Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.02

Rolf Strootman, Miguel John Versluys (ed.), Persianism in Antiquity. Oriens et Occidens, 25.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017.  Pp. 557.  ISBN 9783515113823.  €84.00.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (

Table of Contents

Thirteen of the papers presented in this volume originate from a colloquium of the same title, held at Istanbul on April 24-25, 2014 and dedicated to the cultural and political memory of the Achaemenid Empire in antiquity. Subsequently, another eight authors accepted an invitation to add their views on aspects of ‘Persianism’, bringing the total to 21 papers, 20 in English and one in German. The aim of the colloquium was to explore “how the concept of ‘Persianism’ can help us to better understand the intracultural entanglements by which … [cultural and political] memory [of the Achaemenid Empire] is created, and so move beyond the traditional separation between West and East that still pervades the grand narratives of ancient history and cultural studies” (7). In the introductory chapter (9-32), the editors define ‘Persianism’ as “ideas and associations revolving around Persia and appropriated in specific contexts for specific (socio-cultural or political) reasons” (9). This admittedly broad definition has the benefit of allowing sufficient space for the range of phenomena under discussion, extending from antiquity to the modern reception of Persianism (henceforth without inverted commas). One inconvenience of the definition as applied to the Achaemenid Empire is that the Achaemenid Empire as whole, with its rich diversity, might be equated too easily with “Persia”, even though the editors show themselves conscious of this risk (e.g. on 12-13). In his concluding contribution, Shayegan avoids the trap by the use of the words ‘Iranicate’ and ‘Iranian’, even though they may well create other problems of definition.

The papers are divided into three parts, each devoted to a specific theme: part I, entitled “Persianization, Persomania, Perserie” (33-144, 6 papers);1 part II, “The Hellenistic World” (145-266, 7 papers); and part III, “Roman and Sasanian Perspectives” (267-456, 8 papers). Even though the last of these might seem to occupy a disproportionate share of the volume, the division does not feel unbalanced. The arrangement allows for the discussion of as many aspects of Persianism as possible, given that an exhaustive treatment of the topic would not be possible in the confines of a single volume. Space is limited in a review as well, and consequently I cannot discuss every contribution. Instead, I have selected two, two, and three papers from parts I, II, and III, respectively. The selection was more or less random (except for the exclusion of contributions by colleagues I know personally, to avoid the appearance of bias); the papers I omit are as relevant and important as the others for establishing the view of Persianism that the editors seek to convey, and they meet the same high standards of scholarship.

Margaret C. Miller (‘Quoting ‘Persia’ in Athens,’ 49-68) discusses the responses of the people of Athens “to their comprehension of Persia and to the stimulus of the evolving idea of Persia (or ‘Persia’)” (49), primarily in the areas of material culture and social expression. Though Miller surmises that Persianism reached its culmination in Athens in the late Hellenistic period (with the rebuilding of the Odeion of Perikles by the Cappadocian king Ariobarzanes II: 62-66), she also endorses a 1992 observation by Sarah P. Morris2 that Greece had been Orientalizing from its beginnings onwards. She notes, however, that Achaemenid control of a world empire seriously complicates the concept of Persia as a model, as Athenian and other Greeks frequently were responding to the example of the western satrapies rather than to the Persian heartland, thus modeling themselves on societies that had already modeled themselves on the Persian core (50). Nevertheless, Perserie distinctly figures in the Athenian public sphere, with a clear reference to (state) authority (cf. 55-60). Miller concludes, however, that “[i]n Athens, the lasting inheritance [of Persianism] is difficult to assess” (66).

‘Ancient Persianisms in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Revival of Persepolitan Imagery under the Qajars’ (107-119), by Judith A. Lerner, examines the revival of Achaemenid concepts, especially visual motifs, from about the third quarter of the nineteenth-century onwards in Persia (rather than Iran, the name the country officially adopted only in 1935), a phenomenon first apparent in the city of Shiraz. The images in question were largely drawn from Takht-e Jamshid, better known by its Greek name of Persepolis (about 60 km northeast of Shiraz). As Lerner remarks: “Contradictory as it may seem, the explanation for such appropriation of ancient motifs, … has much to do with Qajar Persia’s modernization – ideologically and technologically – and the recovery of part of its historical past” (107).3 Pre-Islamic pictorial themes had remained popular to some extent during earlier Islamic dynasties, but the Qajar period (1785 to 1925 ce) saw a wholesale adoption of Achaemenid imagery, enlisted in the effort to forge a national identity and build a modern nation-state. The impetus for this interest in the Achaemenid past, Lerner argues, was provided by Rawlinson’s transcription of the inscription of Darius I at Bisitun, which happened to coincide with the rise of nationalistic sentiments in Persia, along with a belief in the need for Persia to reclaim a prominent position in the world on various stages.

Damien Agat-Labordère discusses ‘Persianism through Persianization: The Case of Ptolemaic Egypt’ (147-162). Even though the Persian model had no great allure in Hellenistic Egypt, Persian domination was not forgotten, and certain elements of Persian culture, like the so- called Persian banquet, continued to influence Egyptian practices, particularly among the elite, even after the Achaemenid period. Ptolemaic rulers did their utmost to denigrate Achaemenid rule and to emphasize their own positive attitude to Egypt, its people and its gods. The Ptolemies used various methods of manipulation – notably of written sources – in order to win the support of the Egyptian elite in their war against the Seleucids, whom they portrayed as the Achaemenids’ direct successors. Their methods met with varying success, if only because, at least initially, Egyptian memory of pre-Achaemenid Assyrian rule was even more negative than recollections of the subsequent Persian occupation. The Ptolemaic program did, however, have an effect on the Macedonian elite. Finally, in the course of the third century bce Macedonian and Egyptian sentiments merged, strengthening Ptolemaic power.

In ‘Rival Images of Iranian Kingship and Persian Identity in Post-Achaemenid Western Asia’ (201-222), Matthew Canepa focuses on “the development of royal identities in the post-Achaemenid, post-Seleukid Iranian world” (201), and especially on Arsacid Parthian court culture in Anatolia, the Caucasus and northern Iran. Adaptation of Achaemenid religious and court culture was key for rulers like Mithridates VI (of Pontus),4 Tigranes II (of Armenia), and the Arsacids themselves. It should, however, be stressed that such Persianisms (Canepa emphasizes that a plural is in order) were primarily expressions of either court or aristocratic cultures, not of popular practice. Nevertheless, only the Sasanians succeeded in revitalizing Persian culture to such an extent that it could first rival then largely displace Hellenistic culture, not only in the Caucasus but in Central Asia as well.

Valeria Sergueenkova and Felipe Rojas (‘Persia on their Minds: Achaemenid Memory Horizons in Roman Anatolia’, 269-288) examine the use of Persian allusions by Roman cities in Asia Minor. In spite of the negative portrayal of the Persians in Roman propaganda (if only due to Roman enmity towards Parthia), both communities and individuals in Roman Anatolia not merely stressed but even celebrated their former connections with Persia. This phenomenon is demonstrated by Anatolians invoking Persian ideas and associations, both during embassies to Rome itself (cf., e.g., Tacitus Annals 3.60-63) and in several forms of re-enactment (276-281), and by the identification of features and/or landmarks in the landscape as Persian in origin. The authors thus demonstrate that “Rome” and “Persia” were not antithetical concepts, at least as long as manifestations of Persianism were not directed against Rome.

Richard Gordon focuses on the cult of Mithra in ‘Persae in spelaeis solem colunt: Mithra(s) between Persia and Rome’(289-326). The first literary allusion to Mithras in a Roman text – because of its context viewed by Gordon as a Persianism – is in Statius’ Thebais, dating to the late Flavian period. In spite of the efforts of, e.g., F.V.M. Cumont 5 and M.J. Vermaseren,6 so far no direct links have been detected between the Persian Mithras and the Roman cult of Mithra, the practices of which seem mainly to originate in Graeco- Roman cosmography. Roman Mithraism is therefore, in Gordon’s view, rather an appropriation than a reception stricto sensu. Gordon seeks to prove his point through an elaborate set of conceptions of Persianisms (e.g., the dress-code) involved in the appropriation. His view has much to recommend it, but in the end, his argument is not completely convincing, if only because too much of it appears to be ultimately based on speculation. Gordon himself admits: “What ‘Mithraism’ looks like will always be a matter of the model one starts with” (325).

Finally, M. Rahim Shayegan’s ‘Persianism: or Achaemenid Reminiscences in the Iranian and Iranicate World(s) of Antiquity’ (401-455) contributes a wide-ranging discussion of many manifestations of Persianism, in my view a perfect supplement to the introductory chapter by Strootman and Versluys. He first investigates iconographic motifs drawn from Achaemenid monuments and reliefs in later periods, notably that of the Sasanians, concluding that such emulations should be considered as Persianisms, according to the definition of Strootman and Versluys. This conclusion is also valid for his second field of examination, the impact of others “with an awareness of their Achaemenid past” (454), like the kings of Pontus and Commagene, who were more knowledgeable of the Iranian past than the Iranians themselves. A more elusive field is that of what Shayegan regards as ‘intangible traces’. He concludes as follows: “The discursive strategies … in the redaction and dissemination (of the content) of Iranian inscriptions across millennia are testimony to the endurance of cultural memory, which despite its elusive nature, ought to be entailed in the discussion of Persianism” (455). It seems that discussion of Persianism has only just begun. The volume under scrutiny provides a valuable base for future dialogue.

The volume is well edited and produced, with few typographical errors, though there are some awkward hyphenations. I further applaud the fact that the editors and/or publisher have opted for footnotes over endnotes, underlining the cohesion of text and notes. The unity of the subject is emphasized by a communal bibliography, which is preceded by a list of abbreviations. The absence of any form of index, however, is a major disappointment. This is nevertheless a commendable volume, especially for specialists. In spite of its accessible language it (regrettably) is not a collection suitable for a more general audience.


1.   The latter word is defined as intransitive Persianization: cf., e.g., the contribution by Miller (51).
2.   Detailed in Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art, Princeton, passim.
3.   This appropriation of the Achaemenid past is also apparent in literature, where a huge revival of interest – and appreciation – for, notably, the Achaemenids is discernible in the Qajar period, as, for instance, Jalāl-al-Din Mirzā’s Nāma-ye ḵosravān (= Book of the Kings) (3 vols., Tehran 1868-1871 [= 1285-1288]). See also, e.g., my ‘The Perception in Iran in the Medieval and Modern Era’ in: B. Jacobs and R. Rollinger (eds.), Blackwell’s Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, forthcoming.
4.   The Mithridatids are also the subject of another contribution in this volume, by Charlotte Lerouge-Cohen (223-233), who argues that the their claims to Persian or Achaemenid roots were not directed to an Iranian audience but rather a consequence of the Hellenistic world they lived in.
5.   Notably his Les mystères de Mithra, Brussels 19133.
6.   Inter alia editor of the Brill series Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire Romain as well as author of several books on Mithraic cults in the Roman Empire. ​

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