The ideology associated with ancient kingship can seem outdated and irrelevant in modern times, but that is not actually the case. While forms of rule have changed dramatically in many ways, some of the same ideology is used in modern politics as was used by ancient ruler to legitimize authority. The ideology behind Achaemenid Persian kingship is particularly relevant to parts of current U.S. politics.
Interestingly, part of the ideology that is still relevant today is based in ancient Persian religion. While, as has been typical for much of history, the Persian king claimed that he had received his power because of the will of the gods, in this case, Ahura-Mazda, there was another layer of religious ideology in Persian kingship. Persians believed in a dichotomy between truth and the Lie, concepts that were embodied in Ahura-Mazda and another god called Ahriman in the relatively new Persian religion of Zoroastrianism (Cline and Graham 96-97). The Persian king was seen as an embodiment of truth, and enemies of the Persian Empire were associated with the Lie. The Behistan Inscription (pictured below), a massive piece of propaganda supporting the reign of Darius, demonstrates this.
There is a constant theme of Ahura-Mazda aiding or granting authority to King Darius, including the statement "By the grace of Auramazda I am king; Auramazda gave me the kingdom" (Behistan Inscription 1.5). Another section of the inscription lists the names of nine kings who Darius seized after they attempted to resist him. The name of each king is followed by a statement of the area they claimed to be king of, which is in turn followed by the simple statement: "he lied" (Behistan Inscription 4.2). The description of every rebellious king as a liar serves to dismiss them and their rule as illegitimate and reestablish the Persian king as the rightful ruler, both by associating him with other positive virtues connected with truth and by tying him to divinity.
Truth and lie are not considered explicitly divine in American society, but the trustworthiness of various politicians and news sources is at the center of most current political debate. Donald Trump in particular is known for accusing news sources of being “fake news” and claiming that what he says is the truth, even if there is objective evidence to the contrary. Similarly to Persian kings, he is attempting to associate himself with the truth and his opponents with lies, thereby legitimizing himself and taking legitimacy away from his opponents. In addition, accusing him of lies is one of the most common tactics being used to oppose Trump. Both sides of current American politics are embracing the dichotomy between truth and lies to the extent that deification of the concepts does not seem like an unfathomable concept.
The ideology of Persian kingship also emphasized the supposed consent of the governed. Subjects of the Persian Empire were nearly always depicted as willingly submitting to Persian rule, and sometimes even depicted as enthusiastic. Some subjects would certainly have embraced Persian rule, such as Udjahorresne, who praises Cambyses, calling him “the great King of all lands” (Udjahorresne 1). Udjahorresne, however, was employed by Cambyses in what appears to have been a fairly high position, and naturally would have supported his employer. The official art of the Persian Empire depicts subjects as willingly submitting to the Persian Empire. Root states that in the Behistun Inscription, "social community is affirmed through prospects of the incorporation of the willing" (Root 55). Cline and Graham also discuss this idea, stating, "On royal panels, subject peoples appear in local dress and seem to voluntarily support the righteous ruler" (Cline and Graham 99). Figures of subjects like the ones below are shown in their local dress willingly supporting and bringing tribute to Persian kings.
In addition, the Cyrus Cylinder describes the delight of the people of Babylon when conquered by Cyrus in an account that is almost certainly highly exaggerated. The account claims that when Cyrus entered Babylon, “All the people of Tintir, of all Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship and their faces shone” (Cyrus Cylinder). It is difficult to determine the views of the common people regarding the Persian Empire, but it does not seem possible that the perception of the Persian Empire would be uniformly positive in a city conquered by it. The decision to claim that the Babylonians rejoiced in Persian rule, however, reveals a concern for the appearance of the consent of the people, if not a concern for the actual consent of the people.
The consent of the governed is central to the entire American political system, and so is naturally a major part of the ideology utilized in American politics. Once again, Trump is a good example of utilization of the appearance of the support of the people in order to gain support. Much of his campaign was dependent on appealing to portions of the American public who felt neglected, enabling him to claim that he was acting on behalf of people that no one else was. He also utilizes rallies to display the amount of support he has, once again in an attempt to strengthen his claim that he has the support and consent of the American people. This ideology did not disappear after the election, even though he lost the popular vote. Trump’s presidency, therefore illustrates that while those in power may claim to have the full consent and support of the people they govern, that claim and the existence of some who do support them does not mean that there is actual substance to any claims regarding the consent and support of the people. It is possible in the modern United States to have a leader who is not supported by the majority of the population, and it was completely possible in Achaemenid Persia as well.
The distant past can sometimes seem just that: distant. Some of the values held by the people and the government, and therefore the ideology used to convince the people of the legitimacy of the government have remained reasonably consistent for centuries. While the focus on truth vs. lie and the appearance of the consent of the governed are perhaps being used in slightly different ways than normal in modern American politics, their importance is not unprecedented in the slightest.
Cline, Eric H. and Mark W. Graham. Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Root, Margaret Cool. “Defining the Divine in Achaemenid Persian Kingship: The View from Bisitun.” Every Inch a King, edited by Lynette Mitchell and Charles Melville, Brill, 2013, pp. 23-65.
“The Behistan Inscription of King Darius.” Translated by Herbert Cushing Tolman, Vanderbilt University, 1908.
“The Cyrus Cylinder.” Translated by the British Museum.
“The Inscription of Udjahorresne.” Ancient Egyptian Literature, translated by Miriam Lichtheim, vol. 3, University of California Press, 1980.
Title Image: The Persian Empire, about 500 BC. Wikimedia Commons.