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Ancient History Sourcebook:
Accounts of Persian "Despotism" and Law,
c. 430-300 BCE


Herodotus: The Histories, [written c. 430 B.C.]

Book II, '31

This, it is said, was the first outrage which Cambyses committed. The second was the slaying of his sister, who had accompanied him into Egypt, and lived with him as his wife, though she was his full sister, the daughter both of his father and his mother. The way wherein he had made her his wife was the following: It was not the custom of the Persians, before his time, to marry their sisters---but Cambyses, happening to fall in love with one of his, and wishing to take her to wife, as he knew that it was an uncommon thing, called together the royal judges, and asked them, whether there was any law which allowed a brother, if he wished, to marry his sister? Now the royal judges are certain picked men among the Persians, who hold their office for life, or until they are found guilty of some misconduct. By them justice is administered in Persia, and they are the interpreters of the old laws, all disputes being referred to their decision. When Cambyses, therefore, put his question to these judges, they gave him an answer which was at once true and safe, "They did not find any law," they said, "allowing a brother to take his sister to wife, but they found a law, that the king of the Persians might do whatever he pleased." And so they neither warped the law through fear of Cambyses, nor ruined themselves by over stiffly maintaining the law, but they brought another quite distinct law to the king's help, which allowed him to have his wish. Cambyses, therefore, married the object of his love [Atossa, the mother of Xerxes], and no long time afterwards he took to wife another sister. It was the younger of these who went into Egypt, and there suffered death at his hands.


The Book of Esther, [written c. 300 B.C.]

1:1-3, 10-22:

During the reign of Ahasuerus [Xerxes]--this was the Ahasuerus who ruled over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia--while he was occupying the royal throne in the stronghold of Susa, in the third year of his reign, , he presided over a feast for all his officers and ministers. . .On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he instructed Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who attended King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti into his presence wearing the royal crown, that he might display her beauty to the populace and the officials, for she was lovely to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the royal order issued through the eunuchs. At this the king's wrath flared up, and he burned with fury. He conferred with the wise men versed in the law, because the king's business was conducted in general consultation with lawyers and jurists. He summoned Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven Persian and Median officials who were in the king's personal service and held first rank in the realm, and asked them, "What is to be done by law with Queen Vashti for disobeying the order of King Ahasuerus issued through the eunuchs?"

In the presence of the king and of the officials, Memucan answered: "Queen Vashti has not wronged the king alone, but all the officials and the populace throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and they will look with disdain upon their husbands when it is reported, >King Ahasuerus commanded that Queen Vashti be ushered into his presence, but she would not come.' This very day the Persian and Median ladies who hear of the queen's conduct will rebel against all the royal officials, with corresponding disdain and rancor. If it please the king, let an irrevocable royal decree be issued by him and inscribed among the laws of the Persians and Medes, forbidding Vashti to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus and authorizing the king to give her royal dignity to one more worthy than she. Thus, when the decree which the king will issue is published throughout his realm, vast as it is, all wives will honor their husbands, from the greatest to the least.

This proposal found acceptance with the king and the officials, and the king acted on the advice of Memucan. He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, to the effect that every man should be lord in his own home.

 


Source:

From: Herodotus, The History, George Rawlinson, trans., (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862); The Bible (Douai-Rheims Version), (Baltimore: John Murphy Co., 1914).

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.


This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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© Paul Halsall, August 1998
halsall@murray.fordham.edu