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7-10-2015, 17:30

The Great King’s road trip

The smooth running of the Empire was facilitated by an excellent infrastructure. While first-rate roads connected all of the main satrapal centres with the imperial core, the most important of these highways was undoubtedly the Royal Road, which connected Sardis to Persepolis via Susa and Babylon; an eastern branch led first to Ecbatana and thence onwards to Bactra and Pashwar, while another road (principally noticeable in the correspondence of the Egyptian satrap Arsama) connected Persepolis to Egypt via Damascus and Jerusalem. The roads were measured in six-kilometre intervals (parasangs) and road stations were set up around every twenty-eight kilometres of the route to accommodate the quick change of fresh horses for any imperial messenger carrying official documents (see Potts 2008). Herodotus (5.53) estimated that the distance from Susa to Sardis, 450 parasangs, could be covered in ninety days. Administrative documents from Persepolis, especially those classified as pertaining to ‘travel rations’, attest to the systematic criss-crossing of vast swathes of the Empire by men and women on state business (delivering messages, money, or goods) or conducting private affairs (honouring work contacts or attending religious ceremonies) and record the food rations they received for the journeys (C4; Aramaic documents from the Arsama dossier are particularly interesting in this regard: see C5 and Lindenberger 2003: 90-1). The Persepolis texts record around 750 place names - cities, towns, and villages, provinces, districts, and lands, with the route between Susa and Persepolis being particularly conspicuous (Arfaee 2008). In addition to the main imperial roads, ancient caravan tracks, rough and unpaved but nevertheless wide enough to transport armies and merchant trains, ran across the entire landscape (Herodotus 8.83; Xenophon, Cyropaedia 6.2.165; Diodorus 18.26; Aristophanes, Acharnians 68-71; see Wiesehofer 1996: 77).

The Great King and his court used these routes to traverse 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 thus the regular progression of the royal court around and across the Empire should be regarded as a migration on a par with the relocation patterns typical of nomadic peoples generally. Nomadism has a deep antiquity in Iranian culture (Assyrian inscriptions are the first written sources to mention Iranian tribes that frequently descended from the Zagros mountains to attack urban centres in Mesopotamia; see Briant 1982) and even in Iran today some mountain tribes are nomadic. For ‘tribe’ we might draw on the elegant definition coined by Albert Hourani (1991: 10-11), albeit for a seventh-century Arabian context: ‘[Nomadic peoples were] led by chiefs belonging to families around which there gathered more or less lasting groups of supporters, expressing their cohesion and loyalty in the idiom of common ancestry; such groups are usually called “tribes”’. Following Hourani’s definition, we might argue that the Achaemenid king was actually the chief of a tribe which we conventionally call a ‘court’. This would not have been a great mental leap for the ancient Persians to make for, after all, their society was traditionally made up of tribes and clans. According to Herodotus, the Achaemenids were the dominant clan of the Parsagade tribe - Cyrus Il’s own tribe - and one of eleven clans (Herodotus 1.125; see also Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.2.5, who mentions twelve clans, but Strabo’s clan list at 15.3 is altogether different), but he notes that besides the members of the royal family there were also members of an Achaemenid ‘phratry’ who never became kings (like Hystaspes, Darius’ father; see also Herodotus 1.209, 3.65, and 3.75); Wiesehofer (1996: 35) attempts to find Old Persian equivalents for Herodotus’ classifications.

In Iran the traditional migrational movements of nomadic groups (each with their own deep-set tribal and family affiliations) have always been connected with clearly defined routes and destinations where the nomads spend defined periods of the year with the ultimate goal of pursuing economic activities (trade or barter) and ensuring the productiveness of their livelihood through the welfare of their herds of sheep and goats. The temporal structure of their lifestyle can be reduced to very simple ubiquitous patterns:

Spring (mid-March to early May), migration from winter pastures to summer pastures

Summer (May to late August), settlement in summer pastures autumn (September to November), migration from summer pastures to winter pastures

Winter (November to mid-March), settlement in winter pastures.

Table 1. Greek sources on the migrations of the Persian court

Time of Year

Xenophon

(C6)

Plutarch (C7, C8)

Dio Chrysostom (C9)

Athenaeus

(C10)

Aelian

(C11)

Spring

Susa

Susa

-

Babylon

-

Summer

Ecbatana

Media

Ecbatana

Ecbatana

Ecbatana

Autumn

-

-

-

Persepolis

-

Winter

Babylon

Babylon

Babylon, Susa, Bactra

Susa

Susa

This regular pattern of movement-settlement-movement-settlement can also be seen in the peripatetic practices of the Great King’s court, and although the movements of animal herds was not the raison d’etre behind the royal migration pattern, nonetheless it is important to note that changes in the season were an important factor in the court’s movement, at least if we follow the Greek explanation, where the 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. And it was to the royal capitals of the Empire that the court regularly relocated.

The Greeks texts are in agreement with that, although there is little consensus among the Greeks on the detail of exactly which capital was used or when. The Greek sources have been vigorously analysed by Christopher Tuplin (1998b), who sets them against the Persepolitan evidence for court migrations, and can be summarised as in Table 1. The Greeks unanimously agree on a residency in Media (the cool north of Iran) for the court during the summer months - a logical place to be, far from the scorching heat of southern Iran (and especially around Susa if we follow Strabo 15.3.10 and Diodorus 19.28.1-2, 19.39.1) - but beyond that it is impossible to work out the reality of the royal seasonal migration as presented in the Greek sources, so that there can be ‘no compelling evidence to prefer one variant to another’ (Tuplin 1998b: 72).

While Aelian (On Animals 3.13) was able to compare the Great King’s annual relocations to the practical migration practices of birds and fish, most Greek authors display more bafflement and derision than approbation for the nature of the royal progress (Xenophon, Agesilaus 9.5). Given the Hippocratic theory of the humours, the monarch’s desire to enjoy the warmth and dryness of an eternal springtime was, for the Greeks, an expression of his natural effeminising dissoluteness and part of the bigger picture of Persian dissipation. The most perverse expression of the Greek obsession with both Persian decadence and court nomadism, however, is given voice by Aristophanes, who conjured up an absurd fantasy wherein the Persian state en masse moved with the monarch merely to satisfy the king’s desire to empty his bowels; the comic playwright pictures the ruler surrounded by his entire entourage defecating in the privacy of the mountains before returning to the royal place (C12). Aristophanes wryly notes that the Great King’s road trip toilet break took no less than eight months.



 

 

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