Atossa (Old Persian: Utauθa, or Old Iranian: Hutauθa; 550–475 BC) was an Achaemenid empress. She was a daughter of Cyrus the Great, and a wife of Darius I.

The tomb of Darius I.jpg
Tomb of Darius the Great, where Atossa was also buried
Queen mother of the Achaemenid Empire
Tenure486–476 BC
Coronation486 BC
Queen consort of the Achaemenid Empire
Tenure520–486 BC
Coronation520 BC
Bornc. 550 BC
Died475 BC
SpouseDarius the Great
IssueXerxes I
FatherCyrus the Great


The name "Atossa" (or "Atusa") means "bestowing very richly" or "well trickling" or "well granting". Atossa is the Greek (Ancient Greek: Ἄτοσσα) transliteration of the Old Persian name Utauθa. Her name in Avestan is Hutaosā.[1]


Atossa was born in c. 550 BC.[1] She was eldest daughter of Cyrus the Great; her mother may have been Cassandane.[1] According to Greek sources she married her brother Cambyses II after her father's death, yet it remains problematic to determine the reliability of these accounts.[2] According to Herodotus, Cambyses supposedly married two of his sisters, Atossa and Roxane.[2] This would have been regarded as illegal. However, Herodotus also states that Cambyses married Otanes' daughter Phaidyme, whilst his contemporary Ctesias names Roxane as Cambyses' wife, but she is not referred to as his sister.[2]

The accusations against Cambyses of committing incest are mentioned as part of his "blasphemous actions", which were designed to illustrate his "madness and vanity". These reports all derive from the same Egyptian source that was antagonistic towards Cambyses, and some of these allegations of "crimes", such as the killing of the Apis bull, have been confirmed as false, which means that the report of Cambyses' supposed incestuous acts is questionable.[2]

When Darius I defeated the followers of a man claiming to be Bardiya (Smerdis), the younger brother of Cambyses II in 522 BC, he married Atossa.[1] Atossa played an important role in the Achaemenid royal family, as she bore Darius the Great the next Achaemenid king, Xerxes I.

Atossa had a "great authority" in the Achaemenid royal house and her marriage with Darius I is likely due to her power, influence and the fact that she was a direct descendant of Cyrus.[1]

Herodotus records in The Histories that Atossa was troubled by a bleeding lump in her breast. A Greek slave, Democedes, excised the tumor.[3] This is the first recorded case of mastitis,[4] sometimes interpreted as a sign of an inflammatory breast cancer.[3]

Xerxes I was the eldest son of Atossa and Darius. Atossa lived to see Xerxes invade Greece. Atossa's special position enabled Xerxes, who was not the eldest son of Darius, to succeed his father.[1]

Literary referencesEdit

The ghost of Darius appears to Atossa in a scene from The Persians.

Aeschylus included her as a central character in his tragedy The Persians. Atossa is also one of the major characters in the Gore Vidal novel Creation.

Atossa is also included in Herodotus' The Histories and is shown to be a strong woman with a lot of influence. He even goes as far as to suggest that her wanting a Greek maiden was a reason for why Darius the Great decided to begin his campaign to Greece.

In his history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee imagines Atossa traveling through time, encountering different diagnoses and treatments for her breast cancer. Atossa becomes emblematic of cancer sufferers through history.[5]


Minor planet 810 Atossa discovered by Max Wolf, is named in her honor.

The poet Matthew Arnold named his Persian cat ‘Atossa’. She is celebrated in his poem of 1882 called ‘Poor Matthias’, about the death of a pet canary.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Schmitt 1987, pp. 13–14.
  2. ^ a b c d Brosius, Maria (2000). "Women i. In Pre-Islamic Persia". Archived copy. Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. London et al. Archived from the original on 2020-03-13. Retrieved 2019-09-21.
  3. ^ a b Mukherjee 2011, p. 41.
  4. ^ Sandison, A. T. (1959). "The First Recorded Case of Inflammatory Mastitis— Queen Atossa of Persia and the Physician Democêdes". Medical History. 3 (4): 317–322. doi:10.1017/s0025727300024820. PMC 1034507. PMID 14441415.
  5. ^ Mukherjee 2011, pp. 463–467.


  • Boyce, Mary (1982). A History of Zoroastrianism: Volume II: Under the Achaemenians. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9789004065062.
  • Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2011). The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-725092-9.
  • Schmitt, R. (1987). "Atossa". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 1. pp. 13–14.