sogdiana. The . . . turquoise from Chorasmia . . . The silver and ebony . . . from Egypt . . . the ornamentation from Ionia . . . the ivory . . . from Ethiopia and from Sind and from Arachosia . . . The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Ionians and Sardians. The goldsmiths . . . were Medes and Egyptians. The men who wrought the wood, those were Sardians and Egyptians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians. The men who adorned the wall, those were Medes and Egyptians.
This was an imperial art on a scale the world had not seen before. Materials and artists were drawn from all the lands ruled by the Great King, and thus tastes, styles, and motifs became mixed together in an eclectic art and architecture that in itself mirrored the empire and the Persians' understanding of how that empire ought to function. Yet the whole was entirely Persian. Just as the Achaemenids were tolerant in matters of local government and custom, as long as Persians controlled the general policy and administration of the empire, so also were they tolerant in art so long as the finished and total effect was Persian. At Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses in Fars, the Persian homeland, and at Persepolis, the neighbouring city founded by Darius the Great and used by all of his successors, one can trace to a foreign origin almost all of the several details in the construction and embellishment of the architecture and the sculptured reliefs,but the conception, planning, and overall finished product are distinctly Persian and could not have been created by any of the foreign groups who supplied the king of kings with artistic talent. So also with the small arts, at which the Persians excelled: fine metal tableware, jewelry, seal cutting, weaponry and its decoration, and pottery. It has been suggested that the Persians called on the subject peoples for artists because they were themselves crude barbarians with little taste and needed quickly to create an imperial art to match their sudden rise to political power. Yet excavations at sites from the protohistoric period show this not to have been the case. Cyrus may have been the leader of Persian tribes not yet so sophisticated nor so civilized as the Babylonians or Egyptians, but, when he chose to build Pasargadae, he had a long artistic tradition behind him that was probably already distinctly Iranian and that was in many ways the equal of any. Two examples suffice: the tradition of the columned hall in architecture and fine gold work. The former can now be seen as belonging to an architectural tradition on the Iranian Plateau that extended back through the Median period to at least the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. The rich Achaemenid gold work, which inscriptions suggest may have been a specialty of the Medes, was in the tradition of the delicate metalwork found in Iron Age II times at Hasanlu and still earlier at Marlik. In its carefully proportioned and well-organized ground plan, rich architectural ornament, and magnificent decorative reliefs, Persepolis, primarily the creation of Darius and Xerxes,is one of the great artistic legacies of the ancient world. (See also Iranian arts.)
The organization and achievement of the empire
At the centre of the empire sat the king of kings. Around him was gathered a court composed of powerful hereditary landholders, the upper echelons of the army, the harem, religious functionaries, and the bureaucracy that administered the whole. This court lived mainly in Susa but in the hot summer months went to Ecbatana (Hamadan), probably in the spring to Persepolis in Fars, and perhaps sometimes to Babylon. In a smaller version it travelled with the king when he was away in the provinces.
The provinces, or satrapies, were ruled by governors (satraps), technically appointed by the central authority but who often became hereditary sub kings, particularly in the later years, of the empire. They were surrounded and assisted in their functions by a court modelled on that of the central government and were powerful officials. The great king was nevertheless theoretically able to maintain considerable control in local affairs. He was the last court of appeal in judicial matters. He controlled directly the standing military forces stationed in the provinces, though as time went on, the military and civil authority in the provinces tended to become combined under the satrap. The king was also aided in keeping control in the provinces by the so-called king's eyes, or better, the king's ears, officials from the central government who traveled throughout the empire and who reported directly back to the king on what they learned. The number of satrapies and their boundaries varied greatly from time to time; at the beginning of Darius' reign there were 20 provinces. In general, as time went on, the number of satrapies increased, partly because of the need to reassert control over the satraps by decreasing their power base, partly because the feudal structure that underlay Persian society required rewarding more and more people with a role in government, and partly because the original 20 satrapies were undoubtedly simply too large to permit efficient administration.
The army was a particularly important element within the empire. It, too, developed and changed with time. After Cyrus the Persian tribal levy, based on the responsibility of all male Persians to fight for the king, was replaced by a professional army supplemented by a troop levy from the subject peoples in time of intensive military activity. The elite of the standing army were the 10,000 “immortals” composed of Persians and Medes, 1,000 of whom were the personal guard of the king. The person who controlled this elite, as did Darius on the death of Cambyses, usually controlled all. The troops of the imperial levy fought with the regular army in national units, were armed according to their individual customs, but were usually officered by Persians. Permanent bodies of troops were stationed at strategic points throughout the empire, and, to judge from the garrison at Elephantine in Egypt, these were actually military colonies, firmly settled into the local countryside. Greek mercenaries were used with increasing frequency in later years, and many Greeks fought faithfully for Persian silver.
Both the civil and the military administration, as well as public and private trade, were greatly facilitated by the famous royal Achaemenid road system. Communications throughout the empire were better than any previous Middle Eastern power had maintained. The famous road from Susa to Sardis in western Asia Minor is the best known of these imperial highways. It was an all-weather road, maintained by the state. Over it ran a governmental postal system based on relay stations with remounts and fresh riders located a day's ride apart. The speed with which a message could travel from the provinces to the king at Susa was remarkable.
On the whole, Persian rule sat lightly on the subject peoples, at least under the early Achaemenids. It was a conscious policy of Cyrus and Darius to permit conquered nations to retain their own religion, customs, their methods of doing business, and even to some extent their forms of government. Cyrus' attitude toward the Babylonians, which led to his being accepted as the rightful successor of Nabonidus, his willingness to permit the Jews to return to Palestine and to their own way of life, and his successors' concern that this promise be honoured; Cambyses' behaviour in Egypt and his acceptance by the Egyptians as founder of a legitimate new Egyptian dynasty; and the policy adopted under Mardonius toward the Ionian cities following their rebellion are all examples of such a policy. Perhapseven too often in the later empire, rebellious peoples, governments, and leaders were forgiven and not suppressed with the thoroughness sometimes characteristic of other regimes. Lapses from this policy, such as Xerxes' violent reaction to rebellion in Babylon, stand out in the record.
Law played an important role in the administration of the empire, and stories of Persian justice abound in the Greek sources. Darius particularly wished to be remembered as the great lawgiver, and law reform was one of the cornerstones in his program for reorganizing the empire. To judge from the Babylonian evidence, two sets of law, possibly administered by two sets of courts, were in force in the provinces. One was the local law undoubtedly based on custom and previous local codifications; the other was the Persian, or imperial, law, based ultimately on the authority of the great king. A new word for law appeared in the Middle East in Achaemenid times, the Iranian data, and was borrowed by the Semitic languages used in the empire. In Babylonian and Aramaic, sources give evidence for Persian judges called by the Iranian word data-bar. These were probably the judges of the imperial courts. With legal reform came reform and unification of tax structures. The tax structure of the empire was apparently based on the principle that all the conquered lands were the actual property of the king. Thus taxes were rather rents, and the Persians and their land, Fars, by virtue of not being a conquered people, were always tax-free. Each satrapy was required to pay a fixed yearly amount in gold or silver and each vassal state paid a fixed tribute in kind. Again going on the Babylonian evidence, where in previous times agricultural taxes were levied in fixed amounts regardless of the fluctuating quality of the harvest, under Darius all land was surveyed, an estimate of its yield based on an average of the harvests over several years was from time to time established, and taxes were levied in fixed amounts based on a percentage of that average yield. This was not quite an income tax, since it was not based on a percentage of each year's production, but it was at least a reasonable figure based on a reasonable average production.
Breakdowns often occurred in the Achaemenids' effort to maintain a productive balance between local social structures, customs, laws, and government and the demand of the empire. The failure of the Persians to find such a balance when dealing with what was, for them, that extremely strange system of social and political organization, the Greek polis, or city-state, probably lay at the heart of their never-ending troubles in Ionia as much as did the power and ambitions of mainland Greeks. Yet even the Ionians, at the best of times, often realized the mutual advantages and benefits of the king's peace and a unified western Asia under a tolerant central administration.
The economy of the empire was very much founded on that king's peace; it was when the peace broke down with ever-increasing frequency during the last century of Achaemenid rule that the economy of the empire went into a decline that undoubtedly contributed significantly to eventual political and military collapse. Wealth in the Achaemenid world was very much founded on land and on agriculture. Land was the principal reward that the king had available for those who gave service or who were in positions of great political or military power in the empire. Under Darius there was a measure of land called a “bow” that was originally a unit considered sufficient to support one bowman, who then paid his duty for the land in military service. At the other end of the scale were enormous family estates, which often increased in size over the years and which were or became hereditary holdings. They were often administered by absentee landlords. Such major landholdings were, as one would expect, usually in the hands of Iranians, but non-Iranians were also able to amass similar wealth and power, thereby testifying once again to the inherent tolerance with which the empire was administered. The Achaemenids themselves took a positive role in the encouragement of agriculture by investing state funds and effort in irrigation and the improvement of horticulture.
They also invested in and endeavoured to encourage trade, a major source of imperial wealth. The effect of the state-maintained road system on the encouragement of trade has already been mentioned. Equal attention was paid to the development of seaborne trade. State-sponsored voyages of exploration were undertaken in order to search for new markets and new resources. Darius completed a project, begun by the Egyptians, of linking the Nile with the Red Sea by a canal, so that routes across the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf could be used to link the eastern and western ends of his empire. As part of the same program, port development on the Persian Gulf coast was encouraged. An imperial standardization of weights and measures, efforts to encourage the development and use of coinage, and the standardization in the king's name of that coinage were all policies intended to encourage commerce and economic activity within the realm. Banking played a role in the economy. Documents have survived from a family banking business in Babylonia—the house of Murashu and Sons of Nippur—coveringthe years c. 455–403 BCE; the firm evidently prospered greatly by lending money and by acting as a middleman in the system of tax collection. Interest rates were high,but borrowers were numerous.
As time went on, there were more and more such borrowers, for the later empire is marked by a general economic decline. The principal cause for this decline was the unsettled political conditions, but other, more indirect causes were unwise government interference in the economy, over taxation, and the removal of too much hard money from the economy. Gold and silver tended to drain into the treasury of the central government from the provinces, and too little found its way back into the economy. Disastrous inflation was the result. The large sums of money paid to foreign mercenaries and as bribes to foreign governments must have also contributed to an unfavourable balance of payments that in turn stimulated inflation. Such conditions hardly strengthened the empire and must have contributed, in ways that cannot be documented with certainty, to the political unrest that was their own main cause.
Ultimately, the achievement of the Achaemenid Persians was that they ruled with much creative tolerance over an area and a time that, for both the Middle East and for Europe, saw the end of the ancient and the beginning of the modern world. In one sense, the ancient Middle East died when Cyrus marched into Babylon. Others would argue that its death came when Alexander burned Persepolis. The question remains open. What is clear is that the Achaemenid Empire, the largest anyone had ever yet tried to hold together and one that was not to be surpassed until Rome reached its height, was a profound force in western Asia and in Europe during an important period of ferment and transition in human history. That period witnessed major developments in art, philosophy, literature, historiography, religion, exploration, economics, and science, and those developments provided the direct background for the further changes, along similar lines, that made the Hellenistic period so important in history. Hellenism probably would not have been possible, at least not in the form we know it, if it had had to build directly on the rather more narrow and less ambitious base of the individual civilizations of Babylon, Egypt, or Greece. In a sense the Achaemenid Persians passed on a concept of empire that,much modified by others, has remained something of a model throughout history of how it is possible for diverse peoples with variant customs, languages, religions, laws, and economic systems to flourish with mutual profit under a central government. In narrower terms, but for the Iranians themselves no less important, the Achaemenid Empire was the beginning of the Iranian nation, one of the pivotal peoples in the modern Middle East.