It’s history lesson time!


Hi there, radical readers! I’m Chally from Zero at the Bone and am one of your bloggers here. I’m thinking that probably most of us are still scrambling around for a copy of Persepolis or just starting to read. So while we’re getting going, here’s a post on some aspects of Ancient Persian history that tie into the novel.

In her introduction to the edition I have, Marjane Satrapi notes that in recent times ‘this old and great civilisation has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism’. But there is so much more to Iran! Let me break out my high school history notes…


The novel gets its name from one of Ancient Persia’s most famous cities. Located in south-western Persia, kings used it primarily for ceremonial purposes. Persepolis was the symbolic centre for kings of the Achaemenid dynasty. It was built on a large rock-shelf measuring 458×275 metres. King Darius began building the city, but many of the remaining ruins are attributed to his son, Xerxes. The architecture is pretty incredible. The buildings are mostly of stone and mud-brick with big stone doorways and windows as well as stone reliefs at entrances. One building, the Apadana or audience hall, features 36 columns and a double staircase leading to two porches on each side. The facades of some of the staircases are decorated with reliefs featuring courtiers, tribute bearers, and a royal meeting with an official. This kind of relief is one of the richest sources for archaeologists and historians today. In addition to the Apadana, there are a throne hall, a number of smaller halls, a treasury, military quarters, courtyards and ceremonial grounds. Which is not to mention the Treasury! It’s comprised of about 110 separate rooms. Some of the remaining artefacts include a granite Assyrian goblet that once belonged to King Ashurbanipal, alabaster vases, statuettes of Egyptian gods, Babylonian sculptures, a Greek marble statue, nearly 200 seals for royal proclamations, stone vessels, glassware, bronze dishes and weapons. It’s a pretty interesting archaeological site.

Satraps and satrapies

I think Marjane Satrapi’s surname may be derived from the satrapy system of Ancient Persia. But what is this system, you ask? Well, after Cyrus the Great had established the Persian empire through the conquest of Media, Lydia, Babylon and so forth, he needed a way of administering it. So organised them as satrapies, which were essentially provinces. These were governed by satraps who represented the king, to whom they were directly responsible. Important satrap posts – eg Babylon, Egypt, Lydia – were often given to princes. Others were given to Persian nobles, who sometimes had the position for life. Some positions became hereditary. Satraps organised the economy, justice system, the collection of taxes/tributes and military levies when needed. Regional governors were often in charge of smaller areas under the satrap of their particular province. By Darius’ time there were approximately 20 satrapies. It’s hard to say exactly as different sources provide differing lists in various times; Darius mentions 29 groups that pay tribute in the Naqsh-i Rustam Inscription.

The roles and status of women in ancient times

The family was generally monogamous but sometimes husbands could marry other wives. Men also had sexual access to slaves and household servants, though you’ve got to wonder if consent is actually possible under those circumstances. Wives retained their own property in marriage and after divorce. They also had the right to transfer property to their children as inheritance (sons and daughters inherited equal portions). A woman could also initiate divorce. However, if the woman asked for a divorce she had to return the money her husband had given her as bride price and had no claim to property acquired with her husband.

Royal women had titles, recognised authority at court and their own administrative system for wealth management. The king’s mother had the highest rank and may have been the head of the royal women.

As for working life, the presence of working men and women was balanced. Some professions could be undertaken byboth, some not. Some workshops had female managers. Irdabama was one such powerful female supervisor. She had thousands working for her – including children – owned property and had her own private seal. On the whole, where labour wasn’t specialised, men appear to have received more rations than women. Pregnant women and new mothers got higher rations. If the children were boys, both the mother and the nurse/physician got higher rations. Extra payment was given for one month only. Mothers who usually produced boys received twice as much by way of payment.

Sources on women’s lives include fortification and treasury texts discovered at Persepolis (509-438 BCE) as well as documents recovered at Susa, Babylonia and other major Mesopotamian cities in the period.

So there are some interesting historical facts for you! I hope you’re enjoying/will enjoy reading about modern Iran as much as I am.


9 Responses to “It’s history lesson time!”

  1. Chally,
    Thanks for this! It really helps in reading the book (which I’m loving by the way). I can’t wait to finish and start writing my own blog post! But this information really does help in understanding the book. There were some points where the book referenced historical happenings that I was unaware of and this helps to clear it up!!

  2. Thanks for writing Chally, you rock! As a sidenote/observation — I realized when I read the sentence “Let me break out my high school history notes…” that I don’t think I ever learned about Iranian history in school. Like… ever.

  3. Laura: There’s so much historical stuff I left out that only comes in partway through the first volume! Thanks.

    Sally: Aww, thanks. We only learned about Ancient Persia in school because it was a special interest of my teacher, we were one of only a few classes in the state who did. It was very interesting!

  4. Thanks for this, like laura said the historical context is helpful when reading the book. i think it’s fair to say i knew absolutely nothing about persian history before i read this so i’m glad it’s part of the book club. i only got persepolis yesterday and i’m halfway through already, i’ll probably be done by tomorrow afternoon : )

  5. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful, Stephanie. 🙂

  6. Chally, many thanks for the historic background…I study U.S. history so I’d have to go far, far back into my academic past to find any info on Persian history. I’m still waiting for my copy of Persepolis to come in from the library so am glad to have something to tide me over 🙂

  7. Sure thing, Beth. 🙂

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  1. 1 Bookclubbing « Zero at the Bone

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