Royal Popes and Dangerous Women

Glimpses of the Lost Culture of Achaemenid Persia

by: Nick Welman


Nick Welman (41) is a lecturer at the Fontys University of Professional 
Education in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. His main subjects are public 
relations, global culture and sustainable development. Nick is a Master of 
Arts and graduated from the Dutch State University at Utrecht. He has been 
interested in the confrontation between Darius III and Alexander the Great 
since age 15. Nick is also chairman of the Dutch 'Travel Wise' foundation 
for promotion of responsible tourism

Nick has an excellent Web Site about his passion

With many thanks to Mr. Welman


In 331 B.C. the last true Great King of ancient Achaemenid Persia, Darius III, was defeated by Alexander the Great at the epic battle of Gaugamela, in what is now northern Iraq. So devastating was the demise of the old Persian empire that scholars maintain that the Sassanid dynasty of late Antiquity had already lost most knowledge of its once mighty ancestors, including the forgotten memory of fabulous kings like Cyrus the Great. In a symbolic gesture Alexander destroyed the ceremonial heart of Persia, Persepolis, by arson in 330 B.C. Thus the heart of Achaemenid culture was ripped out. But what exactly did we loose? This article aims at discovering some glimpses of the lost morals and values that once dominated the original Persian society.

Great Unknown

After years of studying the histories of Alexander, I became more and more aware that modern man is still quite easily capable of understanding the drives and motives of this youthful European conqueror. But the more I read, the more I became convinced that Achaemenid Persia remains the 'great unknown' to us. We have virtually lost the ability to relate to the Achaemenid way of
thinking. Popular modern views on ancient Persia might focus on the extravagance of its rulers, the womenlike dresses of its warriors or the alleged weaknesses of its administration. Is this all  justified? Or are we dealing with propaganda against a civilization that might have made valuable contributions to the development of our modern world?

To begin with, the ancient Persian concept of 'power' is certainly something that has not survived up to our present day. If I might choose some modern figure to compare with the nature of the Achaemenid kings, my choice would be the Roman Catholic pope. As the pope is the undisputed fountainhead of justice to his followers, so was the authority and righteousness of the Achaemenid king beyond debate to his subjects. Modern nations have rulers or presidents that can abdicate; they are rewarded with their positions because of their capabilities and competence. Not so with the Achaemenids. In Achaemenid times the king was the king, because his person was considered 
the sole ruler by nature. The man and the office, they were one and the same.

The only way by which an Achaemenid king could step down, was by death. He was supposed to be the chosen one, just like the pope is considered to be God's regent on earth without claiming personal divinity. The harsh division between those destined to be in power and those who were not, bisected the old Persian society. From ancient Greek sources we are acquainted with  philosophers like Socrates, whose father was a humble stone-mason. From Achaemenid history we only know the names of those - both men and women - belonging to the ruling, aristocratic families.

In this view Persian kingship did not yet die with Darius III and the victory of Alexander. As the undisputed champion of the world, the Persian king radiated power and glory to an extent that is inconceivable to modern citizens. What Alexander intended was not overthrowing that Persian 
institution. As scholars like Peter Green indicate, Alexander just longed to be that Persian king himself, trying to transplant Achaemenid power to his own personality. That he mainly succeeded in destroying Achaemenid society is due to the fact that he lacked the right cultural background to carry the full weight of his newly obtained status.

Girl Power

One aspect that Alexander might have misunderstood, was the status of women within Achaemenid Persia. Scholars like Susan Pomeroy have written that in ancient democratic Greece the reward for being a woman was "oblivion". Not so in ancient Persia. Our sources state that the queens were the real power behind the throne. It is Herodotus who claimed that Atossa, the wife of King Darius I, was the one who "had all the power". The history of ancient Persia, on close inspection, abounds with examples of what we could refer to as 'girl power'.

Women might rule parts of the empire. It was Mania, widow of the ruler of Dascyleion, who convinced the provincial governors that she was the equal of her husband. She maintained her realm and took part as a commander in military expeditions. Decades earlier Artemisia, the female ruler of the province of Caria, had done the same. She had participated in full armor in campaigns against Greece, much to the horror and resentment of the male chauvinist Athenians. Epyaxa, the wife of the Cilician ruler, had her own army and her own lavish budget to spend. She used it to support prince Cyrus the Younger, claimant to the Persian throne, irrespective of the official 
policies of her husband. She felt free to have sexual intercourse with Cyrus, regardless of her marriage.

But also ordinary women appear to have been better off in Achaemenid Persia than in ancient Greece. Records indicate that skilled women received salaries that could be significantly higher than those of their male counterparts. Most trades were open to women as well as to men. Scholar 
Josef Wiesehöfer goes as far as claiming that Persian women were "positively active, enterprising and resolute" and even "both attractive and dangerous". It was Alexander who complained that the self-conscious appearance of Persian women was "a torment to our eyes". He apparently worried sick about the havoc they played with the moral of his rugged veteran army.

In our present era we have come to think of the struggle for women's rights as something achieved by Western industrialized nations. It now appears that emancipation of women has much deeper roots in ancient Iran. Modern popular and political views tend to regard the Middle East as one of the cradles of suppression of women. Ironically it might have been the European conquest of 331 B.C. that had set the clock back in Persia.

Knowledge and Nature

No people, said Herodotus, are so fond of adopting foreign ways as the Persians are. Phenomena like xenophobia, intolerance and nationalism were alien concepts to the Achaemenids. Their Zoroastrian faith contributed to this attitude, as it did not require the obligation to force one's religion upon others. Cases when we hear of desecration of temples or shrines are linked to either punishment after revolts or acts of crazy kings - despised by Persians and subject peoples alike. In general Achaemenid rule provided safety and security for those under its sway. Minorities were entitled - and expected - to maintain their customs and traditions. Taxes were applied according to the financial capacity of each region. Often Achaemenid rule has been described as mild.

This all has to do with the conviction of the Achaemenids that something like the 'one single truth' simply did not exist. What was considered the truth by one people, might be the reverse to the other. The Achaemenids supposedly liked to make decisions when they were sober, only to reconsider them when they were drunk. Everything should be looked upon from two sides at least. Greek and Western science - from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking - has always been obsessed by discovering the universally valid laws of nature. The same might go for modern politicians who have embraced ideas like universal human rights or hold firm views on democracy and free enterprise which are not open to debate. Not so with the Achaemenids.

The Achaemenid Persians were much more at ease with the inevitable situation that in life many things will remain unknown, uncertain, doubtful. Thus, they developed nothing that could be regarded as 'scientific' in our modern eyes. But science and wisdom are two entirely different entities. The ancient Persians regarded our natural environment not as something we should 
study in order to master it, but as something we should enjoy. They gardened their 'paradises' and were dedicated 'platform sitters'. Cyrus the Great reputedly gardened daily when he was not on campaign. It is recorded that a favorite pastime of King Darius I was sitting on his terrace outside the city of Sardis, leisurely watching the golden sun setting over the mountains.

Even in sports the Achaemenids focused on harmony with nature. They restricted themselves to horse riding and dancing. These have little to do with pushing yourself to the limit, more with indulging in the sheer enjoyable movement of the body. The Achaemenids saw war as an inevitable necessity, not as a desirable way of life like the Greeks did. Many of their conquests were achieved by diplomacy - even bribery and treachery if they had to - rather than violence. In battles the courage of Persian leaders - often deciding the conflict through heroic duels - might have saved numerous levies from putting their lives at risk in the line of fire.

What have we lost?

So what have we lost? If the Achaemenid empire had not been destroyed in 331 B.C. and would have managed to pass on more of its values to modern nations, would we be living in a better world? I like to think that, if Achaemenid rule had persisted, women throughout history might have been better off - to a certain extent at least. Exhaustion of our irreplaceable natural resources in a race to cope with demand was not part of Achaemenid thought either. The environmental problems that undermine our present global economy might never have occurred. Also we might have been living in a safer and more tolerant world, with a more liberal and sympathetic attitude towards ethnic and religious minorities.

On the other hand the scientific and especially the technological progress that has contributed so much to our present standard of living - at least for some inhabitants of this earth - might never have happened. Above that, democracy and freedom of speech do not fit in naturally with the Achaemenid software of the mind. Material and social progress might have remained the privileges of the ruling families. There would be little room for the ambitions of the individual entrepreneur in the rigid framework of the Achaemenid state. All of these aspects have become assets that we now cherish and would not want to do without anymore.

Compared to all other cultures that we know of, the fact remains that Achaemenid Persiapossessed an unique combination of ethic standards that has never resurfaced again in that particular chemistry. It seems it combined the collective identity of modern Japan with the tolerance and 
liberal attitudes of present day Scandinavia. Never again the world has been dominated by a global power that exposed so much feminine softness towards its subject peoples. (If you like to read more, King Darius III welcomes you to his personal tribute website at


I wrote to Nick:  I had read somewhere that Dariush was 
quite handsome, this picture does not convery anything like that!

Yes, he is supposed to have been very handsome and tall too. Well, it is a 
Roman mosaic - copied from a Greek paiting. The Greeks might have had their 
reasons for not paiting a very handsome portrait! Also, Darius is terrified 
here as he sees his empire crumbling down in a matter of minutes. I suppose 
our human beauty quickly fades once we are terrified..