Satraps of Ancient Persia

Syrians bearing tribute to Darius the Great of Persia / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Lori Khatchadourian
Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Cornell University


Hushang ascended the throne after his grandfather and declared himself the king of the seven realms. During the forty years of his reign, Hushang spread justice and enriched the world as he was commanded to do so by God. He melted iron and inaugurated the use of instruments such as hatchets, axes, saws, and maces. But all of these new inventions were made possible only after he accidentally discovered the secret of making fire.

—Ferdowsi, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings[1]

In his celebrated epic poem the Shahnameh, the Persian poet Ferdowsi put to verse a history of the kings of Persia whose mythical beginnings establish in no uncertain terms the infrangible link between the material devices of work and war and the just and good imperial sovereign. Hushang, the second mythical king of yore, who took to the throne after defeating a horde of black demons, inadvertently discovers fire while attempting to strike a snake with a piece of flint. Missing the target, the flint instead hits a nearby stone, producing a spark, which leads first to Hushang’s discovery of flames, and onward ineluctably to humankind’s reliance on metal instruments. Once Hushang masters fire and introduces to humanity the metallurgical arts, he goes on to teach irrigation, agriculture, hunting, and the domestication of animals. He dies a peaceful death, forever remembered as a great king who transformed human experience for the better.

It is difficult to read Ferdowsi’s verses on Hushang, the second king of the seven realms, without recalling the better-known Greek myth of the fire-stealing titan, Prometheus, which Adam T. Smith (2015: 27) recently described as an “urtext for today’s material turn.” In the ancient Promethian cycle, just as in the tenth-century Shahnameh, the introduction of fire is tied to the invention and use of material implements that dramatically improved the human condition, while at the same time leaving us hopelessly obliged to labor with this sophisticated new world of material things (Smith 2015: 28). And in both stories, such advances are attributed to figures credited with humanity’s salvation—in the Greek case from the wrath of Zeus, and in the Persian case from the evil spirit Ahiraman, creator of demons and source of all darkness in the universe.

But the Greek and Persian tales differ in at least two critically important respects. First, unlike Prometheus, the heroic figure of the Shahnameh is a blameless savior. Hushang commits no transgression, angers no tyrant god, and faces no tragic fate. On the contrary, in putting his accidental discovery of fire to profitable use, he acts in accordance with God’s will. The Hushang story asserts the connection between imperial sovereignty and metal as the natural and divinely ordained order of things. Second, the Prometheus legend is nearly cosmogonic in its temporality, unfolding in a fully mythic age when a titan still walked the earth and humankind had not yet assembled into political association. The Shahnameh, in contrast, sets the invention of fire, metallurgy, and the attendant enrichment of the world in the quasi-profane realm of primordial political history, in which the first kings not only walked the earth, but ruled it. The Hushang verses of the Shahnameh, in other words, represent an early rumination not principally on the general relationship between humans and things, but more specifically on the links that bind monarchal sovereigns, subjects, and things.

This is no isolated or coincidental convergence. As we return now to the word “satrapy” and a close dissection of its meanings and associations, what comes to the fore is a prevailing concern across various strands of Persian cultural production—sometimes explicit, often not—to grapple with this nexus of phenomena. The exploration that follows dwells on selected texts and sculptural reliefs of the Persian sovereigns, before moving forward in time to examine innovations in Mazdean religious scripture that postdate the Achaemenid fall by several hundred years. In the final section of this chapter, the insights from these esoteric bodies of ancient Persian thought are brought into conversation with contemporary anthropological reflection on imperial sovereignty, giving rise to a full elaboration of the satrapal condition as a productive heuristic for an archaeology of empires.

Sovereignty Co-Constituted and Conditional

Figure 4. Photograph of the rock relief on Mt. Bisitun (courtesy of Rémy Boucharlat).

The primary lexical unit on which the word satrapy is built belongs to a language now called Old Persian, one of two textually preserved Old Iranian languages (the other being Avestan, the language of Zoroastrian scripture), which occurs in written form in the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid Persian kings. It is in one of the oldest, if not the first, such Old Persian inscription, carved into the cliff face of Mount Bisitun, where this root word, xšaça, makes its first appearance (figure 4).[2] This foundational text of Achaemenid history recounts the story of how the charismatic king Darius rose to power and restored order in the aftermath of a series of rebellions and purported court intrigues that threatened the dynasty and the imperial realm. In the first column of the rock-carved text, we learn that an imposter claimant to the throne brazenly “seized xšaça“ (DB I.11).[3] Then, by the grace of the god Ahuramazda, Darius and a small band of nobles killed this so-called imposter and the god “bestowed xšaça“ on Darius (DB I.13). The denouement of these tumultuous events is visually depicted in a stirring relief composition—the only part of the monument that would have been intelligible to most observers—in which Darius, with his foot pressed firmly on the chest of the imposter, stands facing the various troublemakers whom he successfully suppressed. Awaiting the king’s judgment, all stand on the brink of exclusion from the body politic (Agamben 1998), their bodies stooped, their hands tied, their political identities stripped of dignity by “bio-political fiat” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006: 297) that sanctions the acts of torture recounted in the accompanying text.[4]

Scholars of Old Iranian languages have labored to arrive at a satisfactory definition of this weighty little word, and have been divided as to the ontological status of its referent as either an abstract principle (sovereignty/kingship) or a material entity (dominion/kingdom) (e.g. Gnoli 1972, 2005, 2007; Kellens 2002; Kent 1953; Schmitt 1998). The most lasting resolution to this semantic struggle has been to recognize xšaça as both (e.g. Bartholomae 1904: 542; Kellens 1992: 439). Linguist and semiotician Émile Benveniste (1969: 19) captured this duality in his formulation of xšaça, saying, “C’est à la fois le pouvoir et le domain où s’exerce ce pouvoir, la royauté et le royaume.”[5] Echoing Benveniste, Lincoln (2007: 45) defines xšaça as “a term that fuses the senses of ‘kingship’ and ‘kingdom,’ denoting both royal power and the multiple provinces over which that power is exercised.” This semantic unity suggests that Achaemenid political thinkers posited an ontological indivisibility of sovereignty as a prerogative of rule and a sphere of earthly exertion. Power is constituted through a physical, terrestrial world that is governed by its force; yet this animated physical world can be governed (qua dominion) only through the force of sublime power. In a slightly different manner, the duality finds expression in the contrasting uses of xšaça in the Bisitun text, where it is both given by God, and thus prior to the polity itself (“Ahuramazda bestowed xšaça on me”), and at the same time violable (as by rebels and imposters)—open to alteration, theft, or displacement by practical, human action—an a posteriori power that is dependent on experience. This acute intuition of the fragility of sovereignty as a paradoxical condition of its very existence was expressed in religious terms through the notion of the Lie, an evil force that embodies nothing less than “the negation of proper sovereignty” (Benveniste 1938, discussed in Lincoln 2012: 12). The very appearance of the Lie, a might that limits the possibility of absolute sovereignty on earth, marked the end of cosmic perfection and the beginning of history. The Lie is what necessitated the God-given imperial prerogative of the Achaemenid kings, who were tasked by Ahuramazda with the eschatological struggle to see to its eradication. Here is a case, if ever there was one, of an empire exercising “the privilege . . . to make [its history] appear as History” (Coronil 2007: 245). Achaemenid thinkers might not have been prepared “to abandon sovereignty as an ontological ground of power and order,” but they might nevertheless have begrudgingly recognized “a view of sovereignty as a tentative and always emergent form of authority” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006: 297). Their task was less to deny the challenge of absolute sovereignty than to confidently work to overcome the circumstances (or, from their perspective, evil perversions) that made it all but unattainable.

There is one further layer to xšaça‘s signification that contributes to its exquisite conceptual force. We have seen that Lincoln defined the term as one that denotes “both royal power and the multiple provinces over which that power is exercised.” But strictly speaking, as Lincoln himself elsewhere notes (2007: 70), the earthly referent of xšaça in the Persian royal sources is not the “multiple provinces” of the empire, but one realm in particular, the imperial heartland of Persia, its people and society. It is only insofar as Persian cosmology under Darius viewed the entire empire as, in Clarisse Herrenschmidt’s (1976: 45) words, “the generalized reproduction of Persian society” that the full extent of the imperial dominion can be semantically contained in xšaça, through a kind of synecdoche where the whole stands in for the part. Dominion in its entirety is in some sense replicative and regenerative of the heartland. In this totum pro parte relation between the empire and its “metropole,” satrapy and center emerge co-constitutively rather than dichotomously. In a sense, this dimension of xšaça prefigures a key realization in postcolonial studies: that long-dichotomized centers and peripheries in fact emerge simultaneously, rather than in a teleological, imperialized sequence (e.g. Cohn 1996: 4; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Stoler and Cooper 1997).

How did early political thought lose hold of the richly nuanced understanding of imperial sovereignty contained in the semantic field of xšaça? How did a word that captured the notion of imperial sovereignty as conditional and co-constituted in principle and practice devolve into the banal and sordid sense of “satrapy” that has come down to us today—a technical term to denote a province of empire conscripted into the dirty work of imperial dominion? To answer this question we turn once again to the Bisitun inscription, where in addition to the word xšaça there appears its etymological relation, xšaçapāvan—literally meaning “a protector of xšaça.“ The protectors of sovereignty/dominion were individuals whom Darius dispatched to distant lands (like Bactria and Arachosia, in modern Afghanistan) to quell the revolts that threatened the empire (DBIII.38, 45). These guardians of the royal and the realm were the advance guard in the cosmic and tellurian struggle against the Lie, their very appellation yet another indication of the recognition that sovereignty is provisional, in constant need of vigilant defense. The fragmentary evidence seems to suggest that the duty of the xšaçapāvan to protect the sovereign and his realm existed prior to any particular territorial jurisdiction that might also be assigned, at least in certain periods of Achaemenid history (Briant 2002: 65). Nowhere in the extant Old Persian corpus is there a term that fixes and partitions the work of the xšaçapāvan into distinct territorial units. The entailments of the xšaçapāvan were, it seems, more spatially elastic, much like conceptions of sovereignty that obtained in early modern Europe (Benton 2010: 288). The administrative notion of a “province” simply does not exist within the semantic scope of xšaça or xšaçapāvan.[6]

Such, it would appear, was the Greek historian Herodotus’ contribution to the vernacular of empire. It is in his Histories that the word “satrapy” (σατράπης) makes its first appearance, where it is glossed as an alien political term meaning province or magistracy (ἀρχή): “[Darius] established twenty satrapies, which is what they call provinces in Persia, and after he designated the provinces and the governors in charge of them, he assigned to each nation the tribute it would pay to him” (Herodotus 2007: Hist. 3.89, 1.192, emphasis added). The satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire, a reading of Herodotus teaches us, are neatly divisible spatial units—the administrative apparatus that facilitated the extraction of resources from lands and peoples in the form of such things as silver and gold, horses and humans.[7] Entailed in this creative lexical innovation is a flattening of xšaça‘s ontological status into a unidimensional concept, a partitioning and fixing in space of a notion of sovereignty not meant, it would appear, to be construed strictly territorially or partitively. It is of course possible that the Achaemenids indeed maintained such an administrative and geographic notion of satrapy, as Herodotus would have us believe, and we simply have no record of it. But I am inclined to think otherwise.[8] A great deal of the semantic sophistication contained in the Old Persian conception of xšaça and xšaçapāvan was thus single-handedly stripped away with this Herodotean neologism, as an embodied role in the preservation of sovereignty came to be linked to the mundane trappings of government.[9] It is this sense of the word “satrapy,” later to be adopted by numerous Greek and Roman authors from Thucydides to Plutarch, that has come down to us today, now tinged in popular parlance with a derision (not to be found in Herodotus) that has accumulated around satrapy over centuries of civilizational discourse pitting democratic classical “West” against despotic Persian “East.”

As might be expected with any novel political experiment, there was nothing accidental about the language of the first “world empire” (Kuhrt 2001: 93). Achaemenid thinkers took great care to devise a vocabulary of empire that met the needs of the imperial project and was consistent with their worldview, and in time xšaça no longer met those requirements (Lincoln 2007: 45, 70).[10] Yet the fundamental postulate of the co-constitution of kingship and kingdom, ultimate authority and the limiting conditions of practical action, endured in material form in an iconographic device that provides something of a visual allegory for xšaça. The scene occurs repeatedly, with some variation, on a number of the best-known Achaemenid monuments in and around Persepolis, from the doorjambs of two royal buildings in the grandiose metropolis (figure 5) to the façade that adorns the tomb of Darius and those of his successors (figure 6).[11] The tableau consists of four recurrent components: in the uppermost field there hovers the god Ahuramazda in a winged disk; in the central panel, the Persian king is depicted either enthroned or standing on a three-stepped platform before a fire altar; below the standing or seated king, there is a platform-like object with elaborate vertical struts; and in the lower part stand two or three registers of figures, each a personification of an incorporated people of the empire, with their arms upraised and interlocked in a pose that recalls the primordial titan Atlas, who was eternally condemned to hold up the celestial sphere.[12] In this case, however, the human bodies of the subjugated bear the platform or “throne-platform” above them (Root 1979). To the Achaemenids, the metaphorical task of holding up the figurative weight of imperial order was, to be sure, no sentence to punishment. It was rather an opportunity for those persons belonging to the political community to partake in what Bruce Grant (2009), writing in a very different context, has called the “gift of empire”—in this case no mere gift of civilization, but nothing less than the promise of cosmic happiness for all mankind. In contradistinction to Bisitun, these are the bodies included in the polity (Agamben 1998).

Figure 5. Illustration of the stone relief from the east jamb of the eastern doorway in the southern wall of the Hall of 100 Columns at Persepolis (source: Curtis and Tallis 2005, fig. 38, courtesy of John Curtis, drawing by Ann Searight).

Much has been written about this composition. In perhaps the most authoritative account, Root has carefully dissected the scene’s debts to, and creative modifications of, earlier iconographic traditions of kingship in Egypt and ancient Iraq, as well as its potential real-world referents and metaphorical claims. Based on her analysis of the motif’s antecedents and the meaning of the various genuflections, from the “atlas posture” to the hand gestures of king and god, Root (1979: 131–181) concluded that the personifications of the subject peoples are portrayed as voluntary participants in a cooperative effort, at once religious and political, to support and pay homage to the king. The thrust of her interpretation stressed less the literal ceremonial event that it may portray—a royal procession involving the transport of the king on a monumental platform—than its symbolic work in representing a carefully conceived, hierarchical relationship between king and subjects (131). The “throne-bearing” scene, as it is called (though it is not literally a throne that is borne), fits neatly within the larger visual and rhetorical repertoire of the Achaemenids, which consistently projects a vision of a harmonious, participatory, and reciprocally constituted imperial order (Root 2000). Yet it is worth always remembering that such visual language of reciprocity “requires little or no actual reception among the conquered. It is the logic of sovereign rule where the act of taking—of lands, persons, and goods—is enabled by the language of giving” (Grant 2009: 44).

Figure 6. Tomb of Darius at Naqsh-i Rustam (courtesy of Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones).

As an enlargement of the interpretive space surrounding the throne-bearing scene, two additional aspects of the tableau can be drawn forth by expanding on key insights in the work of both Root and Lincoln. First, it is possible to see in its arrangement the same postulate contained in the semantic field of xšaça—one that regards sovereignty as co-constituted, through the mediation of the sovereign, by that which is a priori (the rights and obligations conferred by the Wise Lord) and a posteriori (the profane realm of imperial subjection), by that which is independent of and dependent on experience, by both predestination and practical action. If this particular approach to the composition de-emphasizes somewhat the distinction of the king, it brings to the fore the embodied work of the upward hoist as an exertion of the body politic. In her analysis of the atlas motif in the Achaemenid reliefs, Root noted a significant shift from preceding Near Eastern traditions. Whereas in the earlier art of ancient Iraq and Egypt the posture was reserved almost exclusively for mythical beings, cosmic creatures, and gods, the Achaemenids passed the pose on from daemons to mortals, and not merely to humans as such, but more specifically to political subjects—the embodied collectivities incorporated into the imperial community (Root 1979: 147–153). Root is no doubt correct in suggesting that the Achaemenids meant to draw on the motif’s earlier associations with rituals of cosmological support, and thus engage the subjugated in a collective “song of praise” for king and kingdom (160). She has also stressed that in recasting the bearers as mortal political subjects, the Achaemenids developed a notion of earthly imperial power premised explicitly on reciprocity between the sovereign and the body politic.

I would like to press further this harmonious notion of reciprocity toward a more sharp-edged idea of dependency (with all the attendant connotations of susceptibility to disruption), to which I suggest the thinkers behind the motif were also keenly attuned. Lincoln (2012: 144) has picked up on this idea of dependence, writing that “The platforms Darius and his successors occupy . . . represent the entire imperial apparatus, which encompasses, contains, organizes, disciplines, and also quite literally de-pends on the lands/peoples of the empire” (emphasis added). Unlike mythical beings scripted into cosmic roles, the figures engaged in upholding the metaphorical imperial realm retained the capacity to exercise political choices. “The man who cooperates,” one of Darius’s more famous tomb inscriptions reads, “him according to his cooperative action, him thus do I reward” (DNb.2c, emphasis added).[13] This emphasis on purposeful action introduces unspoken into these scenes the looming metaphorical possibility that the figures could drop their arms, that human agency (when unconstrained by fear and the force of law, or blind to righteousness, which is all to say contaminated by the Lie) could entail letting go of the imperial apparatus and undermining proper sovereignty. The inscription and image betray a quiet concession that the entire structure could become unstable or, worse yet, come tumbling down.

Herein, perhaps, lies the fundamental distinction between the daemon and the demos when cast in the guise of atlas.[14] That such a concession should be worked into this corpus of Achaemenid political art is hardly surprising; by the time the throne-bearing scenes were crafted, the lessons from the events recounted on the Bisitun monument were already learned. The possibility of an unruly body politic was well understood. In visually representing the inescapable dependency of the polity on the embodied, practical actions of the political community, Achaemenid political thinkers once again intuited a notion of sovereignty as a question not yet settled.

The second unexplored aspect of this visual trope that merits consideration (before we move closer once again into xšaça‘s semantic orbit) is the considerable prominence accorded to the material object that makes possible the entailments of imperial sovereignty and the association of deity, dynast, and demos. There was a time when much of the scholarly attention surrounding these scenes focused on the actuality of the representation and the details of the ritual that would have required the ceremonial transport of the Persian king (summarized in Root 1979: 153–161). If Root was the first to emphasize the political metaphor behind the image, Lincoln (2012: 142) has most explicitly emblemized the central object itself: “Not a throne like any other, this is a metaphorical throne, a point the relief and inscription both make, each in its fashion.” The inscription to which Lincoln refers is one that accompanies the tomb of Darius and includes the following injunction: “If now you should think, ‘How many are the countries which King Darius held?,’ look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne” (DNa.4).[15] Complicating matters, however, is the fact that the Old Persian word here translated as “throne” is somewhat ambiguous, its etymology and other appearances suggesting that it instead means “place” (Lincoln 2012: 143).

Thanks to Lincoln (2012: 127–144), we can appreciate the significance of this elision. He has observed that Achaemenid political thinkers took care to develop and express the acutely spatial notion of “putting things ‘in place.’” Putting things “in place” captured the totality of the Achaemenid project of “reunifying humanity, conquering evil, restoring happiness, and ushering the final eternity” (128). It is what Darius claims to have done in various inscriptions after the sociopolitical unrest narrated on Bisitun. Yet putting things “in place” also entailed a manifestly material effort, as Darius makes clear from an inscription at the imperial capital of Susa: “By the Wise Lord’s will, much handiwork that previously was not in place, that I made in place. In Susa, a wall had fallen down as a result of its old age. Formerly it was unrepaired. I made another wall (that will endure) from that time into the future” (DSe.5, emphasis added).[16] The rebuilding of the wall at Susa was no mundane act, but a reversal of the entropic momentum initiated by the arrival of the Lie: “By repairing the wall, Darius understood himself to have helped reverse processes of natural and moral decay, and to have restored things-as-they-once-were-and-forever-ought-be” (Lincoln 2012: 128).

Just as the wall at Susa was a participant in the work of putting things “in place,” so too were the platforms of the throne-bearing scenes, which held “firmly ‘in place’” the subjugated communities (144). The platforms in these tableaux are no mere props or incidental paraphernalia used to express a notion of kingship, but are instead the very scaffolding that makes the imperial project possible. Each stands quite literally as the material deputy of sovereignty itself, representing the unrepresentable, a frame—materially present but itself unframed—that delimits the inside from the outside (Bartelson 1995: 51). Viewed in conjunction, the throne-bearing scenes and the language of “placedness” reveal an unmistakable supposition in Achaemenid political thought on the interrelation of imperial sovereignty and materiality. The material world brings order to the political community, just as its decay threatens a promise of a utopian future that only the sovereign can secure.

While it may seem that we have strayed rather far from xšaça to arrive at this finding, other strands of thought from within the broader corpus of Persian metaphysics leave little doubt that early scholars of this religio-political tradition gave careful scrutiny to the link between xšaça and things. It is to these tantalizing and undisputedly difficult materials that I now turn.

Choice Sovereignty: Hard as Metal and Crystal Sky

Every field of study has its own divisive yet defining debates whose vicissitudes would seem to outside observers like the scholarly equivalent of a merry-go-round turning continuously in place, but to their participants hold the very highest intellectual stakes. For ancient Iranian studies, one such debate has long centered on the relation of the religion of the Avesta, commonly known as Zoroastrianism, to that of the Achaemenids. Why precisely the stakes are perceived to be so high defies a simple brief, since the controversy has been waged through the observation of general resemblances as much as detailed doctrinal differences.[17] There is a sense that to regard the Achaemenids as the first to adopt Zoroastrian tenets into something like a state religion would be both to reach beyond what Achaemenid sources have to tell us about the dynasty’s system of beliefs and, more troublingly, to presume a more codified Zoroastrian creed than we know to have existed in the sixth century b.c. on the basis of extant scripture. If the debate still seems thoroughly arcane, consider the broader context: Zoroastrianism is quite possibly the earliest recorded religion in the Indo-European tradition with clear, though by no means aggressive, monotheistic features, and it is one that, in ways much debated, influenced Judaism and Christianity (Gafni 2002: 234–247; Russell 1964: 19, 266, 384; Mark Smith 2001: 166). Its own history of emergence thus has a number of cascading implications (see also Lincoln 2012: 42). For present purposes, this debate matters relatively little; it suffices to accept the view that the Achaemenian and Zoroastrian were two traditions (among others) in a broader, pan-Iranian system of “Mazdean” belief that centered on the worship of the Wise Lord, Ahuramazda (Knäpper 2011; Lincoln 2007, 2012).

It is in this body of Mazdean religious scripture and associated interpretation that xšaça appears yet again, this time in a rather different guise, in connection with a group of six divine entities known as the Aməša Spənta (in Avestan), or Amahrspandān (in Middle Persian), meaning Bounteous Immortals. In Zoroastrian sacred texts, the Bounteous Immortals are abstract emanations that Ahuramazda created to assist him in the work of accomplishing creation and overcoming evil. While there are hints that the Bounteous Immortals were to some degree conceived on the composition of the earliest segments of the Avesta (the primary collection of Zoroastrianism’s sacred scripture), the evidence is highly fragmentary, and it is only in the later hymns and subsequent commentaries that the Bounteous Immortals are explicitly listed and given their fullest elaboration (Boyce 1983; Geiger 1916; Kellens 2014; Kotwal 1969: 62–63; Narten 1982).[18] Thus, in the later additions to the liturgical texts of the Avesta, the Bounteous Immortals as a distinct group of abstractions are named for the first time (Y. 47.1), and it is here that we encounter the one divine entity that is of singular importance to the present discussion: Xšaθra Vairya, or Choice Sovereignty, xšaθra being the Avestan equivalent of the Old Persian xšaça, and likewise generally thought to have abstract and concrete connotations, though its meaning has been much discussed (see e.g. Gnoli 2005, 2007; Kellens 2002).[19] Sovereignty (or dominion or rulership or power) is in this context in part a divine, “otherworldly” (Lommel 1970 [1959]: 264), “almost magical power” (Gnoli 2007: 109), yet personification also accords a certain concreteness. In an effort to capture this duality, Herman Lommel (1970 [1959]: 257) wrote: “In a dynamic sense, dominion [Herrschaft] is the practice of rule and sovereign power. The more existential [zuständliche] view of the term is empire. One word combines both in itself: rule and empire. . . . Thus God’s all-encompassing sovereignty obtains with respect to both world domination and the kingdom of God” (author’s translation). It also obtains with respect to the right, legitimate rule that each person can exercise individually according to his or her place in the world. In a sense, therefore, Choice Sovereignty relates to the spheres of the sacred and the profane, to the heavenly, political, and personal.

At some point in the development of Zoroastrian thought, each of the Bounteous Immortals acquired a material quality that mirrored the various components of the original creations regarded by ancient Persian scholars as the foundation of the universe: sky and water, earth and plants, animals (specifically cattle), and sometimes fire (Lommel 1970 [1964]; Narten 1982: 103–106). Much consideration appears to have been directed toward this effort to relate the spiritual and material dimensions and domains of the Bounteous Immortals. Scholar-priests scrupulously analyzed the verses of the Older Avesta to detect correlations between the divine abstractions and some piece of the material world. They devised a system of correspondences that was present to an uncertain degree in the early history of Zoroastrian thought (Narten 1982). The end result, most clearly laid out in a corpus of language paraphrases and commentaries of the Avesta written in Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, was a schema that understood the material instantiations of each spiritual entity as that which made the qualities of the entity “perceptible to the senses and effective in the world” (Lincoln, personal communication).

The dualisms of spirit and matter that constituted the Bounteous Immortals are absolutely essential to the understanding of Zoroastrianism (Lommel 1970 [1959]: 256), although they differ fundamentally from the distinctions of the Cartesian schema. The divine entities linked to each abstract concept are not themselves abstractions, which is to say not virtues that reside in the interior mind of the person. They are instead active forces in the world that guide and act on the individual from the outside.[20] And each of these active forces is a “spiritual archetype or patron” of a part of the material world, so that, for example, Best Truth is the patron of fire and Good Purpose is the patron of cattle (260). Yet the material correlates of the Bounteous Immortals are not quite ontologically distinct from their personified abstraction. As Lommel labors to explain, it is inadequate to reduce the relation of the material elements to the active, personified value to one of symbolism. We might more properly construe the element as an emissary, representative, or proxy (Stellvertreter), as Goethe poetically described fire in his essay on ancient Persia in West-East Divan (2010: 184, quoted in Lommel 1970[1959]: 1266).

Of all the Bounteous Immortals, Choice Sovereignty presented the greatest challenge to the ancient scholar-priests. Its material embodiment is the most enigmatic and unstable in the entire schema. In the Middle Persian texts to which I just alluded, Choice Sovereignty is very clearly associated with metals (Narten 1982: 127–133). The association appears somehow to derive from earlier Zoroastrian theorizations of metals, since even in the earliest texts, before the schema of the Bounteous Immortals was codified, molten metal figures in judiciary and eschatological trials as a thing “through which sovereign powers test the truth and burn away the falsehood of those subject to their judgments” (Lincoln, personal communication). Yet the linkage of Choice Sovereignty to metals is nevertheless rather confounding, since metal plays no part in ancient Persian cosmogony. At the same time, the earliest old Avestan text (the Gathas) from which later interpreters discerned the material correlates of the Bounteous Immortals does mention sky as the first of the primordial creations; however, sky is left without a divine guardian in the Middle Persian commentaries. Modern scholars have worked to explain this apparent disjuncture. The prevailing resolution has been to recognize that, in a number of Zoroastrian texts of different periods, the sky is variously defined as made up of a positively hard substance, whether metal itself (e.g., Yt.13.2; Bundahišn 1a.16), “hardest stone” (Y. 30.5), or “the hardest and most beautiful stone,” which is to say crystal (Boyce 1983: 935). With regard to the latter, Mary Boyce (1983: 935) has suggested that, in an act of “apparent sophistry,” the scholar-priests responsible for interpreting the primary liturgical texts defined crystal as itself both metal and stone (crystal being mined like metal ores) to try to reconcile the ancient teachings of the Gathas, in which the association of sky as stone predominates, with contemporary interest in conjoining Choice Sovereignty to metals.

Matters become particularly speculative when trying to explain this interest, yet modern scholarly opinion often converges in one way or another on the practical entailments of earthly, political sovereignty. The scholar-priests who likely codified the material instantiations of the Bounteous Immortals were writing in the time of the Sasanian Empire (224–654 a.d.), a polity guided by Zoroastrian cosmology, and thus motivated in the imperial endeavor in similar ways by the eschatological notion we have already seen with respect to the Achaemenids—one that regards the reach of political power on earth and in historical time as an essential step toward the restoration of Ahuramazda’s perfect original creation (Payne 2013). Against this backdrop, Choice Sovereignty as a spiritual entity responsible for assisting Ahuramazda in subduing evil implicitly aligns with the project of preserving and expanding the eminently just reach of kingly power—a project in which metals, whether bronze or iron, silver or gold, were by the time of these writings without question the most effective partners. In attempting to reconstruct the specific aspects of metal that were intended in the association with Choice Sovereignty, some scholars have examined the evidence for metal in the form of bronze or iron implements or weapons (Lommel 1970 [1959]: 264; Narten 1982), used for the defense of that which is good in a legitimate political system of martial kingship (Boyce 1983; Lincoln, personal communication; Lommel 1970 [1964]: 388–389), while others have considered the importance of precious metal luxuries—particularly vessels—for the display of the fortunes that accrue in a legitimate economic system of extraction (Boyce 1983; Kotwal 1969: 15.14–19; Lincoln, personal communication).

Yet Lommel (1970[1964]: 395) has pointed out that the particular instantiations of metal, their external forms and shapes, are less consequential than the compositional quality of the element itself—metal substance as a universal category “since time immemorial” that gathers together into one “concrete universality” all the forms it has taken and all the forms it can take. Such a stress on substance over form may relate to an acute metallurgical awareness that metal is dynamic, that it is irreducible to a single solid state, but is both rigid and fluid, possessed of its own, continuously modulating vitalism (Barry 2010: 93). It is an idea to which philosophy would later return. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987: 411), for example, wrote of this vitalism, this inherent alterability, that contravenes our intuitive sense of metal as hard and unrelentingly solid:

Matter and form have never seemed more rigid than in metallurgy; yet the succession of forms tends to be replaced by the form of a continuous development, and the variability of matters tends to be replaced by the matter of a continuous variation. . . . In short, what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism. . . . As expressed in panmetallism, metal is coextensive to the whole of matter, and the whole of matter to metallurgy. Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements. Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere. Metal is the conductor of all matter.

Zoroastrian scholar-priests may not have recognized such vitalism, such omnipresent primacy, in these particular terms. They may not have conceived of a “metallic life” (Bennett 2010: 53), or of Deleuze and Guattari’s elementally justified conceptual commingling of metal and all matter, as I will in subsequent chapters of this book, in which inquiry engages material objects that we would conventionally describe as both metallic (e.g. silver, bronze, iron) and non-metallic (e.g. stones, clays, bones). But following Lommel, it can be said that a concern for the ontology of “metal as matter” over “metal as form” is palpable. In the end, through whatever twists of metaphysical, political, and scientific reasoning, metal as matter came to be the physical embodiment of the spiritual and earthly force known scripturally as Choice Sovereignty. The association is so strongly conceived that Choice Sovereignty could almost be an expression for metal (Lommel 1970 [1964]: 377). Metal was rendered naturally, inherently, and inseparably religious and political.

It is interesting to note that while the relevant sources are highly lacunal, what might be called “Zoroastrian materiality” appears to have differed considerably from its Christian counterpart. Caroline Bynum has shown that, in the late Middle Ages, a profound sense of ambivalence surrounded Christian materiality. Matter was, for Christian theology, a “problematic locus of the sacred” (Bynum 2011: 19). It appears that early Zoroastrian theologians regarded the matter of the Bounteous Immortals as quite the opposite: the salvific locus of the sacred. In late medieval Christian theology, on the one hand, “the entire material world was created by and could therefore manifest God” (17). Moreover, the acceptance of a Christ “whose substance (in the Eucharist) and even whose particles (in blood relics) might be present on earth” (17) made it difficult to deny the possibility that an omnipotent God could signal such presence in multiple ways (158). And indeed, church leaders and theologians had no choice but to grapple with a world of holy matter that appealed greatly to the faithful—animated devotional images, relics, contact relics, sacramentals, the material of the Eucharist, and so on. Yet, on the other hand, to accept the presence of the holy in “dead” matter (which the faithful, in any case, did not accept as inert) and therefore to adore it, was “undignified and counter to the glory and transcendence of God” (46). Such an acceptance was even threatening, because matter was capable of change. “Miraculous matter was simultaneously—hence paradoxically—the changeable stuff of not-God and the locus of a God revealed” (35). Theologians and ecclesiastical authorities often forwarded contradictory views as they worked to establish whether holy images and objects merely conjured up and “gestured toward the unseen” or actually contained the sacred, manifested its power, and shared being with the eternal, transcendent One, even if at a tremendous remove (28, 50). Some Christian theologians were deeply uncomfortable with the later propositions (154–162).

Zoroastrian theologians, in contrast, codified the material instantiations of sacred beings without such anxiety. Confusion on the relation of sky to metal notwithstanding, there is no sense in the Zoroastrian corpus that the material correlate of Choice Sovereignty was seen merely as a channel for representing or gesturing toward the divine. The material elements of the Bounteous Immortals are quite clearly bound in relations of co-constitution with their respective entities, each segment of matter not so much something apart that comes to be possessed of the divine spirit through contact or blessing, but instead part of a divine unity, itself an aspect of the personified abstraction in all its material thingness. Metals are not the conduit for the realization of Choice Sovereignty, they are themselves Choice Sovereignty, and thus by their very existence (without regard to their animacy) further its purpose. In sum, what we find in these reflections is an ontologic disposition that, unlike the dominant strands of Western thought (see discussion in A. T. Smith 2015), categorically refuses the separation of spirit, matter, and power, of the abstract and the concrete (Lommel 1970 [1964]). In reformulation of these penetrating ideas for an archaeological epistemic of empire, we can consider this relation of inseparability as the material constitution of aspirational sovereignty.

As a final installment in this account of ancient Persian reflection on the partnership between sovereignty and matter, we turn our attention once again to the cultural production of the Achaemenids. With one possible exception (see Razmjou 2001), the Bounteous Immortals are nowhere mentioned in the Old Persian inscriptions, even though there are concepts that correspond to the abstractions themselves (much like xšaça/xšaθra), just as there are cosmogonic correspondences between the two schemes with respect to the original creations, of which sky is one (Knäpper 2011: 137; Lincoln 2012: 17). However, in one of the most exceptional visual representations of Achaemenid political thought, it is quite possible to discern an unmistakable acknowledgment of an intimacy between matter and imperial power. The largest building at Persepolis, known as the Apadana, presents an exquisitely conceived amplification of this affinity. The square building consists predominately of a spacious columned hall, about which much more will be said in chapter 4, perched atop a podium that rises over two meters above the surrounding terrace (figure 7). Of immediate concern here is the elaborate arrangement of reliefs that adorns the monumental staircases on the north and east sides of this imposing building. The two reliefs are virtually mirror images of one another and consist of three main elements. The central panel of the composition portrays an enthroned king, crown prince, and other courtly figures under a baldachin, receiving a bowing official. On one wing of the staircase a larger court entourage of Persian nobles disposed in three registers comes toward the king from the rear. Approaching him on the opposite wing are twenty-three groups of people, once again arranged in three registers, each group led by a Persian usher and each representing an incorporated people of the empire (figure 8). The groups are distinguished through differences of physiognomy and distinctive features of dress and headwear—the standard Achaemenid visual grammar of difference (figure 9). At the end of each wing and on either side of the central panel is the bull and lion symplegma that we have already seen (figure 2, p. xxiv), a possibly sexualized image redolent of “fecund dynasty” (Root, forthcoming).


[LEFT]: Figure 7. Aerial photograph of the Apadana at Persepolis, with a view of the north staircase façade in the foreground (courtesy of B. N. Chagny, French-Iranian Mission at Persepolis).
[CENTER]: Figure 8. Tribute procession on the northern stairway of the Apadana at Persepolis (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago).
[RIGHT]: Figure 9. Armenian delegation on the eastern stairway of the Apadana at Persepolis (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago).

The delegations of subject peoples that approach the king bring various sorts of highly valued things—vessels and weapons, riding costumes and other textiles, skins and furs, and an array of animals, from horses and camels to bulls and lion cubs—in what is thought to be a metaphorical representation of a highly scripted tribute procession in which gifts serve as “a type of political encomium—an expression of gratitude and continued allegiance” (Root 1979: 228).[21] Taken as a whole, Root (1979: 279) has argued, the intent of the Apadana is not merely to portray a ceremonial event, but to use the tribute procession as a medium through which to convey “an abstract vision of empire and of imperial harmony” grounded in the putatively voluntary praise of the king. Root (forthcoming) has also probed the Apadana reliefs as a liminal moment of judgment, in which the king weighs the formidable weight of “Persianness”, marked by the court entourage behind him, against the weight of the bounty brought by the peoples of the empire, assessing whether equilibrium has been achieved. The reliefs also speak in complex ways to the indistinguishably ritual and political performances that occurred in the hall itself (Root 2015). Without contradicting these penetrating interpretations, and himself drawing on Root’s work, Lincoln has brought the Apadana closer into the frame of the Achaemenid metaphysics of power, viewing it less as a symbol of kingship per se than as a theorization of tribute in the context of the struggle against the Lie and the restoration of perfect sovereignty. The Apadana is no mere celebration of diversity, but an early visual representation of the tension between incorporation and differentiation that lies at the heart of a great many imperial projects (Cooper 2005: 415; Mehta 1999; Stoler 1997).[22] The relief presents a “theology of empire” that

captures all these people, animals, and objects as they mount the stairs, which is to say, in the very last moment of existence in the state of fragmentation and diaspora that has marked history since the assault of the Lie. Directly they stand assembled upon the platform of the Apadana itself, all of them—animate and inanimate—will have left their provincial identities behind and been absorbed (or dissolved) into the imperial whole. At that moment, the state of unity and “happiness for mankind” that the Wise Lord made the crown of his original creation will have been restored. . . . At that point . . . history ends and a state of eschatological perfection opens onto eternity, thanks to the work of the Achaemenid king, the Persian army, and the tribute bearers of every land/people. (Lincoln 2012: 186)

In this more cosmological interpretation of the reliefs, the objects themselves—metal and otherwise—take on a different significance from when they are seen strictly as tribute for the furtherance of kingship (much less political economy). To quote from Lincoln (2012: 184) once more, “the tribute bearers depicted on the Apadana stairs bore con-tributions of things that had been dis-tributed as the result of the Lie’s assault, and the con-centration of these goods—also of those peoples—at the imperial center was the means of reversing the fragmentation and strife that had characterized existence ever since.” The objects thus participate in the completion of an as yet incomplete project toward the realization of imperial sovereignty.

There is reason to suggest that Persian thinkers accorded a privileged role to metal in this project. It is notable that, of the twenty-three delegations included on the Apadana relief, no less than sixteen, and possibly as many as twenty, come before the king bearing gifts of metal—jugs and bowls (figure 10), daggers, spears, axes, shields, and rings (Schmidt 1953, 1970; Walser 1966).[23] Metals make up approximately 54 percent of all objects depicted on the Apadana, as compared to 24 percent animals, 20 percent textiles, and 13 percent other things like bows, firs, tusks, and chariots. Beyond the Apadana, metallic elements make an appearance in Achaemenid architecture in other, rather more enigmatic ways. For instance, in the palace of King Artaxerxes II at Susa, in multiple courses of a wall belonging to a large columned hall, excavators discovered droplets of liquid mercury deposited in the mud bricks, as well as in the underlying shingle foundation. Given their localized presence, it is quite clear that these mercury deposits played no utilitarian function, but instead were part of a foundation ritual associated with the construction of the building (Boucharlat 2013a). As we shall see in chapter 4, columned halls such as these were of paramount importance in the practical reproduction of Achaemenid sovereignty. The deliberate, ritual deposition of quicksilver in the bricks of such a building speaks tantalizingly to a gesture of recognition that metal plays a vital part in the realization of this work.[24]

Figure 10. Detail of the zoomorphic amphorae carried by the Armenian and Lydian delegates on the Apadana at Persepolis (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago).

The attention that the Achaemenids appear to have directed toward metal in its various forms and states calls up a perspective on imperial power and authority that would later be contained in the Zoroastrian concept of Choice Sovereignty. There is absolutely no need to draw a direct line from the Mazdean politico-religious thinkers of the Achaemenid court to the Zoroastrian scholar-priests of later centuries. Yet it would be no less absurd to chalk up apparent parallels in the conception of the material (and metallic) constitution of sovereignty to mere coincidence. We may have to be content to realize a shared, ancient Persian interest in variously contending and representing this relation between substance and supreme power. The Apadana offers an early reflection on political association that is quite at odds with what Western political theory would later devise—one that, far from vesting the emergence of political order in the purification of humans from the material world (see A. T. Smith 2015), instead establishes things as the binding agents and very raison d’etre of political association. This in itself marks a significant contribution to political theory and a springboard from which to conceive a distinctly material approach to empire.

The Satrapal Condition

The satrapal condition gathers the intuitions that orbit around xšaça into an analytic of empire for the “discipline of things” (Olsen et al. 2012). It registers at one and the same time the experience and the limits of imperial sovereignty, as these are produced in the relations of humans and “vibrant” matter (Bennett 2010), from the prosaic to the sublime. In this sense, the satrapal condition as a theoretical orientation toward empire is dialectical; it conjures two countervailing and mutually reinforcing senses of the word “condition.” As will become clear, this is different from, but not contrary to, what anthropologists have conceived as the dialectic of colonialism, which pivots on the mutual “making” of metropole and colony (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Stoler and Cooper 1997).
On the one hand, the satrapal condition registers a political community’s experience of subjection, as it is generated through human encounters with the material world. Such states of compromised sovereignty, which all imperial formations create as a fundamental imperative of rule, can of course differ dramatically in degree and kind. For the time being, let it be said that I am unconcerned to hitch the satrapal condition to any one of the prevailing categories often conjured to capture that variability—”formal” versus “informal” imperialism, “direct” versus “indirect” rule—terms that are themselves the discursive products of empires and thus, as Ann Stoler (2006a: 54) puts it, “unhelpful euphemisms, not working concepts.” My purpose is rather to task the satrapal condition to bring to the fore the variable work of things in the production of imperial subjects. In the first of two senses, an inquiry into the satrapal “condition” fixes its gaze on the interventions of objects as efficacious participants in the distributed work of aspirational sovereignty, a task undertaken primarily by extraordinary and ordinary things that I call delegates, captives, proxies, and affiliates (see chapter 3). In this sense, the satrapal condition concerns itself with the ongoing, everyday making of acquiescent subjects who, like Atlas, “uphold” the imperial project through imposed, encouraged, or even chosen “entanglements” (Hodder 2012) with things that, to varying degrees, transform habits, persons, and political and social lives.

On the other hand, the satrapal condition is not exhausted by experiences of subjection, but refers as well to the inherent limitations on imperial sovereignty that arise from the inevitable dependencies on the practical action and material entanglements of its subjects. That is, contained in the second sense of the satrapal “condition” is a restricting or modifying force, a stipulation that registers the quiet bargains on which hegemony hangs. In this second sense, the satrapal “condition” recognizes the contradiction at the heart of imperial sovereignty: it is continuously in a state of potential attenuation or unraveling. Rephrased in an Achaemenid frame of reference, the satrapal condition indexes the constant need for sovereignty’s protection, lest the subjects who uphold it drop their weary arms and let the “throne” tumble to the ground. Inquiry into this dimension of the satrapal condition entails scrutinizing the roles of things, the “missing masses” (Latour 1992), in producing the limits of sovereign prerogative and enabling everyday forms of semi-autonomous action. Such “missing masses,” theorized in chapter 3 as proxies and affiliates, conspire with delegates and humans as players in the work of regulated autonomy.

Of course, as the ultimate imperial agents, Achaemenid thinkers did not go particularly far in elaborating the limitations of imperial sovereignty. Nor, for that matter, should students of empire become too caught up in romantic narratives of power’s frailty or the equal distribution of agentive capacity when there is all too much evidence for the real, coercive, at times all-pervasive effects of domination on the human condition. But the conditionals of sovereignty speak less to its fragility per se than to a “will to mastery” (Dirks 1992: 23) that accords xšaça a quality of continuous emergence. It would be left to modern scholars to flesh out the intuition that the conditionality of sovereignty arises in practical life out of the very efforts intended to sustain it, that imperial projects are “made possible and vulnerable at the same time” (Cooper and Stoler 1997a: viii). These modern accounts, to their detriment, usually write things out of their theorizations of empire and sovereignty. But they are nevertheless helpful to elaborating the second sense of the satrapal condition, for they bring us down from the lofty heights of political metaphysics to the sordid world of the social, and they establish that such conditionals are written into the cards of imperialism, being only historically contingent in their details and degrees. As Stoler (2006b: 128) has written, all imperial formations are “scaled genres of rule that produce and count on different degrees of sovereignty and gradations of rights.” Cross-cultural histories of imperialism have established the recurrence of layered, nested, or “partial” sovereignty (Stoler and McGranahan 2007), the existence of spaces of autonomous action that are less “a temporary concession to particular challenges of administering empire and more as a general premise of rule” (Benton 2010: 297). The countless impediments to anything as coherent as absolute imperial sovereignty create the conditions of possibility for such autonomous actions. These impediments of course include the oft-cited administrative reliance on, and compromises with, local institutions and authorities that allow for imperial stability. But such dependency is not only, as James Tully (2008: 160) portrays it with respect to modern empires, a matter of efficiency, economic or otherwise. Hegemons do not cede, only at their own discretion, spaces for “tactical” action in a field that they “strategically” structure (Tully 2008: 160–161, invoking de Certeau 1984); rather, they accede to such spaces as an inevitable imperative of imperial reproduction. It is as much a function of practical, inescapable necessity as of efficiency that the subject is to a certain degree governed “through his or her own freedom—his or her own participation in relations of governance, production, consumption, militarisation, securitisation, leisure and so on—by incorporating degrees of subaltern legality (customary law), democracy, and self-determination into informal and indirect modes of governance of political and economic life” (Tully 2008: 160).

Autonomous actions also emerge out of what Steven Wernke (2013: 7) has called the struggle between “analogy and erasure,” in which the appropriation of indigenous analogs for foreign practices can result in the reproduction of the very institutions that imperial projects aimed to replace. And finally, conditionals of sovereignty derive from the complex temporalities of social life; that is, the terms of limitation that conquered communities place on imperial projects are not only reactive in the momentary sense of responding to the present, but also continuous in the enduring sense of arising from the past. As Tully (2008: 164) notes, the kinds of indirect and informal rule on which all imperialisms rely for their very existence entail “leaving local alterative worlds in operation to some constrained extent, and building its relationships of control and exploitation parasitically on them.” Or, to adopt Caroline Humphrey’s (2004: 420, 435) formulation, it could be said that such projects are in part conditioned by countless “localized forms of sovereignty” that are themselves shaped by “prior experiences and alternative lives” whose continuing life forms become something not outside the imperial “real” but part and parcel of it.

The semi-autonomous actions and unintended appropriations that the investigations of satrapal conditions may reveal do not necessarily amount to forms of resistance, even in its everyday hidden forms (Scott 1985, 1990). They arise not necessarily as critiques of dominant imperial structures but in the spaces of social and political life that such structures do not or cannot “see” (Scott 1998). Acting differently within bounds, bending rules without breaking them, keeping alive older ways of being and doing, such that they become a part of the new ways, too—all these count as the conditionals of satrapalism that occur in the spaces between life’s regulated arenas under empire. In her work on law and geography in European empires, Lauren Benton (2010: 294) touches on the noncorrosive (or not necessarily corrosive) aspect of divided sovereignty: “What happens . . . if we view usurpation of elements of sovereign power as a recurring tendency, structurally even more prominent than the rejection of authority or the movement toward a substitute totalizing power? . . . Sites of bare sovereignty, a partial and often-minimalist construction of sovereign authority, pervaded empires.”

The second sense of the satrapal condition, then, directs archaeology’s attention to how this recurring, structurally determined “usurpation of elements of sovereign power” takes effect not through institutions of law, as is Benton’s concern, but in the practical interactions between imperial subjects and imperial things that forge affective attachments alternative to those encouraged by imperial norms. Such alternative attachments have the potential to be mobilized toward counter-hegemonic ends. In this sense, the satrapal condition calls on us to detail how such human–thing interactions contribute to the “irregularities” that “political space everywhere generates,” and the “peculiar forms of attenuated and partial sovereignty” that are common to political life under empire (279).

How does such an emphasis on the material and practical forces that produce, but also undermine, imperial power articulate with contemporary accounts of sovereignty that are firmly grounded in the corporeal human? I wish here only to note a point of divergence from Agamben’s (1998: 6) well-known effort to locate the nucleus of sovereign power in the “production of the biopolitical body.” His is, on the one hand, a vigorously human-centered view of sovereignty that insists on the inseparability of biological or “bare” life and the politicized life. But Agamben’s biopolitical body is also a curiously lifeless one, insofar as its production appears to be essentially a metaphysical task. Humphrey’s (2004: 420) anthropological reading of Agamben has gone part of the way toward highlighting this deficiency, noting his anemic understanding of “ways of life” and calling for a focus on practices, “actualities of relations,” and lifeways that “do not simply acquiesce to the menace of sovereignty but interpose a solid existence of their own that operates collaterally or against it.” To push the critique one step further, it could be said that, in his work Homo Sacer, Agamben’s biopolitical body seems not only asocial but entirely unmoored, not unlike a “suspended” human surrounded by no-thing whatsoever, not even the strings to suspend it (Hodder 2012: 10)—a “bare life” indeed, if even that could be managed. As others have noted, Agamben’s examination of the relation of power and life is “unable to account for the retinue of objects and technical knowledges that condition the vitality of bodies and avail them to political calculability” (Braun and Whatmore 2010b: xi). The satrapal condition aims to account for just such retinues of objects that subsume human lives in a politics of empire. But before moving any further in this effort, it is first necessary to ask in what ways such an analytic framework can be said to be new to archaeology.


1. Quoted in King (2010: 20).

2. Labeling this period Iron 3 is unconventional in the context of highland archaeology. Scholars working in Turkey customarily describe the sixth through fourth centuries as the Late Iron Age, while in Armenia it is variously discussed as the post-Urartian period, the Early Armenian period, or, in local dynastic terms, the Yervandid period. In recognition of the different temporalities that govern the pace of political history, as opposed to that of social and material culture change, my colleagues and I prefer to extend archaeological periodization into the era of Achaemenid rule, rather than adopt the conventions of historical time-telling when dealing with archaeological materials (Smith, Badalyan, and Avetisyan 2009: 41). To a certain extent, currently the distinction between an archaeological versus a historical chronology is semantic, since the basis for the archaeological chronology is derived, in part, from historical ruptures. However, a change in nomenclature is a first step toward pushing archaeological analysis away from the narrow rhythms of royal genealogies. The problem with “Late Iron Age” is that it forecloses the possibility of extending archaeological periodization into later historical phases during which iron remained a defining technology (Khatchadourian 2011: 464–466). We thus follow a sequential system of periodization, which is comparable with that used in the archaeology of Iron Age Iran.

3. Two syntheses of these dispersed discoveries suggest that the material record for the period in question is sufficiently well preserved to support targeted research, while also revealing the obstacles posed by modern political borders. Karapetyan (2003) brings together all known archaeological findings of the period from the territory of the modern Republic of Armenia, while Yiğitpaşa (2016) provides a complete register of sites and materials from museum collections in eastern Anatolia.

4. On the north façade, the Armenian delegation includes five people instead of three, who bring not a horse and amphora but riding garments and a pair of straight-sided vessels. Root (forthcoming) has noted that the Armenians on the north are unique in being the only group to carry the riding costume as the first gift of the delegation, rather than the last. Associations with horse-riding may have been particularly strong. It should be noted that the terms used to describe Achaemenid vessels, including amphora, rhyton, and phiale (discussed below), are Greek in derivation. Greek craftspeople and consumers enthusiastically replicated and used Achaemenid-style drinking vessels (Hoffmann 1961; Miller 1993). By convention, scholars use the Greek terms also when speaking of such vessels as they occur within the imperial sphere. The Persian terms are not known.

5. Herodotus records Armenia’s tribute obligation as 400 talents of silver (Hist. 3.93; see discussion in Briant 2002: 391), while Xenophon (An. and Strabo (11.14.9) further attest to payment in the form of horses. Xenophon states that the horse tax was differentially distributed according to a quota system across the villages of the dahyu. The village Xenophon visited had to supply 17 colts each year to local leaders, who transferred them to the satrap. The satrap would in turn pass them over to the court. Strabo notes that the dahyu supplied the king with 20,000 foals each year, which would be sacrificed in a festival to honor the god Mithra.

6. Between December 522 and June 521 b.c. Darius’s army fought five battles in Armenia on two fronts. Rebel forces, sometimes fighting from mountain perches, persistently reassembled after each defeat (DB.I.26–30). In Daniel Potts’s (2006–7: 134) words, “the Armenians would not be quelled.” The Old Babylonian version of the inscription records 5,097 dead and 2,203 captured, but the accuracy of such statistics is difficult to ascertain, as are the locations of the battles where such casualties were incurred (see Potts 2006–7: 135 and passim). In any event, several elements of the passages dealing with Armenia are unusual in the context of the monument as a whole. For instance, although each battle is punctuated with the formulaic refrain of the text (“by the grace of Ahuramazda did my army utterly overthrow the rebel host”), the subduing of Armenia appears to fall short as an expression of royal triumph. First, we read of no action or boast that definitively concludes the episode, as in the passages about Babylon, Media, and Persia. Nor does an Armenian insurgent appear in the sculptural representation of the bound captives who stand in judgment before Darius (figure 4, p. 3). And finally, Armenia is not included in the summary of successes. When the text is read at face value it is not immediately clear what was the end result or consequence of Armenia’s involvement in these events. Leqoc (1997: 197) and Jacobs (1994: 176–177) have attempted to resolve the ambiguities by suggesting that Armenia was administratively nested within the larger entity of Media, and thus the ultimate suppression of the Median revolt and the punishment of its leader would effectively imply the definitive defeat of the Armenian rebels. This is possible, but it still leaves Armenia in an anomalous position in the inscription.

7. On the historical geography of the Armenian dahyu, see Khatchadourian (2008: 87–91).

8. Scholars have debated the status of Colchis within the empire. It was never listed as its own dahyu. Bruno Jacobs (1994, 2000) and Maria Brosius (2010: 32) have suggested it may have been a part of the dahyu of Armenia, though possibly holding a different status with respect to obligations to the crown, and possibly for only a short duration.

9. Such analysis must contend with the ubiquitous challenges of combining survey datasets into a synthetic analysis (Alcock 1993; Alcock and Cherry 2004), plus the specific challenges that attend such efforts on the Armenian highland, where systematic and diachronic surveys are exceedingly few and ceramic chronologies for the centuries after Urartu are nascent (Khatchadourian 2008: 351–356). Surveys (and excavations as well) have struggled to differentiate, on the basis of ceramics alone, the short interval between the collapse of Urartu and the period of Achaemenid rule. For a history of regional-scale investigations on the Armenian highland, see Khatchadourian (2008: 347–356). As with all efforts at “side-by-side” survey (Alcock and Cherry 2004), one must contend with differing collection methods, data recording systems, and degrees of systematicity and intensity. By and large, all too many survey efforts of the last three decades still entail travel by vehicle to known or promising site locations, without intensive prospecting (see Khatchadourian 2008: table 7.1). Soviet land amelioration policies, a program intended to increase the productivity of previously uncultivated areas, often through the use of bulldozers, which cleared fields to make way for industrialized agriculture on collective farms (Smith and Greene 2009), further frustrates systematic survey in regions of the highland that fall within the former USSR.

10. See Khatchadourian (2008: 357–360) for a detailed discussion of the methodology used in this analysis.

11. See Khatchadourian (2008: 360–383) for detailed discussion of each project’s methodology and findings.

12. The numbers are striking: in Doğubeyazıt there is a drop in site numbers from 20 to 4; in Erciş, from 26 to 4; and in Lake Urmia, from 142 to 18.

13. Muş, which is also near Lake Van and the center of Urartu, does not fit this pattern, since site numbers there remained constant. Regrettably, however, it is not possible to account for the different situation in Muş, since in the absence of detailed site descriptions it is not even clear whether the Iron 2 sites of this region were fortresses.

14. In the Bayburt region, although two fortresses continued to be occupied during the Iron 3 period, the average elevation of the new, unfortified mound sites is lower than mounds occupied in the Iron 2 (or Urartian) period. In the Lake Sevan area, all of the newly founded Achaemenid-era sites are on low ground or in unfortified locations (while the sites that were continuously occupied from the Iron 2, or Urartian, period are fortress settlements). In the Muş region, we can only go on the statement of the investigator: “The defensive positions the Urartian rulers favored in the hills appear from our current evidence to be less important during the time of the world empires” (Rothman 2004: 149).

15. From the Greek rhysis, “flowing.” A rhyton is “a vessel with a small aperture (or a short spout) near its lower extremity through which a jet of wine could issue” (Stronach 2012a: 170).

16. See Arakelyan (1971) for photographs of the vessels prior to restoration.

17. The vessel finds numerous parallels, recovered through both illicit and controlled excavations from Asia Minor, to the Caucasus, to the southern Urals (Treister 2007; 2013: 386–387).

18. In his close analysis of this frieze, Treister (2015) details the various features that help situate it within a cultural field that conjoins Persian and Greek formal styles. For instance, the dress of the female figures is variously both Greek and Persian in design. Perhaps most notable is the upright fingers of the seated man and the woman who approaches him, a manner of holding drinking bowls that scholars generally agree is associated with Persia (Dusinberre 2013: 133; Treister 2012: 120). And yet the probable association of the scene with Greek myth, coupled with the numerous points of comparison with the arts of Greece and Asia Minor, situate this object in that complicated heuristic category that art historians have come to call, not without reservation, Greco-Persian style (for discussion, see Gates 2002).

19. See note 5.

20. The leading candidate in the scholarship seems to be the historically attested satrap, Orontes, on whom see Khatchadourian (2008: 93–101).

21. On which see p. 143 above.

22. In terms of dating, in the long history of scholarship on these vessels, there appears to be consensus that the horse rhyton (without rider) and the fluted goblet fall squarely within the period of Achaemenid rule, sometime after the second half of the fift h century (e.g. Stronach 2011; Treister 2015). There is some disagreement on the other two vessels. Recent arguments for the dating of the horse-protome rhyton with rider range from the second half of the fifth century (Treister 2015) to the end of the fourth century (Stronach 2011), but the weight of the scholarship favors a date within the period of Achaemenid ascendancy. In recent years, the calf-head rhyton has been variously assigned to a date no later than the middle or third quarter of the fourth century (Ter-Martirosov and Deschamps 2007; Treister 2012, 2013, 2015), or to the late fourth to early third century (Hažatrian and Markarian 2003; Stronach 2011), yet Treister’s most recent analyses do lend weight to the former dating.

23. Many scholars have accepted a provenience in Armenia—see Muscarella (1980: 30) for citations, as well as Amiet (1983)—but Muscarella is rightly doubtful of information provided by dealers.

24. Other items in the collection include a cylindrical silver box, a shallow silver dish, and two silver scoops, possibly incense ladles (for comparanda from Persepolis, see Simpson 2005: 128).

From Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires, by Lori Khatchadourian



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