The most popular stories about the Persian Empire only rarely feature women. When they do, it is usually as a brief side character cloistered away in the King of King’s harem or obsessed with personal grievances. Almost none of this is right. Ancient Persian queens had social and economic autonomy that made them powerful politicians. They were not leading armies to conquer new lands, but they controlled the wealth and resources of the Empire. As the mothers of new princes for the Achaemenid dynasty, Persian queens also exerted significant influence over the royal succession and the political fortunes of the Empire for generations beyond any one king’s reign.
1. Atossa: The First Queen Mother of the Persian Empire (c. 550-476 BCE)
Queen Atossa I was probably the most royal woman the Persian Empire ever produced. Her father, Cyrus the Great, founded the empire. She was also the wife and sister of Cyrus’ first two successors, but Atossa really began to excel when most of her immediate family had already passed.
As a young woman, she was married to her brother, Cambyses, who died on his way back to Persia following the conquest of Egypt. He was returning to face their brother — Bardiya — who usurped the throne in Cambyses’ absence. Ultimately, dealing with this usurpation, Cambyses fell to a distant cousin of the royal family — Darius the Great — who assassinated Bardiya and claimed power for himself.
To solidify his rule, Darius married all of Cyrus the Great’s surviving female descendants, including Atossa. The goal was to ensure that any of these women’s sons would be Darius’ as well and merge his family with Cyrus’ original lineage. The Persepolis Fortification Archive shows how Atossa and other royal women held property of their own, traveled away from the royal court, and commanded the resources of the Persian Empire in their own names. Actually, Atossa is one of the less visible figures in the archive, where her sister — Artystone — and sister-in-law — Irdabama — are more prominent.
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Atossa had an estate called Antarrantish far to the north, in Parthia. There, she commanded more than 100 servants and laborers, including Assyrian serving women and their children, artisans from across the empire, and a Greek doctor. Atossa presided over lavish feasts, where it was customary for the Queen to fulfill all of the ceremonial and religious duties officially held by the absentee King.
Atossa was potentially based in Parthia to be near her eldest son, Xerxes. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Atossa convinced Darius to name Xerxes his heir. Darius had two sons with his first wife before usurping power, and while Xerxes was his first son after becoming king, Darius actually liked Artystone — Atossa’s younger sister — best and had two sons with her as well. However, Atossa successfully convinced Darius of a sort of double primogeniture. First, Xerxes was King Darius’ eldest son, and second, the eldest grandson of Cyrus. Therefore, he had the best claim to the inheritance. Darius, possibly fearing that Atossa and Cyrus’ other daughters could press their sons to launch a civil war if he disagreed, accepted Atossa’s wisdom.
Once Xerxes became king, Atossa’s influence only grew. She was the Persian Empire’s first Queen Mother, the first woman to live her whole life as imperial royalty and see her son on the throne. She set the standard for generations to come, establishing the Queen Mother’s prerogative to intervene in cases of treason. Her ability to influence Persian domestic policy led the Ancient Greeks to claim she alone masterminded the Persian invasions of their country. That is an obvious exaggeration, but it shows how the Queen’s reputation preceded her.
2. Amestris: Defender of the Dynasty (c. 510-424 BCE)
Atossa’s successor as Queen Mother was Xerxes’ most prominent wife, Amestris. She was the daughter of one of Darius the Great’s allies during his coup, and Amestris’ marriage to then-prince Xerxes helped solidify that alliance. In many contexts, arranged, political marriages robbed both participants of their agency. If she had any misgivings, Amestris’ later life does not reflect them.
Shortly after Persia’s failed invasion of Greece in 479 BCE, Amestris wove a beautiful robe for her husband. Xerxes promptly gave it away to a younger woman — their own son’s wife — with whom the king was having an affair. However, Amestris misread the situation and assumed that Xerxes was having an affair with the girl’s mother and had the older woman brutally mutilated as punishment. Only Persian women could be the true, legal wives of the King. Such an affair endangered the line of succession. If Xerxes had a son with another Persian woman, someone could push that boy’s claim to the throne and spark a civil war.
In 465 BCE, Xerxes was assassinated, and the Persian Empire was briefly thrown into chaos as his three eldest sons with Amestris and other powerful nobles vied for power. Ultimately, their third son — Artaxerxes I — secured his place as king. From her new position as Queen Mother, Amestris punished anyone who threatened the Achaemenids.
Shortly after taking power, Artaxerxes I faced a revolt in Egypt aided by an army of Athenian Greeks. At the outset, the rebels killed Xerxes’ brother, Achaemenes, who governed Egypt as Satrap at the time. Megabyzus, the Persian Satrap of Assyria, managed to force the rebel leaders to surrender. They agreed to be taken into custody on the condition that they would not be executed. However, Amestris had other plans. These men killed a prince of the royal house, and that sort of treason demanded execution. Amestris, not her son, the king, ordered Megabyzus to extradite the traitors to the royal court to be beheaded.
Forcing Megabyzus to break his oath to the Egyptian rebels was just one point on a list of grievances the Satrap held against the royal family. His father and grandfather ruled the much more prestigious province of Babylonia, but even being married to one of Xerxes’ and Amestris’ daughters — princess Amytis — did not save him from being demoted to Assyria while one of Xerxes’ younger sons took Megabyzus’ ancestral seat. Sometime after the Egyptian affair, Megabyzus became the first ever Satrap to revolt against his king and defeated two loyalist armies in battles. Together with Princess Amytis, Amestris took on a unique role in the history of Ancient Persian Queens: a political negotiator.
Amestris’ shrewdness brought the war to an end. Recognizing Megabyzus’ obvious battlefield successes, the Queen Mother was able to convince him to stand down. Megabyzus was allowed to live in comfortable exile with the royal court, despite Artaxerxes’ desire to see him executed, while his son Zopyrus would be allowed to take the reigns in Assyria. Even if only through marriage, Megabyzus was part of the royal family, and Amestris always opposed killing her fellow royals.
A few years later, Zopyrus revolted as well. He was not nearly as successful as his father and fled to Athens as an exile, only to return at the head of an Athenian fleet to invade Lycia in 440 BCE. Ironically, this invasion collapsed when the first city surrendered, and an angry peasant threw a rock with deadly accuracy, striking Zopyrus in the head. Despite being a traitor, Amestris’ still regarded her grandson as a member of the royal family and had this peasant captured and crucified for the crime of killing an Achaemenid prince. She simply would not allow royals to be killed without punishment, regardless of the circumstance or relative distance from the family’s core.
Amestris saw at least two great-grandchildren grow to adulthood, and both she and Artaxerxes died from natural causes within a few months of one another in late 424 BCE.
3. Parysatis: The Great Queen (c. 470-370 BCE)
The death of Artaxerxes I sparked a civil war. He only had one full-blooded Persian son, the short-lived Xerxes II. However, Artaxerxes had many sons with Babylonian concubines, and at least three made their bids for power. The victor in this power struggle was King Darius II, in no small part due to the influence of his wife (and half-sister), Parysatis. In many ways, she represented the apex of Ancient Persian Queenship.
Whether Darius II’s mother was already deceased or simply not eligible for the role of Queen Mother due to being Babylonian is unknown. Regardless, she played no role in the politics of her son’s reign. The traditional influence of that position fell to Parysatis as the new king’s wife who combined this new status with her existing wealth and connections to great effect.
From an early age, Parysatis was a savvy investor and powerful noble landlord in her own right. Following her marriage to Darius, their father granted Parysatis a collection of villages and estates in northwestern Syria as her personal fiefdom. While Artaxerxes was still alive, Darius was often occupied with his duties as Satrap of Hyrkania. However, Parysatis spent most of her time in Babylonia. She spun her wealth and influence as both a princess and landowner in Syria into a series of large estates around the cities of Babylon and Nippur. Through this, she became close with the Satraps of Egypt and Media and the powerful Murashu merchant family.
When Parysatis encouraged her husband to make a bid for power in 422BCE, the Murashu provided the financial resources to make it happen. Combined with Parysatis’ political connections, Darius II won over most of the Empire before he even announced his intentions. She and Darius had two young-adult children before Darius became king — Arsakes and Amestris. A second son — Cyrus the Younger — came in 422 BCE.
Both of Parysatis’ eldest children were married to secure a political alliance with the Satrap of Armenia during Darius’ rise to power; Arsakes to Stateira and Amestris to Terituchmes. After his father’s death, Terituchmes became Satrap and revolted against Darius II. To make his point clear, he murdered Amestris. Ultimately, the revolt was brought down from the inside, but Parysatis sought terrible vengeance. For weeks afterward, her agents were sent far and wide to hunt down and kill every member of Terituchmes’ family.
The bloodshed only stopped when Parysatis targeted her own daughter-in-law. Stateira remained loyal throughout the whole event, but the Queen was out for blood. Prince Arsakes had to beg his father to intervene and save Stateira’s life. Darius II ordered Parysatis to stop, but the Queen resented her eldest son and his wife forever after. This drove her toward open favoritism for her second son, Cyrus. When he was just 15 years old, Parysatis convinced King Darius to make Cyrus his viceroy in the Aegean provinces. The Persian satraps nearest Greece and their allies in Sparta struggled to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War for years. Cyrus was tasked with financially managing the war and successfully brought it to a close in just three years.
Yet Cyrus was not present for the actual victory because he was recalled to the royal court in 404 BCE when Darius II was dying. To the very last breath, Darius and Parysatis argued with one another about which of their sons should become king. Parysatis favored Cyrus. Darius favored Arsakes. Ultimately, the king’s word was law, but just as Arsakes was being crowned King Artaxerxes II, Parysatis was helping Cyrus plot his brother’s assassination. This attempt failed, but Parysatis kept her involvement a secret and convinced Artaxerxes II to forgive Cyrus for his rash decision.
Parysatis then spent three years plotting Cyrus’ rise to power, securing allies for him much like she had for Darius. This strategy very nearly worked a second time. At the Battle of Cunaxa, Artaxerxes was wounded and missing. Cyrus nearly won the Empire, only to be killed by a random spear thrust in the chaos. Parysatis convinced or tricked Artaxerxes into handing over every person involved in Cyrus’ death, even tangentially. She arranged circumstances to entrap them into a confession of treason or took them into her house under false pretenses. All of them were killed in gruesome torture, several against Artaxerxes’ wishes, but even the King could not stop his mother.
4. Stateira I: A Generation of Change (c. 453-380 BCE)
Unlike most of the Ancient Persian Queens on this list, Stateira I never got to exercise the full scope of her power. Her entire tenure was politically overshadowed by Parysatis, but Stateira was not powerless. She engaged in a running battle against her mother-in-law for most of her life. Stateira was not involved in her brother’s revolt and only started acting politically once she was queen after Artaxerxes II’s coronation. Her primary political goal in the years before Cyrus the Younger’s revolt was actually an attempt to reform the royal family’s public image by breaking gender norms.
Traditionally, Persian nobles tried to remove themselves from the public eye as much as possible. The less someone was seen by the masses, the more prestigious they were. Among Persian men, including the king, responsibilities as the faces of the government and military leaders made it impossible to live in total seclusion. Persian noblewomen would travel in closed carriages and live whole lives without interacting with peasants outside of their own servants.
Stateira abandoned tradition in favor of traveling in an open litter or carriage to be seen by the masses, greeting local people as she traveled, and earning immense respect from her subjects. She encouraged similar behavior from Artaxerxes, who gained a reputation as a generous monarch, happy to interact with his people regardless of class. At the same time, Stateira’s peers rejected other aspects of traditional gender roles. Stateira’s sister was known both for her beauty and for her skill as horsewoman and hunter. Their cousin, Mania, became the first known Persian woman to rule a territory in her name as the local governor of Aeolis in 399 BCE. Stateira brought this attitude shift to the royal court.
Following Cyrus’ rebellion, Stateira worked to undermine Parysatis’ desire for vengeance. When one of Cyrus the Younger’s generals was imprisoned in Babylon, Parysatis worked hard to have him released. Supposedly, Artaxerxes II was ready to grant the request, but Stateira convinced him to execute the traitor anyway. After years of undermining one another, Parysatis gained the upper hand, and Stateira fell victim to a poisoned dinner. Enraged, Artaxerxes II carried out a purge of Parysatis’s household and exiled his mother to Babylon as punishment for Stateira’s murder.
5. Atossa II: The Last True Queen of the Persian Empire (c. 380-338 BCE)
One of Parysatis’ last acts was to arrange a marriage. Stateira had been dead for years at that point, and Parysatis convinced Artaxerxes II to marry his youngest daughter to Stateira. This was Queen Atossa II. Incestuous marriages weren’t unheard of in the Persian Empire; Atossa I had first married her brother. However, a father-daughter union was still highly unusual.
Atossa II still managed to leverage her new position as Queen. Artaxerxes II needed to choose definitively which of his many sons would be the next king. Primogeniture and Artaxerxes’ personal feelings favored his eldest son, another Darius. Atossa and many of the younger nobles favored the youngest son, Ochus. A smaller faction favored a third candidate named Ariaspes, and the priesthood backed another, Arsames.
As Artaxerxes officially appointed Darius his heir Atossa approached Ochus and offered her support on the condition that he, her brother, marry her after taking power. Atossa wanted to keep her power and available Ochus was the brother most capable of making that happen. Atossa reached out to the nobility and courtiers and made Ochus’ case for him. He was younger than Darius, who was already 50, and more of a warrior, an advantage at a time when rebellion was spreading.
Prince Darius was approached by a disgraced noble, Tiribazus, who encouraged the Crown Prince to assassinate his father and claim power early. Darius and Tiribazus were caught in the act and executed for treason. Atossa and Ochus sent a series of friends and servants to visit Ariaspes with messages about betrayals, false stories of Artaxerxes’ hatred for his second son, and invented threats from other nobles. They drove Ariaspes toward depression and suicide, clearing away another competitor for Ochus.
With both Darius and Ariaspes dead, Ochus was the obvious candidate to succeed his father. Still, Artaxerxes elevated his most devout son — Arsames — to be heir and sent Ochus off to stop an Egyptian invasion of the southwestern Empire. The king was still unaware of Atossa’s role in the plots, and she recruited the recently deceased Tiribazus’ son to assassinate Arsames. News of Arsames’ death caused Artaxerxes II’s health to decline, and Ochus became King Artaxerxes III in 364 BCE, with Atossa II as his queen.
Nothing is known about Atossa’s later life. In 338 BCE, Artaxerxes III’s reign ended in tragedy when a eunuch advisor assassinated the whole royal family, save for the youngest prince. If Atossa was still alive at the time, she likely perished with her family. The Achaemenid Empire fell to Alexander the Great a few years later, and none of the Persian queens held direct power like Atossa and her forbearers again for centuries.