December 5, 2020
The kings of the Achaemenid Empire are known for employing a number of particularly gruesome punishments for those who were deemed guilty of rebellion. While it is certainly true that the Achaemenids punished rebels with utmost severity, it is also true that they were, at times, willing to forgive rebels, and even to rehabilitate them. In this paper, I investigate the mechanisms by which the Achaemenid kings were able to show mercy to rebels. By examining a number of relevant cases from a period of a century and a half, I argue that the decision to be merciful was based on the king’s familial or social relationship with the rebel, the rebel’s relative strength vis-à-vis the king, the geography of the revolt, and the presence of other external factors which might also restrict the king’s powers. By a comparison with royal inscriptions and texts found throughout the empire, I demonstrate the ways in which these reconciliations stood apart from, and even in contradiction to, administrative and ideological norms concerning law and justice within the Achaemenid Empire. Finally, by reviewing the traditions and attitudes towards justice and mercy among the Achaemenids' Near Eastern predecessors, I put this policy in historical context and show that it is a unique response to a problem faced by other ancient empires.