Monday, April 16, 2012

On slavery

I can think of few subjects more touchy or more widely misunderstood than that of slavery in the Persian empire.  On the one hand is the Classical belief that all the Great King's subjects were basically slaves.  On the other is the widespread myth that slavery simply didn't exist either in Persia or any of its subject lands.

The first idea stems from Greek writers, and is likely a rhetorical device.  The Greeks, particularly democrats like the Athenians, were ill-disposed toward absolute monarchies, where the Great King had the power to put to death even high nobles on the mere suspicion of disloyalty (as befell Intaphrenes).  Furthermore, in the Greek national discourse, the weak and submissive nature of the barbarians contrasted with the manly and free-spirited Greeks.  Pierre Briant has also suggested that Greek translators rendered bandaka (approximately "bonded"; in fact it shares the same PIE root) as doulos, "slave," when the word could just as easily mean "servant" or "subject" (it is used in the Behistun inscription to refer both to Darius' generals and to imperial territories).  Thus, in Greek discourse, the imperial subjects were like slaves in status and may have been (mis)understood to actually be slaves in name.

The second myth has much more recent roots; in fact, much of the responsibility for it rests on the last king of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavī (1919-1980).  Mohammad Rezā envisioned a secular, socially reformist Iran and saw the empire of Cyrus the Great as an historical precursor to his own.  It was his government that referred to the Cyrus Cylinder as a "declaration of human rights."  A false translation was published and remains widely circulated which has the Great King proclaim, among other things, emancipation for all slaves and religious freedom for all subjects.  In truth the Cylinder makes no such sweeping statements, though it does speak of ending a corvée that Nabonidus supposedly placed on Babylon's citizens.

Babylonian commercial tablets from the early Achaemenid period confirm that slaves were still owned and traded, including by the king.  Indeed, a sales tax on them was instituted during Darius' reign.  Babylonian slave deeds also record a legal stricture against the selling of free citizens.  There are indications that some peasants were bound to their villages and protected against being sold; in other words, serfs, neither slaves (moveable property) nor really free, since a body of workers was essential to the value of the land.  Muhammad A. Dandamayev (Encyclopaedia Iranica) sums up the extent of slavery thusly:

On the whole, there was only a small number of slaves in relation to the number of free persons...  .  The basis of agriculture was the labor of free farmers and tenants and in handicrafts the labor of free artisans, whose occupation was usually inherited within the family, likewise predominated.

The other institution which may fall under slavery (by modern standards) was a class of workers known in Elamite as kurtaš, possibly from an Old Persian root *gṛda, believed to mean "household slave" (Iranica).  They originated from all over the empire and worked in large numbers constructing Persepolis, assembling armor and other skilled crafts, herding royal livestock, and serving on private estates.  They were mostly compensated in rations, but sometimes in silver (which Briant theorizes wasn't literally silver, but credit to be used in a truck system) or even land rentals.  They could (at least sometimes) own property.  Unfortunately, none of these facts clearly define the kurtaš's legal status.

It's likely many kurtaš were prisoners of war, the populations we read of in Greek histories (the Eretrians being one of many examples) who were taken from their homes and resettled elsewhere in the empire.  In the case of involuntary movements of kurtaš groups, as Briant puts it, "this was a situation much closer to slavery than the 'helot' type of rural dependency..."  Dandamayev, however, concludes that the kurtaš also comprised "a few free people who worked voluntarily for wages, and some individuals who were temporarily working off their labor service."

A note:  Most of From Cyrus to Alexander may be found and searched at Google Books.

Next up:  First in the arms series, the bow.

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