During the height of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BC), it has been estimated that up to 50% of the world’s population lived within its borders. The Empire stretched from the Greek Ionian city states of Asia Minor through what is now Iraq, Iran and Syria to Afghanistan and even across the Red Sea into Egypt. Its most well known figures are undoubtedly its Great Kings: first Cyrus who consolidated the empire, then Darius I and Xerxes who further expanded it through conquest and finally Darius III, who would be defeated by Alexander the Great, ultimately leading to the downfall of the empire. Yet, you rarely hear about Queen Atossa, a woman of immense stature in the Royal Court whose influence spanned decades.
Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus the Great, the first of the great Achaemenid kings. The Achaemenids were a noble family of a little know clan called the Persians, so called because they came from Persis, in modern Iran. In 550 BC, their ruler, Cyrus, rebelled against the Median Empire and went on to conquer most of the other ancient kingdoms and great cities of the region. These days, the Persian Empire gets a bad rap due mostly to their confrontation with the Greeks, but at the time, the Achaemenids were the gold standard for effective, tolerant governance.
Though noble born women in ancient Persian society were largely kept from leadership positions or even the public view, often locked away in harems to ensure the legitimacy of their offspring, Atossa would nonetheless go on to have a long lasting impact on the fate of the empire. Herodotus, on whom we rely extensively for a coherent narrative of this period, went so far to describe Queen Atossa in his landmark work, the Histories, as “all-powerful.”
A Queen to Three Persian Kings
Bear with me here as this gets a little complicated.
When Atossa’s father, Cyrus the Great, died in 530 BC, the empire passed to his eldest son, Cambyses II. Atossa and Cambyses were soon married, which isn’t as outrageous as it sounds given the time period despite them being half-siblings. Gotta keep it all in the family to ensure that royal bloodline! Herodotus actually considered Cambyses to be a complete madman for totally different reasons you can read about here. Whether epileptic, simply misunderstood, or an outright looney-toon, Cambyses was abroad in Egypt when word reached him that a usurper claiming to be his younger brother, Smerdis (who had been killed on the king's orders), had seized the throne. Cambyses died in transit back to the Royal Court to defend his right to rule.
The alleged impostor king (believed to have been a Magian priest) quickly married Cambyses’ wives and separated them in his harem so they couldn’t share bedside notes and possibly come to the conclusion that this new ruler was in fact not Cyrus’s son. The alleged impostor also refused to receive the Persian nobles and made few public appearances, further raising suspicions among members of the elite.
Darius, a Persian Noble from a different line of Achaemenids than Cyrus, conspired with a group of other Persian nobles to kill the usurper and restore one of their own to the throne. Darius was chosen to be the new king and immediately married Atossa, as having a direct descendant of Cyrus as his wife would further legitimize his newfound rule. Any offspring they had would be true Achaemenid grandchildren of Cyrus. Thus by her mid-twenties, Atossa had been named Queen of the Persian Empire three distinct times.
Atossa secures the throne for her son, Xerxes the Great
Her experience at court and royal blood meant that in addition to her pedigree, Atossa had an in depth understanding of how to rule the Empire from her time in the harem. It’s likely Darius took her opinions into serious consideration, whether formally or informally. Atossa, while not the first wife, was by far the most important. The couple would go on to have four children together, including the future king, Xerxes.
A problem facing Atossa and Xerxes was that Darius already had an heir, Xerxes' older half brother, Artabazenes, born to a common woman before Darius became king. As was customary, the throne would have passed to the eldest son Artabazenes upon Darius’ death, if not for the lineage and importance of Queen Atossa. She would have made the fairly convincing case to Darius that her children, as direct descendants of Cyrus, were the true heirs to the empire and thus should succeed him when he died - relegating Artabazenes to the footnotes of history, literally.
According to Herodotus:
“It is my opinion however that even without this suggestion Xerxes would have become king, for Atossa was all-powerful.”
She also had one of the first documented cases of breast cancer
Now, it's pretty much impossible to determine from ancient sources whether reported breast lumps or cysts were benign, cancerous or something else entirely. Breast lumps are referenced in the Assyrian medical tablets written in cuneiform as far back as the 23rd century BC, but Atossa’s breast ailment is one of the first we have of a historical figure confirmed to be suffering from such a malady. She received treatment for the painful disease from Democedes, a Greek slave from Croton often described as one of the most skilled physicians of his time. Herodotus can take over from here:
“Atossa the daughter of Cyrus and wife of Dareios had a tumour upon her breast, which afterwards burst and then was spreading further: and so long as it was not large, she concealed it and said nothing to anybody, because she was ashamed; but afterwards when she was in evil case, she sent for Demokedes and showed it to him: and he said that he would make her well, and caused her to swear that she would surely do for him in return that which he should ask of her; and he would ask, he said, none of such things as are shameful. So when after this by his treatment he had made her well.”
Which leads us to...
She probably helped instigate the Greco-Persian War
That favor that Democedes demanded for removing her breast, yeah, it turned out to be a big one. According to Herodotus' narrative, Atossa approached Darius in his bedchamber to plead with him to make war on Hellas (Greece) on behalf of Democedes, because (this sounds unlikely) she had heard that the handmaidens from Sparta and other cities were worth acquiring at any cost.
Herodotus quoting Atossa:
"O king, thou thou hast such great power, thou dost sit still, and dost not win in addition any nation or power for the Persians: and yet it is reasonable that a man who is both young and master of much wealth should be seen to perform some great deed, in order that the Persians may know surely that he is a man by whom they are ruled.”
And as they say, the rest is history. Darius invaded Attica, achieved some initial success but ultimately suffered a stunning defeat at Marathon and soon died. His son, Xerxes, continued the campaign against the Greeks and was able to best the Spartans at Thermopylae and burn Athens to the ground before being soundly defeated at Salamis and Plataea. Xerxes was forced to abandon the invasion. The Persian Empire would never fully recover.
Who knows how much of this to believe? Herodotus could have been romanticizing a story he had heard, and that story could have been true, partially true, or a total fabrication. We'll never know. Now, I want to be perfectly clear, no one person was responsible for the fifty year conflict between the Greek city states and the Achaemenid Empire - that conflict had been brewing for decades and was precipitated directly by the rebellions in the Greek Ionian cities in Asia Minor - but it is undeniable that Atossa was a leading figure at court and it is certainly plausible that she could have been a strong influence on Darius' decision to initiate and then expand his Greek campaigns.
All in all, I say that’s one helluva woman.
Feature Image via Persepolis.nu