The Persian Empire: Culture and Society







Because the Persian Empire (often called the Achaemenid Empire) embraced many nations and cultures, each with its own distinctive social structure, it is impossible to speak of “society” in the singular. However, there were some trends within the empire which were felt throughout the empire.

The first was the spread of a Persian or Iranian landowning class. When the Persians conquered a kingdom, some 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 members of the Persian nobility. The extensive estates of the Persian ruling class thus came to be scattered throughout the empire, from Egypt and Asia Minor to Bactria.

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 Persian landowners.

Another social development was the expansion, already seen under the late Babylonian kings, of the merchant classes. This was the result of the expansion of trade and banking (see below). 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. Iran itself, the imperial homeland but hitherto on the margins of the civilized world, became much more urbanized than before, as did the lands to its east.

The vast majority of the population of the empire lived by farming, as in all pre-modern societies. It is hard to compare the condition of the peasantry with that in other periods of ancient history. For the most part they were spared the upheavals that war brings, and taxation was probably no heavier than in other periods. In the less settled times of the later Persian empire, however, the irrigation systems of Mesopotamia seem to have experienced some neglect, and this will have led to the condition of the peasantry there deteriorating. 


Agriculture provided the economic base of the Persian empire, and this benefitted from improvements under the Achaemenids. The empire was covered with huge estates, owned by the monarchy and Persian nobility, and in some parts, the temples and even business houses. These estates were farmed by tenants, or worked directly by hired labor. In some places gangs of slaves worked the land.

By no means all the land was in the hands of large landowners. Individual peasant farmers also owned much of the land. Their numbers may well have been boosted by time-expired soldiers being allotted land, and some state land was also given over to soldiers serving in military garrisons, to enable them to be self-sufficient.

Irrigation, on which much agriculture depended within the empire and especially in Mesopotamia and Iran, received much attention from the government, at least under the early kings. The kings took seriously the Mesopotamian royal tradition of looking after the irrigation system in which agriculture there depended, and this period also seems to have seen a major spread of irrigation in Iran. This largely resulted from the increased use of the qanat, an underground water channel which carried water from hills to plains and which allowed large areas of land in arid landscapes to be irrigated and turned over to productive cultivation. The Achaemenid government encouraged the construction and restoration of qanats through generous tax incentives. Where previously only nomads could graze their herds, sizable farming settlements were now able to develop.

So far as trade was concerned, the Achaemenid empire probably provided more favorable circumstances than any before it. 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 the same 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 favored 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.

International conditions were increasingly favorable to long distance trade at the time of the Persian empire, especially in the Middle East. One common language, Aramaic, now covered the region, and the universally-understood Aramaic alphabetical script would have made communications between members of different races easier. Also, 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. Using such routes was made safer and easier for merchants by the fact that western areas of the Indian subcontinent were in Persian hands. This not only meant that they enjoyed effective protection, but they also benefitted from the Persian kings’ road-building program.

Darius ordered the construction of new roads, and the upgrading and maintenance of existing ones. 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 seen, at ensuring communications could be as swift as possible between the center 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 network of these Achaemenid roads 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.


The Achaemenid kings’ religious policy was characterized by tolerance towards their subject peoples’ beliefs and practices. The most famous instance of this is their dealings with the Jewish exiles who they found in Babylon and other Mesopotamian cities after their conquest of that region. Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Darius funded the restoration of the Jewish temple; and Artexerxes I sent the Jewish priest Ezra to Jerusalem to reintroduce temple worship and the old Mosaic Law back into Jewish life. Later he sent a Jew who had risen high in his service, Nehemiah, to enhance the security of the people of Jerusalem by rebuilding the walls of the city.

Darius made sure that his officials respected the religious practices of his subjects, as is shown in a letter to his official, Gadatas, ordering him to restore a Greek sanctuary. When in Egypt both Cambyses and Darius were careful to observe traditional Egyptian rites related to kingship.

As for the kings themselves, they held firmly to their devotion to Ahura Mazda, the chief god of the Iranians. Whether the kings were loyal to the ancestral polytheism of the Iranians, or were followers of the newer faith of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic creed which had grown up in Iran and which worshipped Ahura Mazda alone, is not clear. Some of their expressions seem to contain Zoroastrian sentiments, but there is no mention of Zoroaster (the founder of the religion) himself. Whatever the case, Zoroastrianism certainly spread around their empire, particularly in Armenia, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia.


The literature, art and architecture of the Persian empire is essentially that of its constituent peoples. In Babylonia, for example, traditional Mesopotamian temples and ziggurats were constructed and refurbished, and temple life went on much as before. In fact, the Achaemenid period saw Babylonian astronomy continue to develop, with new observations being made and calculations refined. In Egypt, temples and statues continued to be erected in the age-old style, and official and priestly texts stood firmly in their ancient tradition. The newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem was designed to resemble its predecessor which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, and the Jews committed much of their scriptures to writing at this time. The Greek cities of Asia Minor participated fully in the cultural developments taking place on the Greek mainland at that time; they produced eminent thinkers such as Heraclitus of Ephesus, who was a major figure in the advancement of Greek philosophy.

Nevertheless there was a distinctive Persian art and architecture which appeared at this time. This was the imperial art of the Achaemenid kings, and was embodied in the magnificent palaces and royal tombs which they ordered to be constructed in their capitals at Pasargadae, Persepolis and Susa. It was solemn and dignified, designed to awe visitors by displaying the mighty power of the kings.

The early Achaemenid kings in particular, Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and Artexerxes I, were prolific builders. Their typical edifices were huge palaces, adorned with giant reliefs typically depicting the king with multitudes of subjects bringing tribute. At the center of these complex of buildings and courtyards, laid out with a spaciousness not found in Babylonian buildings, lay many-pillared audience halls, still impressive today, even as ruins.

The design of the buildings and the sculptured reliefs are essentially based on Babylonian and Assyrian forms, which themselves were the culmination of thousands of years of Mesopotamian stylistic tradition. However, the Persians added elements of their own. For example, the palace-complexes tended to rest on terraced platforms, a feature not found in traditional Mesopotamian design. Another important architectural feature was the many-pillared hall, which probably derived from the wooden halls of Iranian kings and chiefs but was reproduced on a grand scale in the imperial palaces of Susa and Persepolis.

The fact that these buildings were constructed by teams of skilled craftsmen drawn from all over a multinational empire resulted in them embodying a diversity not seen anywhere else before. Living and working together as they did, these workers introduced new elements into the Babylonian framework, from widely varying traditions. The result was a unique syncretism, in which the influence of Greek masters can be seen in the way the formal style of Babylonian figurative design is modified with a more human, more fluid quality, or the slender columns in the audience halls show Egyptian and Greek motifs.

The overall result is a unique fusion. This is reflected in the range of materials used, which came from all over the empire. One inscription says that, whereas previous buildings had previously been constructed mostly of clay bricks, the new palaces used stone from Elam for the columns, and cedar timber from Lebanon for the roofs; and they incorporated gold from Lydia and Bactria (i.e from opposite ends of the empire), lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise from central Asia, silver and ebony from Egypt, dyes for the wall-reliefs from Ionia, and the ivory from Nubia and India. It emphasizes that the work of crafting these materials into fine objects was done on the spot, by stonemasons from Asia Minor (Greeks and Lydians), goldsmiths from Medea and Egypt, woodcarvers from Lydia and Egypt, brick layers from Babylonia, and wall-painters from Medea and Egypt. The only fragment of sculpture in the round so far found shows strong Greek influence – was in fact probably the work of a Greek sculptor.

To the northwest of Persepolis are four majestic tombs of Achaemenid kings. These are carved into a rock face in the Zagros mountains, to exactly the same design. Their huge (22 meters high) fronts depict the sculptured facade of a palace with tall columns, above which the kings are shown before a fire altar. They stand on platforms supported by the representatives of the thirty nations belonging to the empire.

One final piece of Achaemenid art must be mentioned, the great relief and inscription which Darius the Great had carved into the rock face at Behistun, high above the road that passes through the Zagros mountains from Babylon to Ecbatana. This monumental relief, located 66 meters above the road, shows Darius, accompanied by two attendants, with his foot on the body of his rival for the throne, Gaumata. Other rebels are shown with their hands tied behind their backs and a rope around their necks; above the whole is the symbol of the chief god, Ahura Mazda.

Large numbers of beautiful small objects have been found: metal tableware (vessels, plates, cult utensils) in gold and silver, jewelry (earrings, bracelets), weapons (daggers), seals and gems cut in the old Mesopotamian manner but with Iranian figures.

One cultural feature, which the Persians inherited from previous Mesopotamian cultures and spread around their empire, was landscaped gardening. The Assyrians had laid out extensive parks and gardens around their royal palaces, and the famous “Hanging Gardens” of Babylon were probably just such an artifact. In the Persian period, such pleasure grounds were created around their empire. The Greek word for them was the same as our word “paradise”, which aptly sums up their role as places of beauty and relaxation. They were designed to enable Persian kings and nobles could take their ease.

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