The society and culture of ancient Persia underwent much change, but its essential characteristics as one dominated by a powerful landed nobility remained constant.
Ancient Iranian society was, as with all pre-modern societies, predominantly a rural one. Mixed farming and nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralism made up the occupation of most of the people. The majority of the population lived in small farming settlements and herding encampments. Many of the pastoralists practiced transhumance, which is the moving of herds between lowland pastures in winter and upland pastures in summer, often separated by considerable distances.
Exercising a large degree of authority over the rural population was a landowning aristocracy. The origins of this class lie in the warrior elites of the steppes, from where the nomadic Indo-European ancestors of the Iranians came. In the violent and turbulent nomadic societies of the open grasslands, these warriors played a dominating role, and when they moved south into the Iranian plateau, they came to form the dominant strata in Iranian society.
The aristocracy was always divided into two broad groups, a majority of small landowners, on the one hand, and a much more restricted group of great nobles. The former made up the pool from which the elite soldiers and officer corps of the army were recruited, and acted as the leaders of local communities, villages and small towns. The high nobility owned large estates and had great political power. Highest of all, certainly under the Achaemenids and Sasanians and probably under the Parthians as well, were a select group of seven great families. These practically had the status of royalty. They intermarried with the royal family and, along with royal princes, filled the topmost positions in the state as royal councillors and ministers, provincial governors and army commanders.
This was the situation in all phases of ancient Iran's history, but it was one which experienced significant modifications as time went by. The most important of these was that emergence of towns and cities throughout Iran.
The transformation of Iran under the Achaemenids
Up to Achaemenid times, Iran was on the margins of the civilized world of the Middle East. Large urban settlements were practically unknown outside Elam, in southwest Iran, which had experienced an urban revolution as early as the 4th millennium BC and was tightly enmeshed in Mesopotamian civilization. Most of the rest of the country, however, was home to small farming villages and nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists.
With the rise of the Achaemenid empire this ceased to be the case. Iran became the centre of a huge empire. Tribute and trade flowed into the country from many lands. The reappearance of urban civilization in the Indian subcontinent, which had started just before Achaemenid times and gathered pace when their empire was at its height, acted as a boost to the major east-west trade routes across the country. The inflow of trade and wealth led to the emergence of urban settlements in locations scattered throughout Iran.
Another driver of urbanization within Iran was the expansion of civil government. This required regional centres from which officials could administer taxes, mobilize troops and labour, and ensure that a reasonable degree of law and order prevailed. Provincial capitals were founded as far north as Maracanda (Samarkand), and as far east as Kandahar. The rural clans had to take into account a new reality – an imperial government that would not brook unchecked tribal warfare. In any case, their young men often now served in imperial armies far from their homes.
Linked to this urbanization was the expansion of arable land at the expense of grazing; and of agricultural populations at the expense of pastoral ones. This was helped by a spread of underground irrigation channels called qanats, which carried groundwater from hills, where rainfall was abundant and which had plenty of underground aquifers, to the plains. Qanats allowed large areas of land in arid landscapes which did not have a ready source of water in the form of large rivers passing through them to be irrigated and turned over to productive cultivation.
This innovation probably dated from pre-Achaemenid times but began to come into more widespread use under them. They were crucial in turning land fit only for pasturage into fertile fields of crops. The Achaemenid government encouraged the construction and restoration of qanats through generous tax incentives. Where previously only nomads could graze their herds, sizeable farming settlements were now able to develop.
The wider Achaemenid empire
When discussing the huge Achaemenid empire as a whole it is impossible to speak of “society” in the singular, because the empire embraced many nations and cultures, each with its own distinctive social structure. However, there were some social and economic trends which were felt throughout the empire.
The first was the spread of the Persian or Iranian landowning class across the empire. When the Persians conquered a kingdom, some or all of the vanquished kings’ and nobles’ estates were confiscated and taken over by the Persian king. He kept much for himself and the royal family, but he also distributed much of it to his high officials and the Persian nobility. The extensive estates of the Persian ruling class thus came to be scattered throughout the empire; Mesopotamia in particular seems to have been the location for vast estates. With its very productive agriculture and comparative proximity to the Iranian homeland, this region must have been regarded as highly attractive for landowners, but large estates belonging to Persian nobles could be found from Egypt and Asia Minor to Bactria (modern Afghanistan).
Another development was the growth, already seen under the late Babylonian kings, of the merchant classes. This was the result of the expansion of trade, whose impact on the Iranian homeland we have already noted, but which also affected the empire at large. The Achaemenid empire probably provided more favourable circumstances for long-distance commerce than any before. The huge size of the empire meant that millions of people lived generally in peace together, under one rule. A single legal and administrative framework meant that commercial transactions between members of different nationalities could be undertaken with confidence that, if any disputes arose, they could be dealt with by courts operating the same law. International business houses could operate on a larger scale than hitherto. Furthermore, in the Zagros mountain passes, through which major trade routes passed, brigandage was suppressed to a degree never before achieved, at least under the firm government of the early Achaemenids.
Specific policies of the Achaemenid kings, particularly Darius the Great, also favoured trade. He standardized weights and measures across the empire, and also introduced a single monetary system, based on a two-tier gold and silver coinage. The impact of this development was limited somewhat by the habit of later Persian kings to hoard gold and silver in their treasuries, which constrained the amount of metal coinage in circulation. In fact it was only the Mediterranean provinces, which were most exposed to Greek commercial practices, which became truly monetized at this time. The eastern parts of the empire continued to use units of silver in commercial transactions. However, the standardization of such units throughout the empire allowed banking to expand considerably, and become more international. Some firms in Babylonia, which already had a long history of banking, became enormously wealthy, and were able to use their capital to branch out into large-scale land ownership and tax farming.
Another factor at work was that a common language, Aramaic, was used throughout the region, and the universally-understood Aramaic alphabetical script would have made communications between members of different races easier. Also, as we have already noted, the rise of the empire coincided with the expansion of urban civilization in northern India. This certainly stimulated international trade within the Persian empire, and east-west trade routes, both maritime (see below) and overland, became much more important than they had been before.
Darius ordered the construction of new roads, and the upgrading and maintenance of existing ones (the international road system of the Middle East dated back at least to Assyrian times). The backbone of the empire’s road network was the “Royal Road”, which connected Susa with Sardis and Ephesus, in Asia Minor, and ran through Assyria and Armenia. Other roads linked Persepolis and Susa with Babylon, then on up to Syria, and then south through modern-day Israel to Egypt; yet others connected Babylon to Ecbatana, Bactria and India.
This road construction was aimed primarily, as we have discussed elsewhere, at ensuring communications could be as swift as possible between the centre and provinces, and at facilitating the movement of troops about the empire. However, good roads act as a major boost to trade. The roads were well constructed, all-weather ways with grooves for wheeled vehicles (carts and chariots). They were protected by patrols and furnished with inns. The Achaemenid road network survived long after the fall of the empire.
Maritime trade was stimulated by Darius’ completion of an ancient version of the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The canal allowed ships to sail from India to the Mediterranean (it was broad enough for two triremes to sail along side by side), and could be passed through in four days. It encouraged the development of a valuable trade route along which the spices of southern Arabia and India were brought to the west. This canal had a tendency to silt up, and required continual dredging to keep open. In the later period of the Persian empire this was not able to be carried out (mainly because Egypt was in constant revolt), and it fell into disuse.
The royal household also had a direct impact on the economy. It formed a huge economic unit in its own right, a state-within-a-state. As well as owning large estates scattered throughout the empire, embracing more than a hundred towns within Iran, it owned and managed multitudes of industrial enterprises. These were on the whole small craft workshops, but between them they employed thousands of workers. The royal properties and enterprises were managed as a unified organization which spanned the entire empire. Its must have required a major bureaucracy to run it.
Some merchants and bankers became very wealthy indeed, and became large landowners. Linked to this development was the spread of urban settlement outside those regions such as Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor which had experienced this for millennia. As we have seen, Iran itself, the imperial homeland, became much more urbanized than before, as did lands in central Asia, Afghanistan and western South Asia (the city of Taxila, a major gateway to India, being a case in point).
The vast majority of the population of the empire lived by farming. It is hard to compare the condition of the peasantry with that in other periods of ancient history, but for the most part they were spared the upheavals that war brings, and taxation was probably no heavier than in other periods. The Persian kings took seriously the Mesopotamian royal tradition of looking after the irrigation systems in which agriculture there depended, though in the less settled times of the later empire irrigation does seem to have experienced some neglect, which will have led to a deterioration in the condition of the Mesopotamian peasantry.
The empire was covered with the huge estates of the Persian monarchy and nobility, and in some areas, particularly Mesopotamia and Egypt, of the temples and even business houses. These estates were farmed by tenants, or worked directly by hired labour. In some places gangs of slaves worked the land.
Individual peasant farmers also owned much of the land, however. Their numbers may well have been increased by time-expired soldiers being allotted land in different parts of the empire. Some state land was also given over to soldiers serving in military garrisons, to enable them to be self-sufficient.
Society and economy after the Achaemenids
Many of the factors affecting society and economy under the Achaemenids affected the Iranian world for the rest of the ancient period. Above all, Iranian society remained dominated by the landed aristocracy. This class owned large estates covering most of the agricultural land, and possessed enormous authority over the ordinary farmers, akin to that of the feudal lords in medieval Europe over their serfs. As in the Achaemenid empire, members of the nobility filled all the topmost positions at court, in the administration and in the army under the Parthian and Sasanian empires.
Indeed, their power grew, to the point where the aristocracy had an overtly baneful influence on the politics of these empires. This growth in aristocratic power may have been linked to the rise in the military importance of the cavalry, which was largely recruited from their ranks. Under the Parthians, the cavalry seems to have been virtually a tool of the nobility. This was less true under the Sasanians, but now the political power of the nobility was boosted by an alliance with the Zoroastrian church, which, like the nobility, had an interest in resisting the centralising ambitions of the monarchs.
A new ruling class
In the immediate post-Achaemenid phase of its history, however, a new element was introduced into Iranian society. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, and his early death in 323 BC, one of his generals, Seleucus, established a kingdom ruling a huge swathe of territory with Mesopotamia and Iran and its heart. He and his descendants founded numerous Greek-style cities all around their realm, whose Greek and Macedonian inhabitants formed the kingdom’s social and political elite. Greek was the language of government and the ruling class. The native Iranian aristocracy was excluded from power, and the culture of the people was relegated to second class status.
Under the Seleucids, Iran was no longer the hub of a large empire, but trade continued to thrive; and urban civilization flourished, though with an alien veneer.
The Silk Road
Under the Parthians and Sasanians, the Iranians again ruled large empires, albeit not as large as the Achaemenid empire had been. Their country was again a magnate for tribute and trade from the peoples of neighbouring lands. The long distance trade routes passing from east to west, and which ran through the Parthian and Sasanian empires, expanded considerably. Indian civilization continued to flourish. Two developments in particular had a major impact. The first was that, from Parthian times, the Silk Roads to central Asia and China began to come into use. As the name implies, silk was the most iconic commodity to be traded, but a host of other goods passed along the route as well, such as horses from central Asia, which were prized both in Iran and China, gold and silver ornaments, hemp, linen, woollen cloth, fine pottery wares and saffron.
The underlying significance for the opening of the Silk Roads for the Iranian lands was that, from being on the margins of civilization in pre-Achaemenid times, as we have noted, they were now at the very centre of Eastern Hemisphere trade networks, and all the cultural, religious and technological influences which crossed Eurasia passed through them. One Iranian people located in north-east Iran and therefore well placed to take advantage of these developments, soon came to dominate the trade along the Silk Road: the Sogdians. They developed a chain of contacts, communities, warehouses, caravanserai and credit facilities which spanned the route across central Asia between Iran and China; the very word “Sogdian” became synonymous with “merchant”, and their Iranian language became the lingua franca of the route.
The second development to impact on the economy in Parthian and Sasanian times was the rise of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean to South Asia. The origins of this trade dated back to the 4th millennium BC, but with the demise of the Indus Valley civilization in the 2nd millennium it had contracted severely. With the reappearance of urban civilization in India maritime trade revived, and thereafter continued to expand.
At some point sailors realised that the Monsoon winds across the Indian Ocean could be harnessed to great effect, and this must have boosted trade. In the 1st centuries BC and AD it received another major boost with the establishment of peace within the Roman empire, in the west, and the expansion of the Mediterranean economy that this brought. In Parthian and Sasanian times some of the trade from India passed to the west via southern Arabia and the Red Sea, but much of it flowed through their empires, coming into Mesopotamian ports on the Gulf before passing up the Euphrates to the Syrian border with the Roman empire. The commodities along this route included gold and silver, glazed pottery, textiles, frankincense, peppers and other spices, slaves and ivory. Whilst the Parthians and Persians were not major participants in these commerce, this being left mostly to Mesopotamians and Arabs, their governments benefitted from the dues levied on goods in transit taken by numerous customs posts they set up along the route.
Continued expansion of agriculture
The Sasanians in particular paid much attention to agriculture. Under them the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia reached their peak in ancient times - and in fact they would not again by so productive until the 19th century. Canals, dykes and reservoirs were expanded, and maintained at a high standard. Some modern scholars suspect that farming in Mesopotamia became so intensive during this period that it put the land under such pressure that it contributed to the decline in productivity which was such a feature of the following period.
In Iran, the use of qanats continued to spread. They allowed larger settlements to develop where there had only been villages, and several cities in Iran still depend on a network of qanats which converge on them from surrounding hills. The Sasanian kings were prolific founders of cities, which must have been connected to the continued expansion of trade routes, and which, in the arid highlands of the Iranian plateau, would have depended on systems of qanats for their water and food resources. Nevertheless, pastoral peoples remained an important part of Iranian society, as they do to this day.
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