The Achaemenid Persians, like most other civilizations that are ruled by a single figurehead, held the succession process of their leaders in high regard. To make the ascension of a new King of Kings into a grandiose moment, symbolic ceremonies and rituals were implemented during coronations to make the event more weighty and memorable for the onlookers and participants. Evidence of what was done during these coronations can be gleaned from archaeological evidence, such as wall reliefs and coins, as well as textual materials from within the Persian Empire and commentary from outside observers, such as Diodorus Siculus (active 1st century BCE) and Plutarch (1st and 2nd century CE).
The Achaemenid Empire of Persia was formed under Cyrus the Great (c. 6th century BCE) and lasted until Alexander the Great destroyed the dynasty in 330 BCE. With its heartland in Persia (modern Iran), the Achaemenid Empire eventually extended eastward to touch the Indus River and westward to border Greece. The Achaemenid King of Kings wore a golden crown, which he personally placed upon his own head during his coronation. Along with the crown, each king would light a sacred fire that was to be kept constantly ablaze for the remainder of his reign and would only be extinguished when the monarch passed away. A new king was also likely required to assume a new name after taking power.
In addition to (and likely preceding) the ceremonies listed above, the new Achaemenid kings were also expected to make a pilgrimage to the city of Pasargadae, now located in the Fars province of Iran. The tomb of Cyrus the Great was there (and still is there), and it was also the location where Cyrus defeated the Medes before expanding his empire. According to Plutarch’s Artaxerxes (chapter 3), the Achaemenid kings after Cyrus traveled to Pasargadae to participate in an odd coronation ritual.
Upon arriving at the city, they would travel to a sanctuary of a war goddess (probably Anāhitā) that the Greeks associated with Athena. In that sanctuary, the kings reportedly dressed in simple clothing that had once been worn by Cyrus the Great. Next, they ate a cake made from figs and chewed on turpentine-wood. Finally, they washed it all down with what Plutarch described as sour milk. Modern scholars, however, suspect the liquid was probably sacred haoma juice, or possibly dūḡ, an ancient (but still existent) drink prepared from yogurt, water and other added ingredients. These rituals have been interpreted as an act of remembrance to remind the luxurious Achaemenid kings that Cyrus and the original Persian warriors began the empire from simple and humble origins. Plutarch hinted that, in similarity to initiates inducted into other mystery religions and secret societies, the Achaemenid kings likely did other rituals and ceremonies in Pasargadae that were kept secret to the uninitiated.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Ancient relief from Mesopotamia, [Public Domain] via pxhere.com).
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.