Ancient History, History, Reading, Theology

The Beautiful Wife

The Palace of Susa

The book of Esther gives us a glimpse into the palaces of Susa, the residence of the Kshatriya Kshatriyanamah – the King of Kings. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Persian empire was organized in such a way that regional governors were often the legitimate kings and rulers of those regions and the Persian emperor was “King of Kings.”

His official residence was at Susa, about 250 miles east of the Tigris River in the lower Zagros Mountains of what is now Iran. Although the Persian kings spent much of their time on military campaigns or administrating the vast bureaucracy of the other three capital provinces, Susa was the main palace and his residence during the winter months.

Darius I built a major palace there, founded on bedrock and built to last. The palace was damaged badly in a fire during the reign of Artaxerxes I but was subsequently rebuilt. It then lasted for nearly 1500 years before being razed by Mongol invaders in 1213 CE.

The entire narrative of the book of Esther takes place within or around the grounds of this palace. According to A.T. Olmstead, Xerxes had a large harem constructed for his queen Amestris to the west of the treasury building. Since it was not uncommon for Persian rulers to have hundreds of sexual partners (wives would being generous toward them) and all these women and their families were kept as part of the king’s household, it may very well be that all of Susa was occupied with harems. The site itself is not very large at all.

Vashti the Queen

The entire Esther narrative revolves around her predecessor’s refusal to appear before King Ahasuerus during a party he was throwing. This lends weight to the idea that Susa was primarily the king’s pleasure palace. It consisted largely of his harem and his banqueting facilities; and since it was his winter palace, it makes sense.

But who was this queen?

Historically, we may never know the true identity of Vashti, if she was indeed a historical person; because we cannot be certain of the identity of Ahasuerus. But we can extract a little bit from the Esther narrative.

The name Vashti derives from the Old Persian word for “beautiful.” This derivation is supported by the way in which Ahasuerus calls for her to appear so that he could show the assembled group of men “her beauty.”

It is important that we understand what Ahasuerus asks. He calls for seven eunuchs to bring her to him in her “royal crown.” This is a euphemism, and it implies that she would be brought before the men and then Ahasuerus would “show her beauty” by stripping her and having sex with her. It was meant to be a demonstration of his virility and power, and most likely would have been violent and humiliating for her. The idea would have been to impregnate her in front of his subordinates.

That Vashti refused is remarkable. There are a couple of possible reasons for this.

One reason may be simply biological. If Vashti was – to put it delicately – “sexually unavailable” due to a couple of female biological processes, that would be a legitimate reason to refuse the summons. (If you haven’t figured out what I’m talking about, ask your mother. She’ll explain it to you.) But a Persian woman would have been practically bred to serve the king, no matter her feelings on the matter or whether she was in midst of biological processes.

It may demonstrate that she was most likely not a Persian woman herself. This type of subjugating marriage was unknown in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and Greece, and it is possible that she was a captive or a descendant of a captive from those western regions.

The Achaemenid Persians had something of an identity crisis. Although they were rulers of the world at the time, they were descendent from mountain sheep herders, living on the mountainous edge of the great kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria. They wanted to be greater than Babylon (Darius refused the title of King of Babylon, giving it to a lesser satrap), but their culture was far from refined.

The Persians were barbarians in silk. They asserted their riches by glamorous shows like the party Ahasuerus throws and through subjugating the women of conquered races. When the Greeks under Alexander took Susa in around 330 BCE, they found enormous wealth; but they were astonished by the mistreatment of the women in the harem.

Vashti was not loved, and she was not joined to Ahasuerus in what we would consider a marriage. She was nothing more than a beautiful accessory for making sons. Failing that, the king had no purpose for her.

I write all of this to provide a caution about reading Esther. Moralizers want to make the episode between Vashti and Ahasuerus into a narrative about marriage or drunkenness. In reality, it is just a depiction of palace life in Susa. We must be careful in reading this narrative not to eisogete some kind of moral themes.


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