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13-04-2015, 01:02

Royal concubines

According to Herodotus, ‘every [Persian] has a number of wives, a much greater number of concubines’ (1.135), an image also later presented by Strabo (15.3.17): ‘They marry many wives and also maintain a number of concubines for the sake of having many children’. While this scenario of empire-wide polygyny should not be taken at face value, it may well be representative of the elite of Persian society in the Achaemenid period, since Persian nobles, and certainly satraps, imitated royal polygyny and as a mirror image of the royal court they housed numerous concubines within the satrapal palaces. Pharnabazus, the satrap of Phrygia, kept a court full of concubines, and Mania, his female governor, is recorded as soliciting the goodwill of the satrap through the presents and compliments she pays to his concubines (Xenophon, Hellenica 3.1.10 provides us with excellent evidence for harem networking).

Historically, at least in the Greek (and Hebrew) sources, Persian royal concubines (Greek, pallakai; Hebrew, pilges; Aramaic, lehena) were generally considered to be beautiful girls who could be bought as slaves or received as gifts and tribute from different parts of the vast Empire (D11, D12; Aelian, Historical Miscellany 12.1). Concubines could also be regularly acquired as war booty or were captured from rebellious subjects. The childless King Kirta of Ugarit supposed that a brood of sons would follow on from his acquisition of aristocratic war-captured concubines and with that goal in mind he raised an army to march on the kingdom of Udum, demanding of its King Pubala (column VI: 22-8, 33-4):

What is not in my house you must give me:

You must give me Lady Huraya,

The fair-one, your firstborn child Who is as fair as the goddess Anat,

Who is as comely as Astarte. . .

Who will bear a child for Kirta. . .

(Trans. Parker 1997: 23)

Herodotus confirms that after quelling the Ionian uprising, ‘the most beautiful girls were dragged from their homes and sent to Darius’ court’ (6.32; see also Herodotus 4.19, 9.76; Plutarch, Moralia 339e) and the Persian practice of taking concubines as war booty is corroborated by a report in a Babylonian chronicle that, following the Persian sack of Sidon in 345 bce, Artaxerxes III transferred to his Babylonian palace large numbers of women (D13). Of course, the Greeks too acquired Persian concubines as war prizes: for instance, 329 royal concubines of Darius III were part of Alexander’s post-Issus plunder (D14).

Brosius (1996: 32) suggests that many of the captive foreign women who entered the places as royal concubines came from families of high social status, and King Kirta’s demand for Princess Huraya of Udum appears to suggest this, although it is difficult to verify that this was always the case - after all, the Egyptian king refused to send his daughter to Cambyses’ harem, fearing that she would be destined for concubinage and not marriage (D15). The Biblical story of Esther does not necessarily suggest a high social status for the heroine before her entry into the royal harem as a concubine (Esther 2:5-7) and this is certainly the case in later (Muslim) harem institutions, where girls were routinely collected from poor families (Peirce 1993). Briant (2002: 279) makes the important point, however, that not all captive women were bound for the privileges of the royal harem at all and that most of them would have disappeared into the huge regiment of domestic staff who worked throughout the places as arad sari (‘royal slaves’) and arad ekalli (‘palace slaves’). The book of Esther further notes that the more fortunate young women chosen for the harem were instructed for a year in courtly arts and etiquette before being considered eligible for congress with the monarch. After that event, however, the novice graduated to a higher level of harem society and she could then be summoned by the king as his inclination dictated (D12).

The Greeks generally referred to concubines (both Greek and non-Greek) as pallakai, a term denoting low-class females, perhaps of the demi-monde, but the term’s application cannot be justified for what we know about the status of Persian concubinage. Certainly the concubines of Persian kings should not be classed as even reputable disreputable women and in no way should these women be confused with courtesans, prostitutes, or mistresses. Artaxerxes I fathered at least eighteen sons with his concubines and Artaxerxes II had 150 sons by his (D16; Plutarch, Artaxerxes 26; Justin 9.1). While the official take was that children born to concubines were regarded as inferior to any child born to a royal wife (and the Greeks routinely - but inaccurately - called them nothoi, ‘bastards’), ‘the history of the succession of Achaemenid kings tells another story’ (Brosius 1996: 33). As a result of wars, epidemics, the high infant mortality rate, or succession struggles within the royal household, an opportunity sometimes arose for the son of a concubine to ascend to the throne. Darius II was crowned king despite being the son of a Babylonian concubine named Cosmartidene, a fact which suggests that concubinage was not necessarily a dormant institution and that concubines could gain high status and even become the mothers of kings. In the harem status system the child of a concubine always outranked his or her mother, since the child took eminence (and the blood royal) from the father, but the reality of the harem was that circumstance or personal ambition could change the hierarchy, and with it the course of dynastic politics. Antagonism between wives and concubines is often recorded in the Hebrew Bible (see for instance Genesis 22:24, 25:6, 35:22, 36:12), which is paralleled by texts from similar court cultures (such as the epic Japanese Tale of Genji or the Qing novel A Dream of Red Mansions; see Zhou 2010), and it is probable that the same tensions permeated the Achaemenid court. However, the majority of concubines must have passed their lives as nameless nonentities in a court full of competitive women (Brosius 2011: 71). Concubinage was not necessarily a satisfying state of existence.

Several essentially historiographic texts afford an insight into the Greek preoccupation with the sex life of the Persian monarch (D17, D18, D19; see also Ctesias F13 §16; Athenaeus 12.514b). But what must we make of these ostensibly ‘historical’ reports? In some respects they resemble images of concubines found in later popular Greek literature, especially the Greek novels which drew on fashionable cliches of Persian concubinage and exploited the historical figure of the captive concubine for dramatic effect (Llewellyn-Jones forthcoming a). The allure of the fantastical seraglio proved to be irresistible to post-Achaemenid-period Greek authors, although perhaps most familiar is Aelian’s (semi-fictional) account of Aspasia, the Greek-born concubine of Artaxerxes II (not to be confused with Pericles’ celebrated pallake) who is passed around the Persian court from brother (Cyrus the Younger) to brother (Artaxerxes II) and then to son (Crown Prince Darius). Aspasia’s story is a highly romanticised and eroticised treatment of the royal concubine image (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 12.1).

But what of the number of concubines suggested in the ‘historiography’? Were there 300, 329, or 360 royal concubines? Briant argues, with feasibility, that we are dealing here with symbolic numbers directly or indirectly relating to the Persian calendar in the context of sun worship; by settling on these numbers the image of the Great King as a man above men was confirmed because of ‘a perfect proportionality between his own rhythm and cultic time’ and it stressed the sacred character of the Achaemenid monarch (Briant 2002: 281). Briant therefore suggests that the ranks of the royal concubines were fixed at 360 and that the Greek evidence for this goes straight back to the Persian court. We should be less inclined to see a fixed number, since Greek, Hebrew, and even Babylonian reports imply a continual traffic in concubines and female slaves entering the harem (for example when ‘stocks’ were depleted; see D11, D12, D13 and Scheidel 2009: 257). Certainly later harem systems had no fixed quota of royal concubines (Peirce 1993: 31). Briant’s claim that 360 is a symbolically loaded number is no doubt correct but the exactness of the figure says more (or at least as much) about the Greek need for order and emblematic regulation than it necessarily does about the Persian desire for symbolic harmony.

While it is possible that Greek readers saw in these reports of the royal concubines images of eastern erotica, it is more likely that they perceived something else besides: a wonderment at the Great King’s ability to amass, house, support, not to say sexually exploit, so many women (note Herodotus’ comment at 7.187 on the ‘numberless’ concubines at court). The accumulation of females on this scale speaks for the king’s virility as well as his wealth because while the concubines were there to provide for his bodily comforts and needs, their bodies were symbols of his dominance - not simply of man over women or of master over slaves, but of monarch over Empire. Like the diverse food served at the royal table, the precious stones and timbers brought to the workshops at Susa, or the rare flora planted in the royal gardens, the women who had been collected together and sent to the Great King from all parts of the Empire were physical manifestations of the Persian realm itself. Through their fertility the monarch populated his court and his realm.