By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The Persian king Darius I built the so-called Royal Road, a highway over 1,600 miles in length that stretched from Sardis in the west to Susa in the east. This was a paved road which could accommodate horse-drawn carts and chariots. People could now utilize these to travel long distances. And this had profound consequences for daily life.
Royal Travel on the Royal Road
A lot of ordinary people could get to see the Persian king, at least if you happen to live in striking distance of the Royal Road. Whenever the king traveled along the Royal Road, his subjects crowded along the sides of the road, bringing him offerings.
As an ordinary Persian, you probably rather admire the King. It’s true you hear some horror stories about what he does to Persian nobles from time to time, but that’s no concern of yours and you certainly don’t think any the worse of him for that.
Unlike the Egyptian pharaoh, the Persian king wasn’t a god. He was only a mortal. It’s true that if you ever happened to find yourself in his presence, you’d be expected to prostrate yourself before him. But that wasn’t because he was divine; you’d do that simply out of respect.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Advantages of the Royal Road
There are other ways in which the Royal Road affected daily life. For one, it gave people security. It enabled the Persian army to cover great distances rapidly, especially in order to quell disturbances and check invasions. The king wouldn’t be able to run his empire unless he was able to get his troops from one end to the other in double-quick time.
Less happily for subjects, it enabled government officials to and administrate the most far-flung parts of the empire. So that made it a lot easier for them to collect taxes. Of course, the ideal way to travel along the Royal Road is by chariot.
Peasants, Couriers and Merchants on the Road
If you happen to be a simple peasant trudging along on foot to the next village with your donkey laden with wares as his chariot thunders toward you or if you’re traveling in an ox-drawn cart with a heavier load, you’d better scarper out of his way double quick.
Mounted couriers are an even greater hazard. They’re capable of traversing the entire length of the empire in just six days. That’s because there were 110 posting stations along the Royal Road, each furnished with supplies of fresh horses.
If you’re a merchant, you’ll be constantly traveling along the Royal Road with your wares. Let’s suppose you trade in gold objects—a highly lucrative business in any age.
You’ll need an armed guard, of course, to protect all those bracelets, armbands, earrings, necklaces, and diadems, as well as exquisitely fashioned decorative items.
Gold Jewelry and Currency
In addition, Darius I introduced a common currency throughout the empire, and this revolutionized the economy. He introduced two main monetary denominations: the gold daric—which he named after himself—and the silver siglo or shekel. Persian coins are nothing like the exquisite coins that the Greeks minted—but they still mark a huge advance in how people could do business with one another in the Persian Empire.
It didn’t mean that you would have ceased to barter any longer or that you didn’t use other forms of coinage. And the chances are that, if you were employed, you’d still be paid for your services in rations, just as had been the case in Egypt 1,000 years ago. But it certainly made life easier for traders. Another invention of Darius was to standardize weights and measures. This meant that wherever you were in the empire, there was a universal system in operation.
An Ordinary Life in Persia
But life as an ordinary peasant means you live on a small estate. Most likely you engage in irrigation agriculture, just as your ancestors had done thousands of years beforehand. Or perhaps you practice animal husbandry, raising sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, donkeys, horses, or camels. Or perhaps you make pottery or work in metal, manufacturing weapons, tools, harnesses for horses, or jewelry.
Or perhaps you’re a nomad, wandering the trackless uncultivated steppe, as you travel with your herd from one oasis to another. If you’re educated, you might work for the Persian administration, perhaps as a scribe, like the scribes who worked for the Egyptian pharaoh.
You might own a slave to do your household chores but slaves don’t seem to have been particularly numerous in Persian society. They were mainly bred in captivity, rather than captured in war or sold into slavery.
As in Greece, your wife is probably several years younger than you. And as is the case in all ancient societies of which we have record, you lord it over her and tell her what’s what.
We tend to think of the Persians as savages compared with the Greeks. If Darius I had won the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. or if his successor Xerxes, who led a much greater expedition against Greece a decade later, had won, western history would have taken a very different course. The Greeks never forgot that, and they haven’t let anyone forget it either. As a result, we continue to be haunted by the division between two worlds, East and West.
Learn more about being a Greek woman.
Common Questions About Travel, Currency and Work in The Persian Empire
Ordinary Persians probably admired the King. Unlike the Egyptian pharaoh, the Persian king wasn’t a god. He was only a mortal. It’s true that if you ever happened to find yourself in his presence, you’d be expected to prostrate yourself before him. But that wasn’t because he was divine; you’d do that simply out of respect.
The Persian Royal Road gave people security. It enabled the Persian army to cover great distances rapidly, especially in order to quell disturbances and check invasions. On the other hand, it enabled government officials to and administrate the most far-flung parts of the empire. So that made it a lot easier for them to collect taxes.
Mounted couriers of the Persian Empire were capable of traversing the entire length of the empire in just six days. That’s because there were 110 posting stations along the Royal Road, each furnished with supplies of fresh horses.
Darius I introduced a common currency throughout the Persian empire, and this revolutionized the economy. He introduced two main monetary denominations: the gold daric and the silver siglo or shekel.