Did Women Have Real Power in the Achaemenid Court? 

Written by Eleonora Soteriou

Classical sources repeatedly depict royal and high-ranking women of the Achaemenid court (559-331 BCE) as some of the most powerful women in the ancient world due to their influence over kings and noblemen. This belief has been held since ancient times, and recent evidence discovered in the last century has led to scholarship reasserting female authority in the Achaemenid court. I seek to add to this scholarship by discussing the various powers that Achaemenid women held. First, I will explore the topic of royal women’s economic independence and autonomy. Next, I will examine women’s ability to hold their own audiences. Finally, I will determine the ways in which women participated in the king’s court and the extent to which they had the power to influence political affairs. 

One of the main privileges of royal Achaemenid mothers and wives, according to both Classical and indigenous sources, was their autonomy. These royal women were free to travel alone around the empire with their own attendants, as shown by clay tablets depicting Irdabama, the mother of Darius I (r. 522-486), travelling with her daughter-in-law, Irtaštuna. Royal women’s autonomy is also reflected in the fact that they could hold their own banquets. This is depicted in the book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible and is inferred by the large numbers of food ordered by the king for the queen, suggesting feasts involving hundreds of people. Additionally, there is evidence that royal Achaemenid women were economically independent. Some Persepolis Fortification texts, which are impressed with the personal seal of Irdabama, document episodes in which Irdabama manages her own estates, employs copious amounts of workers who carry out food distributions, and oversees her own building projects. 

Similarly, Plato records that Amestris, the mother of Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424/3 BCE), possessed her own vast estates, and Xenophon writes that Parysatis, the wife of Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE), had her own villages close to the river Chalus. These activities indicate how crucial royal women were for facilitating and establishing social relations within the court, as shown by the banquets they hosted amongst other elites and by their travels across the empire. Thus, royal women’s powers of personal and economic autonomy might have been tied to certain expectations due to their higher rank. These were not necessarily official duties, but these women helped the court by formulating good relationships with elites which would ensure the loyalty of satrapies who tended ‘to turn their back on the central government’. Thus, by maintaining good social relations, royal women could secure the king’s–and thereby their own–positions whilst also fulfilling their own ambitions and maintaining the king’s favour.  

Royal women could attend the king’s audiences, which is another display of their autonomy, but they also held their own which paralleled those of the king in their various customs and motifs. This used to be a widely disputed argument, since many depictions of women found on seals (which current scholarship now accepts as audience scenes of royal women) used to be interpreted as scenes of religious offerings to various goddesses. The disproval of the seals’ religious interpretation still dominates much of the current scholarship on ancient Achaemenid women. One of the most famous seals discussed is the chalcedony cylinder seal (Fig. 1), whose impression reveals three women. One is seated on a high-backed chair, with her feet resting on a footstool. She wears a crown and a veil which covers her whole back and holds what many scholars believe to be a lotus flower, while another, younger woman offers her a bird. The third woman stands at a distance, behind a large incense burner. Various aspects of these women’s appearance, such as their wide-sleeved dresses with multiple folds as well as the bobbed hairstyle of the woman standing behind the incense burner, identify them as high-ranking women, while the distinctive headdress of the seated woman is telling of her royal identity.  

Moreover, the motifs of the high-backed chair, the footstool, the incense burner, and the lotus are all exact parallels to depictions of the king’s audience scenes, as seen in Figure 2. In combination with the evidence we have of royal women’s autonomy and their social role in the king’s court as discussed above, seeing that they held audiences does not come as much of a surprise. This activity strengthens the argument that they could function as ’mediators between the king and members of the Persian nobility’. Moreover, it suggests that royal women could make decisions on various affairs independently of the king, especially concerning the harem, as Ctesias suggests. Most likely, however, there were limitations as to what kind of decisions they could take and that even royal women’s desires could not go against the will of the king. 

Interestingly, other seals indicate that holding an audience was not only a power held by the royal women of the Achaemenid court but also by high-ranking women across the empire. The seals in Figures 3 and 4 depict strikingly similar scenes to that of the Chalcedony Cylinder Seal (Fig. 1). Differences which mark the women as high-ranking but not royal lie only in their clothes–which maintain the wide sleeves but lack the folds—as well as their headdress–which maintains the bobbed hairstyle but lacks the veil–and their enthronement–which lacks the footstool, while their chair has a lower back. The great similarities between the seals have tempted scholars to suggest a common manufacturer, however, most agree that the image of the female audience scene was copied by local elites, suggesting its recognition as a symbol of high status. In evidence of these seals which were found across the empire, it seems likely that these high-ranking women of the court could also hold audiences and thus might have had similar autonomies to royal women, such as holding and managing their own properties.  

One of the main political powers which women of the court possessed, but which they were not able to wield themselves, was marriage. All high-ranking women would have been married for reasons of political advantage, and their husbands would have been chosen by their father or closest male relative. The marriages of royal women, however, would be even more consequential. Royal women were central to the stability of the empire due to their role in ensuring the continuation of the dynasty. Strategic marriages were constantly used by kings during the Achaemenid period to secure their claim to the throne and leave no room for competitors. A principal example is that of Darius I, who married all the royal women whose sons might have had a claim to the throne, allowing no competition for his position to arise and ensuring that he could be the only one to produce a legitimate heir according to ancestral lineage. However, royal marriages did not only ensure the stability of the empire by maintaining dynastic continuity but also by connecting satrapies through family bonds. Royal daughters often established strong political alliances by being married to local satraps which prevented uprisings or rebellions against the king. 

Written evidence suggests that, in marriage, high-ranking women could have some political influence through which they usually strived to put, keep, or restore their close male relatives to high positions. The story of Amestris captures the range of women’s powers. Amestris mediated for her son-in-law, Megabyxos, who was exiled by Artaxerxes I after staging a rebellion, and joined an embassy sent by the king to resolve the conflict. Amestris and her daughter Amytis, Megabyxos’ wife, managed to convince the king to allow Megabyxos to return to the royal court. In this case, the king recognised the role of women as mediators as well as their diplomatic skills. He sent women as ambassadors and rewarded their success by reinstalling Megabyxos to the court. Similarly, royal women worked to put or keep their sons or husbands on the throne. For example, Parysatis was involved in the death of Sogdianus, who wished to usurp the throne from her husband Darius II, and with the death of Artoxares, a eunuch who also attempted to remove him from power. Another notable example is recorded by Herodotus, who suggests that the succession of Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) to the throne was successful due not to the advice of his father Darius I, but due to his mother Atossa’s careful political manoeuvrings.  

Thus, it becomes evident that many of the cruel or murderous intrigues which Achaemenid women are famous for ‘are not simply acts of casual vindictiveness […] but genuine political power struggles in which rival wives and mothers pushed their favoured sons forward to gain the position of crown prince or Great King’. Additionally, the hustle of both royal and high-ranking women to achieve or maintain their high status through the position of their male relatives is evidence that a higher rank allowed for more privileges and power. Even though women had no choice in who they would marry, marriage gave them the powers of independence and autonomy to handle their own affairs and act as mediators to maintain their own as well as their family’s status. 

Royal women–especially the mothers and wives of kings– held the most power in the Achaemenid court. These powers were made available to them through politically advantageous marriages decided by their male relations. Despite their inability to choose their spouses, marriage allowed these women financial independence such as owning and managing their own estates, as well as limited autonomies such as travelling alone for their own and the king’s purposes. Moreover, the fact that royal women held feasts for hundreds of people indicates their social power and crucial role in facilitating and establishing good relations amongst the nobility, aiding in the stability of political affairs, or even indirectly intervening to ensure favourable socio-political outcomes. The ability of both royal and high-ranking women to hold audiences is another indication of their autonomy. While the details of these audiences are vague, their existence suggests that they reflect women’s role as mediators. Even though their powers were limited, royal and high-ranking women both had the power and resources to intervene indirectly within the affairs of the Achaemenid court to certain extents.


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Featured image credit: “Achaemenid prince’s head (National Museum of Iran),” photograph by DanielTheGreat. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Achaemenid_prince%27s_head_1.jpg.

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