A bearded man wearing brightly coloured dress in shades of red, orange, purple and blue. Includes a fur-lined cape and red hood.

Long live the King… of Kings! Accession ritual in ancient Persia 

By Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Chair of Ancient History, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University

Publication date: 3 May 2023

As we look towards the coronation ceremony that will unfold in Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6 May, Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones considers how other monarchs in history have been ordained and explores the enthronement rituals of ancient Persia.

Introduction

The British crown is the only surviving European monarchy that retains a coronation and, given the hype and expectation around the coronation of King Charles III, it seems that the British passion for pageantry is as strong as it ever was. It has been 69 years since the last coronation, but 85 years since the last king was crowned – that was King George VI in 1937. Although subtle changes are planned for King Charles' coronation (a 'trimmed back' version, we are told), the ceremony is still nevertheless a religious event which foregrounds the political-theological vision of the British state as a union of nations and peoples under God. 

Black and white photograph of King Charles looking at a display case.
His Majesty The King (then The Prince of Wales) visiting the British Museum's exhibition Archaeology in Britain in 1986. 

Intro 2

The British monarch is theoretically God's chosen representative on earth and to add lustre to that notion, during the ritual enacted at the coronation, symbolic accoutrements are used to highlight the shift in the monarch's status. King Charles will carry the sceptre (a biblical symbol of rule), the orb with cross (symbolising the whole world under Christ's majesty) and a ring (symbolising his 'marriage' to his people). Most significantly, Charles will sit upon Saint Edward's Chair and wear Saint Edward's Crown, both of which symbolise the monarch's significance and connection to British and Christian traditions. With our attention fixed on the rituals that will unfold in Westminster Abbey, I began to wonder about the way in which other monarchs in history have been ordained into rulership. Do coronations always play out in the same way? To test the waters – and to kickstart discussions around the newly-launched exhibition Luxury and power: Persia to Greece – I decided to look at the enthronement rituals of the Achaemenid kings of ancient Persia.

The home of Persian royalty

It is certain that in the centuries in which the Achaemenid Great Kings ruled the Persian empire, ceremonies of state which were intended to legitimise a monarch's rule over his gigantic empire were important. We know that these rituals adopted a significant religious tone and that some kind of accession ceremony was enacted at Pasargadae, the traditional tribal homeland of the Persian monarchy and the site of the original palace built by Cyrus the Great (about 600–530 BC), the founder of the Persian empire, and subsequently embellished by Darius I (about 550–486 BC) and probably later kings also. It was at Pasargadae that Cyrus himself had been buried in an impressive free-standing chamber-tomb placed high on a step platform and it was here, within the tomb, that the accoutrements of Cyrus' kingship were stored. It was a fitting place to celebrate the unbroken lineage and continuity of the Persian monarchy.

Taking a name

Two gold statuettes of bearded male figures wearing long flowing robes and pointed hats.
Gold statuettes of robed courtiers (part of the Oxus treasure), Tajikistan, 500–330 BC. 

In Pasargadae, at the shrine of the great fertility goddess Anahita, and in the presence of a few select courtiers and priests – the famous Magi – certain rituals were enacted which conferred the legitimacy and sanctity of kingship upon the monarch, who often adopted an official throne name at this time and stopped using the family name by which he had previously been known (before his accession, for example, Darius II was called Ochus, and Artaxerxes II had been called Arsaces). While we cannot be sure that every Achaemenid monarch did this, the concept of a throne name would help explain the frequency with which certain names appear through the dynasty: Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes – Achaemenid dynastic names par excellence. 

A cylindrical, pale yellow chalcedony seal alongside a brown clay tablet, showing the impression of the seal: two men in a chariot confront a rearing lion.
A chalcedony cylinder seal, with Darius I depicted hunting lions. A trilingual cruciform in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian states ‘I am Darius, Great King’. The Darius Seal, Chalcedony, Egypt, 522–486 BC.  

In addition to adopting a new name, the ceremony saw a prince transformed into a Great King, King of Kings, King of All Lands as he symbolically took on a new 'body'. Since the Achaemenid dynasty lacked any basic laws of primogeniture (where a first-born child automatically inherits tiles or land), succession struggles played a role in determining who the heir to the Achaemenid throne might be, so it was this ceremony rather than the physical birth – or even the death of the previous king – that marked the moment when the king became a different, more august, person. 

A true 'coronation'?

A stone relief showing a luxuriantly bearded man with shoulder-length hair wearing a crown.
Detail from the Bisitun Inscription relief showing Darius I wearing a crown. Stone, about 520 BC onwards. Photo by Surenae, WikiCommons (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

It should be noted, however, that this unique Persian ceremony cannot be classified as a coronation as such, given that crowns or a ceremony of crowning do not seem to have been a focus of the ritual in any way (even though there can be no doubt that Achaemenid monarchs wore crowns); nor, incidentally, can the ceremony be called an 'enthronement' since no throne is mentioned in the ancient sources, although the royal throne was certainly an icon of majesty too. In the strictest sense the Persian ceremony was an investiture since it focused on the new king donning and wearing a significant symbolic garment: the old sheepskin and woollen riding coat that had once belonged to Cyrus the Great and had been buried with him at Pasargadae. 

Symbols of nomadic heritage

A bearded man wearing brightly coloured dress in shades of red, orange, purple and blue. Includes a fur-lined cape and red hood.
Recreation of Persian riding dress from about 500 BC, showing a riding coat. Lamb's wool, faux fur and metallic appliqués. Designed by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, sewn by Rebecca Southall. 

The coat signified the humble, nomadic heritage of the Persians, who had arrived on the Iranian plateau less than a thousand years earlier, as horsemen of the Eurasian Steppes. At the royal investiture, the new Great King went through a symbolic rite of separation and reincorporation that was signified through the use of clothing. The ruler stripped off his fine garments and then put on the humble horseman's garb that Cyrus had worn before taking the throne. Finally, the king was re-clothed in a new riding coat (called a gaunaka in Old Persian) which signified both his illustriousness and his right to rule. The transference of clothing in the Achaemenid investiture ritual harked back to Persia’s humble beginning and in a sense, by donning Cyrus' coat, every subsequent Great King became a Cyrus reborn. 

Detail of a riding coat showing fur edging, multicoloured sewn patterns and gold ornaments.
The fur-lined and highly decorated gaunaka was an indicator of wealth and status, and was worn exclusively by the Achaemenid elite.   

Accordingly, we might say that during the investiture ritual the Persian king underwent a classic 'rite of passage' which was expressed through his undressing, his donning of a symbolic garment, and his re-dressing in his own royal garments. At the investiture he also ate specific foods (pistachio nuts) and drank a ritual liquor made with resin from the terebinth tree, sour milk and homa (a scared plant). The drinking of the sour milk and the acts of ingesting humble foods and hallucinogenics confirmed the initiate-king's humility and humbleness by which he was reminded of his tribal nomadic ancestry. Only afterwards, when the king donned a robe of state (the so-called court-robe), was his new monarchic brilliance, strength and vitality confirmed. If at the completion of the investiture the Great King was publicly acknowledged as undisputed sovereign by the courtiers and Magi who assembled at Pasargadae, then we have no record of it. It is not unlikely though that some kind of acclamation was raised in his honour and that his subjects might have shouted aloud, 'Long live the Great King! Long live the King of Kings!'

More info

The recreated costumes discussed here were displayed alongside other objects used to symbolise Persian royal power in our special exhibition, Luxury and power: Persia to Greece, which ran between 4 May to 13 August 2023.  You can find the book that accompanied the exhibition in our online shop.   

Supported by 
American Friends of the British Museum
BullionVault

With additional support from 
Julie Fitzgerald and Stephen Fitzgerald AO

With thanks to the British Institute of Persian Studies who funded the costumes on display in the exhibition.