A Mughal Prince in a Pavillion Surrounded by Ladies
Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Bardiya, Darius the Great and Xerxes were the first five Achemenid Emperors of Persia.
Who could be greater than the King of Kings the ruler of the four corners of the earth?
Atossa. Cyrus the Great and his wife Cassandane gave birth to four children; Cambyses, Bardiya (Smerdis), Atossa and Roxana.
Atossa was the eldest daughter of Cyrus. Sister to emperor Cambyses and to the short reigning emperor Smerdis. There is a very believable theory that Darius, a senior official of Cambyses, rose to power by assasinating both Cambyses and his brother Smerdis. The official account is that Cambyses murdered Bardiya and hid the crime. Then Cambyses cut himself with a sword and died of gangrene. An imposter pretended to be Bardiya, and because only a handful of people knew about the murder, he might have gotten away with it.
So Darius and a crack squad of hit men stormed the palace and slayed the imposter Smerdis.
This story helps Darius portray himself as a good guy, and someone worth inheriting the mantle of King of Kings.
But he had no validity and no connection to the royal line. So in a well trodden political move he justified his rule by wedding Atossa, the blood of the royal line. She gave him a son, Xerxes, not his first son, but a son of the blood. Xerxes was a grandson of Cyrus, nephew of Cambyses, and further cemented the rule of Darius the Great.
Atossa, daughter of an Emperor, sister of two Emperors, wife of an Emperor, mother of an Emperor. How powerful is that lady? And yet we know very little about this amazing woman. It is said that Atossa had “a great authority” in the royal court.
In the west there has always been a great fascination with the goings on in the royal Harem. This is dominated by male fantasies of exotic eastern ladies, profligate sexuality, nudity, decadence and a focus on the pleasures of the flesh. In the West our knowledge of the Harem comes from The Arabian Nights stories and from suggestive glimpses of the closeted lives of the seraglio which may be no more than the wild tales of sailors and travellers.
The truth of the harem was far more down to earth. If you read carefully you will learn that the ladies of the harem were not immune from economic necessities. We have records of them engaging in trade and investments, using palace Eunuchs as intermediaries. They represented a powerful 5th column in the politics of the empire. In a world where access is power the ladies of the Harem had some of the best access possible.
Think of the Harem in ancient times like a modern professional political lobby organisation in Washington. You pay them to buy access to votes. In ancient Persia there was undoubtedly a long line at the desk of the head Eunuch of the Harem. His effectiveness and his wealth were determined by his relationships with the right ladies of the court.
In this world it is clear that the almost unknown Atossa was the most powerful person in the history of the Achemenid Empire. Daughter of Kings, Sister of Kings, Maker of Kings, Mother of Kings.
The Offended Moon (La Lune offensée); by Charles Baudelaire (Trans William Aggeler, 1954)
O Moon whom our ancestors discreetly adored,
radiant seraglio! from the blue countries’ height
to which the stars follow you in dashing attire,
my ancient Cynthia, lamp of our haunts,
do you see the lovers on their prosperous pallets,
showing as they sleep, the cool enamel of their mouths?
The poet beating his forehead over his work?
Or the vipers coupling under the withered grass?
Under your yellow domino, with quiet step,
do you go as in days of old from morn till night
to kiss the faded charms of Endymion?
— “I see your mother, child of this impoverished age,
Bending toward her mirror a heavy weight of years,
Skillfully disguising the breast that nourished you!”