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This paper argues that the concept of freedom was a key component in the creation of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE). Classical scholarship has frequently dismissed the idea that societies in the ancient Middle East had political freedom and collective governance (cf. Finley 1964, 1981; Raaflaub 2004). However, there is good reason to question this traditional view (cf. Fleming 2004; Vlassopoulos 2007, esp. 97-122; von Dassow 2011). Despite ancient and modern stereotypes of the Persians as despotic and slavish, cuneiform texts reveal that the idea of liberty had particular salience in political and cultural expressions in the early formation of the empire. I analyze textual evidence from Cyrus the Great, Darius I, and Herodotus to demonstrate how Persian kings used the universalizing concept of freedom to signal restoration, while also undertaking revolutionary actions in building one of the largest empires in world history.

Liberation ideology had a long history in the ancient Middle East by the time Cyrus the Great rose to power. Eva von Dassow writes, “The idea of freedom as liberation from constraint and oppression was regularly instantiated in the acts of kings, whose inscriptions employ the rhetoric of release and restoration. . . . Release would result in restoring the people, and their property, to their original state prior to becoming encumbered or subjected. Thus a king would accomplish the restoration of his realm through liberating his people from debt, taxes, and wrongful domination” (von Dassow 2011, 208). Both Cyrus the Great and Darius I portrayed themselves as righteous liberators in proclamations disseminated throughout the empire (cf. Finkel 2013, 2; Kuhrt 2007, 149), emphasizing especially their deep concern for the people and justice. Even in Herodotus’s Histories, both kings generally are presented as enlightened rulers in contrast to their successors. In providing a close reading of the Cyrus Cylinder, Darius I’s Inscription at Bisitun, and Herodotus’s Constitutional Debate, I demonstrate how the concept of freedom structured political thought and action in the ancient Middle East. Ultimately, imperial projects on any scale required exceptional military, political, economic, and cultural achievements and justifications; but through a clear articulation of liberation ideology, the early Persian kings provided a foundation for a universal theme with a profound and lasting legacy.