Who were the kings of the great Achaemenid Empire? This is a gruelling question, since the Persians, believing that kings should not be immortalised as individuals, have left us little solid information. Our sources, as such, come largely from the Ancient Greeks, writing after the Persian wars, who attempted to answer this question for us. They left us a collection of contradictory sources from the likes of Herodotus, Xenophon and Ctesias, amongst others. They have given us the challenge of interpreting the jumble of information in an attempt to uncover the ‘real’ Persian rulers. These ancient Greek images of the kings were often glazed with notions of brutality, intolerance, despotism, and cruelty, and it has fallen to us, as modern scholars, historians, and enthusiasts, to tackle these stereotypes and try to see the rulers for what they truly were. Were the kings really just brutal conquerors or has the Western lens tainted their legacies?
What do we envision about the Persians when we watch a movie like 300 and see Xerxes in all his decadence, committing acts of violence against a pitiable Spartan army? We see what many ancient Greeks saw, the actions of an empire under the thumb of a tyrannical and intolerant Persian king, but was this really the case? And could this stereotype be applied to all the rulers of this dynasty? In debunking the myths surrounding Achaemenid brutality and dogmatism we turn to the questions why and how? Why did the Greeks have this conception of the foreign rulers? Why did they see them as epitomising brutality? And how can we use both Greek sources and the few surviving Eastern sources to depict an image closer to the truth?
When we read snippets of Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes where he describes the terrifying death of Mithridates, a Persian soldier, at the hands of an Achaemenid ruler (16.85-87) or when we get glimpses of Ctesias’ Persica (through references) which mentions the death of the eunuch Masabates, we see why the Persians received negative press. To unravel this, we must firstly understand why the Greeks were inclined to see the Persian kings in an unfavourable light. We may jump to the conclusion that the Greeks were angry at the expansionist policies of the empire. After all, who would not be mad at a foreign peoples making designs on your land? However, sources show that this was not the case; evidence suggests that many Greeks actively sought Persian favour. What the Greeks disliked was the tyrannical power of the monarchy. At a time when Athenian democracy and Spartan oligarchy was well underway, the Greeks saw an empire under the command of a singular entity as dangerous. They were quick to associate the power of the monarchs and tyrants with excess, indulgence and arbitrary rule. For them, too much power in the hands of one man would inevitably lead to acts of gratuitous and extreme cruelty because, in reality, who could stop him?
An Eastern source that, perhaps, validates this view is the Behistun Inscription. The inscription serves as a justification of the seemingly dubious usurpation by, and victories of the King, Darius I, who ruled from 522 to 486 BCE. The victories were against rebellions that spawned across the Empire following Darius’ accession to the throne. His triumphs over the nine ‘Liar Kings’ stood as a stark reminder of the King’s supreme power. The ‘Liar Kings’ were called such as they apparently fabricated false claims to the throne. Two elements that are of particular interest within this monumental declaration of power are: the sanction of the Persian god Auramazda; and the brutality of some punishments inflicted upon a number of rebel kings. Referring to the Kings Phraortes of Media (II.32) and Tritantaechmes of Sagartia (II.33), Darius speaks of “cutting off both their noses and ears, putting out one eye…” and then displaying their corpses outside the palace gates as a warning to the people not to challenge his kingship. And towards the end of the inscription, IV.60-61, Darius threatens to punish those who “concealed the edict and did not publish it to the world,” also threatening their families. At first glance we can understand why the Greeks were weary of such absolute power, but are we really considering the whole picture? History has repeatedly shown us that to gain power, as an empire, is to be strong enough to overrule and control foreign lands; to maintain power is to show kindness to those who support you and to punish those who do not; and to keep people from uprising is to instil in them a sense of fear. Is this not what Darius was trying to achieve?
Taking this into consideration, we can try to tackle the stereotype. On ‘Orientalism and the Achaemenid empire,’ one scholar, Henry P. Colburn, has made a significant remark, stating that:
“In Darius’ monumental trilingual inscription, while there are references to mutilation and execution, these are cases of high treason, which in most societies carry a penalty of utmost severity.”
The notion of power is important. Darius was not acting unprovoked, he was simply doing what all powerful leaders needed to do in order to keep their power and, by displaying his victories, he was ensuring that his ‘brutality’ was used to signal his ability to act with impunity. That all this was done “by the grace of Auramazda,” shows that his actions were seemingly sanctioned by divine forces, and so were acts of righteousness rather than terror.
An interesting comparison can be drawn between the Behistun Inscription and the Cyrus Cylinder (another Achaemenid source which outlines the earlier King, Cyrus the Great’s, entry into and takeover of Babylon in the year 539 BCE). Here, we see a story contrasting the stereotypes of brutality and intolerance. Cyrus II entered Babylon peacefully and “without battle”, saving the Babylonians from the so-called despotic rule of the impious king Nabodinus I, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. This information is backed up by another local source, the Nabodinus Chronicle. The Cyrus Cylinder honours the god Marduk (a Babylonian deity) as having chosen Cyrus as the rightful ruler. It is fascinating how the source looks to a local god, in contrast to Darius who repeatedly venerated Persian divinities. By doing this, Cyrus made sure that there was a level of respect shown towards Babylonian religion and culture. Cyrus here was willing to not only accommodate, but also partake in local traditions and customs, a diplomatic move. It was far easier to conquer lands and allow the people to continue their practises than it was to attempt to force a community to adopt a foreign culture which could have incited rebellions, and would have been (arguably) unnecessarily problematic.
However, we do have to consider that our information regarding Cyrus’ conquests is taken either from heavily propagandistic material written by the Persians, or from untrustworthy stories. According to Herodotus, Babylon had been infiltrated by the Persian General Gobryas in a less than peaceful entry into the city – feeding into the narrative that the Persian rulers were ruthless. Now if we really think about the whole situation, it seems highly unlikely that a city willingly surrendered foreign power without putting up a fight. We can put the versions together to try and form a new picture. Perhaps Cyrus did take over the city peacefully, but only after Gobryas had the Babylonians under control. The Persian King could have played it smart, leaving the violence to his generals, yet he ‘peacefully’ took over a city which had already been subjected to Persian rule, suggesting that the King may have wanted to appear tolerant, though this is only one interpretation and could be far from the reality of the situation.
Looking at Cyrus’ earlier conquests, we see what may be prime examples of Achaemenid tolerance. Having successfully taken over Media and Lydia (once again, we have contradictory accounts – what a surprise!) Cyrus supposedly treated the fallen kings with lenience. Astyages, former King of Media, was spared and allowed to continue in a life of luxury. The pattern repeats with Croesus, the fallen King of Lydia, who was granted a “Median city, the revenue of which made it so that the defeated king could maintain his lifestyle.” We know that Cyrus took care to ensure that he “conducted himself as Astyages’ successor” and that by doing so he embedded himself within Median tradition, in turn displaying his tolerant attitude. Under Cyrus’ rule, conquered lands kept their own administrative processes and languages (comparable to the reign of Darius who introduced Old Persian across the Empire), allowing them autonomy.
Now, if you could ask an Ancient Greek who they thought was the worst Achaemenid ruler, it would be unsurprising if they responded with ‘Cambyses.’ What made this King so notorious? Cambyses, the successor of Cyrus the Great, was seen as the ‘mad king.’ His apparent brutality is a focal point for Herodotus’ scrutiny, and when reading his Histories, we are privy to images of intolerance and outbursts of madness. A stand-out event, chronicled by Herodotus, is found at 3.29 where he describes how Cambyses
“Half mad, drew his dagger, aimed a blow at Apis’ belly [an important Egyptian bull deity], but missed and struck his thigh. He then laughed, and said to the priests: ‘Do you call that a god, you poor creatures. Are your gods flesh and blood? Do they feel the prick of steel? No doubt a god like that is good enough for the Egyptians; but you won’t get away with trying to make a fool of me.”
The attitude displayed here is a far cry from that of his father. According to Herodotus, Cambyses’ brutality was not just reserved for his subjected peoples, but even extended towards other Persians (“there were other Persians too whom he treated with the savagery of a lunatic”, 3.34). Little is known about Cambyses’ rule as a supposedly despotic ruler, and so we must rely on the Greek traditions. We know that these historians held hostilities towards him (more so than any other ruler) and thus we assume that this was born out of some truth. However, we have no contemporary Egyptian sources to corroborate these negative accounts. The only other material evidence we have is an inscription on a sarcophagus (for the bull Apis) that states that “[Cambyses] the king of Upper and Lower Egypt…made as his monument to his father Apis-Osiris a large sarcophagus…dedicated by the king…” This debunks the story told in the Herodotean tradition but must be taken with a pinch of salt as it was the King himself who ordered the funeral proprieties – as a ruler he was obviously not going to propagate an unfavourable image of himself.
No discussion on the Achaemenid royals can be complete without a, at least brief, consideration of Xerxes, the infamous King, immortalized by his failure to securely seize Greece (though this too is an unfair generalization – an argument for another time). As scholar Emma Bridges has noted, Xerxes was often regarded as “the fearsome slave-master with an imperialist mission to conquer Greece.” His reign is seen as the turning point in Achaemenid rule with a newfound disregard for respecting local traditions (much unlike his forefathers); if we believe this then we see how Xerxes’ personality feeds into the stereotype of Persian intolerance. The traditional narrative sees his rule as the mark of decline, with the Empire becoming an increasingly hollow shell. The issue here is that without any real Persian evidence, we cannot confidently say whether Xerxes was despotic and cruel or just another succeeding ruler of a powerful Empire. It would be wrong to reduce his twenty-one-year reign to military failures and Greek prejudices; his case often “demonstrates how pervasive the hellenocentric bias in our view of Ancient Persia really is” – and we confidently now know that the Greeks had a way of changing the narrative in accordance with their dislike of monarchial rule.
Herodotus, Ctesias and Plutarch may have recorded acts of brutality and intolerance but what we do not to see is the larger picture. These were a few incidents, recorded by Greeks, across an empire that lasted several hundred years, necessary in maintaining its strength. The very concept of empire is built upon the idea of a powerful people and a subjected people; to say that the Achaemenids were unjustly cruel, brutal, and intolerant is to condemn all empires. In fact, many contemporary Eastern sources suggest that the Achaemenids could not be characterized by brutality and despotism.
Written by Kavisha Kamalanathan
Briant, P. ‘The Land-Collectors: Cyrus the Great and Cambyses (559-522), From Cyrus to Alexander, pp. 31-61.
Bridges, Emma. ‘Pride, Panhellenism and Propaganda: Xerxes in the Fourth Century BC’, Imagining Xerxes: Ancient Perspectives on a Persian King, 2016, pp.99-126.
Colburn, Henry P. ‘Orientalism, Postcolonialism, and the Achaemenid Empire: Meditations on Bruce Lincoln’s ‘Religion, Empire and Torture.’ Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, vol.54, Wiley, 2011, pp 87-100.
Kuhrt, A. ‘The Great Conquests’, Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, pp. 403-413.
Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen. ‘The personality of Xerxes’ in Bakker, De Jong and Van Wees Companion to Herodotus 2002.
Schwinghammer, G. ‘Imperial crisis’, Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire pp. 417-427.