Two-Phase Empire Building
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Categories: Ancient

Two-Phase Empire Building

In December 2023 my article with an overview of Teispid and Achaemenid armies and warfare became free to download. Whereas my first book is an academic monograph with lots of history of ideas and arguments for and against different position, this article was concise and focused on facts (originally it was intended for a companion or handbook which was derailed by the COVID pandemic). The final published version has some more academic things at the beginning after the three or so rounds of peer review. This week, I want to share why I think its fundamentally wrong to measure the Achaemenids against the Roman empire or the British empire and look for ‘Persian customs’ or ‘ethnic Persians’ in the archaeology and the tablets.

Many imperial powers emerge in two stages: first a city or dynasty gains control of and homogenizes a core territory, and then it expands outwards. During the phase of homogenization, a common language and writing system are spread, laws and customs harmonized, weights and measures standardized, and a sense of common identity develops. During the phase of expansion, the city or dynasty begins to take control of peoples who are too far away, too different, or simply too numerous to assimilate in the same way. It often chooses to rely on troops from the core territory, and to create a few standard patterns of military unit which can be recruited from that core territory and sent wherever needed. These standardized units from the core territory bring their own military culture into distant parts of the empire. The reliance on soldiers and administrators from the core territory can be understood as a political measure to keep power flowing to those who benefit from the empire. However, it also reduces cultural tensions and language barriers within imperial armies and administration and supports the rulers’ claims to be powerful and necessary. This model fits some famous world empires such as the Roman and the British. But it is not a very good fit for the Teispids and Achaemenids, whose kingdom emerged in different circumstances.

“The Armies of the Teispids and Achaemenids: The Armies of an Ancient World Empire,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 27 Nr. 2 (2022) pp. 151-153 hosted here

The situation in the Zagros Mountains in the 6th century BC is poorly understood due to a lack of indigenous texts and the scarcity of published archaeological finds. During the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, the former Assyrian provinces in the Zagros had become independent, and some kind of Median polity had emerged. Older scholarship followed Greek and Babylonian literature to present the Medes as a kind of empire stretching west to the Halys river and east into the Iranian plateau, but since 1988 researchers have emphasized the lack of monumental architecture, court art, writing, and other archaeological traces of a state. The lowland part of the kingdom of Elam (Susiane) had been devastated by Assyrian invasions, although some kind of literate, urban life may have continued. We do not know when speakers of Old Iranian languages migrated into the highland part of Elam (Persis), or have clear traces of a powerful kingdom in Persis before Cyrus. Nothing is known about the ethnicity of Cyrus: his name could be Elamite or Iranian, and Babylonians and perhaps his own seal call him Anšanite. It was Darius who proudly proclaimed that he was Persian and sharply distinguished between (lowland) Elam and (highland) Persis in the monument to commemorate his victory in a civil war at Behistun. Darius continued to make use of the Elamite language and script for monumental and administrative texts. These are not the circumstances under which many millions of people could be expected to develop a common identity as Persians. We would expect that the Persian nation grew after Cyrus’ conquests, as neighboring peoples adopted Persian identity (Hdt. 1.125) and gifts of food, silver, or land enabled Persians to raise more children (PF 1200–1237 in Hallock 1969; Hdt. 1.136; Plut. Vit. Alex. 69.1; Strab. Geogr. 15.3.17). The Teispids conquered their empire in a very short period of time. The chronology of their conquest of eastern Iran and India is hard to establish due to the lack of indigenous texts, but Babylonian texts state that Cyrus captured Astyages the king of the Medes in 550 BC and occupied Babylon in 539 BC (Grayson 1975, no. 7 = Kuhrt 2007, 50–53; Schaudig 2001, 416–418 = Kuhrt 2007, 56–57). Cambyses invaded Egypt in 526/525 BC. The areas which they conquered included urbanized, bureaucratic kingdoms such as Egypt and Babylonia, and areas without cities or writing such as central Iran. After Darius seized the throne, he found that his kingdom faced no serious external threats. The Neo-Assyrians faced Urartu, Egypt, and Elam, the Hellenistic kingdoms faced each other and the city-states of Carthage, Syracuse, and Rome, the Roman Empire faced the Arsacids and Sasanids, but Darius’ kingdom was bordered by no large powerful states. The main danger was not invasion from the outside but a palace coup or local revolt. How could he link so many lands and peoples into a single imperial structure without causing some to break away?

In my view, early Achaemenid government was centered around the collection and redistribution of materials and workers all over the empire rather than on supporting an institutionalized army or navy recruited in Persis. As long as grain arrived in the warehouses, silver arrived in the treasuries, and workers or officials arrived at their worksites, the kings and satraps could live in comfort and oversee great projects such as monument-building and military campaigns. Exactly who paid taxes and who served was less important. The vague references to “lance- bearers” and food for workers/soldiers in the archives from Persepolis show the type of administration which the Achaemenids could use to fight a war, even if the surviving archives do not refer to battles, wars, or sieges. In early states such as China, Egypt, or the Inca Empire, specialized military organizations tend to emerge out of undifferentiated systems for collecting and redistributing labor, raw materials, and manufactured goods for civil, religious, and military purposes.

Even if there had been enough ethnic Persians to form half or a third of a new army, establishing them across the empire would have required either dispossessing hundreds of thousands of locals or creating a way to pay the whole army all year every year. To my knowledge, the first ancient state to pay its whole army year-round in peacetime was the Roman Principate. It took the Romans hundreds of years and several civil wars to develop the ability to support a large standing army, and Darius and his officials did not have hundreds of years. Pierre Briant has described the Persian rulers as an ethno-classe dominante, that is, they were united by blood and customs but also by their shared dependence on land or revenues given to them by the king or satrap. Wealthy locals could imitate Persian customs, seek offices with an allowance, and marry to become part of the Persian elite. Ordinary Persian farmers and herders are almost invisible outside of Persis because they did not belong to this class.

Soldiers were Achaemenid soldiers because they served the king or a satrap, and not because they had a specific ethnicity or were organized into a specific form of military unit. To argue otherwise would be to force a model like the “regular” and “irregular” troops of British India or the legions and auxiliaries of the Roman Empire on evidence which it does not fit.

“The Armies of the Teispids and Achaemenids: The Armies of an Ancient World Empire,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 27 Nr. 2 (2022) pp. 151-153 hosted here

The Achaemenids did not build themselves into the landscape and scatter a uniform type of pottery and ironware everywhere they went like the Romans. That does not mean that they were therefore ineffective imperialists. In my view, looking for a Persian ‘national army’ and seeing it as the most worthy type of armed force to study is a fundamentally mistaken approach. I don’t know if that is what the general public expects to find, but it is what some well-known scholars have tried to find. If you want to learn more, the article is free to download.

Do any of my gentle readers know of anyone else who has named the ‘Roman or British’ type of imperialism?

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(scheduled 9 December 2023)

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