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The Persian Empire used a satrapal system for local rulers. Source: Konstantin / Adobe Stock

Satraps of the Persian Empire – Rebellious Protectors of the Realm


The Achaemenid Empire was an ancient empire whose heartland was the region of Persis, in the southwestern part of modern-day Iran. At its greatest extent, the Achaemenids ruled over an empire that stretched from the Indus Valley in the east to the Balkans in the west, and from the Black Sea in the north to the Red Sea in the south. In order to effectively administer this vast empire, the Achaemenid rulers divided their realm into provinces, each of which was governed by a satrap.

While these satraps were vital in ensuring the smooth running of the Achaemenid Empire, they were also potential threats to their Achaemenid overlords. When central control was weak, satraps could accumulate power, act independently, and even revolt. Nevertheless, it was a system that worked and continued to be used even after the demise of the Achaemenid Empire.

The Long History of Satraps

The title ‘satrap’ pre-dates the Achaemenid Empire and was already in use before the time of the empire. This title comes from the Old Persian word khšaçapâvâ, which has been translated to mean ‘protector of the realm’ and was used by the vassal kings under the Median ruler.

The Persians were once subjects of the Median Empire. The Persian chief, Cyrus II the Great, however, revolted against the Medes and was victorious over his former sovereign, Astyages.

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain)

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain)

Having conquered the Medes, Cyrus consolidated his power over the tribes of the Iranian Plateau, before turning his attention to the west, where he defeated the king of Lydia, Croesus. Cyrus then conquered Babylon and continued campaigning in the east before being killed while fighting the Massagetae, a confederation of nomadic tribes inhabiting the steppes of Central Asia.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who added Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica to the Achaemenid Empire. In addition, the new king had planned to conquer Ethiopia, the Oasis of Amon (Siwa Oasis), and Carthage but failed to do so. Unlike his father, who reigned for almost 30 years, Cambyses reigned for a short eight years.

In 522 BC, news reached the king that a magi by the name of Gaumata was leading a revolt and claimed to be Smerdis, Cambyses’ brother who had been secretly slain prior to the king’s campaign in Egypt. Cambyses left Egypt to deal with the rebellion but died mysteriously in Syria before returning to Persia. This story of the false Smerdis can be found both in The Histories, which was written by the Greek historian Herodotus, and the Behistun Inscription, which was commissioned by Darius I the Great.

The reign of the false Smerdis did not last for long, as he was slain by a group of seven noblemen led by Darius. Although the new king was not a direct descendent of Cyrus, he shared, according to the Behistun Inscription, two common ancestors with the empire’s founder, i.e. Achaemenes and Tseipes. By establishing his lineage, Darius was effectively asserting his legitimacy as the new Achaemenid ruler.

Nevertheless, not everyone accepted Darius’ authority and a number of revolts broke out, especially in the empire’s eastern provinces. The Behistun Inscription states that Darius fought 19 battles, during which nine rebel leaders were defeated. Representatives of these defeated peoples are shown in relief on the inscription.

Although the organization of the Achaemenid Empire into satrapies was initiated by the empire’s founder, it was only under Darius that the process was completed. Once again, it is the Behistun Inscription that provides us with information about the satrapies under Darius.

Persian Empire in the Achaemenid era. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Persian Empire in the Achaemenid era. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

The Satraps of the Achaemenid Empire

The inscription gives a list of 23 satrapies, which is as follows: Persis, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, the countries by the Sea (possibly Cilicia, Phoenicia Palestina, and Cyprus), Lydia, the Greeks, Media, Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdia, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, and Maka.

In addition to this administrative division of the empire, Darius also established the annual tribute required to be paid by each of the satrapies. It was due to this contribution to the Achaemenid Empire that Darius is remembered as a capable administrator.

Impression of a cylinder seal of King Darius the Great hunting in a chariot, reading "I am Darius, the Great King" in Old Persian. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Impression of a cylinder seal of King Darius the Great hunting in a chariot, reading "I am Darius, the Great King" in Old Persian. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Another source for the list of Persian satrapies comes from Herodotus’ The Histories, in which 20 satrapies, along with the annual tribute imposed on them, is given. The list provided by Herodotus has some eye-opening inclusions and is as follows:

“the Ionians, Asian Magnesians, Aeolians, Carians, Lycians, Milyans, and Pamphylians, were assessed as a single unit … 400 talents of silver.”
“the second consisted of the Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians, Cabalians, and Hytenneans, … 500 talents.”
“The third consisted of the Hellespontines on the right as one sails in, the Phrygians, Asian Thracians, Paphlagonians, Mariandynians, and Syrians, … 360 talents.”
“The Cilicians, … 360 white horses, one for each day of the year, and 500 talents of silver,”
“The whole region stretching from the town of Posideium (…) to Egypt, excluding Arabian territory (…) had to pay a tribute of 350 talents; this region, …, encompasses the whole of Phoenicia, Palestinian Syria, and Cyprus.”
“The sixth province consisted mainly of Egypt, but the Libyans adjacent to Egypt, and Cyrene and Barca were also assessed as part of the province of Egypt. … 700 talents, not counting the revenue of silver from the fish of the lake of Moeris and also a fixed amount of grain – 120,000 sacks”
“Sattagydae, Gandarians, Dadicae, and Aparytae, … 170 talents.”
“Susa and the rest of the land of the Cissians, … 300 talents.”
“Babylon and the rest of Assyria … 1000 talents of silver and 500 child eunuchs. “
“Ecbatana, the rest of Media, and also the Paretacenians and Orthocorybantians, … 450 talents.”
“the Caspians, Pausicae, Pantimathi, and Daritae, … 200 talents.”
“Bactria, as far as the Aegli, … 360 talents.”
“Pactyican territory, Armenia, and their neighbors as far as the Euxine Sea, … 400 talents.”
“the Sagartians, Sarangae, Thamanaeans, Utians, Mycians, and the inhabitants of the Res Sea islands … 600 talents.”
“the Sacae and the Caspians, … 250 talents.”
“the Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, and Arians, … 300 talents.”
“the Paricanians and Asian Ethiopians, … 400 talents.”
“The Matieneans, Saspeires and Alarodians, … 200 talents.”
“Three hundred talents were required from the Moschians, Tibarenians, Macrones, Mossynoecians, and Mares,”
“the Indians, who are by far the most numerous people in the known world, and who contributed more than any other province – namely, 360 talents of gold-dust.”

The Responsibilities of the Satraps

The satraps who were appointed to administer these provinces on behalf of the Achaemenid rulers were often chosen from among the members of the royal family, or the nobility. Apart from collecting taxes and administrative work, a satrap of the Achaemenid Empire was responsible for maintaining the security of his satrapy, raising and maintaining an army, serving as the satrapy’s supreme judicial authority, and appointing and removing local officials.

During times of war, the satraps were expected to provide their sovereign with troops. This is seen, for example, in the description of the Persian army assembled by Xerxes I for his invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

Achaemenid king Xerxes I killing a Greek hoplite. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Achaemenid king Xerxes I killing a Greek hoplite. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Herodotus describes the clothing worn by the soldiers from each satrapy, their weapons, and their commanders. As an example, the Libyans are recorded as “wearing leather clothing and armed with javelins whose ends had been burnt into sharp points. Their commander was Massages the son of Oärizus”.

As so much power was given to the satraps, it is unsurprising that the Achaemenid rulers were worried that they would abuse their power, or even rebel in a bid for independence. This is clearly evident in the early reign of Darius, when many rebellions broke out in the eastern provinces. As the new king had not consolidated his power yet after deposing the false Smerdis, the rebels saw it as an opportunity to claim independence from the Achaemenid Empire.

Controlling the Satraps

In order to curb the abuses of power by the satraps, as well as to keep them in check, Darius instituted a system of controls. One of these measures was to have the chief financial officer and the commander of the garrison troops report directly to the king, instead of the satraps. Additionally, periodic inspections were carried out by royal officials and each satrap had to report to a royal secretary, who was known as the ‘eye of the king’.

The system established by Darius worked, so long as the king was strong enough to impose his will on the satraps. In times when central authority was weak, however, the satraps would revolt, attempt to break free from the Achaemenid Empire, and establish their own kingdoms.

One of the best-known examples of a revolt started by the satraps is the Revolt of the Satraps (known also as the Great Satraps’ Revolt), which lasted from around 370 to 350s BC. This was a series of revolts initiated by the satraps of Asia Minor, and has been split into four phases, the first three occurring during the reign of Artaxerxes II, while the last during the reign of his successor, Artaxerxes III.

Phalanx on the tomb of Pericles, one of the leaders of the Great Satraps' Revolt. (पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Phalanx on the tomb of Pericles, one of the leaders of the Great Satraps' Revolt. (पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The first phase of the revolt occurred around 370 BC, and was launched by Datames, the satrap of Cappadocia. The second phase started around 366 BC, and the revolt was led by Ariobarzanes, the satrap of Phrygia. 362 BC is regarded to be the beginning of the third phase and was the largest revolt as it was joined by most of the satraps of western Asia Minor.

The chief commander of this revolt was Orontes, the satrap of either Armenia or Mysia. By the time of Artaxerxes II’s death in 358 BC, the revolts by the satraps had been brought under control.

Artaxerxes II’s successor, Artaxerxes III, had to deal with one last revolt. Having witnessed the many revolts launched by the satraps during his father’s reign, the new king attempted to deal with the problem by ordering the satraps to disband their mercenary armies. Most of the satraps obeyed the king’s command, except Artabazus, the satrap of Phrygia, who revolted soon after.

The rebellion was defeated and Artabazus fled to Macedon. Nevertheless, the satrap was eventually pardoned by Artaxerxes and returned to the service of the Achaemenid Empire. Interestingly, after the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great, Artabazus was appointed as the satrap of Bactria, as the Macedonian ruler valued his abilities and loyalty to the Achaemenid Empire.

Ultimately, the Revolt of the Satraps was a failure, as they were not successful in claiming independence from the Achaemenid Empire. One of the main factors contributing to this failure is the lack of coordination among the leaders of the revolt. Thus, by the end of the revolt, the Achaemenid Empire was still intact.

Orontes, wearing the satrapal headdress, from his coinage. One of the satraps who revolted. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Orontes, wearing the satrapal headdress, from his coinage. One of the satraps who revolted. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Nevertheless, this was not the end of the king’s troubles, as revolts continued to break out in different parts of the empire. More significant is the fact that these unrests did not go unnoticed outside the empire. About this time, the Kingdom of Macedon was ruled by Philip II of Macedon, who saw the internal problems of the Achaemenid Empire as a sign that it was vulnerable to attack.

Indeed, Philip was planning to invade the Achaemenid Empire, but was assassinated in 336 BC, shortly after launching his Asian campaign. Philip’s son and successor, Alexander the Great, fulfilled his father’s dream and became master of the Achaemenid Empire.

How the Using Satraps Benefited the Empire

The satrapal system instituted by Darius was so effective that it continued to be used by Alexander the Great after his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. As mentioned already, one of the former Persian satraps, Artabazus, served as the satrap of Bactria under the new regime. While Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC had a huge impact on the politics of the Macedonian Empire, it made little change to its administrative system.

The distribution of satraps in the Macedonian Empire after settlement in Babylon. (Fornadan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The distribution of satraps in the Macedonian Empire after settlement in Babylon. (Fornadan / CC BY-SA 3.0)

His successors, known as the diadochi, retained the satrapal system and this was especially evident in the Seleucid Empire, which inherited much of the eastern provinces. Nevertheless, the title of satrap was replaced by strategos, which means ‘military general’.

The Parthian and Sassanian Empires that came after the Seleucid Empire had their own administrative systems, though certain aspects of the Achaemenid satrapal system can be recognized in them. Although the title satrap continued to be used in later ages, it did not carry the same meaning as it did during the time of the Achaemenids. For instance, during the Byzantine Empire, the title satrap was given to the semi-autonomous princes who ruled over their Armenian provinces.

Top image: The Persian Empire used a satrapal system for local rulers. Source: Konstantin / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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