In 1969, in northwest Iran, at about the time a modern emperor—the Shah of Iran—still ruled the region, the archaeologist Charles Burney was making interesting discoveries about an ancient people that were assimilated into the Persian Empire. But these were only one of the many peoples that were part of the subjects of the Empire.
The Vanished Urartians
The site Charles Burney excavated was called Haftavantepe. “Tepe” is the Turkish word for “hill.” It’s the word that archeologists use to describe a natural mound that has grown higher over time owing to successive layers of occupation. Haftavantepe lies in a region called Azerbaijan, on the borders of Turkey, the former Soviet Union, and Iran. Azerbaijan is populated by a mixture of peoples, including Kurds, Armenians, and Turkish-speaking Iranians.
At Haftavantepe there could be found skeletons decked out in their finery. These were the people called the Urartians—the ancestors of the modern-day Armenians—who flourished from the 9th to the 7th centuries B.C.
Today, the Urartians are just a footnote to history. Few people have heard of them. But they’re a reminder that we should always spare a thought for history’s losers—and all the more so in their case because for a century or more they were serious rivals to the Assyrians, very powerful people in the region of ancient Mesopotamia who feature prominently in the Hebrew Bible.
In its heyday, the Urartian kingdom incorporated northeast Turkey, present-day Armenia, and southern Georgia. Urartia eventually became assimilated by the Achaemenid Dynasty; that’s to say, by the Persians. “Achaemenid” is the name of the dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Assimilation by the Persians
But “assimilated” is a somewhat euphemistic term. “Wiped out” is probably more accurate. The Urartians were just one of the many peoples who struggled, achieved some degree of prominence, even overlordship over other groups of people, and then got swept onto the ash-heap of history by a greater and more powerful people.
Although the Persians wiped out the Urartians, they did not in general make it their aim to put the boot into their subject peoples. If you’d been an Edomite or a Lycian or a Carian, say, you wouldn’t have found Persian overlordship particularly irksome, politically speaking. That’s so long as you didn’t do anything silly like try to revolt (as the Greek cities along the coast of Turkey did).
Learn more about living in Mesopotamia.
Tribute and Service
Economically speaking, it was a very different matter altogether. Each province had to contribute to something to the Persian Empire. Call it tax or tribute, but each person had to give according to what they could.
The Bactrians provided gold and camels, the Saka—that was another group of people subjugated by the Persians—provided clothes and horses, the Sogdians lapis lazuli and carnelian, and so on. The wealth—the wealth of the subjects—poured into the imperial coffers. In addition, a Persian subject might be conscripted to serve either as a soldier or as a worker, perhaps building irrigation trenches for the local satrap or governor.
The Persian army was heavily dependent on all its subjects. Xerxes took a huge army with him in his invasion of Greece in 480 B.C.: 2.5 million in military personnel alone according to Herodotus. But this Persian army included people from a host of subject nations: Bactrians, Caspians, Sarangians, Parthians, Utians, Mycians, Sagartians, Sogdians, Chorasmians, Arians, Gandarans, and others. Merely listing them gives you some idea of how diverse the Persian Empire was.
The Limits of Acculturation
But the Persians were very different from the Romans, who ruthlessly subjugated their empire and forced upon it a program of Romanization. In contrast, the Persians were happy to let local customs thrive within their empire. Even the Greek historian Herodotus, who saw most non-Greeks as barbarians, saw a lot to admire in their tolerance. “No race is more ready to adopt foreign customs than the Persians,” he wrote. That’s quite a compliment.
Herodotus notes, for instance, that the Persians adopted the clothing of the Medes for official wear and the Egyptian corselet for military wear.
The Persian overlords didn’t expect their subjects to learn their language either. The author or authors of the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible tells us that the Persian king sent a message, “to every province in its own script and to every people in their own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasueras [that’s to say, King Xerxes, the king who led the expedition against Greece] and sealed with the king’s ring.”
So, if you spoke Akkadian, Aramaic, Egyptian, or Elamite, that would be the language in which the Persian authorities would have communicated with you in their official documents. From these reported facts, it seems that the Persians recognized the limits of acculturation—that’s to say, the limits to which heterogeneous subject peoples should be made to adapt to an alien culture—and that was both humane and pragmatic.
Learn more about the creation of wider political institutions in ancient Mesopotamia.
The Paradox of Being Persian
But, there’s something a bit paradoxical in all this. Persia was ruled by an autocrat who exercised an iron fist over his immediate entourage, but, by and by, however, the subjects of the empire were permitted a degree of freedom. And, in this case, the ‘subjects’ were in fact all the people who were part of the population.
It is not possible to draw a hard and fast line between the Persians themselves and the many peoples who lived within their borders.
Common Questions About Being A Subject of the Persian Empire
The Urartians were serious rivals to the Assyrians. In its heyday, the Urartian kingdom incorporated northeast Turkey, present-day Armenia, and southern Georgia. Urartia eventually became assimilated by the Achaemenid Dynasty.
Persian subjects were expected to provide wealth to the Empire, based on what they made or produced. In addition, a Persian subject might be conscripted to serve either as a soldier or as a worker, perhaps building irrigation trenches for the local satrap or governor.
According to Herodotus, “No race is more ready to adopt foreign customs than the Persians.” The Persians adopted the clothing of the Medes for official wear and the Egyptian corselet for military wear. In addition, the Persian administrators communicated with their subjects in their own language.
The paradox of being Persian was that your ruler was an absolute monarch, but the subjects were allowed to retain their own cultural identity and language.