Womens’ Lives in Ancient Persia

Ancient Persia

Any analysis of women’s lives and status in ancient times is a very complicated task and needs time and space. This very brief article intends to provide much needed basic information based on archeological evidence and will deal primarily with women in Achaemenid times (550-331 BC). The material is based on fortification and treasury texts discovered at Persepolis (509-438 BC) and documents recovered at Susa, Babylonia and other major Mesopotamian cities of the period. These texts provide us with a unique insight into the social and economic situation of both the royal and non-royal women at the time. In the texts individual women are identified, payments of rations and wages for male and female workers are documented and sealed orders by the royal women themselves or their agents gives us valuable information on how these powerful women managed their wealth.The documents clearly indicate distinctions of status between different members of the royal household. The titles used by the royal women are determined by the relationship between these women and the king. For example, the King’s mother had the highest rank and seems to be the head of the female members of the household. The next was the Queen (mother of the crown prince or the principal wife) followed by the king’s daughters and sisters. They all had titles with recognized authority at the court and had their own administration for managing their considerable wealth. Funerary customs and inscriptions commemorating the death of royal women also reflect the official recognition of these women, particularly the king’s mother and wife. The king was the ultimate source of authority and the royal women acted within a clearly defined spectrum of norms and standards set by the king. However, within the spectrum they enjoyed economic independence, were involved in the administration of economic affairs, traveled and controlled their wealth and position by being active, resolute and enterprising.

The non-royals and the ordinary workers are mentioned by their rank in the specific work group or workshops in which they were employed. The rations they received were based on skill and the level of responsibility they assumed in the workplace. The professions are divided by gender and listed according to the amount of their ration. Records indicate that some professions were undertaken by both sexes while others were restricted to either male or female workers. There are male and female supervisors at the mixed workshops working together.  The higher rations male and female supervisors received shows little difference in the amount of rations, meaning they were not differentiated based on their gender.

Ancient Persia

There are also occasions where women listed in the same category as men received fewer rations and vice versa. Female managers have different titles presumably reflecting their level of skill and rank. The highest-ranking female workers in the texts are called arashshara (great chief). They appear repeatedly in the texts, were employed at different locations and managed large groups of women children and sometimes men working in their units. They usually received high rations of wine and grains exceeding all the other workers in the unit including the males.New mothers and pregnant women received higher rations and sons were clearly preferred over daughters. If they delivered boys, both the mother and the nurse or the physician received higher rations. The extra payments were given out for one month only. Consistently mothers of boys received twice the amount compared to mothers of baby girls.

There is no evidence of infanticide for girls as the number of births of male children only slightly exceeds the number of girls born. The most striking evidence of workers in the texts is for Irdabama. Her workforce appears at several locations. The range of her personnel extends from smaller units to groups of several hundred workers of both sexes adults and children alike. She owned property and had her own private seal. The fact that she had her own seal indicates that she might have been related to the royal family. However, she is not referred to as a royal and does not belong to the royal household. She controlled her workforce directly and the number of officials working for her emphasizes her independent economic status.

Other prominent female managers are also mentioned with relatively large workforces at several locations. The texts demonstrate that these work units headed by female managers were found throughout the regions covered by the archives. It is also clear that ration scales varied according to the qualifications of laborers in the same profession and that within this differentiated scheme male and female workers received equal rations. However, in cases where the labor is not specialized, it appears that men received more rations than women did. In the records numbers of male and female workers are well balanced, a clear indication of women’s active and healthy participation in the economic life of the period.

Ancient Persia

The texts dealing with the royal and aristocratic women provide a remarkable picture of the lives of the people and the workings of the ancient Empire. These documents clearly identify royal women but also give us a glimpse into the lives of others involved in the royal circle. We learn about Artim, the nanny for a royal daughter, receiving rent for a property she owns. The tax paid by Madamis, another female employee in the royal court, indicates that land ownership by women was not exclusive to royal women and must have been a lot more widespread than anticipated. Such information indicates a level of independence and recognition of women as legal entities who could own sell or lease their properties.The documents recognize the biological descent of the royal offspring and the significance of the natural mother. Cambyses and Bardiya are described as descendants of the same father and the same mother. This implies that there were other children not born from the same mother. Full and half brothers and sisters are mentioned plus other women of the king who held a status other than that of king’s wife. There is also a remarkable extension of parental terms where non-related people were called sons or daughters and the elderly were referred to as father or mother expressing respect and affection.

The Persepolis tablets reveal three different terms of reference for women: mutu, irti and duksis. The first one is always applied to ordinary women while the other two were used for royal women. In one document Artazostre, a daughter of king Darius, is referred to as Mardunuya iriti sunki parki meaning ‘the wife of Mardonius, daughter of the king’. Such use of terminology shows the significance of the women’s marital status and her relationship to the king. The royal women are also named individually in many documents. Artystone wife of Darius I is mentioned frequently in the documents along with Parysatis, the wife of Darius II. Both are mentioned in many Neo-Babylonian documents as major landowners in Persia Media Babylonia and Syria. They leased their estates to fief-holders whose rents were collected by their bailiffs and other agents. Artystone had three estates and to date thirty-eight letters with her personal seal have been identified. The letters confirm a massive workforce based at each estate with storage facilities for grain and other produce. A steward who received direct orders from the queen administered each estate. In some instances, the king and the queen use the same officials and occasionally they have their own agents.

Ancient Persia

Fortification texts reveal that royal women traveled extensively, visited their estates, and administered their wealth individually, and at times with help from their husbands. Travel rations identify their travel partners, guards, servants, cooks etc. Texts mention both queens traveling to Babylonia and overseeing tax payments and rental collections. We read about a ” judge belonging to the house of Parysatis”. It is not specified what he did. Persians had their own judicial system in the conquered territories and presumably the queen had her own judge looking after her affairs. She owned many villages in Babylonia, where the residents were free subjects and did not belong to the queen as slaves, but they had to pay taxes in the form of wine agricultural products, livestock etc. Lavish parties were given by the female royalty, huge amounts of wine, meat, and other food products were ordered for special occasions with or without the king’s sealed orders. They participated in royal festivities and banquets in addition to organizing their own feasts. For instance, in one document Darius himself orders delivery of wine to his wife Irtahduna, while in other documents the ladies themselves order wine and grain for their quarters.

Families were patriarchal, in which polygamy and concubines existed; marriage with close relatives even brothers and sisters was practiced. Such marriages normally occurred when matrilineal inheritance was an issue. In such systems, daughters received a large inheritance and since dowries also had to be paid, one practical solution for keeping the wealth in the family was to marry close relatives. So far we know nothing about the inheritance system in Achaemenid times. Therefore, it is not possible to make any conclusion as how family members inherited or why they practiced such marriages. We do know that the king’s mother, wife, and daughters owned large properties but whether they acquired their property through inheritance or other means is not clear. The same family and marriage patterns are found amongst the nobles and wealthy citizens throughout the empire. With respect to royal concubines, they existed and are normally referred to as ‘women of the king’. They had personal attendants and were not exclusive to the kings. They are found in the palaces of the satraps and Persian nobles. There is not enough information about their status to make concrete conclusions. Some would have been captives and from foreign origins. They are found together with the other women in the king’s or the noble’s entourage. They were present in the banquets and on royal hunts. The kings and the nobles would normally marry into the Persian royalty and aristocracy, so it is very unlikely that they were ever married and gained the status of a wife in such households. There are scattered references to individual concubines favored by certain kings, but such evidence is scant and not substantiated.

Mixed marriages amongst Persian and non-Persians also existed but were rare amongst the royals. The royal children were often used in marriages to create alliances between different groups and even between nations. Darius married off her daughters to military leaders (mostly Persian) throughout the empire. He married the daughters of nobles Gorbryas, Otanes, his own niece and daughters of the Cyrus II, Cambyses II and Bardiya. Darius’s marriages are very unusual. Matrilineal descent might have been important at this time and his reason for marrying all the royal women of the previous kings might have been an attempt to eliminate any contestants to the throne. In his inscriptions Darius claims descent from the house of Achaemenid; however, the historical evidence does not support such a claim and marriages in this manner would have safeguarded his claim to the throne if indeed he did not belong to the Cyrus’s lineage.

We know divorce existed but have no information on details. Amestris a niece of Darius is mentioned several times in the texts. She was married to a man called Craterus, but he soon abandoned her. After her divorce, she was remarried to Dionysius, a local ruler. They produced three children and after her husband’s death in 306 BC she acted as regent. She reigned as queen for a while, but was finally murdered by her sons. We do not have much information about the marriage ceremonies. The only direct account is Alexander’s wedding at Susa with the Iranian princess Stateira a daughter of the defeated king Darius III. As reported by the Greek historians the wedding was carried out in Persian tradition: “The bride entered the room and sat beside the bridegroom. He took her hands and kissed them. The two ate from the same loaf of bread sliced in two parts by a sword and drank some wine. After the ceremony her husband took the bride home”.

Contemporary sources in Babylonia and other territories under Achaemenid shed some light on the legal side of the marriage alliances of ordinary couples. We have no evidence that the practices described in these documents would be identical to those in Persia, however similarities existed and the information is revealing. Forty-five such marriage contracts are discovered in Babylonia. The contracts are always between the husband and members of the bride’s family. They begin with the husband’s pledge to be given the woman in marriage and gifts to be presented to the bride and her family. If the husband decides to take a second wife, he is to give the first wife a specified sum of money and she may return to her home. The women’s dowry could include land, household equipment, jewelry, money and slaves. If the wife committed adultery, the punishment was normally death. The contracts were sealed in front of several witnesses who were also named in the agreements.


Other documents in Babylonia (also Elam and Egypt) show that women owned properties, which they could sell or lease. After the death of her husband, the widowed wife inherited from the deceased even if she did not have children. A woman could not act as a witness in the drawing up of contracts, but she could act as a contracting party and have her own seal. If there were children from two wives, the children of the first wife inherited two thirds and the others one third only. It is not clear what would be the case if a man had more than two wives. If a woman died childless, the dowry was returned to the house of her father. There were attempts by Darius to codify the legal system but no standard set of laws has been discovered. The conquered territories used their own legal system with little interference from the central administration. For example, Jewish colonies in Elephantine in Egypt followed their own legal code. Husbands remained monogamous and all property and family matters were settled in the special courts of the Jews.

Of all the territories under Achaemenid administration Egyptian women enjoyed the most rights and privileges. The family was basically monogamous but under certain conditions husbands could marry other wives and were permitted to have sexual intercourse with slaves and household servants (common practice in the region). A husband did not have the right to pawn his wife as security for his debts. This practice existed in various forms in Babylonia and even Sassanian Persia. Wives retained their own property in marriage and after divorce. They also had the right to transfer their property to their children as inheritance and could initiate divorce. If the husband initiated divorce, he had to apportion a part of the property to his wife. If the woman asked for a divorce, she had to return the money she had received from her husband as bride price and could not lay claim upon property acquired jointly with the husband. Sons and daughters inherited equal portions. However, fathers’ power over children was substantial and he could pawn them as security for debt.

To what extent Persian family and marriage contracts resembled above examples is hard to say without concrete evidence. But there would have been similarities since Achaemenid extensively utilized Neo-Babylonian and Egyptian codes of conduct and legal systems as part of their imperial policy. One major difference that existed between the Persian women and others in the empire is with respect to the participation in religious cults. Egyptians and Babylonians had many goddesses and temples designated to female deities. Women, including royalty, served and participated actively in running of these temples and ritual ceremonies. Neither the Fortification texts nor the Greek evidence suggests that Achaemenid royal women played any part in religious ceremonies. There is no reference to other women being involved either. We do know that before assuming their throne and going to major wars the kings were ritually blessed at the temple of Anahita—a significant female deity. However, there is no evidence to demonstrate that females including royalty participated at such rituals. Strict purity laws might have restricted women’s access to such involvement but in the absence of historical records no conclusion can be made.

The Greek sources and the fortification texts do not shed any light on the subject of veiling and seclusion of Persian women. Veiling has a long history in ancient Mesopotamia and Mediterranean cultures. In the first known reference to veiling, an Assyrian legal text of the thirteenth century BC, it is restricted to respectable women and prohibited for the prostitutes and lower class women. There is no depiction of women in Persepolis itself, however there are many seals, statues and figurines that indicate there were no restrictions on the depiction of Persian women. In some of these, women are pictured fully clothed with partial veils; in others, they are dressed, even crowned, but with no veil. The aristocratic and royal women very likely used the veil in public as a sign of their higher status. But veiling as an institution to subjugate, control and exclude women from public domain originated after the Islamic conquest.

In summary, the evidence of the Fortification and Treasury texts provide us with a unique insight into the social and economic situation of Persian women, royal and non-royal, as well as female workers. These women owned property and were involved in managing their assets. They also participated in economic activities of the estate and other economic units. They had employment opportunities, earned wages and as a result were able to be economically independent. The patriarchal system prevailed and husbands and other males had far more rights and privileges than their wives or children. Nevertheless, such evidence clearly indicates that women in ancient Iran were not an undifferentiated mass leading a secluded life behind high walls without any function and purpose other than child-rearing—a situation that sadly became their destiny for many centuries after the collapse of the Sassanian Empire.



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