18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire

18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire

By Larry Holzwarth

The Persian Empire was actually a series of empires, ruled by a string of imperial dynasties for more nearly two and a half millennia beginning six hundred years before the Common Era. It was centered in modern day Iran. Five separate dynasties ruled the lands occupied by the Persians beginning with the Achaemenid dynasty led by Cyrus the Great, who conquered the ancient lands of the Babylonians, Lydians and Medians. At its height it ruled over much of the ancient Middle East. It was the first Persian Empire, and it lasted until the lands were conquered by Alexander the Great. Its ceremonial capital was the opulent city of Persepolis, and its laws were enacted and enforced by multiple state governments.

A woodcut of Cyrus the Great of Persia, from about 1480. Wikimedia

The first Persian Empire and its subsequent dynasties which restored it generally did not condone slavery, other than prisoners of war, unusual for the time and the region, and also liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian exile. It and its followers made substantial contributions to art, the sciences, and according to a 5th century observation by Herodotus taught their young to follow strict honesty in their dealings with others. Herodotus wrote that the most disgraceful act capable of being committed was to lie, and lying in the Persian realms was often a capital crime, punishable by death. Lying was just one of many capital crimes, and execution was performed in manners which included great suffering preceding death, often for many days.

Here is a list of crime and punishment in the five individual dynasties which comprised the Persian Empire.

In this depiction, a hostage with his feet to the fire is about to undergo impalement. Wikimedia

1. The ancient Persian word for punishment meant to question

In a society where lying was regarded as a crime for which the miscreant uttering falsehoods could be put to death, punishment was equated with interrogation. Thus torture was a means of both extracting truthful information and a process leading to death. The Persians created numerous means of torturing those convicted of crimes and those suspected of them, in ghastly and gruesome methods. Lying was but one of many capital crimes, and there were severe penalties for all of them. There were also penalties for lesser crimes, which left the criminal convicted of them marked in a manner through which he was easily identifiable.

Thieves and strong-armed robbers were liable to having their hands amputated. Feet were amputated for several crimes, and those convicted of following liars had their ears cut off. Some were blinded with needles which were used to pierce their eyes. Not only robbers but beggars were subject to having their hands cut off by order of local magistrates. They were also subject to whipping, called striping, with each blow of the whip counting as one stripe. Punishments of up to ten thousand stripes were ordered, indicating that they had to be carried out over a period of many days as no human could survive so many blows at one punishment, nor could one individual deal them out.