Atossa (c. 545–c. 470s BCE)

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Atossa (c. 545–c. 470s bce)

Persian queen whose support for the accession of her son Xerxes secured for him the Persian throne after the death of Darius. Born around 545 bce; probably died in the 470s bce; daughter of Cyrus, II the Great (c. 590–529 bce), the first Persian king, and possibly Cassandane ; married Cambyses II (died 522 bce); married Smerdis, in 522 bce; married Darius I the Great, in 521 bce; children: (third marriage) Xerxes I, king of Persia (c. 518–465 bce).

Subsequent to her father's death, she was married to her (probably) half-brother, Cambyses, to the pseudo-Smerdis, and finally to Darius, all of whom attempted to consolidate their control of the Persian Empire by marrying Atossa. A figure much respected within the royal harem, Atossa's greatest influence seems to have been felt when her support for the accession of her son Xerxes secured for him the Persian throne after the death of Darius (486).

Born around 545 bce, Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus, whose successful overthrow of Median hegemony (dominance) and subsequent conquests in Anatolia, throughout the Near East including Iran, and even into central Russia founded the Persian Empire. Upon the death of her father in 529 bce, Atossa's brother, Cambyses, came to the throne. Since polygamy was practiced at the Persian court, we do not know whether or not Atossa and Cambyses were full siblings, but the likelihood is that they were not, for Cambyses married Atossa to consolidate his claim to his father's power, and such a consolidation implies that Atossa was associated with some faction of interest distinguishable from that of Cambyses. As such, they probably had different mothers.

Although Cambyses continued the imperialism of his father by conquering Egypt, his reign was disrupted by a rebellion led by a Persian pretender who whipped up support by pretending to be Cambyses' dead brother, Smerdis (hence this pretender is known as the pseudo-Smerdis). When Cambyses died from a gangrenous wound received in an equestrian accident, the pseudo-Smerdis married Atossa in an effort to secure the throne. However, this usurpation was brief, since a counter-revolution led by the Persian noble Darius I ousted the pseudo-Smerdis within a year. In turn, Darius also married Atossa to legitimate his seizure of royal authority. The daughter of Persia's royal founder, the sister of his successor, and the wife of three kings, Atossa's status at the Persian court was very high, if not unchallenged, in Darius' harem.

Cassandane (fl. 500s bce)

Queen of Persia. Married Cyrus II the Great (c. 590–529 bce), first Persian king; children: possibly Atossa (c. 545–470s bce); possibly Cambyses II (d. 522 bce), king of Persia; and possibly Smerdis.

Darius' reign (521–486 bce) was a long and successful one, during which—after his conquest of modern Pakistan in the east and parts of Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania in the west—the Persian Empire reached its zenith. Although Darius was an extremely successful conqueror, able administrator, and an efficient consolidator of Persian power over an immense area, he is ironically known today as much for his one minor setback—the defeat of his army (he was not present) by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon in 490—than for his many accomplishments. After Marathon, Darius swore that he would be avenged upon the Athenians, yet, as luck would have it, before he could mobilize the large army he felt would be necessary to eradicate the one blot on his reign's military record, he died. Because he had many wives (so far as we know, all married in order to tie their families more closely to his rule) and many children by these wives, when Darius died, a scramble to succeed him began between a number of half brothers, each relying upon their mothers' constituencies for support. At this moment, Atossa seems to have exerted the greatest influence of her life, for she incapacitated the efforts of her rivals and saw to it that Xerxes, her son by Darius, inherited his father's position. As such, Atossa was especially important during the first few years of Xerxes' reign, as he found it necessary to ferret out all possible challenges to his succession.

Although Xerxes is best known for his own unsuccessful invasion of Greece in 480—undertaken both to carry on the legacy of Darius and to unify the various factions of the Persian state against a common enemy—his reign was not one of unmitigated hostility to all Greeks or the products of Greek culture. In fact, many Greeks along the Anatolian coast of the Aegean Sea were Persian subjects, and their presence within the empire facilitated cultural exchange between the Persians and the Greeks. Although many Greek artists, architects, and intellectuals plied their trades under Xerxes' authority, one of the most striking examples of this accommodation was Atossa's trusting of her own health to the Greek physician Democedes, who seems to have treated her with some success against a cancer. In the 5th century, Greek medical "science" was as advanced as any, so the employment of Democedes implies that Atossa was well-informed as to the respective talents of the various peoples then under Persian sway. However, this is hardly surprising of the woman whom the Old Testament knew as "Vashti ," and whom that work credited as being one of history's most influential queens. The Biblical Vashti is possibly a composite of Atossa, Xerxes' wife Amestris , and others (see Vashti). Atossa probably died in the 470s bce.

suggested reading:

Olmstead, A.T., History of the Persian Empire. University of Chicago Press, 1948.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California