AskDefine | Define satrap

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satrap n : a governor of a province in ancient Persia

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From etyl fr satrapie, from etyl la satrapes, from etyl grc sc=polytonic, from etyl peo sc=Xpeo, from sc=Xpeo and *|pāvā, from verbal root sc=Xpeo.


  1. A governor of a Persian province.
  2. A petty ruler.

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

See also the related deity Satrapes.
Satrap (Persian: ساتراپ) was the name given to the governors of the provinces of ancient Median and Persian empires, including the Achaemenid Empire and in several of their heirs, such as the Sassanid Empire and the Hellenistic empires.
Satrap is derived from the Old Persian xšaθrapāvā ("protector of the province"), from xšaθra ("realm" or "province") and pāvā ("protector"). In Biblical Hebrew, the word is spelled אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפָּן ahashdarpān (only in the plural אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפְּנִים ahashdarpenim). In Greek, the word was rendered as σατράπης, satrápēs, and was romanized as satrapes, from the Old Persian xšaθrapā(van)). In modern Persian this would have naturally evolved to شهربان (shahrban). "Sharban", translated from modern Persian, literally means "town keeper";(ﺷﻬﺮ "shar", meaning "town", ﺑﺍﻦ "ban" meaning "keeper"). There is a link, via Sanskrit, to the warrior class of India, the kshatriya.
The word satrap is also often used in modern literature to refer to world leaders or governors who are heavily influenced by larger world superpowers or hegemonies and act as their surrogates.

Medo-Persian satraps

The first large scale use of satrapies, or provinces, originates from the conception of the first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, beginning at around 530 BC. However, Provincial organization originated during the Median era from at least 648 BC.
Up to the time of the conquest of Media by Cyrus the Great, Median emperors ruled their conquered territories as provinces, through client kings and governors. The chief difference was that in Persian culture the concept of kingship was indivisible from divinity: divine authority validated the divine right of kings. The twenty satraps established by Cyrus were never kings, but viceroys ruling in the king's name, although in political reality many grabbed any chance to carve themselves an independent power base. Darius I gave the satrapies a definitive organization, increased their number to twenty-three and fixed their annual tribute (Behistun inscription).
The satrap was the head of the administration of his province, and found himself surrounded by an all-but-royal court; he collected the taxes, controlled the local officials and the subject tribes and cities, and was the supreme judge of the province before whose "chair" (Nehemiah 3:7) every civil and criminal case could be brought. He was responsible for the safety of the roads (cf. Xenophon), and had to put down brigands and rebels.
He was assisted by a council of Persians, to which also provincials were admitted; and was controlled by a royal secretary and by emissaries of the king, especially the "eye of the king" who made an annual inspection and exercised permanent control.
There were further checks on the power of each satrap: besides his secretarial scribe, his chief financial official (Old Persian ganzabara) and the general in charge of the regular army of his province and of the fortresses were independent of him and reported directly to the shah, periodically, in person. But the satrap was allowed to have troops in his own service.
  • The great satrapies (provinces) were often divided into smaller districts, the governors of which were also called satraps and (by Greco-Roman authors) also hyparchs (actually Hyparkhos in Greek, 'vice-regents'). The distribution of the great satrapies was changed repeatedly, and often two of them were given to the same man.
  • As the provinces were the result of consecutive conquests (the homeland had a special status, exempt from provincial tribute), both primary and sub-satrapies were often defined by former states and/or ethno-religious identity. One of the keys to the Achaemenid success (as with most enduring great empires) was their open attitude to the culture and religion of the conquered people, so ironically the Persian culture was the one most affected as the Great King endeavoured to melt elements from all his subjects into a new imperial style, especially at his capital Persepolis.
  • Whenever central authority in the empire weakened, the satrap often enjoyed practical independence, especially as it became customary to appoint him also as general-in-chief of the army district, contrary to the original rule. "When his office became hereditary, the threat to the central authority could not be ignored" (Olmstead). Rebellions of satraps became frequent from the middle of the 5th century. The great usurper Darius I struggled with widespread rebellions in the satrapies, and under Artaxerxes II occasionally the greater part of Asia Minor and Syria was in open rebellion.
The last great rebellions were put down by Artaxerxes III.
The term "Satrap" is found in the Old Testament (of the Holy Bible) in the books of Esther (3:12, 8:9 and 9:3), Ezra (8:36)and most commonly in Daniel (3:2,3:3,3:27,6:1,6:2,6:3).

Hellenistic satraps

The satrapic administration and title were retained—even for Greco-Macedonian incumbents—by Alexander the Great, who conquered the empire and even enlarged it, and by his successors, the diadochi (and their dynasties) who carved it up, especially in the Seleucid empire, where the satrap generally was designated as strategos; but their provinces were much smaller than under the Persians. They would ultimately be replaced by conquering empires, especially the Romans.

Parthian and Sassanian satraps

In the Parthian Empire, the king's power rested on the support of noble families who ruled large estates, and supplied soldiers and tribute to the king. City-states within the empire enjoyed a degree of self-government, and paid tribute to the king. Administration of the Sassanid Empire was considerably more centralized than that of the Parthian Empire; the semi-independent kingdoms and self-governing city states of the Parthian Empire was replaced with a system of "royal cities" which served as the seats of centrally appointed governors called shahrabs as well as the location of military garrisons. Shahrabs ruled both the city and the surrounding rural districts.

Satraps today

  • By analogy, the word satrap is also used anachronistically for various governors, especially in the Orient, whose real title is etymologically independent, such as the shaknu and bel pihati in the earlier Assyrian (and consecutive [New] Babylonian?) empire, about the first of such size west of the Far East, which rather seems the model for the provincial concept.
  • It is also used in modern times to refer (usually derogatively) to the loyal, subservient lieutenants or clients of some powerful figure (with equal imprecision also styled mogul, tycoon, or the like), in politics or business.
  • In the Hungarian language a slightly changed version of the word, satrafa refers to old women, often mothers-in-law, who always quarrel and try to force their will on others.
  • In the Spanish language the word sátrapa carries not only the aforementioned ancient historical meaning, but in modern usage it also applies to people who abuse power or authority. It can refer as well to those living in luxurious and ostentatious conditions or to individuals who act astutely and even disloyally.


  • A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, 1948
  • Pauly-Wissowa (comprehensive encyclopaedia on Antiquity; in German)
  • Robert Dick Wilson. The Book of Daniel: A Discussion of the Historical Questions, 1917. Available on
  • Rüdiger Schmitt, "Der Titel 'Satrap'", in Studies Palmer ed. Meid (1976), 373–390.
satrap in Bulgarian: Сатрап
satrap in Catalan: Sàtrapa
satrap in Czech: Satrapie
satrap in Danish: Satrap
satrap in German: Satrap
satrap in Modern Greek (1453-): Σατράπης
satrap in Spanish: Sátrapa
satrap in Persian: ساتراپی
satrap in French: Satrape (Perse)
satrap in Galician: Sátrapa
satrap in Indonesian: Satrap
satrap in Italian: Satrapo
satrap in Hebrew: אחשדרפן
satrap in Kurdish: Satrap
satrap in Hungarian: Szatrapa
satrap in Dutch: Satrapie
satrap in Japanese: サトラップ
satrap in Norwegian: Satrap
satrap in Polish: Satrapa (w Persji)
satrap in Portuguese: Sátrapa
satrap in Russian: Сатрапия
satrap in Slovak: Satrapia
satrap in Serbian: Сатрап
satrap in Finnish: Satraappi
satrap in Swedish: Satrap
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