Sex, Death, and aristocratic empire

Bahram huntingPayne, Richard. 2016. Sex, death, and aristocratic empire: Iranian jurisprudence in late antiquity. Comparative Studies in Society and History 58(2). 519–549.

The article is also available from the author’s page here.

Sex, Death, and Aristocratic Empire: Iranian Jurisprudence in Late Antiquity

In the Iranian Empire (226–636 CE), jurists drawn from the ranks of the Zoroastrian priestly elite developed a complex of institutions designed to guarantee the reproduction of aristocratic males as long as the empire endured. To overcome the high rate of mortality characteristic of preindustrial demographic regimes, they aimed to maximize the fertility rate without compromising their endogamous ideals through the institutions of reproductive coercion, temporary marriage, and “substitute-successorship.” Occupying a position between the varieties of monogamy and polygyny hitherto practiced in the Ancient Near East, the Iranian organization of sex enabled elites not only to reproduce their patrilineages reliably across multiple generations, but also to achieve an appropriate ratio of resources to number of offspring. As the backbone of this juridical architecture, the imperial court became the anchor of aristocratic power, and ruling and aristocratic dynasties became increasingly intertwined and interdependent, forming the patrilineal networks of the “Iranians”—the agents and beneficiaries of Iranian imperialism. The empire’s aristocratic structure took shape through a sexual economy: the court created and circulated sexual and reproductive incentives that incorporated elite males into its network that was, thanks to its politically enhanced inclusive fitness, reliable and reproducible. In demonstrating the centrality of Zoroastrian cosmology to the construction and operation of the relevant juridical institutions, I seek to join the approaches of evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology to reproduction that have been pursued in opposition, to account for the historical role of sex in the consolidation of the Iranian Empire.