The Royal Court in Achaemenid Persia: a few thoughts…

Reconstruction of the Apadana at Persepolis

Reconstruction of the Apadana at Persepolis – by

Given that my new book is all about the ancient Persian royal court, I thought I would present a précis of some of my thoughts here. Hope you find this of interest…

Around 1200 CE, Walter Map, a Welsh cleric at the court of Henry II, tried to articulate his definition of ‘court’ in a satirical work De Nugis Curialium (‘Of Courtier Trifles’), but failed – ultimately stating that, ‘In the court I exist and of the court I speak but what the court is, God knows. I know not’. Map was aggrieved by his contemporaries’ inconsistency in referring to the court as a location, an institution, a group of people, an event, and a space of myth and legend. Courtiers in successive eras have tried to articulate the institution that created and defined them, but none have done it with such sublime irony and sheer exasperation as Walter Map. His is a fitting start to this short and selective exploration of the Achaemenid court because, in spite of recent sophisticated scholarly advances in the field, we still share Walter Map’s frustration at the difficulty of defining what precisely a ‘court’ is.

Part of the difficulty in understanding the construction, functioning, and ideology of the Achaemenid court lies with the sources: Iranian and other Near Eastern iconographic materials, bureaucratic texts, and archaeological remains provide only piecemeal evidence for court structure, while Greek and Hebrew texts are as fulsome in their vivid descriptions of the court as they are judgmental or fantastical. Accessing the Achaemenid court is fraught with difficulties.

It is logical to turn to comparative court studies for models, and of fundamental importance for thinking about the Achaemenid court, has been Norbert Elias’ Die höfische Gesellschaft (1969), published in English in 1983 as The Court Society. More of a Weber-inspired sociologist than a historian, Elias articulated a model of court society which focused upon Bourbon French monarchy at Versailles. But should the Bourbon court (and other European examples) be regarded as apropos models for the Achaemenid court? The Christian courts of pre-Industrial Europe never fully experienced the true weight of an absolute monarchy (like that of the Achaemenids) in the way that courts of the pre-modern Middle- and Far East experienced absolutism; better comparative models for the Achaemenid court might be found in the non-Christian dynastic courts of Moghul India, Safavid Iran, and Qing China, as well as (most importantly) in ancient Egyptian, Neo-Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hebrew courts. There can be no doubt that the pioneering work of Elias will continue to provide influential ways to examine the court societies of antiquity, but asking questions of eastern courts (of various periods) might expose better the nature of Achaemenid court ideologies, hierarchy, ceremonials and rituals, of royal hunts and feasts, of marriage practices, and gender roles.


1          What was the Persian ‘court’? 

The Persian court, like other eastern courts, can be defined in four ways. The court was:

– a circle of elite people (‘courtiers’) and servants in orbit around a monarch.

– a larger environment of political, military, economic, and cultural structures which converged within the monarch’s household; the court was the contact-point between the Great King and the ruling classes (satraps, local elites, and Persianized princelings) at regional and local levels of the Empire.

– the private rooms, the bureaucratic quarters, and the public halls and courtyards of the royal residences, wherein the rituals of royalty were enacted and where the monarch received homage, threw banquets, entertained, and relaxed. In the case of the Achaemenids it is especially important to remember that the court was not a single place per se — the court moved (see below).

– a setting of royal ceremonial and a place wherein a theatrical display of power was created and presented through audiences (see below), feasting, and even hunting.

Historians of court societies tend to speak of an ‘outer court’ – meaning the public areas of the residence (including throne rooms and banqueting halls) and people who were not tied to the service of the king on a regular basis – and an ‘inner court’, meaning the rooms occupied by the king on a more intimate basis (private dining rooms, bedchambers, bathrooms) and of the people who routinely worked within them as ministers of state and intimate body-servants. This concept of an ‘inner court’ and an ‘outer court’ is applicable to the Achaemenid royal household, and the Persian court can best be understood operating around these two axises, although the barriers which restricted access to the king were constantly being assaulted by courtiers who sought more intimate access to the monarch; for this not only meant the opportunity to importune a favour, but also implied to all onlookers that the privileged gainer of access had social eminence.

The people who naturally orbited within the Great King’s inner court were members of the royal harem, in other words those people who were under his immediate protection, including his mother, wives, concubines, children (including royal princes who could, upon their maturity, be sent into the provinces as satraps and commanders to set up their own courts-in-miniature), siblings, personal slaves, and nobles from the highest ranking families of the realm, and those granted the honourific title ‘Friend’ of the king. The entire inner court was under the watch of a powerful official known as the *hazāra-patiš (‘master of a thousand’) or chiliarch. He commanded the royal bodyguard and all court security and enjoyed the complete confidence of the ruler, controlling access to his personage through the protocol of the royal audience. A court official bearing the curious title of ‘King’s Eye’ (Old Persian Spasaka?) – lampooned by Aristophanes in Acharnians (61-129) – was in charge of intelligence gathering and reported to the king (Hdt. 1.114; Ctesias F 20 §12; Xen. Cyr. 8.2.10-12). Other prominent inner-court dignitaries included the steward of the royal household (perhaps *viθa-patiš), the royal spear-carrier (*arštibāra) and bow-bearer (*vačabāra), and the royal charioteer, and cupbearer.

Bureaucrats, physicians, grooms, and translators constituted the make-up of the outer court, as did ambassadors and emissaries (called ‘secretaries’ of the king). The Persepolis texts show that many of the servants at the Achaemenid court (bakers, cooks, wine stewards, and stable-hands) were recruited from peoples of the Empire, as were physicians. Royal eunuchs, a kind of ‘third-sex’, were able to negotiate the permeable barriers of the two ‘courts’ in their crucial capacities as messengers, bureaucratic agents, royal advisers, and body-servants.

The people of the inner- and outer courts constituted the royal viθ (Akkadian, bītu; Elamite ulhi) – the closest Old Persian equivalent of the complex ancient Greek term oikos – ‘house’, ‘dwelling’, ‘household’, ‘economic entity’, ‘people of a household’ (Morgan 2010). When Darius I hoped that Ahuramazda would allow ‘happiness [to] rest upon this viθ’ (Dpe §3) he was alluding not only to the individuals who made up the royal household and those who come under his authority, but to the physical space which they occupied also: his hope was equally that, ‘happiness will rest upon this palace’ (in the Bisitun Inscription likewise, viθ is used in the sense of both ‘house’ and ‘household, see DB § 61-70). In Greek texts, individuals in the orbit of the Great King were termed ‘the people of (literally ‘around’) the court’ (hoi peri ton aulōn) or aulikoi (‘courtiers’), although the word aulē (‘court’) itself was rarely used as synonym for ‘palace’ or ‘residence’ (basileion or basileia was used instead; eg. Herodotus 1.30; alternatively, Ctesias F9 §13 used ta oikēmata). The Romans usurped aulē (Latin, aula) and thus its meaning enters into modern European languages (‘court’, ‘cour’, ‘Hof’).


2          Theatre of Royalty: court ceremony and etiquette

In any monarchic system ceremony naturally revolves around the figure of the ruler; ceremonies have always been the favourite way for a regime to exhibit its political clout, and when properly employed, ceremony nearly always produces the desired results by appealing to people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Alongside promoting a regime’s power and stability, ceremony serves to reveal its ideological basis and world-view to its targeted population. Therefore the study of Achaemenid court ceremony (as far as can be achieved) offers clues as to the dynasty’s self-definition.

Messages lie encoded in various components of the rituals of Achaemenid court ceremonial: the architectural venue for ceremonies or the route of imperial processions can offer significant clues about the meaning of ceremonies to the life and ideology of the dynasty. Similarly, depictions of thrones, footstools, parasols, fly-whisks, sceptres, crowns, and robes are loaded with symbolic implications, although many of the subtleties of these objects of symbolic importance still require serious scholarly exploration. Moreover, the identity of courtiers participating in ceremony, their attire as well as their stance, imparts a mass of information about the self-perception of the ruling elite.

Achaemenid court ceremonies maintained and reinforced hierarchy within the elite and delineated power relations between courtiers, the royal family, and the monarch himself. Persian monarchs relied upon formalized etiquette and court ceremony to create a special aura around the throne.  A deliberate separation and distancing of the king from the gaze of his subjects, even from much of his court, meant that elaborate rituals were enacted through which courtiers and visitors might get limited access to the royal personage during a tightly controlled and stage-managed audience ceremony (Esther 1. 14 highlights the notion of having privileged access to the royal presence).  Therefore we might think of the Great King, costumed in his finery  as an actor in a great royal drama (and his courtiers as part-players and spectators) because events at court, like coronations and investitures, royal audiences, and imperial parade-reviews, were clearly focused on a kind of ‘performance’, since they were set far apart from everyday life by being ‘scripted’ or turned into ceremony.

Narrative accounts of audiences with the Great King form a significant corpus in Greek and Biblical writings on the Persian court (Philost. Imag. 2.31; Esther 5, 1-3; the same is true of satrapal audience scenes – see Xen. Hel. 1. 5.1-3; Plut. Lys. 6), but nothing remotely comparable exists in the Achaemenid literary tradition; instead we must turn to a rich stratum of iconography for information on the intricacies of the ceremony. Representations of the royal audience come in the form of numerous seal- and gemstone-images, a small painted image on a sarcophagus, and from the sculptured monumental doorjambs at Persepolis, although the finest surviving examples come in the form of two big stone reliefs once located at the staircases to the Apadana (later moved to the Treasury).

Audience scene

Reconstruction of the Persepolis Treasury Relief by

The Great King is shown in audience in a ‘frozen moment’; he wears a court robe and crown and holds a lotus blossom and a sceptre (which he might stretch out to grant favours; Esther 4.11, 5.2, 8.4); in order to accentuate the immutable character of kingship, he is accompanied by the Crown Prince who is depicted wearing the same garb as the king, and who is given the prerogative of holding a lotus too. Also in attendance are high-ranking members of the court and the military. Two incense-burners help to demarcate the royal space (and accentuate its sacredness), as does the dais upon which the throne is placed and the baldachin, decorated with an image of Ahuramazda, which covers the scene (the relief image closely echoes a Greek description: Dinon F1). The theatrical paraphernalia of the throne room, and the awesome setting of the Apadana was intended to instil fear and wonder in suppliants; the figure of the king, the protagonist of the drama, must have been an impressive, almost overwhelming, sight and the Greek version of Esther (15. 5-7) brilliantly captures the scene of the terrified queen approaching the enthroned king, who is described as looking ‘like a bull in the height of anger’.

Line drawing of a female audience scene

Line drawing of a female audience scene from a seal image

Interestingly, what appears to be a female audience is depicted on a cylinder seal from an unknown (but possibly Levantine) provenance. The parallel with the king’s audience is explicit and is proof of the high regard in which royal women – possibly in this instance the king’s mother – were held. The high social rank of royal females, like that of the Great King himself, was stressed by their conspicuous invisibility (although this must not be confused with any kind of ‘Oriental seclusion’) and formal audiences only served to heighten their significance at court.

The monarch’s royal throne was a significant icon of kingship it was high-backed and rested upon leonine-feet (thrones frequently employed lion or sphinx imagery; 1 Kings 10, 18-20). The Great King had a footstool too, an important emblem of kingship and one loaded with ritual – there was even a court office associated with it (Dinon F25a), and a bearer of the royal footstool is depicted on the Apadana. Curtius Rufus’ vignette of Alexander misappropriating a low table as a footstool (5. 2.13-15) only reconfirms the centrality of this seemingly inconspicuous piece of furniture in royal display and ideology; after all, it was a given that the Great King’s feet should never touch the ground, and must be protected by soft carpets (Dinon F1).

At the centre of the Treasury Relief a courtier dressed in a riding habit – possibly the chiliarch – performs a ritual gesture of obeisance to the monarch which, prima face, is associated to the sala’am, or formal greeting, used in later Muslim courts. Formalized gestures were a hallmark of Persian social communication (Hdt. 1.134) and the Achaemenids readily seem to have transformed the gestures of la vie quotidienne into a rarefied form of court etiquette.

Known to the Greeks as proskynesis, the exact nature of the ceremonial obeisance is debated, but when Herodotus says that one should perform proskynesis to a superior while prostrating oneself or bowing down, the term must describe an act performed once one is bowed or prostrate, which is, as on the Treasury Relief, kissing from the hands. In a Near Eastern context, the Persian reverential practice of bowing and kissing looks very much at home: kow-towing, prostration, kissing the ground, or even kissing the feet of the monarch were familiar gestures in Egyptian and Neo-Assyrian court protocol. But for the Greeks the gesture was a religious act and suitable only for performance before a god so that for a Greek to do it before a man undermined the Greek pride in eleutheria (Xen. Hel. 4.1.35). Classical authors note that performing proskynesis before the Great King was a non-negotiable rule for an audience (Nepos Con. 3.3; Aelian VH 1.21) and the misunderstanding of the Persian act of proskynesis as a veneration of divine monarchy accounts for several Greek tales which take the distaste for this act of social submission as their theme (Herodotus 7.136; Aelian VH 1.29; Plut. Art. 22.8).


3          The Itinerant Court

Administrative documents from Persepolis attest to the systematic criss-crossing of vast swathes of the Empire by the Great King and his court who traversed the realm not just for pragmatic reasons of state, but also to satisfy a deep-set instinct in the Persian psyche: for the Achaemenids were essentially nomads and a regular itinerant pattern of movement-settlement-movement can be located in the routine peripatetic practices of the court (Briant 1988). Changes in the seasons were an important factor in the court’s movement, and the Classical sources state that the king was constantly chasing an eternal springtime and settling his court in parts of the Empire which enjoyed the most hospitable weather conditions. The Classical texts unanimously agree on a cool Median residency for the court during the summer months but beyond that it is impossible to work out the reality of the royal seasonal migration.

The best surviving description of the Achaemenid peripatetic court is preserved by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus (3.3.8-16, 20-27), who probably reiterates earlier Greek observations on the royal procession (Xen. Cyrop. 8. 3. 15-20, 33-34).  All accounts agree that the king travelled with his insignia of power – religious banners, fire altars, and an entourage of priests – and with a vast military force, treasury porters, and multitudes of servants and kinsmen. The presence of the courtiers en masse was de rigour and therefore the royal harem was transported, under guard, in covered wagons (hamamaxae) and on horseback.

The logistics of the court shifting locations required enormous organization and colossal resources since many thousands of people would have been effected by, or responsible for, the move. Members of the royal family might travel independently of the king, taking with them their own courts-in-miniature and that here too precision in planning would have been tantamount. For instance, Irdabama, the mother (?) of Darius I – and thus the highest-ranking female at court – was economically active and had the authority to issue commands to the administrative hierarchy at Persepolis. She is well attested in the Persepolis texts overseeing her vast personal estates, receiving and distributing food supplies, and commanding an entourage of puhu and kurtaš; she is verified at the ceremonial cities of Persepolis and Susa, and even at Borsippa in Babylonia. Irdabama travelled widely around central Iran and Mesopotamia with her own courtly entourage; moreover, her court is often attested travelling independently of the Great King. In this, the behaviour of the king’s mother shadows that of her son, who toured the countryside as an element of his royal duty and as part of her personal progress through the Empire’s heartland Irdabama could deputize for the king in his absence (interestingly, European queens frequently travelled with their own court households as did the highest-ranking women of the Mughal court). Like Irdabama, Darius’ wife Irtaštuna (Artystone) can be located travelling around the Empire’s core with her own small court retinue: she is sometimes mentioned travelling with Irdabama (PFa 14a), and sometimes journeying in the company of her son, prince Aršama (PF 733).

When the imperial procession came to a halt a camp was set up. Tents were erected and a royal city of cloth, leather, and wood appeared (Xen. Cyrop. 8.5.2-14). Herodotus (7. 119) records that the Persian troops marching with Xerxes had the task of dismantling, transporting and reassembling the royal tent when they reached a new camp, and we should imagine that the tents of the other royals and nobles were erected by teams of servants at the same time. Systematically arranged to reflect hierarchical and defensive concerns, the royal camp was constructed with the Great King’s tent at the centre of the complex, facing towards the east and decorated with distinguishing devices (Curt. 3. 8.7). Standing at the epicentre of the camp, the king’s tent became the symbol of royal authority itself (Plut. Eum. 13), and inside the tent the king carried out the same rituals and duties that he followed inside palaces; in all respects, the king’s tent was a collapsible version of a palace throne-hall, and it is reasonable to conceive of the Apadana at Persepolis as a stone version of the royal tent.

As a mark of favour and as a display of royal largess, the Great King might gift a favoured courtier with a splendid tent, often richly furnished with couches, textiles, gold plate, and slaves (Athenaeus 2. 48e-f); some tents were even considered heirlooms (Xen. Cyrop. 5. 5.1-2). The tent was a visible emblem of imperial authority – so much so in fact, that the enemy capture of a royal tent and its rich accoutrements was a symbol of the collapse of monarchic authority itself (Plut. Al. 20. 11-13).


I have been very selective with my focus and materials in this short blog; the truth of the matter is, however, that the court influenced many of the key areas of Achaemenid culture. It was the epicentre of politics, bureaucracy and administration, the military, and perhaps even a religious centre with rituals enacted around the person of the Great King; the court was the intellectual, artistic, and cultural centre of the Empire too, and artisans of all sorts flocked to court to receive patronage from the monarch (Jacobs, this volume). The court was without doubt the hub for the creation of imperial royal ideology and the dissemination point for all forms of official Achaemenid dogma; the importance of the Great King’s court is reflected by the fact that throughout the Empire, satraps replicated its forms, structures, customs, and ceremonies as the most effective symbol of royal authority.



21 thoughts on “The Royal Court in Achaemenid Persia: a few thoughts…

  1. سالم! از اشنای تون کؤشبکتم
    Thank you very much for responding to my blog. Please come back often – and tell your family and friends!
    بي سبرانه منتطرتم تا برگردئ
    (Forgive my bad Farsi!!)

  2. it was nice to here about your blog while watching Manoto tv .
    thank you so much for writing about my culture and my realpeople and real persians….concidering that 99% of habits that we see these days are not such a real persian manner….but if you go through the people you will find them a lovely kind and HOSPITABLE nation….i wish a better kind situation for our proplr in future(soon!) to show all the world who we are
    kisseeeeeeeeeeeeeeees for all the nations

    • Kheily mamnoon Parviz jan!
      We all hope for a better future for all nations.
      Please, keep following my work here on the blog and tell all your friends and family about me too!

  3. Just bumped into your fantastic blog, I will use a bit of it to teach my ancient historians – must buy the book now – there is one thing I do not get about the Persians – their expansionism – did they see it as important in order to maintain control opf their empire or did Cyrus’ exploits provide a culture of conquest that legitimated new kings?
    God bless and keep you well

    • Hi Tasos; lovely to hear from you.
      The expansionist policy of Cyrus II leaves me dumbfounded! I don’t know where the vision came from for his confidence & ability to move from southern Iran to take over the Medes, sweep through into Lydia and then march on Babylonia. Staggering!
      From there on in, yes, I think successive Great Kings were duty bound to maintain (because none after Xerxes expanded) the Empire.
      Buy the book – and tell your students to follow my blog!
      Very best wishes,

  4. In Moghul India, when the emperor or other high ranking nobles traveled, two sets of identical tents and trappings were used. When one was occupied, the other would be set up at the next destination in exact same manner. In fact, the campsites would be replicated for the duration of the journey to avoid confusion.

    An interesting blog, many thanks.

    • Yes, you are absolutely right. In my book on the Achaemenid court I use Mughal evidence as points of comparison. I think that Moghul court structures offer much in the way of comparatives and in the future I’d like to do a piece of work that thoroughly explores that relationship.
      Thank you so much for your useful observations.

    • I’m not really qualified to comment on paint pigmentation at Persepolis – although I’m sure Alexander Negal, whi has studied this topic, might be able to say something about skin tones. Even then, that does not really say much about ethnicity.

  5. I’m not naming any ethnicity.
    If you look at actual photo of the painted relief of the Winged sphinx from Darius’ palace at Susa and the Elamite guard both are dark browned skinned.
    Also at the CAIS website
    The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (cais-soas -dot kom)
    the article on their website called
    Darius The Great By: Prof. A. Shapur Shahbazi
    Shows a photo of the painted relief of Darius I himself and dark brown skinned
    so the reconstruction of the Treasury at top is way off, Alexander Negal will confirm this if the examples I mentioned are given

  6. It’s subconscious white washing of ancient art,
    Nobody is even saying “black” or “white”.
    It’s facts, look at ancient art, then look at Nat Geo or other reconstructions,
    they are npot following the ancient art, they are updating it to look more like themselves.
    It’s not fair to the people whose history it is, not objective archaeology

  7. I’m sorry to bother you again with a question on the book of Esther. The King James Bible says that during the feast of Ahasuerus there were hangings fastened with linen and purple cords to silver rings and pillars of marble (Esther 1:6,14) Does that mean there was a tent put up for the king and his seven princes from Media and Persia, since the tent was such an important symbol of the king’s authority? Thank you in advance for your kind reply.

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