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Human Rights and Rise of the Achaemenid Empire:

Forgotten Lessons from a Forgotten Era


  

By: Behzad Hassani

June 2007

 

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  Map.1. The Achaemenid Dynastic Empire 550-330 BCE (Click to enlarge)

 

Of all the great civilizations of the ancient world, that of Persia is one of the most remarkable, but least understood.  The story of the Persian Empire is truly the story of the glorious Achaemenid Dynasty.  Descended from Achaemenes, a minor ruler from mountainous district of Southwest Iran, the Achaemenids came to power in 546 BCE when Cyrus the Great, the first emperor, established the Persian Empire (Map 1). He united Persia and Media and founded an Empire that would eventually stretch from the Indian Ocean to the Aegean Sea.  Cyrus was killed in a war against the Eastern Scythians, and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses in 529 BCE  Cambyses spent most of his years as an Emperor fighting numerous revolts around his domain.  Cambyses died in 522 BCE, and after a brief period was succeeded by Darius the Great (521-486), a relative from a collateral branch of the family (Koch 1992).  Darius perfected the glorious rise of the Empire with decades of peace, prosperity, and innovation.  After Darius, the weakening and fall of the Empire was evident.  Maladministration, incapable rulers, blood letting among the nobles, and incompetence of the military leadership led to the ultimate collapse of the Empire under Alexander’s thrust in 330 BCE (Olmstead 1959).  What was the secret to their success? How could they rule an Empire of 20 Satraps (Provinces) covering an area of almost two million square miles with more than 10 million inhabitants 2500 years ago (Olmstead 1959)?  These questions have fascinated archaeologists around the world for decades.  Undoubtedly, the early Achaemenid kings’ competent administrations and strong military made significant contributions to their glorious rise.  Now, with the help of new evidence, it appears that the Achaemenids’ perception of politics of conquest and of human rights was of crucial importance to the rise and stability of their kingdom.  Numerous examples clearly illustrate Cyrus’ view of multiculturalism and religious and racial tolerance towards those he conquered.  Also, evidence suggests that Darius followed in Cyrus’ footsteps in the politics of conquest and allowed the satrapies to maintain their cultural and religious values and laws.  Evidence from the Fortification Tablets give us a comprehensive view of the wages and rights of common workers, equity of man and woman, and the role of women in this ancient Persian Empire.  Many believe that such structure was influenced by the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, which clearly advocated such rights.  The early Achaemenid kings’ recognition of human rights led to the stability and impressive achievements of this period, and influenced later dynasties as well as the future Western Empires of Rome and Greece.  

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Figure 1. Cyrus the Great' Cylinder 

Picture courtesy of the British Museum

 (Click to enlarge)

 

One of the most impressive examples of the Achaemenid politics of conquest and recognition of human rights is that of the conquest of Babylon.  Upon the conquest, Cyrus financially and politically supported the return of several ethnic groups (including the Jews), held captive in Babylon, to return to their original homelands.  Furthermore, he ordered the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple and restored the articles of worship from the Persian imperial treasury and at his own expense.  This account was confirmed at the time of Darius the Great when the text of Cyrus’s memorandum was found in the royal archives of Ecbatana and was cited in Ezra 6:2-5 (Briant 2002: 46):

In the first year of Cyrus the king, King Cyrus decreed: Temple of God in Jerusalem. The Temple will be rebuilt as a place at which sacrifices are offered and to which offerings are brought to be burnt. Its height is to be sixty cubits, its width sixty cubits. There are to be three thickness of stone blocks and one of wood. The expense is to be met by the king's household. Furthermore, the vessels of gold and silver from the Temple of God which Nebuchadnezzar took from the sanctuary in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon are to be restored so that everything may be restored to the sanctuary in Jerusalem and be put back in the Temple of God.

 

The relieved Jews praised him as the “Lord’s anointed” and the Greeks called him “a worthy ruler and lawgiver” (Wiesehofer 1996).  This latter comment is high praise coming from a people who were often at war with him.  A Babylonian chronicle reports that Cyrus respected the religious rites of their people and even prayed to the Babylonian God, Marduk, in reverence (Olmstead 1959).  The Emperor’s own verdict on his victory survives on a clay cylinder known as the “Charter of the Rights of Nations” (Figure 1) (Wiesehofer 1996: 44-45):

"I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, progeny of an unending royal line, whose rule Bel and Nabu cherish, whose kingship they desire for their hearts' pleasures.

 

When I, well-disposed, entered Babylon, I established the seat of government in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. Marduk, the great God, caused the big-hearted inhabitants of Babylon to...me. I sought daily to worship him. My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon.

 

I did not allow any to terrorize the land of Sumer and Akkad. I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well-being. The citizens of Babylon ... I lifted their unbecoming yoke. Their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes.

 

Later hailed as the first “Charter of Human Rights” (Suren-Pahlav 1999) and translated into all official U.N. languages in 1971 (United Nations Press Release 1971), the cylinder details some of Cyrus’s civic reforms, which included abolishing the highly unpopular forced-labor plan of the previous regime:

I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his [other] sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon ... I abolished forced labour ... From Nineveh, Assur and Susa, Akkad, Eshnunna, Zamban, Me-Turnu and Der until the region of Gutium, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which [used] to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I [also] gathered all their [former] inhabitants and returned [to them] their habitations.

 

A king who abolishes slavery and respects the religious freedom and cultural rights of a nation 2500 years ago was unprecedented in the history of Mankind.  The celebrated historian of ancient Persia, Professor Richard Frye comments on Cyrus’s policies: (Frye 1963: 123-4) 

“In the victories of the Persians… what was different was the new policy of reconciliation and together with this was the prime aim of Cyrus to establish a pax Achaemenica… If one were to assess the achievements of the Achaemenid Persians, surely the concept of One World,… the fusion of peoples and cultures in one ‘Oecumen’ was one of their important legacies.”

 

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Figure 2. Winged figure of Pasargadae, denoted to Cyrus the Great  (Click to enlarge)

 

Cyrus’ view on multiculturalism and the spirit of cooperation can also be witnessed in the Achaemenid art: “In Achaemenid art it will be seen that this relationship [between the king and the subject peoples] is consistently expressed as a cooperative effort of voluntary support of the king by the subject peoples” (Root 1979: 131).  Evidence of such art is in the form of a unique Bas Relief, located at Pasargadae (Figure 2).  It shows a four winged, crowned figure, believed by some to represent Cyrus himself.  The two horns of the Crown are mentioned in the Bible in the dream of Daniel, the design has an Egyptian element, the costume is Babylonian, while the wings are Persian symbols (Olmstead 1959).  This sculpture, which is the oldest intact Achaemenid Bas Relief known, clearly illustrates Cyrus’ dedication to the philosophy of multiculturalism and cooperation among the nations of the Empire.  Evidence suggests that such a lofty idea had no equal among the Near Eastern prototypes: “The Near Eastern prototypes for the Achaemenid theme consistently stress the subjugation of the peoples by the king and express the relationship between the king and his domain below as one of antagonism” (Root 1979: 131).  We will never know whether Cyrus was a true believer of what he advocated or just a great politician; nevertheless, we cannot deny his extreme capability, his modern and sublime ideas of multiculturalism, and his unique reverence for human rights.

 

As mentioned above, Darius the Great followed in his predecessor’s footsteps in that he allowed the 20 components of his Empire, satrapies, to have religious and cultural freedom.  He chose governors from the highest ranks of Persian nobility as well as royal secretaries at satrapal courts.  Although, secretaries would report secretly on satraps’ actions directly to the king; nevertheless, the satrapies were responsible for administration, legislation, cultural, and religious activities (Cook 1993).  “Darius also took pride in meting out justice and fair dealing for all, a policy he regarded as an essential part of the business of government” (Editors of Life-Time Books 1995: 93).  He also ordered government funding for the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians 63 years earlier (Cook 1993).  The reign of Darius was a time of stability and innovation.  “In Achaemenid Empire, local autonomy and decentralization of jurisdictions led to stabilizing rather than undermining the system, especially since both proceeded under constant and solid supervision from the centre” (Wiesehofer 1996: 59). Doubtlessly, Darius’s great administrative skills, and his recognition and execution of human rights, led to the Empire’s stability and well-being.

 

As for Persia, the central province of the Achaemenid Empire, extensive research and excavations have provided us with little, yet extremely valuable information about the social stratification and rights of the common people.  The major sources of information about Achaemenid Persia are the Fortification Tablets, discovered in the ancient cities of Pasargadae and Persepolis (Map 1).  Written in the form of brief administrative notes, the tablets concern the payments to workers or the supply, transfer, and distribution of the natural produce in Persia and in the south-western Iranian heartlands.  Many of such tablets were destroyed by Alexander’s army, but those that remain, provide information about the maintenance of more than 15000 individuals in more than 100 localities.  They, therefore, provide us with an approximate picture of the life of the bulk of Persian society at the time (Wiesehofer 1996).  The presence of a social hierarchy dominated by an aristocracy seems undeniable; nevertheless, three functions, that of priest, warrior, and farmer are depicted as valued in the tablets (Wiesehofer 1996).  Farming seems to have been considered a holy occupation among Persians.  Such a perception appears to have been influenced by Zoroastrianism, an essentially agricultural religion popular in Ancient Persia. It also appears that Persian society was open to people with different ethnicities as Ionians, Lydians, Lycians, Egyptians and Babylonians worked in Persia on a temporary or permanent basis and had the same rights as Persians: “If they contributed to the building of Persepolis, if they worked in the royal workshops and treasuries of Persis, as well as in farming, it was not as enslaved war prisoners, but as manpower recruited and paid by the state.” (Wiesehofer 1996: 38).  More can be discerned about the rights of commoners, who were distant from royalty and aristocracy, by examining the tablets detailing the wages and payments made to them by officials.  It appears that the state workers received cereals, flour, wine, figs, nuts, as well as small rations of meat as special allowances for their work.  There is also evidence that such goods were exchanged in local markets for other necessities.  Later on, payments were partially made in silver which was more convenient for the people (Wiesehofer 1996).  Workers were entitled to private exploitation of land, to keep a small number of livestock and were provided with essential clothing made in the state’s clothing factories (Koch 1992).  They were also provided with seeds so that they could grow the vegetables required for their nourishment (Koch 1992).

 

What were the criteria involved in determining the amounts of the wages for different people? The answer to this question is rather revolutionary: it depended on the type of activity and worker skill, and experience (Wiesehofer 1996).  It appears that gender was not a criterion at all: “The texts reveal that men and women were represented in identical professions and that they received equal payments as skilled laborers.” (Brosius 1996: 186).  Children also worked, mostly in the treasuries, copying the administrative tablets.  Older ones were paid more than the younger ones and as they aged their salaries also grew (Koch 1992).  There is strong evidence suggesting that the government assisted individuals who were paid the minimum wage with different kinds of special rations.  Those who had physically challenging jobs were paid “Difficulty of Occupation” rations and those who became ill used “Illness” rations (Koch 1992).  There were also government-funded rations called “Royal Gift” and numerous other scattered government rations which were distributed throughout the year (Koch 1992). These gifts and rations were usually composed of meat and cereals, which were essential to the nourishment of the common people (Koch 1992). Perhaps one of the most distinct special rations is the gratification for mothers or “Right of the Offspring” which was paid to women workers who had recently given birth to a child (Brosius 1996).  However, the only evidence of gender based discrimination, against girls, is in the amount of this particular ration.  There was clearly a preferential treatment if a woman gave birth to a boy.  After all, a son was regarded as the child to continue the family line in the patrilineal Persian society (Brosius 1996).  One should also consider that in many work places, employees were given free lunch and clothing which also helped family finances (Koch 1992).  Detailed consideration of all the clues from the Fortification Tablets regarding the wages of common people leads us to one final conclusion: the minimum wage (that of a common farmer) at the time of Achaemenids was clearly higher than the medium wage (that of a secretary) at the time of the Pre-Achaemenid dynasties of Mesopotamia (Koch 1992).  This recognition and respect for humanity and the well-being of the common people is unprecedented in the history of the Near East.  It is reasonable to say that the rise, stability, and glory of the meritocratic Achaemenid Dynasty was directly related to the kings’ attention to the affairs of the common people.  Proof of such involvement is in the highly sophisticated and modern central administration of the Achaemenids, one that paid detailed attention to the treatment of common workers.

 

As briefly mentioned above, a revolutionary achievement of the Achaemenid Dynasty was the promotion of the rights of women.  Women’s role in ancient Persia can be studied from the perspective of royal and non-royal characters, both of whom can be seen in the Fortification Tablets or in Greek historical documents.  It is quite possible that the matter of women’s rights was directly influenced by the Zoroastrian religious beliefs (Hinnells 1981).  The Zoroastrian view of creation clearly depicts the equity of man and woman: the first human couple emerged together from a plant; each had the same height, face and features as the other and could not be distinguished (Hinnells 1981).  It is reasonable to say that such view could have influenced the relations of men and women in ancient Persia.

 

We saw earlier that men and women were considered equal in terms of job opportunity and wages.  Further evidence suggests that many factories and royal workshops were run by women (Koch 1992).  At times men worked under the supervision of women, the latter having some of the highest salaries recorded in the tablets (Koch 1992).  Women were not usually given jobs which required traveling long distances.  Such a matter can be understood in light of the fact that women also had the chores and responsibilities of the household to tend (Koch 1992).  There is also evidence that women could take part-time jobs and even take a leave of absence after pregnancy.  It is also apparent that when women with new-born babies came back to work, their children were taken care of at a day-care center at their corresponding organization (Koch 1992).  Furthermore, it seems that monogamy was the popular theme among the commoners (Koch 1992).  Further evidence suggests that the laws of inheritance treated boys and girls equally.  Such respect for the identity of women 2500 years ago in the Near East appears to be more of a miraculous cultural revolution than mere ‘decadence’ as some Greek historians would have us believe.  Therefore, we have seen here an example of equality between men and women in ancient Persia, a value that we strive to achieve in the modern Western world, and are not always successful at doing so.

 

More is known about noble women from the Fortification texts and this allows us to examine the reliability of the Greek sources who claim: “As a rule, the barbarian peoples are excessively jealous of their wives, and the Persians outdo all others in this respect.…  They live locked up in their room, and if they have to travel, they do so in carriages hung on all sides with draperies” (Wiesehofer 1996: 85). The tablets prove that there was no such seclusion. Numerous references to the king’s wives have allowed us a unique insight into the political and economic situation of royal Persian women.  It appears that they enjoyed considerable economic independence.  They were estate owners and from their use of personal seals, it seems that they could give orders to their officials in the form of letters and also be involved in the employment of work groups and in the inspection of their estates, which frequently meant having to travel long distances (Brosius 1996).  It is also evident that senior royal women participated in politics, but with some restrictions and rules set by the king himself.  However, their motives for acting always lay in their concern for the family:  “She could neither take political action independently of the king nor become actively engaged in political affairs.  Yet she had clearly established rights and responsibilities.” (Brosius 1996: 187).  Furthermore, it seems that the polygamy in the court of Darius served to maintain friendly bonds and to strengthen internal politics, and was not common policy: “None of the successors of Darius I is known to have had more than one wife.” (Brosius 1996: 194).  Thus monogamy was the common theme of marriage in Persia during the Achaemenid reign.  Royal women were also subject to taxation and financial inspection by the officials, similar to everyone else in the Empire (Koch 1992).  Authority and economic independence enjoyed by the royal women of Persia was not seen in previous Mesopotamian Empires or even in ‘civilized’ Greece (Koch 1992).  In fact, the Greeks referred to such independence as the decadence of the Persian court (Brosius 1996).  Nevertheless, the level of activity and involvement of women in the Persia’s state affairs can only be considered revolutionary for its time.

 

Human rights may very well be the hottest issue of the day in modern Western or Eastern societies.  Debates go on; organizations such as Amnesty International strive to defend those whose basic rights as humans have been violated; sanctions against countries who violate such rights are imposed by the superpowers of the world; and women’s rights activists fight passionately for all women around the world.  Indeed, the 20th century was the century of human rights, but we should understand that the 20th century did not mark the emergence of this lofty ideal.  The fight for the rights of minorities to follow their religion or beliefs without being persecuted, and the struggle of commoners to not be crushed by the elite have gone on throughout the history of Mankind.  Some civilizations, however, solved these problems far earlier than others.  Indeed, the Achaemenid Empire was one of the few to do so.  Cyrus’ Charter of Human Rights, religious and cultural freedom of different nations, Darius’ modern administration that distinguished between individuals on the basis of skill and experience rather than gender, and the rights of women in Achaemenid Persia all are examples for us to follow.  A question comes to mind: How do we perceive the Achaemenid Empire in modern societies? The answer is rather unfortunate; we do not perceive their civilization at all.  Western scholars tend to occupy themselves with Greeks and Romans, the cultural ancestors of the Western Civilization, and rarely mention any Persian Empire.  Through careful examination, one can observe numerous influences that Achaemenid art and administration have had on the civilizations of China, Rome, and Greece (Olmstead 1959).  We should realize that if such revolutionary policies led to the glorious rise and stability of the early Achaemenid Empire, they could contribute to our well-being in modernity as well.  Perhaps in the future, we learn yet more from our forefathers.

 

Bibliography

A.  T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (Chicago, 1959)

Editors of Time-Life Books, Persians: Masters of Empire (Alexandria, 1993)

Heidemarie Koch, Es Kundet Dareios der Konig (Mainz, 1992)

J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire (New York, 1993)

John R.  Hinnells, Zoroastrianism and the Parsis (London, 1981)

Josef Wiesehofer, Ancient Persia: From 550 BC To 650 AD (New York, 1993)

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Boston, 1979)

Margaret C. Root, The King and Kingship in Achaemenid Art (Liege, 1979)

Maria Brosius, Women in Ancient Persia (559-331 BC) (Oxford, 1996)

Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander; a History of the Persian Empire (Indiana, 2002)  

Richard Frye, The Heritage of Persia: The pre-Islamic History of One of the World's Great Civilizations (New York, 1963)

Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Cyrus the Great' Cylinder:The World's First Charter of the Human Rights (1999)    (http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/History/hakhamaneshian/Cyrus-the-great)

The United Nations Press, No. 14, Cyrus the Great Cylinder (New York, October 1971) (S/N: SG/SM/1553/HQ263) (http://www.lividius.org/a/1/inscriptions/cyrus.pdf)

 

 

 

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