Sunday, April 1, 2012

On Persian society

The pre-Achaemenid history of the Persians is known only through allusions in Akkadian texts, but the Eastern Iranian setting of the Avesta may provide clues about society among the early Iranian peoples.  Here, society was divided into three castes, clergy, warriors and farmers.

The Persian xšayathiya (king), like the Indian kshatriya, was viewed as a warrior.  Thus Darius I's tomb proclaims him "a good bowman" and "a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback," and Xerxes I would copy him almost exactly in a later inscription.  Likewise, royal seals as early as Kurash the Anshanite, believed to be Cyrus I the grandfather of Cyrus the Great, show the king personally slaying enemies.  Of course, the evolution of the aristocratic class from the tribal warrior caste isn't the least bit unusual among nations in general, and is practically the rule among Indo-Europeans.  Zoroaster himself is described in one Avestan hymn as "the first priest, the first warrior, the first plougher of the ground," and some researchers find evidence that Achaemenids regarded themselves in the same way.  Among Darius' Persepolis inscriptions are prayers to Ahura Mazda to protect his country from "invaders, from famine and from the Lie," prayers on behalf of the warriors, farmers and priests.

While the king's power often seemed dictatorial, his position was precarious.  The Persians were divided into several tribes - Herodotus lists ten, with the Achaemenids as heads of the Pasargadae tribe - and the kings needed the cooperation of the major tribal leaders to be able to govern.  The ability of Gaumâta (or Bardiya as the case may have been) to raise the kingdom against Cambyses, its legitimate king, and the revolts that followed the succession of Darius showed how much power remained in the hands of the king's vassals, both the nobility of Persia and of its imperial holdings.  Pierre Briant (From Cyrus to Alexander) suggests that one pillar of the king's power was the ability to distribute land grants to noblemen from which to raise their military forces, and furthermore to confiscate these grants and redistribute them to more loyal nobles as needed; that this is what Darius speaks of when he describes restoring the lands which Gaumâta had taken away.  Xenophon in the Cyropaedia describes similar actions on the part of Cyrus the Great.

It was likewise by a conspiracy of great nobles that Darius took the throne, and in his Behistun inscriptions, he urged his successors to continue their alliance with the families of his companions.  Thereafter, if Greek historiography is anything to go by, Persian kings would try to surround themselves with the most loyal nobles, developing a court system that encouraged devotion to the monarch.  The satraps' relatives were also part of the court, in a sense hostages reinforcing the satraps' loyalty.  Xenophon states that their children were educated there, doubtless instilling a sense of respect for the hereditary monarchy.

The priesthood is a rather more opaque topic than the warrior aristocracy.  Herodotus refers to the Magoi (Magi in Latin) as a Mede tribe, but otherwise uses the word to refer to a priestly caste.  Whether this then means that the Mede tribe supplied the Persians' priests, or simply that the tribe happened to have the same (or a similar) name as the priesthood, is difficult to determine, but Greek sources rarely use it to refer to the priesthood.  Jona Lendering has supported the former sense by comparison with the Levites, an Israelite tribe who traditionally served as the Israelite's priests.  In the Histories, the Magi officiate over all sacrifices and recite hymns.  In the Persepolis tablets, they're recorded as administrators as well as conductors of religious ceremonies.

According to Herodotus, the fight between Darius' conspirators and Smerdis/Gaumâta spilled over into a purge of all the Magi from the palace where Smerdis was staying, and ever since then, on the anniversary of the fight no Magi were permitted to leave their homes.  The veracity of this part of the story is questionable, but I know of no subsequent references in Greek or Persian sources to the Magi threatening the authority of the kings, whose greatest enemies thereafter were their own relatives and ambitious officials, though the Magi were integrated into the court even to the days of Alexander.

The lowest caste, the farmers, herders and workers, rarely enter into the historical record.  The military and hunter culture described by Greek writers is the culture of the aristocracy.  Obviously a peasantry was needed to support them.  Peasants therefore probably didn't normally serve as soldiers except in unusually large expeditions, like Xerxes' invasion of Greece.  Thus the system could be recognized as feudal; large estate owners owed military service to the king, while their land was actually worked by serfs, slaves and renters.  There are anecdotes suggesting that it was possible for a commoner to earn royal favor and a place in the court, but nothing suggesting a large amount of upward social mobility.

Next up:  Something about a hat.

No comments:

Post a Comment