The King’s Men: Achaemenid Conscription in Babylonia

When we think of the armies of Persian kings, many vivid images come to mind – clouds of arrows, swarms of horsemen, and despotic kings. Documents from Babylonia tell a different story, about families who faced demands for conscription and had to respond as best as they could. They could evade conscription, go themselves, find a substitute, or pay a fine, but they had to respond.

Even in our peaceful age, conscription or alternative civil service is part of political discourse in most countries. Cuneiform documents from Babylonia give us a vivid picture of how this worked 2,500 years ago under Teispid kings like Cyrus and Achaemenid kings like Xerxes. My dissertation looks at different kinds of evidence from across the empire – including royal inscriptions from Iran, archaeological finds from Turkey and Kazakhstan, papyri from Egypt, and literature written in Greek just beyond the empire’s western fringe – but when I turn to the empire’s heartland, I focus on how ordinary people responded to demands from their king.

The kings of Babylonia took it for granted that they had the right to conscript men for wars and construction projects. This was especially true of privileged men such as landowners and citizens. Ambitious kings organized the construction of canals through the steppe and settled farmers along the new irrigated fields. Their generosity came with a price: the new farms, or bow estates, came with the responsibility to provide a soldier or a worker upon demand.

In the European tradition, there is a strong distinction between conscription and corvée, ‘Wehrpflicht’ and ‘Frohndienst’. Making citizens serve in the army, where they take a solemn oath and accept unlimited liability to risk their lives on command, is seen as different from making them build roads or repair damage after a flood like any other day labourer. In the ancient Near East, both were included in umbrella terms like ilku (‘going’) or dullum (‘toil’). From an administrative point of view, sending a thousand men to make mud bricks or to defend a city was similar: the workers needed to be gathered, organized, provided with food and equipment, and prevented from leaving until they had completed their assignment. Since ancient construction work could be dangerous, and modern conscripts often find themselves responding to disasters, helping at public events, or even teaching school, ancient and modern practice were not so different as ancient and modern theory.

Like men in other places and times, many men in Babylonia had ‘other priorities’ than the army [frei nach Dick Cheney “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service.”] The kings gave them several alternatives. Some men paid a tax in silver so that a worker or soldier could be hired to replace them. Others shared their property with neighbours and took turns to serve in the army. Others negotiated directly with a substitute. A series of tablets show that the family of Itti-Šamaš-balāṭu had a standing arrangement with the family of Amurru-ibni: when one of the first family was called up for service, one of the second family would replace them in exchange for cash and equipment. Far from being hidden, these arrangements were recorded in contracts and in the records of the conscription officer.

Gadal-Yâma, the son of Raḫim-ilē, spoke in the joy of his heart to Rīmūt-Ninurta, the son of Murašû, as follows:
He will provide me with
(i.) the standing grain and stubble, the horse estate of Raḫim-ilē, as much as is the share of Bariki-Ilē, who adopted Enlil-šum-iddin, your brother, into the sons of Raḫim-Ilē,
(ii.) and a kit: one horse with its bit and tack, one suḫattu-textile, one iron armour, one hood of the armour, one suḫattu kūrapānu, one suḫattu hood, one bronze/empty bowcase, 120 ?mounted? arrows 10/and ?campaign? arrows, 1 iron ?beater? of the bowcase, 2 wooden spears with iron heads,
(iii.) and 1 mina of silver for provisions, in order to go to Uruk on king’s business so that I may go represent the horse estate, as much as is your share.
Then Rīmūt-Ninurta heard him, and gave him
(a.) one horse and battle gear, everything according to that which is written above,
(b.) and 1 mina of silver for provisions in order to go to Uruk on the king’s business and represent the horse estate.
Gadal-Yâma takes it upon himself not to appoint a substitute. Gadal-Yâma will register himself with Zabin, the foreman of the alphabet-scribes of the ūqu, in place of Rīmūt-Ninurta, the son of Murašû.
Witnesses, scribe, date (18-x-2 Darius II = Dec. 422/Jan. 421 BCE)

Gadal-Yâma Contract (translation by Sean Manning)

Other tablets show that other men were even less cooperative. Officials travelling to a village to conscript soldiers were sometimes attacked. Temple serfs frequently ran away. Herders and gardeners without a fixed plot of land could move away when the conscription officer noticed them. Allowing potential conscripts to pay a fine or provide a substitute gave them an alternative to these other forms of resistance, and replaced reluctant conscripts with men who had agreed to serve.

The classical literary sources mention the wealthy Persians who were settled in Anatolia with pleasure gardens and herds of horses. The documents from Egypt and Babylonia suggest that most soldiers were much poorer and served on foot as archers. They owned enough land that they could leave it to serve in the army, but not enough for a life of leisure. Free soldiers had to provide their own equipment and provisions, and life as a farmer was uncertain. Many of them faced financial troubles and had to mortgage their lands to financiers like the Murašû family of Nippur. Our aristocratic Greek sources overlook these humble men and focus on powerful and well-connected families.

Like in most societies, military service was strongly gendered: men were conscripted, women were not. However, sometimes a woman was in effective control of property with military obligations. A certain Inbāja, the daughter of Nabû-šum-iddin, made arrangements for her son’s land to be farmed and paid the military taxes. In earlier periods, the families of soldiers were paid an allowance while their men were in the army. One Isinaja complains that he could not provide his full quota of sheep and goats because he was sick and his sons were all away with the king.

Many of the soldiers in Babylonia belonged to ethnic minorities. Many Jews or Judeans settled at Nippur and at Elephantine on the Upper Nile. Saka from central Asia and Karians from Anatolia also appear. In contrast, Babylonians from wealthy families rarely served in person. Ethnic Persians are also rare, although many loan-words from Persian appear in documents in other languages. Some of these settlers were deported from conquered or rebellious lands. As minorities in a strange land, it was hard for them to conspire with their neighbours to avoid conscription. However, relationships between employers and substitutes, or service in the military bureaucracy, could also integrate settlers into local society. Far from relying on a single class or ethnic group, the Persian kings drew on every available source of manpower.

These cuneiform texts are especially important because they are contemporary with the events they describe. Most of the stories we tell about Achaemenid armies are based on Greek and Latin writers, and these writers have one thing in common: they wrote decades or centuries after the fact. Stories change as they are told and retold and certain aspects are removed or emphasized to fit the storyteller’s goals. Documents from Babylonia are not written to support grand stories about war and peace, east and west. They were simply written to keep track of workers and create a record in case of disputes.

Discussions of Achaemenid armies often use them as proxies for a timeless, placeless orient. They have been presented as Turks or Mongols riding out of the steppe, as a horde of lightly-armed Goths or Zulus breaking on a steely line of regular troops, as a menacing Red Army threatening the free cities of the west with superior numbers, or as the ancestors of today’s insurgents in Afghanistan or Libya. This can be useful for rousing the audience’s emotions, but not for understanding Achaemenid armies. The Teispids and Achaemenids ruled an empire with an elaborate bureaucracy which collected workers and agricultural produce and redistributed them. The vast majority of their subjects were farmers and handworkers and served on foot. One year they might dig canals, another year they might attack a rebel city or guard a storehouse against bandits. Like soldiers in the Mediterranean, most used cheap, simple weapons – spears, bows, short swords, slings, shields – while a lucky few had metal helmets and body armour. They could be brave or cowardly, cruel or generous, orderly or disorderly, not because they were ‘easterners’, but because they were human beings.

(Sean Manning)

Sean Manning ( Blog) ist auf Vancouver Island am Westrand von Kanada geboren und aufgewachsen. Nach seinem Bachelorstudium hat er für kurze Zeit als Informatiker bei einem Start-up gearbeitet. Danach ging er nach Calgary, um seine Magister-Arbeit bei dem prominenten Althistoriker Waldemar Heckel zu schreiben. Seit 2013 lebt er in Innsbruck, wo er im November 2018 am Institut für Alte Geschichte und Altorientalistik promoviert wurde. Er hat sowohl populärwissenschaftliche Artikel als auch wissenschaftliche Publikationen zum Perserreich und der einschlägigen Forschungsgeschichte sowie zu Textcorpora verschiedener antiker Sprachen publiziert.

Nach oben scrollen