In ancient Persia, the term “satrap” referred to a provincial governor or ruler who governed a satrapy, which was a territorial division of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. The satraps were appointed by the central Persian authorities and were responsible for collecting taxes, maintaining order, and ensuring the loyalty of the local population to the Persian king. They held significant power within their respective satrapies but ultimately answered to the Persian king.
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Who Were Satraps?
Satrap, taken from the old Persian word ‘khshathrapāvan’, literally means “guardian of the realm.” Today, the term has negative connotations, often used to describe corrupt rulers of satellite states.
The satraps of the Persian Empire were governors who controlled the many regions, known as satrapies, that made up the vast kingdom.
A satrap was a governor of a province within the empire. Satraps were autonomous regional governors, not only for Persian kings but also for those who came before them, the Medes. The Median rulers made use of satraps from around the 6th century BC This form of governance continued into the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, two powerful dynasties that helped keep the Persian Empire alive after the fall of the Achaemenids to Alexander the Great.
Satraps of the Persian Empire
It was the Medes and not the Achaemenidians who first split their kingdom into territories that were each governed by a satrap. Under the Median Kings, the satraps ruled their part of the territory as vassal kings.
The role of the satrap changed when Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid emperor, conquered the Median Empire in 550 B.C. The shift was cultural, as the Achaemenidians believed the king ruled by divine right, the concept that rulers were granted permission from the gods to rule over their people. The satrap’s role in society changed; although he remained the governor of the province he answered to the king.
Satraps Give Rise to the Achaemenid Empire
The Achaemenid dynasty marks the beginning of the Persian Empire. The Achaemenids originated as a satrapy within the Median Empire. Cyrus the Great launched a rebellion and overthrew the Median Emperor in 550 B.C., who just so happened to be his Grandfather.
Cyrus the Great became the first King of Kings, or shāhanshā in old Persian, which translates to emperor, and ushered in a new age, that of the Achaemenid Dynasty. Cyrus split his newly acquired kingdom into 26 provinces or satrapies. Each satrapy was governed by a satrap, or subordinate ruler, in the name of the king.
Role of the Satrap
The satrap ruled over the people who inhabited their land and had a considerable amount of responsibility and power. Satraps were the governors of the land given to them by the king. They were to act as the protector of their region and judge and taxman.
Any punishments carried out for crimes had to be decided upon by the satrap. The taxes collected from the provincial population served as an annual tribute to the king.
The satrap maintained order within their province. It was their responsibility to appoint and remove local officials as well as to stop rebels from challenging the king. Giving satraps such a large amount of power was always a risk for the king. This power needed to be kept in check.
Keeping the Satraps in Check
As autonomous as they were, the satraps’ power was kept in check by the “eyes of the king.” The satraps were monitored closely, and measures were put in place by the king to control their power. Once a year, a royal secretary referred to as the “eye of the king” would visit each satrapy.
Satraps did not rule in a vacuum. A council of Persians advised the satrap. These councils answered directly to the king.
Cyrus the Great ensured that the satraps could not become powerful enough to overthrow him. Within each satrapy, the provincial chief financial officer, or Ganzabara, and the head of the military answered directly to the king.
Culturally Diverse Satrapies
The larger satrapies were sometimes divided further. These regions were also governed by a satrap. Occasionally, larger satrapies were given to one man, who then divided up the territory to be administered by another satrap. This satrap was a subordinate official who answered to him.
The satrapies that made up Persia were gained through the conquest of the region by the king. As such, the provinces of Persia were both culturally and religiously diverse. Persia became a melting pot of different ethno-religious identities which the king tried to incorporate into his kingdom.
Satraps Under Darius the Great
Darius the Great expanded the empire, creating a further 10 satrapies to make 36 provinces. Darius reorganized how the satrapies were administered. He also regulated the tax the satrapies owed as tribute, basing it on the economy and population of the satrapy.
These measures should have helped the satrapies, and therefore the empire, thrive. Sadly, these efforts did nothing to stop the empire from weakening or to stop satrap rebellions.
Weakening of the Empire
Despite the measures put in place by Darius the Great, the Achaemenid Empire weakened under his rule. The weakened authority of the king over the kingdom led to more autonomy throughout the satrapies.
As the central authority of the empire weakened, the satrap would become more independent. Rebellions became more frequent because, unlike under Cyrus the Great, the satrap under Darius could serve as the military leader of the province.
The Great Satraps’ Revolt
Rebellions became more frequent as the Achaemenid Empire went into decline. Satraps often tried to assert themselves as the only ruler of their province. Darius struggled with many rebellions, as did his successor, Artaxerxes II (404 – 358 BC).
During the reign of Artaxerxes II, the satrapies were in open rebellion, known as the Great Satraps’ Revolt (366-360 BC). The satrapies of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Syria rebelled. These revolts were backed by the Egyptian pharaohs, who were hoping to overthrow Artaxerxes II.
The last satrap rebellion was put down after the rule of Artaxerxes II by Artaxerxes III.
Persian Satraps after Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great of Macedon invaded Persia in 334 BC. This led to the end of the Achaemenid Empire. The Macedonian leader conquered Persia, beginning the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid Empire became the cultural center of the Hellenistic period, an era spanning from the rise of Alexander the Great to the rise of the Roman Empire in which Greek culture and language dominated Egypt, Mesopotamia, and much of the rest of western Asia.
When Alexander conquered Persia, he kept their form of governance. The office of Satrap took on a new meaning during the Seleucid Empire, that of a military general, or strategos in Greek. When Alexander died, he did so without an heir to inherit the enormous empire he had spent his life conquering.
Alexander’s heir was not yet born, and so Alexander’s Greek and Macedonian generals went to war with one another for control of the empire. This fight for territory is known as the Wars of the Diadochi. Diadochi is Ancient Greek for a successor. The Wars of Succession raged for thirty years, ending with the emergence of three dynasties.
The period after Alexander the Great’s death was fraught with turmoil. Three generals were successful in establishing three dynasties during this period known as the Hellenistic dynasties. Each victorious general ruled over their territory as a satrap would. The generals divided their territories into satrapies. The satrapies under the Diadochi were much smaller than under the Persians. The Diadochi ruled their satrapies until, one by one, they were conquered by the Parthians.
Satraps During the Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD)
In 247 BC, a satrap from Parthia, a satrap in the northeast of Ancient Persia, rebelled against the Hellenistic rulers of the empire. The Parthian Empire replaced the Seleucid Empire and revived traditions from the Achaemenid Empire.
The new rulers of Ancient Persia believed they were descendants of the early King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire. The Parthians adopted the title, but unlike the Achaemenid rulers, the Parthians adopted a decentralized government. Meaning the Parthians accepted the rule of vassal kings in some of their territories.
The Parthians continued to make use of satraps and appointed several. The satrapies were much smaller than they were during the Achaemenid Empire. Under the Parthians, satraps still paid an annual tribute to their king but enjoyed more autonomy than their Achaemenidian counterparts.
Satrapies During the Sassanid Empire (224 – 651 AD)
By 224 AD, years of war with Rome had greatly weakened the Parthian Empire. The Sassanians mounted a rebellion and defeated the Parthian king. This rebellion ushered in a neo-Persian age.
The Sassanid Empire was the longest-ruling dynasty of Ancient Persia. The Sassanians wished to restore the glory of the bygone Achaemenid dynasty by expanding Persian territory. Their territory encompassed all of modern-day Iraq and Iran and stretched to present-day Pakistan and central Asia.
Government of the Sassanian Empire
The Sassanians reverted back to a centralized form of government, with the Sasanian kings being the central ruler. During the Parthian Empire, the territories that had been ruled by vassal kings became ‘royal cities, ruled by noble families or shahrdars.
The shahrdar were the governors of the province and ruled as a satrap. They answered directly to the king. Within each province, different districts were further divided and governed by a shahrab or chief priest.
The Sassanian Empire was the last of the Persian dynasties, the region was conquered by Muslims in the 7th century.