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Women’s Lives in Ancient Persia
Last Updated: October, 2009

We know divorce existed but have no information on details. Amestris a niece of Darius is mentioned several times in the texts. She was married to a man called Craterus, but he soon abandoned her. After her divorce, she was remarried to Dionysius, a local ruler. They produced three children and after her husband's death in 306 BC she acted as regent. She reigned as queen for a while, but was finally murdered by her sons. We do not have much information about the marriage ceremonies. The only direct account is Alexander's wedding at Susa with the Iranian princess Stateira a daughter of the defeated king Darius III. As reported by the Greek historians the wedding was carried out in Persian tradition: "The bride entered the room and sat beside the bridegroom. He took her hands and kissed them. The two ate from the same loaf of bread sliced in two parts by a sword and drank some wine. After the ceremony her husband took the bride home".

Contemporary sources in Babylonia and other territories under Achaemenid shed some light on the legal side of the marriage alliances of ordinary couples. We have no evidence that the practices described in these documents would be identical to those in Persia, however similarities existed and the information is revealing. Forty-five such marriage contracts are discovered in Babylonia. The contracts are always between the husband and members of the bride's family. They begin with the husband's pledge to be given the woman in marriage and gifts to be presented to the bride and her family. If the husband decides to take a second wife, he is to give the first wife a specified sum of money and she may return to her home. The women's dowry could include land, household equipment, jewelry, money and slaves. If the wife committed adultery, the punishment was normally death. The contracts were sealed in front of several witnesses who were also named in the agreements.

Other documents in Babylonia (also Elam and Egypt) show that women owned properties, which they could sell or lease. After the death of her husband, the widowed wife inherited from the deceased even if she did not have children. A woman could not act as a witness in the drawing up of contracts, but she could act as a contracting party and have her own seal. If there were children from two wives, the children of the first wife inherited two thirds and the others one third only. It is not clear what would be the case if a man had more than two wives. If a woman died childless, the dowry was returned to the house of her father. There were attempts by Darius to codify the legal system but no standard set of laws has been discovered. The conquered territories used their own legal system with little interference from the central administration. For example, Jewish colonies in Elephantine in Egypt followed their own legal code. Husbands remained monogamous and all property and family matters were settled in the special courts of the Jews.

Of all the territories under Achaemenid administration Egyptian women enjoyed the most rights and privileges. The family was basically monogamous but under certain conditions husbands could marry other wives and were permitted to have sexual intercourse with slaves and household servants (common practice in the region). A husband did not have the right to pawn his wife as security for his debts. This practice existed in various forms in Babylonia and even Sassanian Persia. Wives retained their own property in marriage and after divorce. They also had the right to transfer their property to their children as inheritance and could initiate divorce. If the husband initiated divorce, he had to apportion a part of the property to his wife. If the woman asked for a divorce, she had to return the money she had received from her husband as bride price and could not lay claim upon property acquired jointly with the husband. Sons and daughters inherited equal portions. However, fathers' power over children was substantial and he could pawn them as security for debt.

To what extent Persian family and marriage contracts resembled above examples is hard to say without concrete evidence. But there would have been similarities since Achaemenid extensively utilized Neo-Babylonian and Egyptian codes of conduct and legal systems as part of their imperial policy. One major difference that existed between the Persian women and others in the empire is with respect to the participation in religious cults. Egyptians and Babylonians had many goddesses and temples designated to female deities. Women, including royalty, served and participated actively in running of these temples and ritual ceremonies. Neither the Fortification texts nor the Greek evidence suggests that Achaemenid royal women played any part in religious ceremonies. There is no reference to other women being involved either. We do know that before assuming their throne and going to major wars the kings were ritually blessed at the temple of Anahita—a significant female deity. However, there is no evidence to demonstrate that females including royalty participated at such rituals. Strict purity laws might have restricted women's access to such involvement but in the absence of historical records no conclusion can be made.

The Greek sources and the fortification texts do not shed any light on the subject of veiling and seclusion of Persian women. Veiling has a long history in ancient Mesopotamia and Mediterranean cultures. In the first known reference to veiling, an Assyrian legal text of the thirteenth century BC, it is restricted to respectable women and prohibited for the prostitutes and lower class women. There is no depiction of women in Persepolis itself, however there are many seals, statues and figurines that indicate there were no restrictions on the depiction of Persian women. In some of these, women are pictured fully clothed with partial veils; in others, they are dressed, even crowned, but with no veil. The aristocratic and royal women very likely used the veil in public as a sign of their higher status. But veiling as an institution to subjugate, control and exclude women from public domain originated after the Islamic conquest.

In summary, the evidence of the Fortification and Treasury texts provide us with a unique insight into the social and economic situation of Persian women, royal and non-royal, as well as female workers. These women owned property and were involved in managing their assets. They also participated in economic activities of the estate and other economic units. They had employment opportunities, earned wages and as a result were able to be economically independent. The patriarchal system prevailed and husbands and other males had far more rights and privileges than their wives or children. Nevertheless, such evidence clearly indicates that women in ancient Iran were not an undifferentiated mass leading a secluded life behind high walls without any function and purpose other than child-rearing—a situation that sadly became their destiny for many centuries after the collapse of the Sassanian Empire.


Essential readings:

  • Women in Ancient Persia; Maria Brosius, Oxford University Press, 1998.   This book is a detailed analysis of the Fortification and Treasury texts with respect to women. This book is a must for any one interested in women's studies.
  • The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran; Muhammad Dandamaev and Vladimir Lukonin, Cambridge University Press, 1994.  This book studies institutions of Achaemenid period in great detail.
  • Ancient Persia; Josef Wiesehofer, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London/New York 1996.   An excellent general history up to the Islamic conquest.
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