The Achaemenid Empire: Government and Institutions

  By Constantine XI, August 2006; Revised
The arrival of the gigantic personality of Cyrus the Great of Persia was one of the most dramatic events of the ancient era. Beginning in the mid sixth century BCE, the ambition and energy of this imperial minded individual saw the conquest of a number of states across west Asia. Never before in the history of west Asia or the adjacent regions had conquest occurred on such a grand scale. The sheer speed and breadth of the conquest was unprecedented and had come from a seemingly minor power: the Persians.
In spite of the death of Cyrus, the newly established empire continued to expand further. By the reign of Xerxes I, she had achieved her greatest territorial extent, incorporating the lands of three continents and more than 47 empires, kingdoms and nations into her body politic (Farazmand, 2002, p. 294). This empire, with its unprecedented size and multifaceted composition of peoples, could have been expected to have collapsed in the absence of her heroically portrayed founders. Yet, she survived largely intact and continued to play a politically dominant role for two centuries, until her sudden conquest by Alexander of Macedon.
Aside from military organisation and capable leadership, the Achaemenid Empire relied on an extensive government structure, bureaucracy and interplays of power to sustain itself. This paper shall address how the Achaemenid government and administration were structured, the nature of power relations and the roles these played in the survival and functioning of the Achaemenid state.
The natural anchor for any sort of administrative activity in the empire was royal authority. The Achaemenid empire had been conquered under the leadership and resources of the Persian monarch, so it was from there that ultimate power emanated. Direct royal administration over the pettier satrapal affairs across such a vast empire was impossible, yet a clear relationship existed between the crown and the Persian satraps. Xenophon records Cyrus’ command in setting up some early satraps, “We must choose for the satraps who are to go abroad persons who will not forget to send us anything of value in their districts, so that we at home may share in all the wealth of the world. For if danger comes, it is we who must ward it off” (Cyropaedia, VI 5). The relationship is clear, economic tribute is to be paid to royal authority, while royal authority shoulders the burden of military responsibilities. Herodotus gives a clear list of how much annual tribute was exacted from each of the 20 Achaemenid provinces (Herodotus, III 90-97), while further evidence of the Achaemenid promise of overarching military protection can be gleaned from the fact that the city of Mylasa, in Asia Minor, remained unwalled. Only by alluding to the possibility of attack on the unwalled city by the Persians themselves was the local ruler, Mausolos, able to convince the citizens to contribute to the Persian tribute money (Meadows, 2005, p.184). Only with a reliable guarantee of overarching protection from a higher power would a substantial city neglect the building of defences against external attack.
Royal authority also regulated the foreign relations of the empire. At the ends of the vast empire lay a range of peoples who were not incorporated into the bureaucratic control of the Persian state. The official relations with these peoples was the special prerogative of the Great King, though, in some instances, vassal kings in areas such as western Anatolia were given some autonomy in dealing with small states (Allen, 2005, p. 47). The Achaemenid ruler resorted to a number of ways to regulate the foreign relations of the empire. Without actually occupying territory, the Persian Great King could expect gifts from frontier states to be sent to him personally in recognition of his superiority. This was the case early on with the outlying states of Samos and Cyrene (Allen, 2005, p. 46). The transport of gifts to the royal capitals instead of to the courts of local satraps underlines the primacy of the Great King in foreign relations dealings. Recognition of friendship was another diplomatic ceremony which could take place, as the foreign state made an offering of earth and water to the Great King. In such a way the Athenians made the offering to the Persians, to later incur the wrath of the Great King when they sent ships to aid the Ionian revolt in the early 5th century BC (Herodotus, V 66-78).
The royal court, itself, served as a manifestation of the Great King’s power and was a foreign relations instrument, as well as serving propaganda purposes for visitors in the more distant satrapies. Girshman (1964, p. 156-209) provides a description of the manner in which foreign dignitaries were received by the Great King at the Apadana of Persepolis. The foreigners would pass through the gatehouse, complete with plaques in gold and silver, proclaiming the supreme power and strength of the Great King. After this, an ordered procession would pass before the Great King, who watched from a royal box. The walls throughout the Apadana were decorated with scenes of the Great King portrayed in manifestation of imperial power, receiving tribute or carrying out martial acts. After meandering through a complex series of halls, the dignitaries might, finally, be allowed into the opulent throne room in which the Great King would receive them. The whole intricate process of court protocol was a clear manifestation of imperial propaganda, as useful on foreign visitors as it was on Achaemenid subjects and tributaries.
The Persian aristocracy was incorporated into government machinery to perform roles and duties. During the formative early years of the empire, the Persian aristocracy needed to be carefully managed to prevent it from compromising the cohesive relationship between royal power and that of the satrapal authorities. The accession of Darius I (522-486) saw the true power of the aristocracy in challenging royal authority. Darius, himself, overthrew the pretender Bardiya by venturing into the palace with a band of nobles to kill him (Allen, 2005, p. 41). The succession of Darius saw widespread revolts across the empire, which had to be crushed violently. Such a trend suggests that many aristocrats considered themselves as legitimate as Darius, in becoming Great King, an attitude which could later result in extensive civil disturbance and warfare at the time of succession. To counter this, Darius built up the cult of personality attached to the Great King, as well as expounding the achievements of Cyrus, of whom Darius asserted he was the legitimate heir. Sources indicate the acceptance of a “founding legend” was widespread amongst the populace regarding Cyrus (Frye, 1963, p.42). This cult of personality, on the one hand, helped to defuse aristocratic designs on the throne. On the other, Persian court protocol helped establish a personal relationship between each individual aristocrat and the monarch. The dynastic principle was something the Persian nobility could identify with, while Briant (2002, p. 352) claims other measures helped ensure aristocratic loyalty, “by instituting a system of ‘gifts with string attached’, court hierarchy, and education based on monarchic values, the Great Kings succeeded in integrating the aristocratic circles into the fabric of royal government and the court”. In such a way, the Great Kings were able to rely upon a relatively loyal aristocracy to perform important official functions for them in governing the empire. One such instance is the career of a Pharnaka, who was appointed to the satrapy of Hellespontine Phrygia after a long period of official service in the Persian court at Parsa. This individual, following the dynastic principle set down by the royal family, fathered a whole succession of satraps for that particular satrapy, administering it on behalf of the Great King (Briant, 2002, p. 353).
With the nature of royal and aristocratic roles in the Achaemenid Empire defined, the actual administrative structures themselves may be examined. The empire was divided into smaller units known as satrapies, most of which were governed by a satrap who was directly responsible to the Great King (Meadows, 2005, p. 183). The word ‘satrap’ in Old Persian means “protector of the realm” (Briant, 2002, p. 65), the Achaemenid equivalent of a governor. The satrap was the Great King’s personal representative in the satrapy and was directly responsible to the monarch, whose favour the satrap was required to obtain. Although there occurred the inheritance of satrapal power within families, such as the previously mentioned Parnaka, each potential satrap would be appointed only with the approval of the Great King and would only continue in their role with his continued consent (Herodotus, VI 43; Briant, 2002, p. 337). The need for practicable local administration was always one which the Achaemenids saw had to be combined with direct subordination and accountability to the Great King.
There were some exceptions to the appointment of a satrap.  In some instances, the Great King allowed a local ruler to perform the functions of a satrap and govern the region on the Great King’s behalf. In such a way,  Xenophon (Cyropaedia, VII 4.2.) notes how local princes retained their power in Cilicia and Cyprus, the Achaemenids never sending a satrap there to govern. This demonstrates the willingness of the Achaemenids to allow flexibility in certain contexts, they did not insist on a rigid standardisation and total centralisation of administrative processes. Such policy reflects the Achaemenid understanding that they were administering an empire of vastly differing civilisations and peoples.
The satrap was delegated a number of set responsibilities to do with the administration of his satrapy. These were, essentially, civil roles, such as paying for the maintenance of military forces, remitting an annual tribute to the Great King, and administering justice and disputes in the satrapy (Briant, 2002, p. 341). In short, the satrap’s role was one of wide ranging civil powers for his particular territory, with particular emphasis being place on the sending of tribute to the Great King. Thucydides takes note (VIII 5) of how the failure by satrap, Tissaphernes, to pay tribute on time saw him issued a warning by the Great King. In such a way, the relationship between satrap and King is, again, evident in the shouldering of military power and responsibilities by royal authority and the channelling of tribute to the heart of the empire by the satrapal authorities.
A clear demarcation between military and civil responsibility applied to satraps. Early problems with ambitious satraps, such as Oroestes during the reign of Darius I, highlighted how a governor with both civil and military authority posed a threat to the Great King (Briant, 2002, p. 65). While Oroestes, himself, was dealt with simply enough by an order from Darius demanding his execution, to further safeguard their interests, the Great Kings ensured that actual command of military forces was to pass to a commander independent of the satrap. From Darius I onwards, such a man was directly responsible to the Great King personally, who decided his mission and span of authority (Dandamayev, 1999, p. 47)
Tribute to the Great King, a key responsibility of the satraps, was arranged through an assessment of the economic productivity of the territory in question. Darius I, initiator of so much of the Persian administrative system, established the standard for tributary payment by assessing each satrapy based on the mean annual yield in agricultural produce (Dandamayev, 1999, p. 53). As already mentioned by Herodotus (III 90-97), a fixed annual tribute paid in silver or sometimes in kind was then set. The tribute which flowed into the royal capitals served as a private reserve of the Great King. The various royal capitals collected tribute, which could then be allocated to the local administrative projects of the region. The treasury could be used in emergencies, such as during a severe famine in Parsa during 467/6, in which the enormous Persepolis treasury was used to contribute to famine relief (Cahill, 1985, p. 386). In such a way the Persians were able to collect income used for local administration, while enriching cities like Persepolis to augment the Great King’s prestige through overt displays of opulence (Girshman, 1964, pp. 265-78). Such a system of tribute indicates an advanced ability for wealth collection and disposal by contemporary standards.
The collection of tribute in the smaller capitals of the empire provides an indication of Achaemenid willingness to incorporate foreign practices into their administrative apparatus, while also making use of pre-existing bureaucratic structures to achieve governance. As already noted (Briant, 2002, p. 64), the Achaemenids were willing to leave faithful local princes in charge of administrative affairs in certain provinces. In the administration and receipt of taxes at the Jerusalem temple, the Achaemenids took over crucial aspects of a pre-existing Neo Babylonian fiscal practice known as the “king’s chest”, a fiscal administrative council established for the Jerusalem temple under Babylonian king Nabonidus (Schaper, 1995, p. 534). The Persians adopted the “king’s chest” system wholesale, making the addition of certain of their own officials to scrutinise the receipt of funds. Not only were the Persians willing to make use of pre-existing administrative structures, they also realised the value in utilising pre-existing officials and social classes to assist in administration. The cooperation between royal officials and Hebrew temple elders in administering the revenues paid to the Jerusalem temple exemplifies this: “the collaboration between the central authorities (Persians) and temple hierarchy seems to have been smooth and efficient; the needs of both partners were duly catered for” (Schaper, 1995, p. 537). These incidents of collaboration and inclusion by the Persian authorities illustrate the Achaemenid understanding of the benefits of incorporating limited foreign administrative practices into their framework of governance.
To further strengthen the effectiveness of Achaemenid bureaucracy, a system of checks were put in place to ensure satrapal duties were correctly discharged. Satraps and military commanders had recourse to complain about one another when they considered the other to be improperly discharging their duties (Briant, 2002, p. 341). Even more powerful in monitoring and assessing the actions of the straps was the institution of the Great King sending officials personally responsible to him who would scrutinise the conduct and effectiveness of the satraps. Farazmand (2002, pp. 309-310) identifies three officials, a state legal attorney or “ears of the king”, a state inspector general or “eyes of the king” and an especially powerful royal secretary. That these individuals were employed by the king were a clear indication of Achaemenid efforts to create a system of checks and balances to ensure an effective and accountable bureaucratic machine. Another key example of the reach of the Great King over his officials lies in the maintenance of the so called Royal Roads. The Great Kings used these as a means of expedient delivery of messages for courier service and also for military purposes. Through such a means, a journey from Susa to Sardis,typically estimated at 3 months of travel, could be done in barely a week using the relay station established by the Achaemenids (Allen, 2005, p. 118). Achaemenid rulers clearly understood the need to maintain communication and surveillance across the breadth of their dominions, ensuring the loyalty and compliance of distant satrapies.
The Achaemenid Empire was unprecedented in its location and time period in history for its sheer size, multiculturalism, power and reputation. Such a nation, a pioneer in the art of hegemonic domination, was faced with a range of challenges and demands on its power in governing such extensive territories.
At the centre of the Achaemenid power structure lay royal authority, the ultimate source of law, foreign policy relations, imperial splendour and propaganda and the main source of the empire’s military might. The Persian Great King and his court were the ultimate manifestations of the empire’s power, having ultimate and superior authority over the administrative apparatus of state. Royal authority augmented its power by providing an inclusive role for the aristocracy, incorporating them into civil and military roles through individual ties to the Great King.
The Achaemenid administrative structure was designed to provide a local system of direct administration in most satrapies, with the provision of regular tribute by satraps being reciprocated by royal military might. The satraps themselves had clearly defined responsibilities, including a division of civil and military responsibilities, which were subject to checks and balances. The Achaemenid administrative structure proved itself adaptable and inclusive on occasion, able to accommodate the realities of a multifaceted empire. The result was an administrative achievement which proved largely durable over two centuries, until Achaemenid power was extinguished by Alexander of Macedon. Adaptable, detailed, centralised with some localised adaptations, the Achaemenid structure of government and administration proved an impressive response to the challenge of running an empire of unprecedented size and complexity.
Primary Sources:
  1. Herodotus, The Histories, translated Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin Books, London, 2003
  2. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated Richard Crawley, available at, accessed 16/05/2006
  3. Xenophon, Cyropaedia, translated Henry Graham Dakyns, available at, accessed 16/05/2006
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