The Notion of Harem and its Irrelevance to Women of the Persian Court

Lenfant, Dominique. 2020. The Notion of Harem and its Irrelevance to Women of the Persian Court. Ancient Society 50, 13-27.

It has become controversial to use the word ‘harem’ to designate the wives and concubines of the Great King of the Persian Empire, but differing attitudes may be observed among scholars, from rejecting this term to claiming it for use, most often without a detailed justification. Although it seems at first sight to be helpful, the present paper argues against using the word ‘harem’ by highlighting its major interpretative drawbacks: (1) its definition is unstable and unclear; (2) it creates confusion between the different categories of women who are distinguished in our evidence; (3) it is misleading, since it imposes on antiquity western representations mainly linked with Ottoman sultans; (4) it has strong modern connotations, and implies value judgments which are not suitable for a sound historical analysis; (5) it feeds a form of orientalism, since it fosters the idea that the Orient does exist, that it is the opposite of the Occident of the western speaker, and that it has not changed for more than two thousand years. It is lastly argued that this notion of a Persian ‘harem’ does not date back to the Greeks, who had neither a similar word nor similar representations and value judgments, nor the same feeling of otherness in respect to the Persians.