15. The Persian legal system was extensive and protected the rights of the accused
The government of Ancient Persia included a parliamentary body which ensured that the rights of the free people of the empire were not infringed upon by despotic acts of the king (though many of the kings attempted to abuse their power throughout the history of the five dynasties). Those accused of crimes were brought before judges and magistrates, who reviewed the charges, assured that the police had not exceeded their powers in making arrests, and considered the evidence brought by the accuser as well as the defense of the accused. Testimony was under oath, and given the Persian attitude towards lying, the act of perjury was harshly punished. The Persians even had bail for some pending cases, set by the magistrates.
Defendants had the right to counsel, though at their own expense, and were allowed to be absent if their attorney was present in cases where corporal or capital punishment was not indicated. In addition to the criminal courts, there were ecclesiastical courts dealing with religious and family matters and the military operated its own courts with jurisdiction over its members. Despite the clear brutality of the various punishments practiced by the Persians, often a party found guilty of minor transgressions of the law was merely fined, or sentenced to jail for a short time. Persian law reached into the home, with clear definitions of the obligations and responsibilities of all family members towards each other and to Persian society.
16. Was Persian cruelty as bad as believed by many?
Much of what was repeated as being historical fact about ancient Persia over the centuries since the demise of the empire came from sources which in the later twentieth century became more and more discounted by scholars. This is particularly true of the tales of some of the tortures described here and elsewhere. They were first described in the west in Greek, by the writer Herodotus, and by a writer named Ctesias, who is often repeated in Herodotus. Ctesias published the history of Persia in 23 volumes, which was entitled Persica. The gruesome punishments inflicted by the Persians are first described in detail within the volumes.
Persica was written for Greek eyes and is a comparison of what Ctesias considered a despotic and barbaric system to the orderliness and progress of the Greek city-states, Athens in particular. Many of his accounts did not match other records, such as the cuneiform records of the Assyrians. A Syrian satirist named Lucian referred to Ctesias’ work as “mendacious history” in his famous satire of sensationalist writers who create false records A True Story. A more modern writer in 1984 referred to Ctesias’ inaccuracy and called the equally questionable work of Herodotus a “model of reliability” in comparison. There is no question that barbarous cruelty was part of ancient life, but some tales could well be exaggerated, and many modern scholars believe that they were.
The magistrates finding a subject before them guilty of a crime had several options available as forms of corporal punishment, including maiming, blinding, deafening (by penetrating the eardrums), and whipping at the stake, which the Persians called striping. In this, they were no different from virtually all other cultures around the world. The practice of whipping miscreants continued in the west well into the eighteenth century, and the number of blows allowed by the magistrates was in many cases staggering, literally and figuratively. In the 18th century Royal Navy, 1,000 lashes were not unheard of, through flogging through the fleet.
Five hundred or one thousand stripes was the usual Persian sentence, which could be had for beating a dog or otherwise abusing an animal (stealing a dog could be subject to capital punishment in some cases). As has been seen, the punishments were not carried out all at once, a period of recovery was allowed in between bouts of the punishment being inflicted. The wealthy and members of noble families were allowed to send their servants to receive their punishment, thus sparing their own backs as well as the idle time while recovering from the lashings. Similar punishments were still allowed in the British Royal Navy as late as 1879 before they were abolished.
18. The Persians were no worse than the rest of the ancient world
Although the methods of execution ascribed to the Persians are gruesome and in some cases nearly unbelievably so, in their ingenuity dedicated to inflicting maximum suffering they are in no way unique. The ancient Greeks, though they did not record their tortures, nonetheless practiced violence, though most often against fellow Greeks. The bible is filled with stories of whole cities destroyed, their populations put to the sword, their leaders killed in various ways. The New Testament contains the story of King Herod ordering the killing of all male Jewish infants under the age of two. The ancient world was a brutal one.
The Romans used crucifixion, beheading, stoning, people torn apart by wild animals before a cheering audience, drowning, and many other means of applying judicial punishment on the people foolish enough to get on the wrong side of the law. In colonial America, the Spanish and English settlers encountered ritual torture and cannibalism among the natives. The English settlers used whipping and pressing to death with heavy stones as two means of enforcing the law. The barbarous practices of the Persians, those that are true and those which are the creations of fertile but prejudiced minds, are not as far removed from modern man as most would like to think.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: