Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Remember When . . . They Just Didn't Get It?

One of the things I found interesting when comparing Persian history as told by the Greeks versus Persian history as told by the Persians is their understanding of the whole polygamous thing. (And I'm not awake yet, so let's hope this makes sense.)

There are a few places where Herodotus makes mention of Xerxes' "illegitimate sons" who came with him to the war. Now, given that Xerxes was only in his late thirties during the war, and yet he had a son of marriageable age, we know they must have gotten early starts on their families in Persia--confirmed when his eldest son, Darius, gets married, though he couldn't be more than 20. It's perfectly reasonable that these "illegitimate sons" mentioned are in their late teens. Even more likely is that, rather than being "illegitimate," they're really just the sons of other wives.

See, whenever Greeks mention the king's wife, they mean the queen. They will occasionally reference concubines, and I recall one mention of the word "harem." But they didn't seem to grasp that the other wives were legal, and that hence their children were legitimate. Curious, eh?

I had to look up as much as I could find on concubines, and all the sources I located agreed that concubines were legal wives, though their contracts were "lesser." So far as historians could tell, this was because they didn't have dowries. But their children could inherit.

To further the complication, Persians (at least royal ones) seem to have no concept of incest. Or very limited, anyway. I assume (please, God) offspring was off-limits, but siblings sure weren't. I actually read a line that said something like "So and so figured his claim to the throne was even stronger than his brother's, since he was married to their mutual half-sister." All together now: ew!

All this just goes to show how hard it is to judge a culture not by the standards of ours, but by their own understanding. So when a Persian has an affair with his niece, by their standards it isn't terrible because of the family connection, but simply for the adultery. Which is bad enough, but our sensibilities still recoil.

Needless to say, I had quite a challenge when writing a Persian hero whose moral compass pointed a different direction than what I was used to.


  1. I just became a follower yesterday, and I have the feeling I am going to love learning from you! Thanks for sharing such insights!

  2. Fascinating. I always go for the interesting history tidbits.

  3. I'm so happy to have you, Annette! Though I'm surprised this post made sense to anyone. Reading it's like falling down the stairs to me, LOL--I should soooooo drink coffee before I attempt to write! ;-)

  4. Yup, it made sense, and yes, it's a gross thought. That's very interesting about the concubines children being illegitimate. Thanks for the history lesson!