Dr. Wouter Henkelman

By Thanos Fountoukis

Estates, workers, scribes: traces of the imperial paradigm in the Achaemenid satrapies

In December of 2021, Dr. Wouter Henkelman participated in a conference about Ancient Colonialism in a Comparative Perspective, where he introduced to his audience some interesting arguments about the role of the estates, the workers or “Kurtaš”, and the scribes within the administration policy of the Achaemenid Empire. The main arguments of the scholar were based on archeological evidence, such as clay tablets from Persepolis, the Behistun inscription, or the inscription of King Darius I, found in his tomb in Naqsh-e Rostam, dated around the 5th century B.C.E. Moreover, the scholar informs us about the scribes who spoke old Persian but for administration reasons would write in the Elamite or the Aramaic language, in some circumstances even in both. According to the evidence, he pointed out the early existence of estates belonging to the empire, but appointed to the regional satrap, glorifying his power, as administrative centers. Furthermore, he claims that, while the Achaemenids through estates established territorial control on the conquered lands, simultaneously, they tried to exploit the fertility of the land. A way of optimal exploitation of those lands was a certain policy of the Persian nobles, who “awarded” people with landed estates in order to cultivate them.

Dr. Henkelman emphasised on the people named Kurtaš who reflected a huge institutional economy. The word which had been given to these workers emerges from old Persian by bearing the meaning of domestic servants. According to Ctesias, he referred to these people as poor individuals who rented themselves to Persian nobles and became not enslaved but dependent on them. In addition, he claimed that the movements of these people between long distances of the interior empire, in order to be a part of the constructional or cultivating operations of the respective satrapy. Therefore, they could be considered a huge investment on behalf of the empire, as the satrapies were recruiting the Kurtaš, even if they were feeding them with only the ⅔ of their needs, and deported to the respective work environment. Along with people, they transported plants, fruits, and seeds across the empire. Eventually, vast plantations were created in various satrapies, which depicted the wealth and the power of the noble owner.

Finally, the scholar debates about the large-scale administration of the Achaemenid Empire, which depicted a hierarchy, and an organically grown institutional economy. In addition, this economy was powered up by a system of non-enslaved workers who, by the end of each harvest or construction, would be sent home. In that way, the officials were not obligated to feed them or pay them and could recall any number that they wanted according to the needs of the satrapy, a strikingly modern policy as Dr. Henkelman cleverly pointed out. All in all,  this institutional economy could maybe resemble a “pure” version of colonialism, while the Achaemenids did not continue something that pre-existed but built something that did not exist before.