Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.29

Thomas Harrison, Writing Ancient Persia. Classical essays.   London; New York:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. 190.  ISBN 9780715639177.  $24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kirsty Mason, University of Kent (

Thomas Harrison’s Writing Ancient Persia is a good introduction for those new to the subject of modern historiography of Achaemenid Persia. It aims to introduce the reader to the various different sources for Achaemenid history as well as the arguments from both classical and Achaemenid scholars.

Harrison’s preface briefly explains the complicated nature of the scholarship surrounding Achaemenid history. He questions issues such as the King’s command of his empire and the date of its end, acknowledging that some scholars see Alexander the Great as an heir to the Achaemenid throne. He explains the differences between classical Greek scholarship and current Achaemenid scholarship, describing the substantial re-writing of Achaemenid history during the twentieth century due to the advent of the Achaemenid History Workshops which have advanced knowledge of the Achaemenid Empire beyond that of the Greek stories of Persian Kings. Achaemenid scholars have broken away from the Hellenocentric view point of Greek scholarship, which portrays the Achaemenid Empire as a decadent and declining empire. Now they concentrate on how the empire survived 150 years after the Persian Wars until the reign of Alexander the Great. The purpose of Harrison’s book is to investigate the “revolution” in Achaemenid historiography and scholarship, and to question and critique the methods of this new area of research without diminishing the achievements of those scholars involved.

Writing Ancient Persia is divided into 6 chapters: Against the Grain, The Persian Version, Family Fortunes, Live and Let Live, Terra Incognita and Concluding Hostilities. Each chapter looks at different areas of scholarship; the first concentrates on sources of information for the Achaemenid Empire.

In Against the Grain Harrison investigates Greek sources, explaining that although some Greeks had vivid memories of the Persian invasions and others (such as Ctesias) even had access to the Persian court, direct information and experiences of the Persian Empire were rare. Scholars need to recognise the various distortions information may have undergone to suit the Greek author’s purpose. He notes that even the most exemplary Greek source, such as Xenophon, was prone to subordinating accuracy to other concerns. Looking at Persian sources, primarily the Persepolis tablets, Harrison discusses the problems with this source of information: namely that they derive from a very specific time period (late 6th and early 5th centuries) and location and are written in Elamite and thus do not reflect the entire empire. Harrison notes that whereas Greek sources may concentrate on court intrigue and gossip, sometimes undercutting their own narratives, Persian sources (especially architectural and artistic ones) give one sustained impression, projecting their own agenda of conformity and so both forms of evidence are required. Although sources become more problematic as we recognise their ideological colouring this does not mean they were not based on an original fact or idea. Against the Grain concludes by reflecting on how Greek sources cannot simply be “pigeon holed” by brutally stripping away any bias from sources on the grounds of fact or gossip.

The Persian Version analyses Persian sources for information on the Achaemenid Empire, first looking at the shift in modern perceptions of Persian sources and particularly the change in attitudes towards Persian art and the administration of the Achaemenid Empire. Contrary to earlier scholarship, uniformity in royal declarations and art, especially sculpture, is now believed to indicate a deliberate borrowing of Hellenic features and is seen as a purposeful response to the cultural contacts between the two peoples. Harrison next discusses what he describes as “rhetorical redirection” applied to Greek sources, where the perspective of the narrative is re-directed, citing the burning of the temple of Cybebe during the Ionian Revolt as an example. Herodotus’ statement that the Ionians burnt the temple accidentally is received with cynicism by modern scholarship who then “silently... air brush” Herodotus when reaching their conclusions. Harrison notes that because Achaemenid scholars are attempting to view sources through “Persian eyes”, it is easy to forget that for some accounts we are completely dependent on Greek sources. He warns us not to underestimate the sources we have available as they can often be “more textured than....generally credited” (Harrison, p. 50). The final section of this chapter concerns Achaemenid scholarship about Alexander the Great. Harrison states that many Achaemenid scholars have a stake in the “heroic narrative” of Alexander concentrating on his violence and destructions. Whereas Greek historians, he notes, cannot have both a true Alexander “the Great” as well as a weak Persian Empire, only one or the other can be true. Harrison concludes this chapter reflecting that in an attempt to remove a Helleno-centric focus from sources sometimes an Irano-centric focus is achieved.

The third chapter, Family Fortunes, focuses on scholarly attitudes to depictions of the Persian throne and royal family, with a particular focus on royal women. According to modern Achaemenid scholarship the Greek- Barbarian polarity in Greek thought is due to the western construction of the ‘Orient’ in general whereby Greek norms are simply inverted. Themes such as Persian excess, hubris and sexual intrigue are explored, and Harrison notes possible justifications and explanations rooted in Greek wilful or unintentional misunderstanding. For example violent reactions to Persian nobles are dismissed as Realpolitik or fantasy. When discussing royal women, who are often depicted as crueller than the Persian kings, Harrison notes two things: first: that Classical depictions show Persian royal women acting primarily in the interests of their families, holding vast power and demonstrating masculine traits. However, Achaemenid scholarship views such depictions as clichéd and the result of misogyny or ignorance and, therefore, to be dismissed. Second: that despite the above opinions dismissing Greek accounts, most Greek sources do loosely support Persian sources, in particular the Persepolis tablets which show “enterprising and resolute” Persian royal women. It is surmised that Achaemenid scholarship has too great a desire to reverse the negative reputation of Persian women noting that it is not only Persian women in Greek sources who are depicted as cruel in the interests of their families. Just as it is easy to find modern parallels for cruel tyrants and kings we should not simply dismiss such depictions out of hand but recognise that Greek sources tend to moralise.

Chapter four, Live and Let Live, looks at the subject peoples of the Achaemenid Empire. In this area scholarly perceptions have also shifted and the Persian Empire is now perceived as relatively benign compared to its Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors. Harrison does not claim that Persian rule over its subject peoples wasn’t harsh but he comments on the necessity to avoid the clichés implied in the term “Oriental despotism”.

The rest of the chapter considers the notion of religious tolerance, beginning with a brief analysis of Cambyses’ killing of the Apis bull. It proceeds by examining an inscription by an Egyptian named Udjahoresnet, who talks of his role in “the great disaster,” which seems to refer to disruptions to temple life during the initial aftermath of Cambyses’ conquest. Taken with the account of the Apis bull, Harrison suggests that this is good evidence of a targeted response by Cambyses against specific, rebellious temples. Harrison next discusses the Daiva Inscription. Evidence of Cambyses’ actions in Egypt, taken with Xerxes’ Daiva Inscription, leads him to conclude that the sack of religious sites was due to political rather than religious motivations, citing the sack of Didyma after the Ionian Revolt as an example. The final point focuses on the concept of religious tolerance in the Persian Empire, noting that it was neither necessary nor practical for the Persians to impose their own religion on their subject nations. By allowing their subject nations to practice their own religions they were easy to control.

Terra Incognita, discusses whether previous scholarship concerning the Achaemenid Empire is as Hellenocentric as is suggested. Looking at various sources including travel writers and historians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harrison notes that most sources concentrate on Harem intrigue and the decadence or moral decline of the Achaemenid Empire, which is assumed without explanation in some instances. However, this is not to say that all early sources believed the same. Harrison notes that early writers such as E. Sykes recognise that “to assume the Persian Empire decadent robs Alexander of credit for his military achievements” (Harrison, p. 95) mirroring the arguments of modern Achaemenid scholarship. Furthermore, early attitudes to Achaemenid art and architecture are positive and recognise how the empire combined the different styles of its subject nations and that its uniformity was intentional. Many of these early sources show sympathy for Zoroastrianism, although this is primarily due to its monotheism and the good accounts of the Persian Empire presented in the Old Testament of the Bible. Many also tried to identify with ancient Persia rather than its modern inhabitants. These historical writers try to research independently of Classical sources which they deem to be Hellenocentric and too uncritical. Harrison concludes that many of the sources he looks at in this chapter have been largely ignored either because they are not academic or because they are deemed to have been “tainted by the Imperial context in which they are written” (Harrison, p. 107).

The final chapter, Concluding Hostilities, looks at current perceptions of the Achaemenid Empire. Harrison notes that the British Museum’s exhibition, Forgotten Empire, in 2005 “enshrined many of the central tenets of modern scholarship” (Harrison, p. 109). Both the Achaemenid History Workshops and the British Museum’s exhibition demonstrate the shift in scholarly attitudes, describing the Persian Empire as resilient rather than decadent, with a new emphasis that Persian control was not simply passing and superficial. Achaemenid workshop scholars tend to emphasise the Helleno-centrism of Classical sources and their focus on the polarity between Greece and Persia, striving to disprove the old “barbarian” stereotype, rather than investigating the Greek attitude itself. He argues that many Classical sources are aware of cultural exchanges between Greece and Persia noting that this doesn’t necessarily prove cultural understanding in the sources. Harrison goes on to question whether recent studies concerning the concept of the “barbarian” diminish Achaemenid historiography and notes that recent Achaemenid historiographers tend to distance themselves from classical sources and reduce the significance of Greek representations of Persia. He emphasises the need to use cultural representations from classical sources sympathetically and to consider them in their own right rather than discarding them. Harrison’s penultimate point is an awareness of the assumption of continuity of attitudes concerning the Orient from ancient sources through to the present day. He warns that we must try not to subscribe to the patriotic myth of the Greek “under-dog” during the Persian invasion of Greece and notes that the Greeks were not unique in their “chauvinistic attitudes” (Harrison, p. 124) towards other nations.

Harrison closes his work noting that just as early classical scholars were “imprisoned” by the concept of an East-West divide so too is Persian historiography. Harrison comments that Classical and Achaemenid sources become more problematic the more we recognize their ideological colourings and so we need to be careful not to “pigeon hole” them.

Throughout his work Harrison attempts to present a picture of classical Persia drawing on both modern Achaemenid scholarship but also looking at existing sources both classical and indigenous. His main focus seems to be to show that although modern Achaemenid scholarship appears to believe that their discoveries are unique they are in fact a continuation of much older ideas. He spends much of his time, as he warns in his prologue he will, criticising modern Achaemenid scholarship’s opinions in defence of classical scholarship. However, in doing this he successfully presents information to his reader clearly and concisely, questioning it thoroughly and recognising the efforts of Achaemenid scholars. Writing Ancient Persia is an ideal book for those new to Achaemenid history as it presents major current academic arguments and scholarship with a full bibliography for those interested in learning more from both Achaemenid and Greek scholars.

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