Ancient Persian Bureaucracy: Arstibara, Vacabara & Hazarapatis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Persians developed an incredibly successful society, one which was run by well organized bureaucracies. In this lesson, we'll explore the Persian bureaucracy and get to know some of the top-ranking nobles.

Ruling the Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Empire was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. Dominating Asia Minor and west Asia from roughly 550- 330 BCE, this powerful Persian Empire was ruled over by a mighty emperor. To the people of the empire, the emperor was practically (and to some, literally) a god. However, even he couldn't rule an empire all by himself.

The Achaemenid Empire
Achaemenid Empire

One of the secrets to Achaemenid success was a terrific system of bureaucratic organization. The Achaemenid emperor could get a lot of things done because he had access to networks of people who could oversee any project or campaign he dreamed up. There were bureaucrats in charge of building, law, public works, taxes, military, and a myriad of other things. So, while the emperor did reign supreme, it would be unwise to assume that he ruled alone.

Organization of the Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Empire ran very efficiently, and this was largely thanks to two prominent rulers. The first was the empire's founder, Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BCE). Cyrus unified the Persian peoples into a single state, and expanded the borders of that state across much of west Asia. Wherever Cyrus conquered, he incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire by building improved infrastructure and guaranteeing their protection under Persian law.

The empire was further consolidated under Darius the Great (r. 522-486 BCE). Darius reorganized the entire empire into a collection of provinces, and placed each one under the command of a loyal satrap, or governor. He standardized bureaucratic roles throughout the empire and centralized power within his court. These changes let Darius effectively and efficiently control a massive empire. In fact, some historians estimate that over 40% of the global population at that time was under Darius' rule, all managed through his bureaucratic structure.

Darius I
Darius I

High-Ranking Court Officials

There were many bureaucrats throughout the Achaemenid Empire, but the most important were those who served directly in the empire's court. The Achaemenid emperors never had a formal council of advisors, but they did seem to rely heavily on the advice of the nobles at court. Amongst the highest-ranking of these were the arstibara (literally: the king's spear-bearer) and the vacabara (the king's bow-bearer). These titles show us that Achaemenid emperors were seen as warrior kings, and it's notable that the famed Persian tradition of archery is maintained through courtly titles like the vacabara.

Both the arstibara and vacabara were members of the Persian nobility, appointed directly by the emperor himself, and were paid from the royal treasury. Since records of daily Persian life are scarce, there's a lot about these figures that we don't know but it appears that the emperors consult these nobles before declaring war, and they may have held other administrative duties as well. So, they would have had a fair amount of power. In fact, some historians claim that Darius himself may have held the title of arstibara under the previous emperor, Cambyses II.

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