School of History, Classics & Archaeology


Come to our free lecture on the politics of sex in Ancient Persia (559-331 BCE).

The royal harem at Persian Court - was it really an Arabian Nights-style fantasy world or does that underestimate the role of royal women in Ancient Persia?

  • Speaker: Dr Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
  • Date/time: New date! Wednesday 7 August 2013, 2-3pm
  • Venue: Meadows Lecture Theatre, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, Doorway 4, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG.


‘Harem’: a word that conjures up the image of a closely guarded pleasure-palace filled with scantily clad nubile courtesans idling away their days in languid preparation for nights of sexual adventure in a monarch’s bed.

‘Harem’ offers us an open sesame to an Arabian Nights-style fantasy world, but what has it to do with the reality of women’s lives in the Persian court? No other aspect of ancient Persian court society has attracted more controversy than the issue of the royal harem.

Re-thinking the past

In this lecture, Dr Llewellyn-Jones will suggest that the royal women of Achaemenid Persia did not live in an oppressive purdah, nor did they inhabit a world of sultry sensuality, but they certainly formed part of a strict hierarchical court structure which moved in close proximity to the king.

The lecture will explore the functioning of the royal harem by investigating the roles of king’s mothers, king’s wives, and king’s concubines and investigating how the harem and the sex life of the Persian king had enormous political ramifications.

Any trivialization of the Achaemenid royal harem as a brothel-like pleasure palace fails to do justice to its central role in the political milieu of the court or, indeed, of the Empire at large.

Seeing the harem only as an invention of overheated fantasies of western archaeologists and historians damages our quest to understand the political nature and functioning of the Achaemenid royal court.

Free - no booking required

Seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.