Ancient History

Home > Ancient History > Ancient societies > Near East > Persian society in the time of Darius and Xerxes: social structures

Persian society in the time of Darius and Xerxes

Social structures

Social Structure


Describes and analyses political, military, religious, social, cultural and economic features of ancient societies
Identifies factors that contribute to change and continuity in the ancient world
uses historical terms and concepts appropriately to answer historical questions.
Go To Top


This tutorial presents the social structures and people's occupations in the Persian society at that time, using key terms, concepts and evidence.

Go To Top

Social Structure

Darius' inscription at Naqsi -i Rustam (1. 81-5) informs us of his: family (Mnana) as he is son of Vishtaspa; clan (Vis) as he is of the Haxamanisiya; tribe (Zama) as he was of the Pasargadae; people as he was of the Parsa; race as he was of the Ariya; land (Dahyu) as it was Fars. Indeed, Wiesehoefer (1996: 34) argues that the Avesta divides society into three functions: priest, warrior and farmer.

The family
The family was the basic social unit in Persian society. Fathers had tyrannical authority, treating their children as slaves (Aristotle, Nicomedian Ethics, IX, 12). Marriage was a formal affair which saw grooms toasted and brides kissed (Arrian Anabasis 7. 4-5). Children were much sought after as legitimate heirs (Herodotos, m. 2), therefore polygamy was encouraged for this reason (Strabo 15.3.17). Children had to obey their fathers (Aelian Varia Historiae 1. 34) and could be rewarded (Fortification texts record a gift of 100 sheep by Danus I to his daughter Artystone). The death of a spouse was a time of mourning (A Babylonian Chronicle 7. iii. 22-24). Incest was against Persian customs and laws (Herodotos III. 31), but successive Persian Great Kings named sisters, cousins, nieces, daughters, and slept with the wives and daughters of their brothers (Plutarch Artaxerxes XXIII. 5-6). Divorce is almost unheard of: an adulterous wife of Xerxes son-in-law only gets a reprimand, then promises to behave! (Ctesias 39b). Only Xerxes divorced his disobedient wife Vashti. (Esther 1.9-22).

The clan
Several families made up the clan. Several clans made up the tribe. The Achaemenids were one clan of the Pasargadae. Intermarriage went on between families within the same clan. The clan was the basic unit of identification, but not social function: you lived with your family, obeying your patriarchal father, but told people you met the name of your clan. (Herodotos III. 119.2).

The tribe
If you told the people you met to which clan you belonged, then you told the world to which tribe you belonged. Both Darius and Xerxes make sure we know their tribe, as well as clan. Many Persians identified in the Fortification tablets and Treasury tablets from Persepolis are identified by name, region and tribe. The bulk of the Persians were small farmers (Weisenhoefer, 1996: 35). We know that divisions in society were made at the tribal level. Several clans made a tribe. Entire tribes were either nomadic herders or settled farmers. Within these divisions was a clear heirarchy, attested to by Herodotos (I. 134.3), and Strabo, who refers to proskynesis. There were other tribes: the Panthialaei, the Derusiaei and the Germanii, who were farmers. The Dai, Mardi, Dropici and Sagartii were herders. These all had the status of skauthis, peasants, whose labour was the basis of agriculture. Free workers were even recruited from neighbouring satrapies at harvest time (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 157). Paid free-born labourers worked on the Babylonian canals, and free non-citizen farmers worked the land of the state, temples and the rich (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 1989: 152), and provided the corvee labour at such sites as Susa and Persepolis (Kent 1953DSf 22-58). They could not be sold, and so were not actually slaves, and could be considered non-citizen workers.

Go To Top


One tribe of the Persians, the Magi became the priest class. They interpreted the teachings of the prophet, Zarathshtra, through their own beliefs. In some cases, this meant that they encouraged night-time sacrifices of cattle to Mithra, drinking haoma, and worshipping the mother goddess Anahita (Olmstead, 1948: 106), all of which had been expressly forbidden by Zarathushtra. A professional and hereditary priesthood, "such as the Magi provided... may develop superstition elaborately, since scrupulousness may easily come to be counted for righteousness and so be a road to eminence" (Burn, 1984: 79-80).

There was a small artisan class within Persian or Median society. In Babylonia, an inscription says that the temples relied on the skilled labour of "carpenters, metal engravers goldsmiths and ...all the craftsmen (of the temple)" (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 157). Great Kings used the skills of the conquered peoples. Lydian stonemasons worked on Pasargadae (Roaf, 1990: 204). The slaves who worked these sites were called Kurtash, and ration payments for them are recorded on the Persepolis Fortification tablets (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 158), and show that Darius borrowed from the architectural traditions of the Medes, the Mesopotamians, the Greeks and the Egyptians. According to the Treasury tablets, there were Egyptian and Carian stonemasons, and Ionian slaves in the quarries. (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 1989: 160). The Phoenicians provided purple dye, the Egyptians manufactured rope, the Greeks built the bridges across the Danube. The social heirachy put craftsmen between warriors and peasants. Scribes were essential for administration and for distributing the propaganda of the Great King. They ranked higher than other craftsmen in the East. Although they had their own slaves, those who worked in Persepolis were referred to as slaves in the records (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 1989: 159). Mostly, they worked in languages foreign to the Persians, mostly Elamite and Akkadian, and little in Old Persian (Kurht, 1995: 649).

With the land grants of fiefs, from the Great King came the obligation to be constantly ready to provide troops in times of war (and this included their full kit). Each member of the military class carried a duty to pay a service (ilku) of silver, by whomever owned the fief. Xerxes says of himself that he was a good horseman, bowman and spearman (Kent 1953 Dnb). Babylonian documents attest the renting out of these lands. The "census officers made sure that a soldier matching the obligation of each land grant appeared at the call up" Kurht (1995: 695). This census was taken in 500-499, and the information was "kept by army scribes at the main mustering points of the satrapy" (Kurht, 1995: 695). The division of land into bow (bit qasha), horse (bit sisi) and chariot (bit narkabhi), shows the place of the military within Persian society. The peace which this system brings, allows agricultural workers to produce their maximum taxable amount which maintains the empire and its military system.

Domesticated animals and enslaved humans and a vast number of people were needed to work on projects of agriculture, warfare and monumental construction. State owned slaves in the mines (Olmstead, 1948: 74 ff), and they were well paid (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 161-2), but they had the status of livestock moveable property (op. cit 153). The household of the Great King maintained a large retinue of slaves who functioned as plowmen, millers, cow herds, shepherds, winemakers and beer brewers, cooks, bakers, wine waiters and eunuchs (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 1989: 158, 170). Of the slaves at Persepolis, 12.7% were boys, and 10% were girls (Fortification Tablets). Dandemaev and Lukonin (1989: 160-1), concluded that these slaves lived together as families but they were also moved around the empire in what amounts to job lots. Documents record the movements of between 150 and 1500 slaves from one site to another. In Babylon, Egypt and the Greek cities of Lydia, the arrangements predating the Persians were kept. Slaves were usually acquired through warfare (Falcelière et al, 1970: 433), and were known as "the booty of the bow" (Dandamaev and Lukonin, 1989: 156). The peace established by the Great King would have effectively dried up this source. However, the Great Kings enslaved satrapies and cities which rebelled (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 170). Slavery was usually seen as a hereditary state, the children of those slaves maintained private stocks. Household slaves could be bought (Herodotos, vm, 1os). There was a privately owned slave labour force doing menial tasks. In Babylon, debtors could sell themselves into slavery (Olmstead, 1948: 74 ff), but this quickly died out under Persian rule (Dandemaev and Lukonin, 1989: 156). Everyone from the highest nobles down were defined as bandaka (the slaves of the Great King) (Kurht, 1995: 687), or 'those who wear the belt of dependence' (Wiesehoefer, 1996:31). This meant that taxation was due in money, precious metals, goods, military service and labour.

Go To Top


  1. Into which social division would a Persian:
    1. live?
    2. identify privately?
    3. identify publicly?
    4. gain citizenship?
  2. Describe the role of the family in Persian life.
  3. What was the agricultural function of tribesmen?
  4. From where did the Great Kings gain their skilled artisans?
  5. Why were scribes important to the empire?
  6. Discuss the role of craftsmen in the building programs of the Great Kings.
  7. What were the duties and rewards expected of and by, the military class?
  8. How did the Persian Empire make use of non-citizen workers?
  9. How did the Persian Empire make use of slaves?
  10. Assess the effect of the peace brought to the empire by the Persians. How did it affect soldiers, slaves, farmers and business people?
Go To Top


Burn, ARR. (1984) Persia and the Greeks, Duckworth, London.

Dandemaev, M.A. and Lukonin, V.G. (1989) The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Herodotos (1985) The Histories, trans. Rex Warner, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Kuhrt, A. (1995) The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330BC Vol 2 Routledge, London.

Lawless and Cameron (1994) Studies in Ancient Persia, Thomas Nelson, South Melbourne.

Olmstead, A.T., (1948) History of the Persian Empire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Roaf, M. (1990) Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Near East, Facts on File Ltd, New York.

Weishoefer, J. (1996) Ancient Persia 550BC-650 AD trans. Azodi, A. IB Tauris Publishing, London.

Go To Top

Neals logo | Copyright | Disclaimer | Contact Us | Help