BMCR 1996.08.06

1996.8.6, Brosius, Women in Ancient Persia

, Women in ancient Persia, 559-331 BC. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. xx, 258 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780198150091. $65.00.

The impetus to write women into history began to gather speed in the 1970’s and has now become a well accepted part of the scholarly discourse, to the point where we are no longer surprised at the appearance of new studies on ancient women; indeed, many would think it more remarkable to exclude women from any discussion of Mediterranean antiquity. The enthusiasm for placing women into ancient Mediterranean history, however, often masks some very intractable problems: the dearth of primary sources, the difficulty of placing the sources which do exist into a comprehensible framework, and, not infrequently, the temptation to read modern values and attitudes towards women into the ancient world. These problems, difficult enough in their own right, are augmented when addressing the history of women in a state or cultural group for which the principal sources available reflect the viewpoint of another, often hostile people.

Such is the situation facing Maria Brosius in her efforts to write a study of Persian women during the period of the Achaemenid Empire, 559-331 BC. Her book, Women in Ancient Persia, is a revision of her Oxford dissertation, written under the direction of the late David Lewis. Her attraction to the topic is easy to see. Comments on Persian women abound in the works of the Greek historians, especially Herodotos, Xenophon, and Ctesias, who give a vivid picture of the personalities and activities of Achaemenian women, often stressing their capriciousness, cruelty, and willingness to meddle in political affairs. Yet this picture is inconsistent with the information available from Iranian sources, in particular the Persepolis Fortification texts, which indicate that some women exercised considerable independence and economic power and held positions of leadership. No previous study of the Achaemenid Empire has attempted to reconcile these diverse points of view or seriously examine the position of women in Persia, despite their prominence in a society which was the dominant political power in the ancient Mediterranean world for over two hundred years. Thus Brosius’ book addresses an important gap in our knowledge of Mediterranean antiquity.

The difficulties intrinsic to her study remain, however, and limit the value of the information provided and the conclusions which can be drawn from it. In part, this is because virtually all of our information on Persian women pertains to women in the Achaemenid court, particularly the immediate relatives of the king, a tiny group of individuals whose personal circumstances and activities were not at all typical of the lives of the majority of Persian women. Brosius is quite aware of this limitation and defines her topic at the beginning as a discussion of Greek attitudes towards royal women of the Achaemenid court and the evidence for women from Persepolis and Neo-Babylonian texts, thus warning the reader that this is not going to be a comprehensive study of all women of ancient Persia. Furthermore, because much of the information on women in the Achaemenid court comes from Greek sources, Brosius is forced to draw a considerable portion of her raw data from material reported from a Greek, rather than a Persian perspective. As a result, her discussion of Greek attitudes towards royal Persian women forms the dominant element in the book, comprising three of the four main chapters. Discussion of the major Iranian source of information, the Persepolis Fortification texts, is given in a single chapter at the end.

The emphasis on Greek reporting of Achaemenid Persia enables Brosius to make one of the most valuable contributions of her work in the introduction, namely an analysis of earlier scholarly treatments of the Greek sources on Persian women. Many historians of Persia (e.g. Olmstead, Frye) ignored women altogether. Others emphasized the most sensational anecdotes reported by Herodotos, Aeschylus, Xenophon, Ctesias, and other Greek authors, accepting these stories at face value and repeating them uncritically. The Greek opinion that the decline of the Achaemenian Empire could be attributed to the often baneful influence of the women at court still finds its modern supporters (Wells, Meyer, Schmitt, Balcer). One scholar (Kornemann) even saw the prominent position of Achaemenian royal women as a survival of pre-Aryan matriarchy. Although there have been some recent efforts to redress this imbalance, e.g. by Paul Cartledge, The Greeks (Oxford 1993), the Herodotean picture of Achaemenian women as arbitrary, cruel, and wielding undue influence still dominates the standard handbooks on Greek history. Brosius is right to point out the shortcomings of these approaches.

This fact, however, leads to the major shortcoming of Brosius’ study, namely that she is highly dependent on the information reported by Greek authors for her discussion of Persian women for the simple reason that this is the major source of information, indeed for some topics, the only source of information on Persian women that we have. The other sources of data available to work with, the archaeological excavations at Pasargadae, Naqs-i Rustam, and Persepolis, and the Persepolis Fortification tablets and Neo-Babylonian texts, provide information which is limited in scope and focused only on specific issues, such as burial practices or rations for state workers. If we want to know something about who these women were, their position, their duties, their power, their hardships, we have perforce to rely on Greek literature.

Brosius tries to offset the limitations of her Greek sources through a careful analysis of the theoretical framework which informed the Greek perspective towards Persian women. Greek contact with the Achaemenid court was extremely limited, and contact with the women of the court even more limited, and so the information from Greek commentators about Persian women provides only a narrow slice of a complex problem. Moreover, Greek attitudes towards Persian women were colored not only by many decades of hostile political and military relations with Persia, but also by deep-seated cultural attitudes which maintained that women should be passive, silent, and unseen; Thucydides’ statement (2.45), that the great virtue of women is to be least spoken of amply reflects the Greek view of women in public life. 1 Thus Persian women close to the king who administered their own estates, participated in public events, and acted independently broke the Greek code of proper behavior in many ways, and it is not surprising that the Greeks gave them a bad press. Moreover, Greek historians such as Xenophon accounted for the decline of the Achaemenid Empire in part by attributing the weakness of the later Persian kings to the bad influence exercised upon them by the women of their family. From this it was only a short step to the conclusion that Oriental monarchs were weak and effeminate, an attitude which contributed substantially to the formation of an Orientalist bias which has survived to this day. Brosius’ analysis of these attitudes helps put Greek sources on Persia into perspective and filter out some of their more outrageous statements about women.

With all these caveats, what can we learn about Persian women? Actually, quite a bit, as Brosius demonstrates. We can learn a great deal about women at court, and thus gain further insight into the workings of the royal Persian court. Brosius devotes her first chapter to discussing the titles of royal women, comparing the Greek descriptions of these women with the information available from Neo-Babylonian and Elamite sources. Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that the women close to the king occupied positions of high status at court, with the king’s mother being the woman with the most power and influence. Formal acknowledgements of parent/child relationships were highly important in establishing legitimate succession to the throne, and this pertained to the king’s mother as well as his father. Thus Atossa, wife of Darius I and mother of Xerxes, was a woman of great influence since, as the daughter of Cyrus, she was the direct link between the early Persian kings and the Achaemenids. Interestingly, Atossa is one of the few truly prominent Persian women whose name is not mentioned in any Persian source, and her position must be constructed entirely from Greek evidence. Brosius also discusses the status of the king’s concubines, who could be women of considerable influence and power. The chief difference between them and the royal wives lay in the fact that the concubines were generally not of Persian origin.

While none of this is exactly startling information, the evidence on royal women does enable Brosius to make valuable contributions to some problems of Achaemenid history. One is the nature of the events surrounding the accession of Darius I. Her examination of royal Persian marriage alliances reveals that during the early years of the Persian Empire, under Cyrus and Cambyses, the empire was in a period of expansion and that this expansion was augmented through royal marriages with the daughters of conquered rulers. Darius I, an upstart with no legitimate claim to the throne, made an effort to substantiate his position through royal marriages, both his marriages with the wives and daughters of the preceding kings and through marriage alliances between his family and those of the Persian nobles who supported his claim to the throne. Darius’ successors, who ruled a stable empire which was no longer expanding, made their marriage alliances with families of Persian nobles only; the kings no longer contracted marriages with non-Persian women, even noble women, but kept these women only as concubines. This information has important bearings on our understanding of the internal structure of the Persian court and on the status of Darius. Yet it is largely buried in a lengthy rehash of the long-standing question of the Bisitun inscription and its relationship to Herodotos’ version of Darius I’s accession. It is in passages such as these that this book betrays its origins as a doctoral dissertation. A discussion which focused specifically on Brosius’ new ideas about Achaemenid marriage policy would enable the reader to recognize her contributions to Persian history more readily, contributions which here are somewhat lost in a mass of detail and argument over previous scholarly treatments.

Brosius also devotes considerable effort to a discussion of the activities of royal women. Here too she is highly dependent on Greek sources describing Achaemenian women, with all the reservations about such sources previously discussed. Contrary to popular opinion of Oriental women, Achaemenian royal women were not cloistered in a harem, but were conspicuous in public life. They were represented in art, including objects made of costly materials. They travelled with the king on military campaigns as well as for private business, and the Persepolis Fortification tablets record the generous provisions made for royal women who travelled with their retinues. They attended royal banquets. They could take independent action and plead with the king. Brosius finds little evidence to support the Greek view regarding the extreme cruelty of Achaemenian women and their meddling in court political affairs; she argues convincingly that royal women acted most forcefully when their family members were threatened. Another measure of the public presence of these royal women is the public respect paid to them at their death, for many royal women were honored with a period of public mourning. From the reign of Darius I, it is likely that the women closest to the king were buried with him at Naqs-i Rustam.

Brosius also discusses in detail the economic power of Achaemenid royal women. Herodotos, Xenophon, and other Greek authors comment on the wealth of royal Achaemenid women and on the vast estates which they controlled, to be found in several provinces of the Empire. This is abundantly confirmed by the Persepolis Fortification texts and Neo-Babylonian archives, which enumerate the rations of grain and wine produced by these estates. In many cases the women who owned the land can be identified with women known from Greek sources, such as Artystone, wife of Darius I, and Parysatis, mother of the Anabasis Cyrus. The identity of other wealthy women is less certain, and Brosius discusses in detail the situation of Irdabama, a royal woman unknown apart from references to her in the Fortification texts. The texts indicate that Irdabama was a wealthy and powerful woman with a large workforce of both men and women under her. Brosius also combs the Fortification texts for information on non-royal women, and gives elaborate charts documenting the rations paid to female workers in both supervisory and laborer positions, although our limited knowledge of the Elamite language of the texts precludes a clear understanding of exactly what these female workers did. The book concludes with a summary of the material presented and a reiteration of the warnings against taking Greek judgements of Persian women at face value.

This is a summary of the scope of Brosius’ study. Ultimately, I found myself a little unsatisfied in reading it. Part of this lies in reasons which are beyond the author’s control. Her basic problem remains a lack of evidence. We know little about Persian women and what we do know pertains to such a small segment of the population that at the end we are not really much wiser about the status of women in Persian society. Many of her conclusions are not startling: that women close to the king had high status, wielded a great deal of political and economic power, and were used as marriageable pawns in the kings’ efforts to consolidate royal power is hardly news. Such conditions surely obtained for aristocratic women in many kingdoms in the ancient Near East. The value of Brosius’ study would have been greatly enhanced if she had included comparative material about women in ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, so that the reader would have a clearer idea of what was unique about the circumstances of Achaemenid women. She does allude to some comparative material at various points through the book, but it is often buried in the midst of her data and not brought together in any systematic way. A more careful critique about the Greek reporting on the Achaemenid court would have been useful too. Her reservations about Greek sources on Persian women, while valid, tend to lump together all Greeks in a single unit. She does not distinguish between the comments of Herodotos, who never went to Persia and who devoted most of his attention to the reigns of kings (Cyrus I, Darius I) well before his time, and those of Xenophon, who was an eyewitness to the events he reported. Nor does Brosius make use of the interesting theoretical approaches which have been developed by Foley, Pomeroy, Kampen, and others to discuss the history of women in cases where primary sources are limited and spotty, as they are for so many aspects of women’s history. 2 Instead she discusses the evidence which does exist in exhaustive detail, regularly excoriating the Greeks at length for their failure to give Achaemenid women their due and overwhelming the reader with pages of confusing data from the Persepolis Fortification texts. As a result the reader is left somewhat dazed and bewildered about what is really important in all this material. I came away from Brosius’ book with the sense that she was trying to flesh out a disparate compendium of facts into a coherent narrative, one that doesn’t quite work with the limited body of evidence at her disposal. At the same time I gained considerable admiration for her courage in tackling such a difficult topic and bringing a fascinating and little known group of women to the fore, enabling the accomplishments of a few women of ancient Persia to shine through the clouds of ancient Greek (and modern) Orientalism.

  • [1] On this topic see J. Gould, “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens,”JHS 100 (1980) pp. 38-59. [2] Examples include Helene Foley’s study, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Princeton 1994), and the excellent collection of essays in E. Fantham, H. Foley, N. Kampen, S. Pomeroy, and H. Shapiro, Women in the Classical World (Oxford 1994). See also Phyllis Culham’s essay on the methodology of women’s history, “Ten Years after Pomeroy: Studies of the Image and Reality of Women in Antiquity,”Helios 13 (1987) pp. 9-30, and, for a good discussion of ‘invisible’ women, Judith Herrin’s essay, “In Search of Byzantine Women,”Images of Women in Antiquity, ed. A. Cameron and A. Kuhrt (Detroit 1983) pp. 167-189.