Parysatis I (fl. 440–385 BCE)

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Parysatis I (fl. 440–385 bce)

Queen of Persia. Flourished from 440 to 385 bce; daughter of Artaxerxes I, king of Persia, and Andia, a Babylonian; married half-brother Darius II Ochus, king of Persia (r. 424–404 bce), in 424 bce (died 404 bce); children: daughter, Amestris; two sons, Arsaces also known as Artaxerxes II, king of Persia (r. 404–358 bce), and Cyrus (d. 401 bce).

Parysatis I was the daughter of Artaxerxes I, king of Persia, and Andia , a Babylonian, and the half-sister and wife of Darius II, king of Persia from 424 to 404 bce. Darius and Parysatis shared the same father. Darius' mother Cosmartidene was another Babylonian, but not one of Artaxerxes' legitimate wives (polygamy and concubinage abounded at the Persian court), for Darius is commonly referred to in sources as "the Bastard." Therefore, of royal paternity but of illegitimate birth, Darius originally had no hope of ascending his father's throne. He had some station, however, for before Artaxerxes' death he was appointed as the satrap of Hyrcania and was married to Parysatis.

Artaxerxes I's only legitimate male son, Xerxes, died shortly after Artaxerxes himself. There followed a scramble to seize the throne among Artaxerxes' illegitimate sons. One such, Sogdianus, briefly held royal authority before being deposed and succeeded by Darius. Abetting Darius' unexpected coup was Parysatis' political savvy. She remained influential during her husband's entire reign: one source reports that whenever Darius felt his throne in jeopardy—which was not infrequent given his birth and contested accession—the first party he consulted was Parysatis. She apparently maintained a kind of intelligence network both at court and throughout the empire for the purpose of uncovering any whiff of disloyalty. As a result of the information she fed to Darius, more than one royal relative, noble, and even humble eunuch was executed for treason. It is also significant that in a society accustomed to royal polygamy, Parysatis was Darius' only official wife. The couple had two sons, Arsaces and Cyrus, and a daughter, Amestris .

An episode which occurred near the end of Darius' reign reveals much about Parysatis' influence and character. To secure ties with the Persian aristocracy, Darius arranged two marriages: that of Arsaces to Statira I , and that of Amestris to Statira's half-brother, Teritouchones. Amestris' marriage to Teritouchones never took place, however, since the would-be groom was willful enough to reject the royal union in favor of a marriage with another of his half-sisters. Outraged by this insult to the imperial dignity, Parysatis had all of Teritouchones' siblings and half-siblings put to death, except for Statira herself, who was saved only because Arsaces intervened on her behalf; he then married her.

Darius II's reign was troubled, and not only because of his birth. Coming to power in 424, he ruled through most of the Peloponnesian War (431–424), the great conflict which pitted the Athenian Empire against the Spartan alliance. Although the principals in this conflict were Greeks and independent of Persian authority, their war was largely conducted along Persia's western frontier and definitely affected Persia's interests. A large portion of the Athenian Empire—that is, the one-time autonomous Greek poleis situated along the Anatolian coastline and comprising many of the islands of the Aegean—had once belonged to Persia. As such, when Sparta and Athens warred against each other, opportunity knocked for the Persians who hoped to reclaim what had been lost to Athens by supporting the Spartan cause. They did so primarily by providing the financial wherewithal Sparta needed to build and maintain a fleet capable of competing with Athens for maritime supremacy. For this support, Persia expected Sparta to cede back to Persia what had been Persia's. The whole issue, however, was a delicate one, for Sparta officially fought the Peloponnesian War to liberate the Greeks under Athenian control, and it just would not have done to let it be known that Sparta had agreed to turn many of the states thus freed directly over to the control of Persia. Making this situation even more complex was Darius' sometimes shaky status and the political rivalries of the satraps of western Anatolia (especially Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes), who acted as Persia's primary agents for Greek affairs. In an effort to bring Persia's Greek policy under more centralized control, Darius posted his younger son, Cyrus, to the west in 408 with orders to aid and abet the Spartan cause. There Cyrus remained until the death of Darius in 404. When Cyrus' friend and ally Lysander finally toppled Athens later that year, Cyrus was at the Persian court attending the coronation of his older brother Arsaces, who took the throne name Artaxerxes II (r. 404–358).

Cyrus, however, was ambitious and sought the throne for himself. For unknown reasons, he was abetted in his ambitions by Parysatis. When Cyrus returned to the west, with his mother's blessing he launched a coup. In order to do so he cut a deal with the Spartans, agreeing to allow Sparta to consolidate all of what Athens had ruled into a new Spartan Empire (a move definitely not popular in Greece). In return, Cyrus gained an alliance and the right to recruit Greek mercenaries into his rebellious army. Nevertheless, Cyrus failed in his attempted coup, primarily because his brother retained the support of the Persian nobility. In 401, at Cunaxa in Babylonia, Cyrus died in battle. Artaxerxes II thus retained his throne and, among other initiatives, turned his attention to the recovery of those states which Cyrus had bartered away to the Spartans for their support of his revolt. By 386, success had arrived, for in that year Artaxerxes II imposed the so-called "King's Peace," which saw the Greeks of Asia and the island of Cyprus returned to the Persian fold.

As for Parysatis, it is not known why Artaxerxes II did not avenge himself on his mother for her open support of Cyrus. Although at some later date, she was temporarily exiled by her son to her estates in Babylonia, immediately after Cyrus' unsuccessful rebellion Parysatis seems to have suffered nothing at all. In fact, Artaxerxes II allowed her to journey to Babylon to recover the body of Cyrus and to supervise its proper return to Persia. Perhaps Artaxerxes II found Parysatis' network of connections and her willingness to warn him against the political disloyalty of others too valuable to challenge, or perhaps he merely lived in awe of his mother's powerful personality. Whatever the truth, Artaxerxes II heeded Parysatis' advice time and time again, even when the benefits to his authority of doing so were mixed at best. For example, Parysatis secured the deaths of many who had supported Artaxerxes II over Cyrus, mostly because she resented their opposition to Cyrus. In one instance, Parysatis turned Artaxerxes II against a noble named Mithradates, who had fought for Artaxerxes at Cunaxa, not for any act of disloyalty but because Mithradates contradicted the official version of Cyrus' death, which had it that Artaxerxes II personally had struck his brother down (which he manifestly had not done). Thus, in an extreme act of face saving, Artaxerxes II, at his mother's urging, murdered a political loyalist. Parysatis also caused the death of a court eunuch named Masabates who had the audacity to attempt to mutilate the corpse of Cyrus before its royal burial, even though it was a Persian custom to treat traitors in such fashion. Artaxerxes II went along with Parysatis even though by doing so he honored a rebellious sibling and besmirched his own royal dignity. Yet again, even figures as powerful as Tissaphernes the satrap eventually suffered because of Parysatis' hatred. He, too, had played a role in Cyrus' downfall, and although other personalities and issues were involved in his execution in 395, Parysatis' motives for urging Artaxerxes II to demand his death went back to the role Tissaphernes had played in Cyrus' failed revolt.

The one time Artaxerxes II stood up to his mother concerned his wife Statira I. Like Darius II, Artaxerxes only had one legitimate wife. As a result, Statira alone at court held the status of the "King's Wife." This sparked Statira's ambitions to replace Parysatis, who as the "King's Mother" had retained her status as Artaxerxes' primary advisor. When, however, it looked as if Statira was gaining too much influence over Artaxerxes II, Parysatis simply had her poisoned. Artaxerxes II reacted by temporarily exiling his mother from court, but for some unknown reason eventually reconciled with Parysatis and recalled her to court. There, to prevent another challenge to her hold over Artaxerxes II, Parysatis is reported to have urged her son to marry his daughters by Statira, Atossa and Amestris . This was incest in Persia and broke with social custom. Parysatis almost certainly advised Artaxerxes II as she did for two reasons: because the unpopularity of the marriages would have put Artaxerxes even more under her influence than ever before, and because the youth, inexperience, and social vulnerability of his new wives would have prevented them from challenging Parysatis' status at court.

Official records prove that Parysatis owned property in Syria, Babylonia and Media (in fact, Parysatis' estates in Syria supplied troops for Cyrus' rebellion), at the least, and she probably possessed many estates which are not historically attested. We even know the name of the steward (Ea bullissu) who ran one of her properties, and the revenues she collected from some of her enterprises. Clearly, Parysatis was very wealthy in her own right—a wealth which gave her great leeway during the reigns of her husband and son to travel privately and to finance her personal and political agenda from her own purse.

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