Pax Persica: Small Wars and the Achaemenid Frontiers (20 min)


John Hyland, Christopher Newport University


The slogan of an ideological Pax Persica has become a common structuring principal in discussions of Achaemenid imperialism and the empire’s interaction with subjects and neighboring populations. It reflects the claims to world hegemony projected in the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, but also the reality that the Achaemenids achieved a unique historical situation in the wake of their sixth-century-conquests, through the annexation of all major peer polities (above all Babylonia and Egypt), thereby ending a model of frontier contestation between rival states that had characterized the expansionist efforts of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires. By asserting the empire’s commitment to pax, although no direct translation of the term appears in Old Persian or other Achaemenid imperial languages, modern scholars of the Persian Empire have implicitly projected a comparison between the stability achieved by the early Achaemenid rulers and that of the Roman Empire of the first–second centuries C.E. (a comparison already made explicit in Eduard Meyer’s Geschichte des Altertums, which briefly refers to the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Antoninus Pius as similar times of calm before the storm). Yet while it may be true that the frequency and scale of Persian imperial warfare declined after the early conquests, that the great kings increasingly refrained from lengthy frontier campaigns, and that rebellions remained relatively few, concentrated in a small number of regions, there is need for caution and nuance in considering the role of war and peace on the Achaemenid frontier. In the Persian Empire as in the Roman, overall systemic stability and the limitation of warfare against state-level rivals did not preclude significant levels of localized turmoil and violence in the borderlands. Documentary evidence, such as recently published material from the Persepolis Fortification Archive on the deportation of Lycian laborers to Iran, points to the lasting significance of small-scale turmoil and localized military action on the frontiers as an important component of Achaemenid imperialism, coexisting with the ideological construction of imperial peace on a universal scale.