Into the Ashes: Punishment at the Achaemenid Court

Recorded: February 19, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Daniel Beckman (Princeton University)

Into the Ashes: Punishment at the Achaemenid Court

In Ctesias’ Persika, written in the early 4th century BCE, a number of elite Persians are sent to their deaths as a result of court intrigues. At least five of these victims are “thrown into the ashes” (εἰς τὴν σποδὸν ἐμβάλλειν). In this lecture, I will examine the possible accuracy of Ctesias’ report, and, if so, establish what the historical and ideological implications for this punishment might be. Given that it would be in obvious violation of the Zoroastrian prohibition against polluting the fire through its exposure to a corpse, the historicity of this reported penance requires some justification. The results of my investigation are fundamentally speculative, but I will present evidence that the application of this punishment was an attempt both to defend the king against rebellion without incurring the risks of an open battle, and also to deflect sin away from the monarch himself.