Daily Life

The daily lives of women in Ancient Iran are elusive, given that most of our ancient textual sources were written by men for primarily male audiences, but careful parsing of the art, archaeology, and literary sources offers many fascinating glimpses.

Evidence for women in prehistoric Iran is difficult to identify, since few objects are clearly marked by gender. Fertility figurines are among the most striking representations of women from this period, such as the statuette of a female figure from the south Caspian region in northwestern Iran in the carousel above, today in the Metropolitan Museum.  

Visual and textual evidence for the Elamite period is relatively more abundant, including exquisite reliefs of Elamite noblewoman and queens. Sources for the history of women in the Achaemenid Empire include seals, scattered Greek literary reports, and  documentary material from Persepolis. Plutarch (d. 120 CE), for instance, underlines the distinction between royal wives and concubines at banquets: "When the Persian kings have their dinner, their lawful wives sit beside them during the dinner and eat with them, but when the kings want to divert themselves and indulge in drinking, they send them away, and have music-girls and concubines come." (Plutarch adds primly that they are quite right to do so).

The source base for studying women's lives in the Sasanian period is broader - much more so than the Seleucid and Parthian eras. Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman sources, as well as art, epigraphy, and material finds, all contribute to our picture, however imperfect, of women's place in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of Ancient Iran.

The Middle Persian legal compendium, The Book of a Thousand Judgements, contains several passages that illustrate the limitations - and possibilities - for women in late antique Iran. For instance, one Sasanian law specifically bars women from representing their family's interest to the court without a male guardian, even if the guardian consents: "If the guardian of a family appoints the mistress of the house as legal representative, then this is not good (= not valid). The reason for this is that the mistress of the house is not entitled to (represent/conduct) the affairs of the family, alone" (75.13-14). But women could inherit or otherwise receive property, which they could then dispose of as they liked: "Vahram has said that a wife can be made/declared empowered with regard to income, and - inasmuch as the income will (then) belong to the wife - it does not go to the husband" (17, 9-16). Men and women both received shares of their parents' estate, and women could administer their fathers' estates. Although they lived under male guardianship, women could create limited marriage contracts which automatically expired after a certain length of time (23. 1-4).

The picture of women's lives in Ancient Iran that emerges from this and other sources is more complex than often assumed. While all phases of Ancient Iran were deeply patriarchal, women left their mark in many and diverse ways on the region's culture, history, and politics.