The Satrapies (Herodotus)

Darius I (Old Persian Dârayavauš): king of ancient Persia, whose reign lasted from 522 to 486. He seized power after killing king Gaumâta, fought a civil war (described in the Behistun inscription), and was finally able to refound the Achaemenid empire, which had been very loosely organized until then. Darius fought several foreign wars, which brought him to India and Thrace. When he died, the Persian empire had reached its largest extent. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.

Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
Darius, relief from the Central Relief of the Northern Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis

In the following text, Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells us how Darius organized the Persian empire in tax districts or satrapies. The reliefs of Persepolis show how the subject people mentioned below bring their tribute. The translation of Herodotus' Histories 3.89-97 was made by Aubrey de Selincourt.

Darius then proceeded to set up twenty provincial governorships, called satrapies. The several governors were appointed and each nation assessed for taxes; for administrative purposes neighboring nations were joined in a single unit; outlying peoples were considered to belong to this nation or that, according to convenience.

Before I record the amount of the annual tribute paid by the various provinces, I should mention that those who paid in silver were instructed to use the Babylonian talent as the measure of weight, while the Euboean talent was the standard for gold - the Babylonian being worth 11/6 of the Euboean. During the reigns of Cyrus and Cambyses there was no fixed tribute at all, the revenue coming from gifts only; and because of his imposition of regular taxes, and other similar measures, the Persians have a saying that Darius was a tradesman, Cambyses a tyrant, and Cyrus a father - the first being out for profit wherever he could get it, the second harsh and careless of his subjects' interests, and the third, Cyrus, in the kindness of his heart always occupied with plans for their well-being.

Map of the Achaemenid Empire with Persian names
Map of the Achaemenid Empire with Persian names

Now for the account of the tribute paid by the twenty provinces.

  1. The Ionians, the Magnesians in Asia, the Aeolians, Carians, Lycians, Milyans, and Pamphylians contributed together a total sum of 400 talents of silver.
  2. The Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians, Cabalians, and Hytennians, 500 talents.
  3. The people on the southern shore of the Hellespont, the Phrygians, the Thracians of Asia, the Paphlagonians, Mariandynians, and Syrians, 360 talents.
  4. The Cilicians paid 500 talents of silver, together with 360 white horses (one for each day in the year); of the money, 140 talents were used to maintain the cavalry force which guarded Cilicia, and the remaining 360 went to Darius.
  5. From the town of Posidium, which was founded by Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus, on the border between Cilicia and Syria, as far as Egypt - omitting Arab territory, which was free of tax, came 350 talents. This province contains the whole of Phoenicia and that part of Syria which is called Palestine, and Cyprus.
  6. Egypt, together with the Libyans on the border and the towns of Cyrene and Barca (both included in the province of Egypt) paid 700 talents, in addition to the money from the fish in Lake Moeris, and the 120,000 bushels of grain allowed to the Persian troops and their auxiliaries who were stationed in the White Castle at Memphis.
  7. The Sattagydians, Gandarians, Dadicae, and Aparytae paid a joint tax of 170 talents.
  8. Susa, with the rest of Cissia - 300 talents.
  9. Babylon and Assyria - 1000 talents of silver and 500 eunuch boys.
  10. Ecbatana and the rest of Media, with the Paricanians and Orthocorybantes - 450 talents.
  11. Caspians, Pausicae, Pantimathi, and Daritae - a joint sum of 200 talents.
  12. The Bactrians and their neighbors as far as the Aegli 360 talents.
  13. Sakâ tigrakhaudâ. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
    Sakâ tigrakhaudâ. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis.
    Pactyica, together with the Armenians and their neighbors as far as the Black Sea - 400 talents.
  14. The Sagartians, Sarangians, Thamanaeans, Utians, Myci, together with the inhabitants of the islands in the Persian gulf where the king sends prisoners and others displaced from their homes in war - 600 talents.
  15. The Sacae and Caspians - 250 talents.
  16. The Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, and Arians -300 talents.
  17. The Paricanians and Asiatic Ethiopians - 400 talents.
  18. The Matienians, Saspires, and Alarodians - 200 talents.
  19. The Moschi, Tibareni, Macrones, Mosynoeci, and Mares - 300 talents.
  20. The Indians, the most populous nation in the known world, paid the largest sum: 360 talents of gold-dust.
A man from Sindhu, carrying gold. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis
A man from Sindhu, carrying gold. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

If the Babylonian talents here referred to are reduced to the Euboean scale, they will make a total of 9,880; and if gold is reckoned at thirteen times the value of silver, the Indian gold-dust will be found to amount to 4,680 talents. Thus the grand total of Darius' annual revenue comes to 14,560 Euboean talents - not to mention the odd ones.

This was the revenue derived from Asia and a few parts of Libya; but as time went on, more came in from the islands and from the peoples in Europe as far as Thessaly. The method adopted by the Persian kings of storing their treasure is to melt the metal and pour it into earthenware jars; the jar is then chipped off, leaving the solid metal. When money is wanted, the necessary amount is coined for the occasion.

That completes the list of provinces, with the amounts they had to contribute in taxation. The one country I have not mentioned as paying taxes is Persia herself - for the simple reason that she does not pay any.

A Nubian

A few peoples upon whom no regular tax was imposed made a contribution in the form of gifts; the Nubians, for instance, on the Egyptian border [...] Every second year these two nations brought - and still bring to-day about two quarts of unrefined gold, two hundred logs of ebony, and twenty elephant tusks.

Again, a voluntary contribution was undertaken by the Colchians and the neighboring tribes between them and the Caucasus - the limit of the empire in this direction, everything to the northward being outside the range of Persian influence. In their case the contribution consisted (and still does) in the gift, every fourth year, of a hundred boys and a hundred girls.

Lastly, the Arabs brought a thousand talents - about twenty-five and a half tons- of frankincense every year. This, then, was the revenue which the king received over and above what was produced by regular taxation.