Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.46

Dominique Lenfant, Ctésias de Cnide. La Perse. L'Inde. Autres fragments. Collection des Universités de France publiée sous le patronage de l'Association Guillaume Budé.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2004.  Pp. 829; maps 2.  ISBN 2-251-00518-8.  €87.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Rollinger, Institut für Alte Geschichte und Altorientalistik, Leopold-Franzens Universität, Innsbruck (
Word count: 2167 words

Let me start with a general assessment. This is a book of extraordinary quality, the result of more than a decade of work and investigation. It replaces the currently available editions of Ctesias such as those by Henry (1947), Jacoby (1958) and König (1972) and will form the basis for all future research on Ctesias. Every student of Ctesias cannot but benefit from Lenfant's grand opus.

Lenfant starts with an educated and erudite introduction of more than 200 pages illuminating all aspects of Ctesias' life and work, the history of research and the treatment of the fragments by herself and the older editions (pp. I-CCVII). The second part of the book offers the testimonia and fragments of the Persika, Indika and some minor works (pp. 1-223, counting each Greek-French double page as one page). The Greek text on the right sight of each page is accompanied by an apparatus criticus, the French translation on the left side is annotated with 1001 footnotes. These footnotes are presented -- as usual in Budé editions-- in two parts. The "explanations" with a more "direct" connection to the text are printed at the bottom of the pages with the French translation, the "notes de commentaire" elucidating a more general background are collected as a kind of appendix (pp. 225-335). The last part of the book represents the "annexes," offering tables, a vast bibliography, a detailed index and maps (pp. 337-405).

For reasons of convenience Lenfant maintained Jacoby's numbering of the fragments but the corpus is nevertheless presented in a totally new and updated shape. All the fragments that cannot definitely be attributed to Ctesias are marked with an asterisk (*). "Parallel texts" are grouped one behind the other (not side by side as Jacoby did) and some fragments have been slightly "enlarged," changing their "borderlines" in order to increase readability and understanding. Lenfant presents many fragments not considered by Jacoby (especially those of Nicolaus Damascenus). The Greek text is based on the most recent critical editions available and in the case of Photius' excerpt, the main source for Ctesias' work, Lenfant has even checked the manuscripts herself. The same is true for the fragments of Nicolaus Damascenus, which Jacoby treated separately as FGrHist 90 F1-5, F66 but which are included in Lenfant's edition as F11Δ*, F1pΔ*, F1pΕ*, F6b*, F8c*, F8d*.

The introduction is full of excellent and stimulating observations. Many times Lenfant is able to point out specific structures in the extant fragments, which are useful in reconstructing Ctesias' conception of his work (cf. e.g XXXI, CXIII; CXXXII). She correctly stresses the strange dichotomy in the current treatment of Ctesias which, on the one hand, regards him as a "liar" in comparison to Herodotus, but, on the other, as a valuable source for the times of Darius II and Artaxerxes II (LVf.). She is acquainted with the latest developments in different disciplines1 and considers even recently published sources (CI n. 395 on a newly found demotic ostracon mentioning Inaros).2 Lenfant has processed an astonishingly vast amount of material. She offers countless paths for future research and her edition will be the standard one for many years to come. Of course, there are occasional omissions and errors,3 and in some cases, especially in the area of Near Eastern Studies, Lenfant should have consulted more recent editions of the texts she cites.4 These minor shortcomings, however, are easy to overlook when compared to the book's broad contributions. Much more significant is Lenfant's general assessment of Ctesias and his work (especially concerning his main work: the Persika). According to Lenfant, for many years Ctesias worked as a doctor at the Achaemenid courts of Babylon, Ecbatana, Susa and Persepolis. There he shared "l'intimité des grands" and collected all the information he could receive (XI ; XVI; XXXII; CVIII):

Médecin, confident, médiateur, Ctésias côtoya de grands personnages grecs et perses, il prit part à la vie du palais et ce qu'il y vit et entendit contribua sans nul doute à lui inspirer ses récits (XV).

This is a very optimistic view that has recently been questioned with good arguments.5 Lenfant is also convinced that autochthonous sources often verify Ctesias' information (CI, CXXIII). The archaeological data from Babylon would confirm that Ctesias acted as an eye-witness (XXXIIf.).6 Parysatis (XVII; XXXIII), as well as the eunuchs at the royal court (LXVIII; CXX), is considered as one of Ctesias' main sources. Ctesias nevertheless lived in enduring fear as he watched the ever-increasing acts of violence at the court (XVII), and he may at some time have been able to flee to the west (XVIII). Ctesias' alleged critical attitude towards Artaxerxes II is Lenfant's main argument for the suggestion that he could not have produced his work during his stay in the Achaemenid empire (XXIII). But this seems to be one of the general western clichés of "oriental" behaviour where dissent is regarded as impossible and despotic rule is assumed. To the contrary, the Babylonian astronomical diaries demonstrate that such a belief is a prejudice when one of them (BM 32234) notes for the time between the 4th and 8th of August of 465 BC: "Xerxes -- his son killed him".7

When Lenfant deals with Ctesias' version of Cyrus the Great's childhood and his descent from a brigand, which she regards as folk history, she herself reckons tacitly with the possible existence of local traditions with "intentions malveillantes" towards the royal house (LIX). But she immediately weakens this argument when she proposes that negative accounts of Cyrus the Great might be seen in the light of royal propaganda by Artaxerxes II disqualifying his brother Cyrus the Younger (LX). This might be true (see also CVII on the troubles after the death of Artaxerxes I) but in this case one should take Ctesias as a source for the official royal ideology and propaganda and not as a reflection of concurrent folk history.8 There are other inconsistencies. If we consider Ctesias as a member of the royal court with access to the tops of the social pyramid why did he not understand common royal rituals like the royal substitution ritual (LXXIIIf)?9 Is it really possible that a man with such close ties to the royal court did not know that the reliefs of Behistun were king Darius' and not Semiramis' work? Is it conceivable that a doctor interested in history working at this court did not know how long Darius and some other Achaemenid kings reigned (LXXXVI; CV with n. 417)?

Lenfant denies Jacoby's general view that Ctesias modelled his work on the background of Herodotus' Histories and invented the many variants that we do not find in the latter's work (XXIX). She does not consider Ctesias' dependency on Herodotus as relevant and prefers to trust the doctor when he offers a story different from that of the pater historiae (XXX). Lenfant argues that Ctesias may have had access to autochthonous traditions different from Herodotus (XXXIf.). Yet he collected this "pot-pourri de traditions" without any critique (XXXV). But Lenfant concedes that there are some cases where Ctesias invented his testimony. When he states that he has also consulted the basilikai diphterai (T3 = F 5 32,4) to reconstruct pre-Achaemenid history he is not regarded as trustworthy (XXXVII). Which statements of Ctesias should be treated as facts and which fictitious?

Looking at Assyrian history Lenfant reckons with a "composition grecque" to a high degree. She thinks that Cteisias models an empire according to the framework given by the Achaemenid empire (XLIIf.).10 But she also tries to find some historical elements when she proposes that in the description of Sardanapal there might at least be some reflections of the reign of king Assurbanipal. She states that at this king's court women would have played "un rôle particulièrement marqué" and that "la politique très dépensière de ce souverain avait préparé l'effondrement de l'empire en épouisant l'essentiel de ses ressources" (XLVI). This statement is fairly based on facts.11 Petitio principii threatens since it is Ctesias who offers a picture of effeminacy, luxury and decadence concerning the oriental royal court. At the end Lenfant herself is not convinced by this comparison and refuses an equation of Sardanapal with Assurbanipal (XLVII). Sardanapal is regarded as "une creation littéraire" of Greek origin (CXXXV). The outlines of his life "relèvent bien plutôt d'une imagerie grecque de l'Orient" (XLVIII).

Concerning Median history Lenfant's judgement is less clear. She does not mention a Greek background and supposes that Ctesias "pourrait porter des traces de folklore perse". Yet she remains cautious in this respect: "De tells rapprochements restent cependant hasardeux et peu probants" (LI). Nevertheless Lenfant argues later that "l'histoire d'Assyrie emprunta sans doute un canal iranien" and she is sure that "la succession dynastique des empires résulte elle-même d'une vision iranienne" (LIV). But one wonders how this conception is to be harmonized with the Greek modelling of Ninos and Semiramis. She even goes so far as to propose that Ctesias is offering a kind of official Persian view on their royal predecessors shaping them according to the framework of the Achaemenid empire (LIV). But is this not also rather a Greek view which we already find at Herodotus than a Persian one?

Lenfant takes Ctesias' description of the court for the most part at face value: weak kings, influential queens (cf. esp. CXXII) and -- at least until the time of Darius II -- the omnipresent eunuchs. This picture seems more due to ideological preconceptions than to be based on facts. We may even doubt that the so called eunuchs -- one of the standardized ingredients of an oriental court -- have really been castrates as Lenfant believes (CXVIIIf.).12

On this ground Lenfant comes to the following general qualification of Ctesias' work:

Mais dans la composition de Persika se mêlent, en fait, inextricablement des traces de réalité historiques, des traditions authentiques, sinon véridiques, des interprétations purement grecques et des fictions, voire des bévues personnelles (CXXIII).

He is not "l'auteur d'inventions arbitraries" (CXXIV) and is totally uncritical towards his sources (CXXVI). But at the same time he would have had literary ambitions and specific interests, presenting the presumed local information in Greek disguise (CLXXIII). He aims at seducing and entertaining his readers and creates specific literary types and clichés transforming them into the past (CXXVIf.), an author of sensation, sex and crime (CXXVII-CXXIX). He is an educated doctor at the court (CLXI) and at the same time interested in shocking his audience with disgusting modes of execution (CXXIX). One may wonder if Ctesias has not become a hybrid person this way.

At least Lenfant's final judgement is clear: Ctesias is considered "un piètre historien" (CXXVII) and she explicitly confirms Photius' qualification of the work (T13):

L'agrément de son histoire réside surtout dans l'arrangement de ses récits, qui est plein de pathétique et d'imprévue, et dans des broderies proches du fabuleux (CXXXIII).

This "wretched" historian is also a poet skilled in the literary techniques which we encounter in tragedy and novel (CXXX- CXXXII) and he develops his material involving the idea of rise and fall of the empires (CXXXV) giving the text a uniform structure (XXXI, CXIII). Ctesias would create "un Orient de clichés" (CXXXIII-CXXXVII), but at the same time the ingredients of this conception are considered to be Persian ones:

Cette predilection pour les intrigues de cour reflète sans doute une tradition locale (CXXIV).

The addition "mais elle dérive aussi d'une vision grecque de régime perse" leaves the reader once more alone with the vexing question how this may work.

This double sided picture also touches upon Lenfant's assessment of Herodotus as compared to Ctesias. Concerning their view of the Persian empire she recognizes differences between the two Greeks only in minor nuances (CXXXIII-CXXXV, CLXV). If this is really true one wonders once more how this may be possible when only one of them had direct access to the royal court and direct contacts with the elites of the Achaemenid empire?

Of course these are more questions than definite answers and it is for sure very difficult to get a sound and well founded picture of Ctesias whose work only survived in fragments. As already mentioned Lenfant refuses to accept Jacoby's assessement who regarded Ctesias as a historian but as a miserable one, more interested in correcting Herodotus than in presenting facts. For Lenfant Ctesias is as well a historian and she also qualifies him as "wretched" as Jacoby did, but contrary to Jacoby she believes that he is a rich source for oriental folk history with access to traditions not available for Herodotus. But her assessment of Ctesias is no more sound or satisfying than Jacoby's. Maybe we should consider more seriously that Ctesias was not a historian at all and that his literary ambitions were more far reaching than has been believed until now.13 Domenique Lenfant's great contribution is to discuss these crucial problems on a totally new and improved basis. There is one judgment of hers, at least, with which all would agree: "L'oeuvre de Ctésias laissa rarement indifférent" (CLXIII).14


1.   Cf. e.g. her qualification of the Median state not as an "empire" but as "une suzeraineté nominale sur des populations" (XLVIII n. 153). See now generally : Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Michael Roaf, Robert Rollinger (Hg.), Continuity of Empire (?). Assyria, Media, Persia. (HANE/M V), Padova 2003. Lenfant is also fully aware that the Nabonidus chronicle should not be regarded anymore as testimony for the conquest of Lydia in 547 BC by Cyrus (LXII n. 220). Cf. Robert Rollinger, The Median "Empire", the End of Urartu and Cyrus' the Great Campaign in 547 BC (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16). In: Ancient West & East 2007, in press (vide an older version).
2.   See now Joachim Friedrich Quack, Inaros, Held von Athribis. In: Robert Rollinger and Brigitte Truschnegg (Hg.), Altertum und Mittelmeerraum: Die antike Welt diesseits und jenseits der Levante. Festschrift für Peter W. Haider zum 60. Geburtstag, Stuttgart (Oriens et Occidens 12), 2006, 499-505. See also in the same volume pp. 445-459: Reinhold Bichler, Der Lyder Inaros. Über die ägyptische Revolte des Ktesias von Knidos.
3.   Lenfant treats Cyrus as an Achaemenid (cf. LXI and the table p. 341) which is not only strange because Ctesias never does so but because recent research has demonstrated that this is indeed not the case. Cyrus and Cambyses I are Teispids and should not be confused with the Achaemenids of Darius' line. See Robert Rollinger, Der Stammbaum des achaimenidischen Königshauses oder die Frage der Legitimität der Herrschaft des Dareios. In: Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 30 [1998 (99)], 155-209, and most recently D. T. Potts, Cyrus the Great and the Kingdom of Anshan. In: Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis and Sarah Stewart (eds), Birth of the Persian Empire (The Idea of Iran, Vol. 1), London 2005, 7-28.
4.   Concerning the inscriptions of Assurbanipal Lenfant XLVI n. 146 is using the outdated edition of Streck; see now Rykle Borger, Beiträge zum Inschriftenwerk Assurbanipals. Die Prismenklassen A, B, C = K, D, E, F, G, H, und T sowie andere Inschriften. Wiesbaden 1996. For the inscriptions of Nabonidus (LVII n. 191; LX n. 210) see now Hanspeter Schaudig, Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld entstandenen Tendenzschriften. Textausgabe und Grammatik (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 256), Münster 2001.
5.   Marco Dorati, Ctesia falsario? In: Quaderni di storia 41 (1995), 33-52.
6.   Bruno Jacobs, Ktesias und die Architektur Babylons. In: Josef Wiesehöfer, Giovanni Battista Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger (eds), Ctesias of Knidos and his World (Oriens et Occidens), Stuttgart 2007, in press.
7.   Matthew Stolper, Some Ghost Facts from Achaemenid Babylonian Texts. In: Journal of Hellenic Studies 108 (1988), 196f. Christopher Walker, Achaemenid Chronology and the Babylonian Sources. In: John Curtis (ed.), Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period. Conquest and Imperialism 539-331 B.C., London 21. See also Josef Wiesehöfer, Die Ermordung des Xerxes: Gerechter Lohn für einen Despoten oder Beginn der Etablierung einer Dynastie. In: Bruno Bleckmann (Hg.), Herodot und die Epoche der Perserkriege: Realitäten und Fiktionen. Kolloquium zum 80. Geburtstag von D. Kienast, Köln 2007, in press.
8.   Lenfant interprets Cyrus' qualification as a "Mardian" in the same way (LXI). Yet this might even be taken as a hint at Cyrus' lineage: Potts (note 3), esp. p. 23.
9.   For this ritual see most recently Irene Huber, Ersatzkönige in griechischem Gewand: Die Umformung der sar puhi-Rituale bei Herodot, Berossos, Agathias und den Alexander-Historikern. In: Robert Rollinger (Hg.), Von Sumer bis Homer. Festschrift für Manfred Schretter zum 60. Geburtstag am 25. Februar 2004 (Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 325), Münster 2004, 339-397.
10.   See now also Robert Rollinger, Assur, Assyrien und die klassische Überlieferung: Nachwirken, Deutungsmuster und historische Reflexion, in: Johannes Renger (Hg.), Assur -- Gott, Stadt, Land (CDOG 5), Berlin 2007, in press.
11.   Cf. Mario Liverani, The fall of the Assyrian empire: ancient and modern interpretations. In: Susan Alcock, Terence N. D'Altroy, Kathleen D. Mirgan and Carla M. Sinopoli (eds), Empires. Perspectives drom Archaeology and History, Cambridge 2001, 374-391.
12.   Reinhard Pirngruber, Eunuchen am Königshof: Ktesias und die altorientalische Evidenz. In: Josef Wiesehöfer, Giovanni Battista Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger (eds), Ctesias of Knidos and his World (Oriens et Occidens), Stuttgart 2007, in press.
13.   Reinhold Bichler, Ktesias "korrigiert" Herodot. Zur literarischen Einschätzung der Persika. In: Herbert Heftner and Kurt Tomaschitz (eds), Ad Fontes. Festschrift für Gerhard Dobesch zum fünfundsechzigsten Geburtstag am 15. September 2004, Wien 2004, 105-116.
14.   Two important contributions which have just recently been published may be added to the vast bibliography of Lenfant: Rüdiger Schmitt, Iranische Anthroponyme in den erhaltenen Resten von Ktesias' Werk (Iranica Graeca Vetustiora III = Österr. Ak. d. Wiss., Phil.-Hist. Kl. SB 736 = Veröff. z. Iranistik 33), Wien 2006. Christopher Tuplin, Doctoring the Persians: Ctesias of Cnidus, Physician and Historian. In: Klio 86 (2004) 2, 305-447.

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