Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.21

Pierre Briant, Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire. Reprint with revisions, originally printed 1992. Series: Découvertes Gallimard 159.   France:  Gallimard, 2001.  Pp. 176; ills.  ISBN 2-07-053166-X.  EUR 13.75 (pb).  



Reviewed by Cindy L. Nimchuk, Stanford University (cnimchuk@stanford.edu)
Word count: 1779 words

Renowned Achaemenid scholar Pierre Briant presents a clear, albeit brief, account of Achaemenid history and culture in Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire. While the Achaemenid Persians may be somewhat familiar to scholars or laymen, they are generally seen through two lenses: that of the Hebrew Bible, in which case the Persians are the saviours who through divine will ended the Babylonian exile and supported the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem; and that of Greek authors such as Herodotus, in which case the Persians are the enslaving and decadent despots who dared to move against the freedom-loving Greeks and were soundly defeated by the forces of liberty. Neither perspective does justice to the Persians and their point of view. To study Achaemenid Persian history, one must begin with the Persians themselves, as the present work does admirably.

Briant's work focuses on Darius and his contributions to the empire: his achievements while alive, and the legacy he left behind. Although Cyrus originally brought the empire together through his conquests, it was Darius who consolidated the empire, who gave it a structure that would facilitate its survival beyond his own lifetime. At the same time, Briant does not neglect the importance of Cyrus, the interaction of the Persian and Greek worlds, and the continued interest in and importance of the Achaemenids in recent years (as seen in the 1971 celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the creation of the empire by Cyrus, and the use of the reigns of Darius and Xerxes as the setting for a modern novel).

Briant not only provides a concise history of the formative years of the Persian empire, he also asks questions of the evidence itself, highlighting and exemplifying the critical thought required of any foray into historical understanding and analysis. The book is written in French and appears aimed at the French non-specialist public (high school, undergraduate students, interested readers); that said, Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire is a valuable source for North American scholars interested in or required to teach about the Achaemenid Persians, and for scholars in the field who want a good, short synopsis of early Achaemenid history accompanied by a wide range of impressive colour images (images that are often difficult to find, particularly all in one place).

Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire adopts a mix of chronological and thematic organization. It is divided into five chapters, plus appendices and index. Chapter One sets the stage, briefly recounting the roles of Cyrus and Cambyses in the formation of the empire, before turning to the focus of the chapter, Darius as king, the impact of his rule on the empire and the court. Briant makes extensive use of the Bisitun (aka Behistun) text, which offers us Darius' own version of how he came to the throne. In the course of taking the reader through the process of empire stabilization, Briant also considers the legitimacy of Darius' claim, the question of support of the nobility, and the creation of royal symbolism. Chapter Two steps outside the historical narrative to discuss Darius and the peoples of the empire: this includes both the Persians themselves with their privileged status, as well as the relationships between the early Persian kings (Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius) and the peoples of Egypt, Judah, Asia Minor, Babylon, and Greece. The accessibility of the king is emphasized as a means of enhancing unity in the empire, and astute readers will find that the Persians were not as despised as Classical authors sometimes claimed. Chapter Three picks up the historical thread, narrating the major events of the years after Darius' accession: the campaign in Thrace that pushed the empire to its greatest extent, the Ionian revolt of 499 BCE, the move to the west that led to Marathon in 490, and Darius' death in 486. Chapter Four examines the legacy left behind by Darius, addressing Darius' funeral and tomb (on which he left his vision of the world), and the succession of his son Xerxes; Xerxes' reign, and his emphasis on continuity of his father's organization and ideals; and the clash between the Persians and the Greek world (particularly Salamis and Plataea). Here the reader sees how the Greek image of increasing decadence in the empire does not correspond to the Near Eastern evidence of Xerxes' activities. Chapter Five contains translations of a range of textual sources relevant to Achaemenid history and culture: Old Persian royal inscriptions, Greek authors, the Hebrew Bible, Elamite administrative tablets from Persepolis, archaeological reports, and various modern works. The topics include Persian history, court life, the French excavations at Susa, the celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the creation of the empire by Cyrus, and the romance of Darius. Following the five chapters are a set of three appendices (an Achaemenid family tree, the wives and children of Darius, and a chronological table), a select (and updated) bibliography, a list of illustrations, an index, and a table of contents.

One particular element worth emphasizing is the vital role played by the visual images in the structure of Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire. For example, on the first page, before the title page or the first chapter, the readers are introduced to Darius through the medium of Henry Rawlinson, who is pictured seated at a desk, while the background to the page is filled with a cuneiform text. Rawlinson had, in the mid-19th century CE, first made available the texts of the Bisitun (aka Behistun) monument created by Darius. This monument provided the key to the translation of three languages of the greater Mesopotamian region -- Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a dialect of the Akkadian language). Briant thus immediately and effectively impresses on us the importance of Darius in modern scholarship of the ancient world. Shifting visually from the person who opened a door to the Persians and other Near Eastern peoples, we turn the page to find a close view of the Bisitun relief, showing Darius meeting a line of conquered rebel kings who are being figuratively handed over to him by Ahuramazda, the god to whom Darius owes his kingship. We again turn the page, and see a wider view of the monument, the relief surrounded by the texts that tell us Darius' own version of his ascent to the throne. A further turn, and we are confronted by the stark, awe-inspiring, and sacred mountain on which the monument was carved. The sheer scale of the mountain and the plains below reveal why this was a sacred site, and suggest why Darius may have chosen this place for his monument. By such strategies Briant makes it abundantly clear that Darius and the Achaemenids can best be understood through both the verbal and visual, textual and material culture. The illustrations and accompanying explanations act almost as informative footnotes, supplying the readers with detailed evidence not found in the main narrative.

Briant has successfully managed a concise, yet holistic account of the Achaemenid empire during the reigns of Darius and Xerxes. Using an extensive breadth of Near Eastern and Classical sources, he has built an overall picture of the ancient Achaemenid world with a degree of richness not often found in short histories. Moreover, Briant offers the readers a still exotic but less romantic glimpse into the Achaemenid period. Life at the courts is presented not as a simple playground for the king, but rather as a complex mix of organization, with a delicate balance between the delegation of authority and the king's responsibility to oversee the world (including the court). The Aegean is discussed as only one area in which Persia was interested, balancing the Greco-centric view of Persian and Greek relations that so frequently appears in the history books. The restoration of Achaemenid control in Thrace, which the Greeks saw as a disaster for the Persians, was in reality a success -- they did what they set out to do, which was not to conquer the Greeks (pp. 87-90). And contrary to the Classical sources, Xerxes' failure to directly annex mainland Greece was not a sign of increasing decadence in the Achaemenid empire; Briant reveals Xerxes, instead, to be a king active in building and governing (pp. 121-123).

Given that the present work appears aimed at a more general public, it is not surprising to find that sources are occasionally used without reference to the controversies surrounding them. For example, Briant mentions that the empire was divided into twenty administrative units for taxation purposes (pp. 32-33). This information comes from Herodotus, who was writing in Greek at least 50 years after the event; as such, the question of his sources (and thus, his veracity) is much debated. In the same vein, the numerous illustrations are accompanied by informative discussion, but not by photo credits; this can create a false impression in the readers not familiar with the evidence. Page 31 shows the relief of a man seated on an elaborate chair, holding a staff in his left hand, his feet resting on a footstool. The caption tells that the peoples of the empire were placed under the authority of a satrap, and that the audiences were quite elaborate (as in the king's court). Since the photo and accompanying explanation appear in the first chapter (which deals with Darius' gaining of the throne), one might assume that the relief dates to Darius' reign; the sarcophagus, however, is from around the fourth century BCE. These are minor issues for the most part. It would be particularly useful, however, for someone to discover a way to provide enough critical commentary for new readers (and not-so-new readers) while not running afoul of editorial red pens.

Pierre Briant has shown his wide-ranging command of the sources and issues involved in the Achaemenid empire. While Darius, Les Perses et l'Empire does not have the sweeping range and deep consideration of topical debates of Briant's seminal publication on the Achaemenid empire, Histoire de l'Empire perse, de Cyrus à Alexandre, it does provide a useful companion to the larger work, particularly in terms of the illustrations. In its own right, the present book is a valuable history for those with little or limited knowledge of the Persians. For the general reader or student, it provides basic historical information in both text and image to increase familiarity with the subject, as well as a list of further readings. For the teacher or scholar, it provides a general historical outline, and makes use of a wide range of sources. The language limits the book's use for high school and university students who don't read French, which is unfortunate, as the book would be an admirable resource for Near Eastern, Greek, and world history courses.

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