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Meet the Amazons: Ancient Persian women and families

The Ancient Greeks told stories about fierce warrior women from the East. In this land turned upside down they had little time for men beyond procreation, and even great heroes such as Jason went out of their way to avoid them if they could. In Greek art they were always dressed in a distinctively Persian style: brightly coloured tunics, trousers, boots and caps.

The Pontos-born geographer Strabo considered the Amazons to be from his neck of the woods. He claimed that Amasya, the city of his birth and the old royal capital of Pontos, was named after an Amazon queen (hence the word “Amazon” itself). Sinope, the capital in his day, was also named for an Amazon leader.

The Greek myths about Amazons are fabrications, but their writers were quick to draw comparisons with the real women from the Persian world they encountered. In fact, there were plenty of other cities named after real women around Pontos.

One of my favourites is Amastris. Niece of last Achaemenid Persian king Darius III, she was married to three Greek nobles. Two left her for other women, the middle one died.

Amastris took this in her stride as a Persian princess should. She took control of a chunk of their territory, ruled in her own name and founded a city that bore her name. It is now modern Amasra, another Pontian city. She is the first woman we know who minted her own coins with only her image on the reverse. She was eventually murdered by her sons in a palace coup, which is the only respectable way for an Achaemenid to bow out, to be honest.

One of my characters, Lady Syra, is a descendant of hers (allegedly), and she’s every inch her ancestors’ heiress. She’s the matriarch of an old aristocratic Persian family, one of the people at the very top of the tree in the world of my novel. Because although the language of business and law is Greek in Pontos, the language of power and privilege has a heavy Persian accent. She’s married to Datames’ father, although he has other official consorts. She’s her family’s political fixer, its strategist.

Limestone relief of Achaemenid-era Persian woman, found in Egypt

I wanted to include a female character from one of these families partly because it’s a remarkable and rich inheritance for Pontos to have had. It’s also partly because it’s a very important perspective to include if you want to understand why women’s lives in the Greek East were a bit freer and more visible than those of their Western sisters. It has its roots in the old Achaemenid Persian Empire and its religious and kinship traditions. That perspective also offers an opportunity for my characters to question why women’s status is changing in the way it is at this point.

A quick Google search will tell you that Ancient Persian women still arouse strong opinions. One camp says they were more visible, more emancipated and less confined than their Greek sisters, or alternatively there’s another that reckons the secluded harem world of later Islamic societies in other parts of the world was also applicable to Persian antiquity. My suspicion, from my own academic background, is that both of these versions are mostly about the modern people telling the story, and that we don’t have enough source material to be absolutely sure.

As a fiction writer, though, you can’t hedge your bets. I had to decide what kind of world the women of my novel lived in, and what kind of world elite, aristocratic women like Syra from the more Persianate interior of Anatolia lived in. At least what tradition they saw themselves as upholding, where their claim to power came from.

I did a lot of reading and a lot of critical thinking as I researched the Persian traditions my female characters inherited. It’s not easy. First of all, there’s a lack of primary sources, especially compared to descriptions of women’s lives in the Greek world further West. Much of the narrative testimony comes from Greeks, writing for Greeks. The words of any Persian, either in the sense of being from Persia itself or just someone living in an Ancient Persian empire, are very scarce, whether it’s pre-Alexander or the Persian kingdoms that came after him: Cappadocia, Pontos, Parthia, Media Atropatene etc.

Then there’s the fact that, as I touched on in my post about the Altıkulaç Sarcophagus, when the Persians conquered somewhere they were as likely to take on local customs as for the locals to take on theirs. “Persian” is a very baggy concept in the ancient world, one that causes all sorts of semantic problems these days. You could be thoroughly Persian, but still be buried according to non-Persian rites, or worship non-Persian deities, and really we can only make educated guesses as to how that made sense to them. It seems to have been rare for the central Persian Imperial bureaucracy to have overturned local laws. Conditions for women must have varied widely across what was a huge and diverse empire.

And finally, the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontos was not a straightforward continuation of that older Imperial tradition, regardless of what the propaganda might have suggested. It was very self-consciously a fusion of Greek, Persian and Anatolian traditions, and that would have had implications for women, for family life and for many other things.

Still, we know that Pontos was mostly rural, and that those rural mountains and steppe regions were governed through fortresses and huge estates that were essentially unchanged since the old Empire. The families who ran them gave their children Persian names and worshipped Persian divinities. There was a satrapal system that ran alongside the civic offices of the big cities. We know that Mithradates and his close ally Tigranes the Great of Armenia were polygamous as per the customs of their ancestors.

All we can really do, given the lack of anything surviving from rural Pontos at this time – words, pictures, statues, houses, objects – is take a broad look at how a Persian aristocratic family traditionally worked, and how women’s status was affected by that. Then we can start to think about how those traditions would have been challenged by changing social conditions and contact with other cultures.

I drew on Maria Brosius’ book Women in Ancient Persia: 559 – 331 BC a great deal in my final thinking on this, because I think of all the approaches to examining ancient Persian women’s lives I read she has the most convincing ethnographic methods. Firstly, she took a consistent and critical approach to using Greek sources on women’s lives and families in the Ancient Persian world. Second, she looked at how class and wider social conditions might affect all this. And finally, she really embraced the challenge of using material culture and archaeological remains, especially where it contradicted better-known (usually Greek) texts. And you know how I feel about using objects and things in social history. I am deeply frustrated by the divide between philology and archaeology in Ancient Studies.

Bust of a Persian queen found at Persepolis, c. 500BCE

To modern eyes there are contradictions in Ancient Persian women’s lives, particularly the elite ones. On the one hand, it’s almost a cliché that they were some of the most emancipated women in the ancient world. At the same time, the most powerful families – the most powerful women – were polygynous. That’s to say that men had multiple partners, while women could only marry one man. In the modern world, polygyny is one negative indicator social researchers look for in comparing women’s status across societies.

Let’s start with women’s access to resources and material wealth. The Achaemenid world Alexander conquered was a society in which working women might be placed in charge of men, paid more than them and given maternity pay (although they were paid more if they had a boy…). One of the major sources on ordinary women’s economic status in pre-Alexandrine Persia is the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, a collection of clay administrative records found in the ruins of the old Persian capital. They list work teams of men, women and mixed genders which women might lead. They also give us an insight into what economic power aristocratic women wielded.

The most famous example that survives from the Fortification Tablets is that of Irdabama, a woman who controlled vast estates across the modern Near and Middle East, including a huge roster of employees including 480 labourers. Brosius points out that we don’t know exactly who Irdabama was, or how she came by this wealth. It is possible her estates were granted by the King rather than inherited (which has implications for elite women in the Court). But we have no way of knowing for sure.

Women also apparently held public positions, sometimes military commands. Anatolia seems to have specialised a bit in these ladies of war. Anyone who’s seen 300: Rise of an Empire (I feel for you) will be familiar with Artemisia of Caria, who commanded her own naval fleet in the Second Invasion of Greece. There was actually another Artemisia who was satrap of Caria: this is the one who built the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Moving further North, there was another female ruler called Mania, who personally commanded troops in battle from her chariot and was never defeated. These last two women inherited their positions from their husbands, but petitioned to rule in their own right and were given the nod. These are merely the most famous women in a long tradition.

We have several depictions of Persian women across a range of art forms, and we know that there were important works of art of women subjects we’ve now lost (Darius I’s gold statue of his wife Artystone sounds… extra). Some of the most beautiful and intriguing are actually very small. There are several seal-gems that show high-status women in elaborate dresses and crowns with long scarves hanging from behind receiving petitions from commoners. This motif was reproduced across time and locations, on everything from tombstones to make-up containers. Women holding public audiences were commonplace.

Women holdin court on an Achaemenid seal gem (cf. Spycket, fig. 7; Brosius, 2005)

Persian art and documents, along with Greek testimonies, show that women had economic and social rights and status of their own that did not depend upon their husbands, fathers or sons. They held public audiences, conducted diplomatic missions, travelled independently, commanded troops sometimes and wielded significant political power. This was an image of queenliness that continued under the Seleucids and other Hellenistic monarchs. It set the pattern for the elite Hellenistic women who sponsored public works and festivals.

Princess Amastris was not doing anything deviant by the standards of the society she grew up in when she founded her city and ruled in her own name. She and the Artemisias and Manias were already wealthy, already independently important, already known beyond their homes.

So if women were given this legal, economic and social recognition, how was it that there were other aspects of their lives in which they were not equal to men? For instance, they could only marry once, and their husbands could have many wives. That is a definite double standard.

Brosius conducted an exhaustive survey of the wives, consorts and children of the Persian Kings and satraps we have records for. This is admittedly not a comprehensive list; lots of records have not survived, some are a bit ambiguous, there’s no guarantee that every consort made it into every document.

She noticed that Greek sources’ emphasis on vast harems of anonymous women did not tally with the consorts we know about from other sources (although close-kin marriage – siblings, nieces etc. – was evidenced). But more intriguingly from my point of view as an ethnographer she also realised that there seemed to be a pattern of elite men marrying a close-kin female relative to produce heirs, and of contracting secondary partnerships with elite women from outside their extended family. These were daughters of foreign dignitaries or rulers, or of nobles from within the Persian Empire.

I found that interesting as an ethnographer because marrying in - endogamous marriage, as anthropologists call it – is often a sign of a group trying to consolidate a position that would otherwise be diluted when women leave the clan.

We know nothing for sure about Achaemenid and Hellenistic Persianate inheritance customs. It could be that this simply meant that women were given a lavish dowry, whether that belonged to them in perpetuity or went to their husband.

But this kind of kinship structure can indicate that women inherit as well as men, and I think that the way women could inherit their husband’s satrapies might suggest that to be the case here.

Women’s property and power may help explain how polygyny happens in a society that was relatively positive about women’s status, wealth and education. While marrying in is all very well, it reduces your options for forging alliances with other wealthy and powerful families. As Brosius points out, this isn’t good for societal cohesion, or for bringing new peoples into your empire. Contracting secondary marriages with high-status women from those allied families can do some of that work, without having to see too much of your own family’s assets disappear.

Women count politically and economically: they are married for their ability to make connections, to be go-betweens and diplomats, to contribute their status, flex their economic muscle and to make things happen. Their children count, even if they aren’t the designated heir. Brosius suggests that this is why there aren’t in fact large anonymous harems in the archaeological or documentary evidence: the whole point is that these are a few elite, prominent women with famous names and a public role to fulfil.

From the way they wrote about it, it must have confused and offended Greek travellers that so much public life apparently happened in what they thought of as a domestic context. It’s a world in which policy and politics does not happen so much between free and rational men in public spaces but as a function of a complex web of social obligations, all centred on the extended family. There are debts of honour and duty between landowner and tenant, father and son, husband and wife, children and consorts, step-brothers and -sisters, uncles, aunts, land agents, in-laws and servants. A public meeting between free men over thirty is not going be able to resolve much on its own.

It’s not an enormously transparent way to run a country, but nor is it whimsical or merely about who poisons the most relatives as some of those Greek sources would have you believe. It’s got rules that must be respected. I think a big reason Mithradates VI starts to shed support around the point my book is set, and that that becomes more and more of a problem, is because he does not respect those rules or the social order they represent. But that’s a different post.

Meanwhile, up in the estates and fortresses of the Anatolian steppe, the old system of aristocratic tenanted estates and their military levies clung on – just about. Syra may not be Datames’ father’s only wife, but as his niece she is the most senior of them. She is wealthy independently of him, she has the right at least in theory to use and pass on her wealth as she chooses and she maintains her own network of clients and political contacts. Her husband’s other consorts are also members of important allied families, and so they too have status and wealth of their own. As the most senior female relative bar her grandmother, and as the chief decision-maker about the extended household, Syra’s words carry great weight.

As she puts it, ‘Nothing happens in this family unless I like it’.

But it doesn’t matter if her marriage is monogamous or not, or how many clothes we put on or take off her, a legal and social system in which a woman’s dignity and welfare relies upon men being nice to her leaves that woman diminished and vulnerable. In metropolitan Sinope Syra’s wealth, power and pride come slamming into a legal system that will not let her speak for herself and does not recognise her as the owner of her own property.

Pontos was not its Achaemenid predecessor, regardless of the propaganda. Persian family structures and religious beliefs co-existed with other traditions. I wrote last week about some Greek ideas about gender and respectability and how those were shifting in response to the new world Alexander’s conquests created.

Even though Syra’s family runs its estate much as her ancestors always have, the world is changing around her.

A new inheritance law was passed by Mithradates VI which meant that unless there was a legally nominated male heir, all property of a deceased citizen passed to the Crown. Now, I think this was motivated mostly by Mithradates wanting to get his hands on a new source of revenue rather than any deliberate misogyny. As something that probably applied to the semi-autonomous cities this new law wouldn’t have mattered much to the landed aristocracy.

But it was a sign that the world of the Persian aristocratic clan and its complex social obligations was becoming eclipsed by other economic and kinship structures. Mithradates VI embarked on a widespread programme of reorganisation and Hellenisation, including founding several new cities (that could be taxed directly) and encouraging the rural population of Pontos to urbanise. This new anchistikos nomos law was a part of that.

It might not be obvious to us, but a shift to monogamy wouldn’t necessarily have been good news for the elite women of Pontos. When you consider that this shift was really about a shift to primogeniture, the oldest male automatically inheriting, it maybe makes more sense. Two big problems for women in any kinship system are their control of resources and the status of their choices and preferences compared to men’s. The two reinforce each other, of course. And primogeniture takes any element of matrilineage and negotiation out of the inheritance process.

Lady Syra’s husband Moaphernes, like his forebears, does not have the right to automatically pass on his political position to his son Datames. Only the King grants commands of fortresses and satrapies. So when the old commander of Chadutha eventually dies, Syra can expect to see a scramble for favour and promotion, not just among Moaphernes’ various children and their mothers but also his brothers and their families. The women of the Datamids are as much a part of that as the men, and they have resources and leverage of their own to throw at it. In fact, that reality provides an even greater impetus to get out there networking and making money if you’re an elite Pontian woman.

But if you live in a society in which only the eldest son counts, and there’s no debate about his right to essentially become his dead father, then you live in a much more individualistic society, one in which elite women’s sole legitimate function is to produce that male heir. Grannies, aunties, sisters and cousins become much less useful if all that matters about a woman is her womb.

If there is a moral to this tale, ladies, it is this: things can always get worse.

Read more:

Encyclopaedia Iranica Online provide a wide-ranging pull-together of scholarship and sources on women in the pre-Islamic Persian World, and is a good jumping off point for further reading:

Brosius, Maria. (1996) Women in Ancient Persia: 559-331 BC, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White, eds., (1987) Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and Non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander, London.

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