Atossa, the Celestial and Terrestrial Lady of Ancient Iran
By: Shirin Bayani
Portrait of a Persian lady (from Persepolis)
Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, wife of two Achamenian kings, Cambyses and Darius and mother of Xerxes is the most prominent lady in the history of ancient Iran. Not much is known about her life, except that she has witnessed the reign of the four first Achamenian kings and that she has played a decisive role in the long period of turbulence and significance.
The first mythological-historical personality encountered with the same name, namely Atossa, alternatively Hutossa or Hutos, is the wife – or according to some sources – the daughter of Garshasb, a Kiyani ruler.
In Iran’s history of pre-Islamic era, marriage to close relatives, including daughters and sisters, was a common practice with the simple reason to keep up the blood and relation in the monarchial and aristocratic family. The mythological Hutossa Kiyani and the historical Achamenian Atossa might have been the first cases of getting married to their kin. Hutossa and Hutaosa (as mentioned in Avesta), who desired to get married to Goshtasb was eventually married to him and gave birth to several babies. She was, meanwhile, the first political figure who converted to Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster called on Hutaosa of righteous deed and dignity to orient her thinking trend and her words and behavior towards religion and to convert to Mazda’s beliefs. Zoroaster then declared, “She is converted to my Mazdyasna’s beliefs.” Meanwhile, Hutossa called on her husband Goshtasb to convert to Zoroastrian belief. Since then the Zoroastrian belief was officially accepted. Thus the mythological Hutossa was introduced into the history as a politician and sacred lady of high influence and authority. From then on the Persian girls were called by the same name as a sign of respect for her, the first and most significant among whom might be Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. The sister and wife of Ardeshir II and the wife of Ardeshir III are other royal ladies called Atossa.
The Political Life of Achamenian Atossa
Despite having already admitted that our knowledge on Atossa is quite limited, we can trace part of her political and even cultural activities during her long lifetime. No other lady was ever competitive to her in the course of ancient Iranian history as far as her noble status in the family was concerned. That’s why, as already mentioned, she was the second female personality who was titled a “Lady”, which was a religious title, after Anahita. Since then such a title was gradually granted to some queens. Aeschylus, the 5th century (BC) Greek dramatist, in his famous play titled “The Iranians”, which is the story of Xerxes’ war with the Greek and the significant victory of the Greeks, has called Atossa “The Ladies Lady”.
Atossa’s mother, the Cassandane Queen, Pharnaspes’s daughter and a Persian lady of noble birth was the favorite wife of Cyrus the Great. That’s why among Cyrus’s children those born to the Cassandane Queen had preference to those from his other wives. Cassandane passed away during the lifetime of Cyrus who not only deeply lamented the demise of her beloved wife, but ordered all the tribes and nations subject to his reign to participate in the mourning ceremony as well. One might imagine that considering Cyrus’s open-mindedness on the one hand and the advanced trend practiced by the Persians in educating their children and youth on the other, as recorded in Xenophon’s – the 4th century (BC) historian – book titled Cyropedy, Atossa must have had a distinct character of merit. Given that Atossa had learned how to write and read, she played a decisive role in educating and training her own as well as those of other aristocrats and courtiers.
Cyrus’s son and heir, Cambyses (522-525 BC) took reign concurrent to getting married to her sister Atossa. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, before then marriage to the kin (sisters) was not practiced among the Persians. Nonetheless, owing to his falling deeply in love with his sister, Cambyses gathered all the Persian judges and made them to give such a marriage a legitimate and legal aspect, which authorized him to do so for the first time.
It might be guessed that Atossa, besides enjoying a special social status, high potential and efficiency, should have been marked with great beauty as well.
Based on Herodotus’ written history, once Cambyses left Iran to take over Egypt, in an attempt of conspiracy, one of the rulers of his court enjoying influence and status, known as Gaumata, supported by the clergies abused his absence to introduce himself as Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother, on account of his close resemblance to him, and seized the Achamenian throne of monarchy. This was a quite risky measure marking the early stages of the Persians rule. Bardiya who enjoyed great popularity, was eventually assassinated by Cambyses in secret on the verge of his trip to Egypt in order to get rid of him and to have peace of mind. Gaumata or the fake Bardiya decided to get married to Atossa in order to take full charge of the affairs and to consolidate the legitimacy of his reign. Nonetheless, he confined her to the women’s sanctuary (haremsara) to keep his mystery from coming to light. The aggressive ruler was well aware of Atossa’s potentials. It was obvious to him that her being on loose could have entangled him in plenty of difficulties. Besides the ladies imprisoned in the haremsara were kept separately to prevent their getting into contact with one another.
Once Darius, an Achamenian prince, known in the history as Darius the Great, was informed on the mystery of the fake Bardiya through one of the ladies of Cambyses’ haremsara, he decided to return monarchy to his own family. On the other hand, given that Cambyses on returning home from Egypt after his victory passed away in a mysterious way, the throne should have been passed on to an Achamenian prince. Eventually Darius managed to kill the aggressive Gaumata and take charge of the affairs. Then, despite having a wife and numerous children, he got married to Atossa for many reasons.
1- Given that Darius came from an origin of Achamenian dynasty, which was not entitled to rule, he decided to get married to the daughter of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses’ sister and wife in order to legitimize his rule. The decision was not only to his advantage politically, but the children who would be born to her would be marked for the blood of a monarchial origin flowing in their veins.
2- Atossa who was marked for her character of high culture, potential, political expertise and gift, could serve as an effective assistant to Darius under the risky period of the time.
3- Given that Atossa was an ambitious and power-seeking woman who had been through lots of difficulties, she totally agreed with such an arrangement. Since as the spouse of Darius, the new monarch, she could have materialized her own ambitious goals and to gain a proper political and social status. That’s how Atossa became “The Ladies Lady” at the climax of the Achamenian power and glory. Ever since a lady was selected officially among the monarch’s spouses as a queen Atossa was crowned and took possession of a separate courthouse. Despite the insufficient and vague information available, it can be realized that Atossa had a say in the administration of the state political and cultural affairs. This is despite the fact that traditionally and legally she had no right to vote.
According to Herodotus, “Atossa was of great authority, and during the Greek war initially recommended by her, Darius made use of her advice. She was even interested in accompanying her husband in the process of war.”
“It seems so strange that despite all your might and power you are sitting still without embarking on any war, conquering any land and enlarging Iran’s territory and increasing its glory,” added Herodotus quoting Atossa. “A young monarch as rich as yourself deserves to embark on making some achievements and prove to the Iranians that a great man is ruling over them,” added Atossa. Though what is said by Herodotus seems an exaggeration, it reflects the reality of Atossa’s influence on her husband.
It was mentioned that Atossa was well informed on the cultural affairs of her time and made full use of the frequent visits of the Greek and other nationalities and tribes to the court. Democdes, the Greek physician, who was taken to Iran during the Achamenians war in the Asia Minor, stayed in the court of Darius and was supported and respected by the monarch. Having treated the queen’s and the king’s serious diseases, he became their special physician.
Atossa and the Monarchy of Xerxes
Four sons were born to Darius and Atossa, among whom the oldest was named Xerxes. As told earlier, Darius who had another wife before getting married to Atossa had some other sons from his first wife. Given that Xerxes was not the oldest son and according to customs, a monarch had to be replaced by his first son, a lot of arguments took place between them. Xerxes claimed that his mother is the “Savior of Persian Tribe” in view of her being the daughter of Cyrus. Besides when she was born her father was the Monarch, while his older brothers were born earlier. On the other hand, Atossa’s influence and authority was quite effective in the decisions made by her husband and other officials in this respect, disregarding the absence of any legal and inheritance right to this effect. Eventually, the 35-year-old Xerxes was appointed as the crown prince, while the unprecedented measure reflected the high authority of “The Ladies Lady”. That’s how Xerxes, the grandson of Cyrus the Great took reign after his father (486-465 BC), while Darius’ older son from his other wife was the best candidate deserving to replace his father and had already been trained for it.
Atossa’s three other sons were also given important army and administrative positions. That was actually the period when Atossa enjoyed the greatest authority of her long lifetime. As a woman in her middle ages and with high expertise and having been through a lot of ups and downs, she made use of her influence in the state affairs as the queen mother. As stated earlier, Aeschylus has made frequent references to her in his play titled “Iranians”. It might even be said that Atossa played the second most decisive role at Aeschylus’ play after Xerxes, which actually reflects the reality. Seems like Atossa didn’t find Xerxes’ war with Greece reasonable and she was apparently one of the opponents of entering into such a conflict. She had been quite upset while the monarch was on his way to Greece. Once she heard about the defeat of her son, she got really disturbed and exasperated. She had realized that there is no consequence to the war. Based on one of the episodes of Aeschylus’ play, “Iran’s Ladies Lady, the respected mother of Xerxes, the wife of Darius, – having fastened her belt (which is reminiscent of Anahita) – Oh, Thou hast been the spouse of a monarch and Thou hast gave birth to another monarch, provided that the star of the fate of this ancient tribe has not lost its luck.” Then quoting the Ladies Lady it continued, “This is similar to the same fright which made me leave the royal night residence and Darius’ bedroom. I am full of concern and worries.”
Aeschylus then goes on to describe the detailed story of the war while Atossa had just heard about the failure from a newly arrived messenger. Then he illustrates Atossa’s coming face to face with her son and gives his play a tragic dimension by being partial towards the Greek.
Nothing is known on the conclusion and details of Atossa’s demise. Nonetheless, as already witnessed, based on the existing evidences, it might be realized that she has had a long life and has been alive until Xerxes returned from Iran-Greece war front (479 BC). Thus she might be guessed to have lived more than 70 years. Neither anything is known about her mausoleum. She might have been buried at Darius’ mausoleum in Naqsh-e Rostam and next to her spouse. According to some unknown source, the Zoroastrian Mausoleum is known as her special point of burial, while others take the mausoleum as Anahita’s temple. It is strange to notice that at the conclusion of the article, Atossa’s name has been intertwined with that of Anahita, similar to its outset. This marks the fact that the two theological and worldly female personalities were distinguished by their similar significance and authority, rather than being of the same importance and potential.