AIA-7C: Diversity and Power: Centering Achaemenid Persian Imperialism (Joint AIA/SCS Colloquium)

  In-Person   AIA Session   Colloquium


Michael Taylor, University at Albany SUNY; and John Hyland, Christopher Newport University

Overview Statement

The Achaemenid Persian Empire stretched from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea, and endured for over two centuries from a rapid imperiogenesis in the mid-sixth century to its sudden demise in the fourth B.C.E. It was, at the time, the largest imperial configuration in human history. The vibrant field of Achaemenid studies has drawn on scholarly expertise from numerous linguistic and disciplinary backgrounds to generate new understandings of Persia’s imperial dynamics and intercultural interactions. Yet, more work is required to nudge the Achaemenid world from the margins to a central place in discussions of ancient imperialism within the professional disciplines of classics and ancient history, where Rome is the default paradigm. Despite the flourishing of comparative studies examining Roman imperialism in tandem with other imperial models such as those of Han China, the potential for Persian-Roman comparison has not yet been adequately recognized. Although the field of classics and its allied disciplines are moving in the direction of broader definitions of ancient studies that break from old Eurocentric frameworks and integrate the Middle East and North Africa firmly into ancient narratives, positions dedicated to the study of ancient Persia remain extraordinarily rare in classics departments. The organizers seek to center Achaemenid imperialism by presenting accessible case studies in current Achaemenid research and generating comparative discussion on Persia’s imperial methods and impacts alongside those of Rome and other premodern empires.

Panelist one will explore the concept of Pax Persica, frequently used by modern studies to characterize Achaemenid imperial ideology, and the intersections between imperial administration, “small wars,” and labor extraction on the Aegean frontier. While large-scale conquests largely ended by the mid-fifth century, evidence suggests that Persian frontier zones were characterized by frequent if often localized violence, which both challenged and constituted Persian imperial power.

Panelist two examines the institutional dynamics of satraps, the regional governors who facilitated the relatively decentralized rule of the far-flung empire. The paper focuses on satrapal households as a key structural framework for the extension of Achaemenid power, within a broader context of comparative models on imperial approaches to regional governance. Competition between satrapal households for resources was a mechanism for maximizing the overall extractive apparatus of the empire.

Panelist three considers the Achaemenid administrative imprint on the satrapies, drawing on the rich corpus on the Persepolis Fortification tablets. Elamite documentation demonstrated not only the flow of dependent workers, the transfer of fruits and domesticated animals, and the interface between the mobile court apparatus and regional palaces.

Panelist four takes an art-historical approach, using the corpus of Persepolis seals to explore the dissemination of imperial ideology and its interactions with earlier Near Eastern visual cultures. Displaying a wide array of artistic influences, and featuring multiple languages, the seals reveal an idiom of power constituted through the empire’s ethnic diversity.

Panelist five considers the problem of slavery in Achaemenid Egypt, suggesting that Egypt’s incorporation into the broader imperial system may have led to an intensification in the use of enslaved labor in Egypt, now part of a broader system of coercion, mobility, and extraction. Whereas prior to the 27th Dynasty, slaves sourcing was mostly from self-sales and prisoners of war, the Persian period provides evidence for the importation of slaves, and the possibility that under the empire enslavement became an embedded economic practice.

Panelist six turns the discussion to modern reception and pedagogy, examining the evolution of the Achaemenid Empire’s presentation in secondary school textbooks and classrooms from the late 19th through 21st centuries. In a full circle, the Achaemenids have gone from a positive view in the 19th century (influenced by a mostly positive portrayal of Cyrus the Great and his successors in the Old Testament), to a negative vision of autocracy in the mid-20th century, swinging back toward more recently optimistic billing as an anecdote to Orientalist chauvinism.