ACHAEMENID ROYAL COMMUNICATION, the spreading of every kind of information and decision-making needed for governmental control. Under this topic can be subsumed the royal agenda, political objectives, ideological and legitimizing strategies, and orders and messages to subordinates and the general population.

Personal communication. The starting point of royal communication was the court—taking ‘court’ in a wider sense as the contact–zone with the ruling class—for instance, during audiences or in the course of common meals (Kistler, 2010). Proceeding from the court, a top-down communication was initiated, via the satraps, who were delegated from the imperial center to the cities that had been capitals of the predecessor empires, such as Ecbatana, Babylon, Sardis, or Memphis. Usually these high-ranking officials were princes of the Achaemenid family; at times, from the reign of Darius I on, they were members of the privileged families of his conspirators (Jacobs, 1994, pp. 103 f. with nn. 61-62). It is generally accepted by scholars that, through deployment of these officials, the practices of the Great King’s court were spread to the provincial courts as well (cf. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.6.10-12). The modus operandi may, at the same time, indicate a conscious intent to develop channels of empire-wide communication.

Communication by correspondence. Aramaic was the language widely used for communication. It facilitated the transmission of messages in the multi-lingual context of the empire (Stolper, 2005, p. 21; Schmitt, 2006, p. 238; on the dispersal of Aramaic as a lingua franca, see Naveh and Greenfield, 1984; Greenfield, 1985; Rossi, 1986, pp. 68 f.). This practice meant that, in most cases, scribes only needed command of Aramaic beyond their native language (Gershevitch, 1968, p. 4; Schmitt, 2006, p. 41; Tavernier, 2008: pp. 60 f.; Jacobs, 2012a: pp. 101 f.). The role of the lingua franca is exemplarily shown by the letters of the Bactrian satrap Akhvamazda to Bagavant, a subordinate governor, residing in Sogdian Kulmi (Shaked, 2004, esp. pp. 28 f.; Naveh and Shaked, 2012) and by the Aramaic correspondences of the satrap of Egypt, Arshama (Driver, 1957; Porten and Yardeni, 1986, pp. 94-129 ; Taylor 2013). As this kind of document normally was written on perishable materials, royal correspondence in this medium has largely been lost.

As for the Letter to Gadatas, which purported to have been written by Darius himself, its authenticity has been doubted with good reasons (Briant, 2003) and it therefore cannot give a reliable impression of royal correspondence. Its phrase πέραν Εὐφράτου “beyond the river” may be a calque on Aramaic abar-naharā (Schmitt, 1998, p. 159; idem, 2006, p. 240) and thus may betray a perspective that looked at the Euphrates from the east. This may, in turn, indicate that the author composed the letter from various disconnected elements, which give only a superficial impression of this facet of royal communication.

A general idea of the employment of the communicative medium can perhaps be based on Neo-Assyrian letters (examples in Radner, 2006, nos. 1.2, 1.3, 2.3, 5.1, 5.7), but perhaps also on the practice of reading royal letters in an auditorium at Babylon, as repeatedly reported in the Astronomical Diaries of Arsacid times (Böck, 2010, p. 42). Beyond that, information on letters as means of royal communication in Achaemenid times mainly comes from classical and biblical sources. Thus, Darius I is said to have sent several letters to be read before Oroetes, satrap of Sardis, as a consequence of which the latter was executed by his bodyguard (Herodotus, Histories 3.126-128). Darius II announced the appointment of his son Cyrus as the new satrap of Sardis (Xen., Hell. 1.4.3), and likewise Artaxerxes II authorized Tithraustes in written form to dispose the satrap Tissaphernes of his position and to execute him (Diod., 14.80.7-8). In the Book of Esther (1:22, 3:12, 8:9) it is mentioned on various occasions that Xerxes sent letters to all provinces (Macchi, 2005, pp. 108 f.). The “Persian documents” quoted in the Book of Ezra (1:2-4, 4:8-22,  5:7-17, 6:2-12, 7:12-26) may stand isolated with regard to language, orthography, and style, as was expounded by L. Grabbe, but they nevertheless reveal the importance of letters at the service of royal communication; moreover, with the decrees cited in these documents, they give examples of another category of this communication (Grabbe, 2006). 

Letters were distributed either by royal emissaries (Hdt., 3.128; Diod., 14.80.7; Jacobs, 2003, pp. 254-56) or by messengers (Hdt., 3.126, 8.98; Xen., Cyr. 8.6.17-18) who, using the royal roads and a relay system, covered the enormous distances within the empire in stunningly short time (Gabrielli, 2006, pp. 45-62; Colburn, 2013; Henkelman and Jacobs, in press).

Achaemenid inscriptions and court art as means of communication. Royal communication is commonly associated with the sculptural decoration at Persepolis and at Susa, the residences (re-)founded by Darius, with the rock reliefs of Bisotun and Naqš-e Rostam, and with the inscriptions found in these places. The trilingual inscription of the Bisotun monument represents a text whose content became part of the royal communication with a wider audience; this becomes particularly clear in § 70, where Darius I mentions that the text was also written on clay tablets and on parchment—i.e., in Aramaic—and that it was distributed. In addition, he exhorts, in §§ 60-61, a future (royal) reader to make its content accessible to the people.

Fragments of a stele copy were found in the excavations of Babylon (Seidl, 1999), and fragments of an Aramaic version were found at Elephantine (Greenfield and Porten, 1982); it has therefore been argued that Herodotus’s report about the imperial crisis in the first years of Darius must have been informed by the Bisotun text per se (Dandamaev, 1976, p. 123; Köhnken, 1978, pp. 39 f.) rather than a parallel oral, popular version (see also Tuplin, 2005, p. 236 with n. 47). The Babylon stele also included an abbreviated copy of the relief, showing that royal inscriptions and court art apparently were, with regard to publicity, regulated by the same incentives. 

The attitude attested in the Bisotun monument has been generalized in Achaemenid scholarship, and Achaemenid court art and inscriptions were thus credited with a great impact on the public. Terms like propaganda (Kelly, 2003, pp. 173-219, esp. p. 174) or even propaganda program (Leith, 1997, p. 29) have been variously applied (Briant, 1997, p. 102 has rightly labeled the term propaganda fallacious in Achaemenid context), but even the assumption that they were a continuous and essential part of royal communication as such remains unconvincing:

(a) Soon after Darius’s ascendance to the throne, the complexity of the inscriptions with regard to content decreased, so that they decidedly could no longer serve as means of communication supporting the state as such (Jacobs, 2014a; idem, in Jacobs and Trampedach, 2012; on comparable phenomena in late 3rd millennium Mesopotamia cf. Sallaberger, 2002).

(b) The languages in which the Achaemenid inscriptions were composed made them unsuitable for public-oriented communication (Jacobs, 2012, pp. 97 f.). This is, because Old Persian, especially in the stylization cultivated in the inscriptions (Schmitt, 2000b, p. 30; idem, 2006, p. 237), did not play an appreciable role in the empire (Schmitt. 1989, pp. 56 f.; Briant. 2000, p. 96), because Babylonian was limited to Mesopotamia and possibly was already about to fall into disuse as a spoken language (Stolper, 2005, pp. 20 f.; on the lingering existence of Akkadian, see van der Spek, 1988, p. 255; Böck, 2010, pp. 27-38), and because Elamite was in rather wide-ranging use only as a language of administration (Stolper, 2005, p. 20; Kuhrt, 2007a, chap. 16, no. 58, n. 1; Henkelman, 2010, p. 714, n. 174; on the dissemination of Elamite, see also Lecoq, 1997, pp. 51-54). The multilingualism of the inscriptions was not intended for the purpose of reaching a higher number of addressees.

(c) Not the subjects, but the successors to the throne were the proper addressees of the inscriptions. This is even true for the Bisotun inscription, as shown by DB §§ 64-65, notwithstanding that this text laid claim also to a public interest (perceptible in DB §§ 60-61). In the same way, inscription DNb turns to the heirs apparent, as attested by § 11, and DPe § 3 does not make sense at all if the one addressed by the second person singular is not a future ruler (tr. after Schmitt, 2000a, p. 61):

Proclaims Darius, the king: If thus you shall think: “May I not fear anybody else,” protect this Persian people! If the Persian people shall be protected, the blissful happiness existing very far off, the undisturbed one—that will come upon this house.

This dialogue initiated by Darius I was taken on by his successors, who adopted whole passages from texts of their predecessors (Jacobs in Jacobs and Trampedach, 2012). In the same way the later kings reproduced the canon of picture themes implemented by Darius I as architectural decoration of their residences (Root, 1979, p. 40; Jacobs, 2002, pp. 351-61). Similarly, the relief décor was, in view of limited accessibility, surely not intended for a wider public.

Only secondarily Achaemenid inscriptions and court art were thought for the gods and finally, as far as they were visible and accessible, also for persons of the “inner court.” 

Representative art of the western provinces. The representative pictorial art of the western provinces is not part of royal communication, as was often postulated (Courtils, 1995, pp. 363 f.; Dusinberre, 1999, esp. p. 73, n. 1), and not even a reflection of it. This is demonstrable already by the fact that this medium was common only in very limited regions of the empire, mainly in the far west, and did not reach at all the majority of the population. The choice of topics, widely different from Achaemenid art, but homogenous beyond all provincial borders from Phrygia at the Hellespont to Phoenicia, results from a consensus of the elites about what activities and areas of life were appropriate to their respective social affiliations. This consensus was certainly shared in most parts of the empire, the Achaemenid court included, but a commitment to this consensus was given via pictorial art only within a limited regional scope (Jacobs, 2014b).

Summary. Royal communication took place on various levels, beginning verbally in the circle of the “inner court.” A top–down communication, indispensable for the existence and coherence of a state, was channeled via the imperial administration. Besides, it was mediated by letters and decrees conveyed by emissaries and messengers using the empire–wide road system and its way stations (Briant, 1996, pp. 377-89; Henkelman and Jacobs, 2013, in press; cf. the sources assembled by Kuhrt, 2007, pp. 730-51). A real ideological penetration of the empire by the Achaemenid rulers did not take place (cf. Briant, 1996, pp. 887 f.). 


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(Bruno Jacobs)

Originally Published: April 3, 2015

Last Updated: April 3, 2015

Cite this entry:

Bruno Jacobs, "ACHAEMENID ROYAL COMMUNICATION," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2015, available at (accessed on 03 April 2015).