Satraps and Regional Governance in the Achaemenid Empire: A Comparative Perspective (20 min)


Rhyne King, St. Andrews University


Stretching from Egypt and the Balkans to Central Asia and the Indus, the Achaemenid Persian Empire (559–330 B.C.E.) was an order of magnitude larger than any previous state in the history of the world. Understanding the mechanisms and institutions that kept the bulk of the Achaemenid Empire together for over two centuries is an important research topic for comparative studies of the development of the state and imperialism in world history. Although the Achaemenid Empire has lately taken a more prominent role in the world history of empires, structural explanations for the meteoric growth in state power from the Neo-Assyrian period (911–612 B.C.E.) to the height of Achaemenid power in the early fifth century are still lacking. This paper will argue that a major reason for the growth in state power under the Achaemenids was its novel system of regional governance, which operated through a group of people called satraps. From the Old Persian xšaçapāvan-, meaning “one who protects the kingdom/kingship,” satraps were the regional representatives of royal power whom the king encouraged to behave as monarchs in miniature. The Achaemenids were able to exercise power over a much larger territory than their predecessors in part because the imperial court empowered the satraps to operate with a great degree of autonomy, so long as the satraps’ actions (military, tax-raising, etc.) worked to the benefit of the imperial whole. However, satraps did not operate alone but rather through what the primary sources (Greek, Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian, Aramaic) consistently call their house, that is, the people (family, friends, subordinates) and property under their remit. Satrapal houses, rather than satraps, were the regional building blocks of Achaemenid imperialism. As a way to contextualize the novelty of the Achaemenid system, I will draw upon works of historical sociology, particularly of Max Weber. In the study of governmental systems, Weber’s concept of the patrimonial bureaucracy has been influential. To summarize, Weber argues that in a patrimonial bureaucracy, a ruler organizes his realm as if it were an oversized household. This model only partially fits the Achaemenid Empire: the king to some extent managed a portion of the empire as his personal household. However, the satraps also ran their estates and jurisdictions as personal households, and these households were in competition with one another for a limited pool of resources, namely extractable taxes and labor. The Achaemenid court encouraged competition among these satrapal houses because this system encouraged a maximal extraction of resources with a minimal level of central infrastructural investment. Rather than an ideal typical patrimonial bureaucracy, the Achaemenid Empire can be seen as a system of competitive houses that, together, worked to maintain the imperial whole.