Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.59

Bruno Jacobs, Wouter Franklin Merijn Henkelman, Matthew W. Stolper (ed.), Die Verwaltung im Achämenidenreich – Imperiale Muster und Strukturen: Akten des 6. Internationalen Kolloquiums zum Thema “Vorderasien im Spannungsfeld klassischer und altorientalischer Überlieferungen” aus Anlass der 80-Jahr-Feier der Entdeckung des Festungsarchivs von Persepolis, Landgut Castelen bei Basel, 14.-17. Mai 2013. Classica et Orientalia, Band 17.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017.  Pp. lix, 888.  ISBN 9783447107938.  €128,00.  


Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk (jpstronk@planet.nl)

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Though occasional visitors from outside Persia/Iran already visited Persepolis from at least the early fourteenth century AD onwards, a variety of amateur digging only occurred at the site, in some cases on a large scale, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first scientific excavations at Persepolis were carried out first by Ernst Herzfeld and, succeeding him, Erich Schmidt, both representing the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. They conducted excavations for eight seasons, beginning in 1930, and in their research included other nearby sites as well. Their work led to the first scientific publication on the site of Persepolis by Ernst E. Herzfeld, A New Inscription of Xerxes from Persepolis (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 5), Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1932. During these excavations, in March 1933 (eighty years ago, thus, in 2013), Herzfeld found two rooms filled up with clay tablets that were arranged in order, as in a library. In total, according to Herzfeld’s estimation at the time, it amounted to an archive of some 30,000 or more tablets. This archive has since become known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive. In 1935, Iranian authorities loaned this archive to the Oriental Institute for further research: the archive subsequently arrived in Chicago in 1936. Studying the complex archive proved to be a long-lasting task. The first publication of part of the archive therefore only occurred in 1969: Richard T. Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets (Oriental Institute Publications, 92), Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1969.

In recent decades, a number of local archives and other primary sources for the history of the Achaemenid empire either have been made available for the first time or have received new treatment, or both. Foremost among these are further parts of the Persepolis Fortification Archive, but, e.g., also the correspondence between the satraps of Bactria and Egypt and their respective staffs has become available. Several elements that come to the fore in such documents are discussed by the contributors to this volume, which hosts in total eighteen contributions (thirteen of them in English, three in German, and two in French). Basically, there are, in my view, two elementary strands discernible in these contributions. The aim in the first strand is to try to analyze the events and transactions documented by these sources in terms of bureaucratic and administrative protocols and to interpret them within an empire-wide network. By doing so, it becomes apparent that recurring patterns reveal a system of administrative hierarchies and structures. Another approach presented in this volume confronts such primary sources as there are with information about Achaemenid imperial administration in classical (secondary) sources, the primary material serving both as a corrective and as an analytical tool. These complementary approaches both appear to lead to a similar assessment, viz. that the imperial administration was not characterized by rupture and ad hoc responses to crises, but rather by continuity and stability. Ultimately these long-term factors, sc. continuity and stability, were important — probably even vital —reasons for the unprecedented scope and endurance of this empire, which in the end lasted more than two centuries.

In terms of the evolution of Achaemenid studies, the present volume is a logical sequel to P. Briant, W.F.M. Henkelman, and M.W. Stolper (eds.), L’archive des Fortifications de Persépolis. État des questions et perspectives de recherches (Persika, 12), Paris: De Bocchard, 2009, the proceedings of a Paris colloquium held in 2006. Taking the proceedings of the Paris colloquium as a starting point, the 2013 conference at Basel underlines the range of advances made in the last decade in the field of Achaemenid studies, not least thanks to the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project that was inaugurated with that 2006 Paris colloquium. Notwithstanding that, the editors of this volume, rightly in my perception, observe that: “In the past decades, scholars have battled ill-founded but surprisingly persistent notions of the Achaemenid empire as a colossus on clay feet or as an entity that remained largely invisible outside its core territory, both in physical and institutional terms” (xi). Especially Pierre Briant demonstrated the high visibility of empire in numerous publications, therein notably recognizing “the repeated application and reproduction of central mechanisms and structures across the lands of the Great King …” (ibid.). Recognizing the value of this observation, the editors of the volume under scrutiny suggest that: “This direction of research is far from exhausted. It will only be strengthened and deepened by the new data pouring out of the Persepolis archives” (ibid.).

As already hinted at above, apart from the Persepolis archives, also Greek and Roman sources (the central subject of the contributions by Sabine Müller and Kai Ruffing respectively; somewhat less prominently present in Christopher Tuplin’s paper), Demotic (discussed by Damien Agut-Labordère), as well as other primary Achaemenid sources are analyzed in this volume, such as the Aramaic texts on leather and wood from Bactria or the correspondence, likewise in Aramaic, of the Persian satrap of Egypt (the so-called Aršāma-archive). All these sources have in common that they only can be made to speak to us about Achaemenid, empire-wide, administrative structures with great effort, if only because while all these corpora do indeed document, they generally do not explain or describe institutions, protocols, and structures. Moreover, among the major problems facing the researcher are both the geographical and the temporal distance between the various corpora, stemming from Bactria to Egypt and from early in the Achaemenid Era to the last years of it; such distance raises serious methodological issues. The editors: “The most critical of these [i.e. methodological issues] is whether we can actually identify overall systems and protocols, knowing that these inevitably evolved during the life of the empire and were adapted, wherever necessary, to local traditions and needs. Each researcher therefore seeks his way on the narrow path between over-emphasizing difference and change and over-estimating unity, coherence and continuity” (xv-xvii).

It stands to reason to argue that the proven practice of travelling Persian élite and especially the mobile Persian court (already described in Herodotus’ Histories) may well have had some unifying force: this is well argued by Wouter F. M. Henkelman in his lengthy contribution (‘Imperial Signature and Imperial Paradigm: Achaemenid Administrative Structure and System Across and Beyond the Iranian Plateau’, 45-256), the centerpiece of this volume and its most extensive contribution by far. Henkelman makes clear, among many other issues, that the Fortification Archive unequivocally demonstrates that local administrators were clearly aware of an overarching framework, in casu the imperial structure. It is shown, for example, by travel documents issued in far-away India or Egypt, which nevertheless proved to be effective at backwater way stations in Elam, merely because the local clerks were trained to recognize the names of the responsible satraps, the centers where they resided, and their seals. Such practices reveal the presence of a definite awareness of the imperial network, at several administrative levels. Simultaneously, this awareness served as a common and binding factor among the many sub-satrapal officials in the Achaemenid lands. Ultimately, it were these sub-satrapal officials who, day by day, made the empire and made it work, if only because they embodied the unity of the empire. Unity is also the main theme of Bruno Jacob’s paper (‘Kontinuität oder kontinuierlicher Wandel in der achämenidischen Reichsverwaltung? Eine Synopse von PFT, dahyāva-Listen und den Satrapienlisten der Alexanderhistoriographen’, 3-44) and certainly—albeit in another form—that of Margarethe Folmer’s contribution, connecting the geographical extremities of the Empire: ‘Bactria and Egypt. Administration as Mirrored in the Aramaic Sources’ (413-454). In various (Greek) literary and (Persian) epigraphic documents, as well as in the Persepolis Fortification Archive, lists reciting ethnonyms are present. Jacobs shows in his contribution that the order in such lists was not accidental but followed a clear pattern, predominantly indicating the special role played by distinct groups, probably as specialists “für bestimmte Arbeiten in der Alltagsrealität der Verwaltung in Persepolis und vermutlich anderen Residenzen” (25). One of the consequences of this more or less fixed pattern is that the so-called Bīsutūn-list (of King Darius I) is nearly completely (at least as far as possible) recognizable in a list of provinces made after the demise of Alexander the Great (cf. 35, table 6), showing above all the importance of the continuity of imperial as well as administrative structures. In her contribution, Margarethe Folmer provides a meticulous analysis of the formal epistolary and diplomatic conventions which we find both in the Aršāma correspondence as well as in letters in the Aramaic Bactrian corpus. Even though there appear to occur many differences of detail, there is simultaneously some [my emphasis] broad general agreement between the corpora that ultimately presents “the image of a well-organized system of chancelleries working to produce official documents in a uniform way across the empire” (442). Annalisa Azzoni pays attention to the Empire’s unity in her article ‘The Empire as Visible in the Aramaic Documents from Persepolis’ as well (455-468, the briefest article of the collection). Focusing on texts that refer either to the king or to one Parnakka (Pharnaces), she points out in her paper that these Fortification tablets in Aramaic, despite the surprises they contain (the image evoked by the succinct entry on the king’s barber from Kandahar, referred to in PFAT 056, for example), are difficult to position into the larger whole of the Fortification Tablets. This leads her to believe that these texts “do not seem to be intended to stand as full, independent records” (462). At the same time, these tablets, as they are, underline the need she observes that much more should be done, if only in terms of philological work.

Although I have in this review, owing to pressures of space, paid attention to only a few of the contributions, a distinct picture can be seen to emerge. To put matters more concretely, we seem to be slowly arriving at a situation where we can recognize that various documentary sources, from different times and places and in different languages and formats, refer to the same imperial phenomena. What all these sources thereby express, in varying degrees of clarity, is that the Achaemenid Empire showed throughout its existence a distinct cohesion, if only because some relatively fixed protocols and/or practices were observed everywhere throughout the empire and at all times. One might even argue that the success of Alexander III the Great, who effectively ended the Achaemenid Empire, was in part enabled by this pre-existing imperial structure. The entirety of this picture appears to me to be underlined in the contribution by Pierre Briant (‘De Samarkand à Sardes via Persépolis dans les traces des Grands Rois et d’Alexandre’), the concluding remarks to this volume (827-855): he outlines both (methodological) problems as well as the rewards awaiting researchers of these multifaceted materials and as such excellently counterpoints the editors’ preface.

Even if the contributions make clear that there still is a long way to go to unravel all threads that made up the Achaemenid Empire, I found this nevertheless generally a comforting volume, if only because it not merely makes clear how much has been achieved in the last decade(s), but also because it suggests clear directions to be pursued in (already current and) future research. As usual for volumes in this series and by this publisher, the volume has been well taken care of. The number of typos is limited; drawings and photographs are apt. As yet, however, I found one aspect disappointing: the subject of the volume is clearly delineated (Achaemenid administration) and the emerging conclusion is that throughout the empire’s history unifying elements prevail in the administration. Why, then, not underline the theme by a communal bibliography instead of separate bibliographies concluding all contributions? Admitting that it would have been a massive task, I believe it implicitly also would have strengthened this volume’s message. Nevertheless, the editors (and contributors) are to be congratulated with this volume.

Authors and titles

Wouter F. M. Henkelman, Bruno Jacobs, and Matthew W. Stolper — ‘Einleitung: Imperiale Muster und Strukturen / Introduction: Tracing the Imperial Signature’
Matthew W. Stolper — ‘The Oriental Institute and the Persepolis Fortification Archive’
Bruno Jacobs — ‘Kontinuität oder kontinuierlicher Wandel in der achämenidischen Reichsverwaltung? Eine Synopse von PFT, dahyāva-Listen und den Satrapienlisten der Alexanderhistoriographen’
Wouter F. M. Henkelman — Imperial Signature and Imperial Paradigm: Achaemenid administrative structure and system across and beyond the Iranian plateau’
Pierfrancesco Callieri — ‘Evidence of Administration in the Archaeological Heritage of the Achaemenid Period in Iran’
Sabine Müller — ‘Hinweise auf die achaimenidische Reichsverwaltung bei Curtius, Trogus-Justin, Diodor und Plutarch’
Kai Ruffing — ‘Arrian und die Verwaltung des Achaimeniden-Reichs’
Jan Tavernier — ‘The Use of Languages on the Various Levels of Administration in the Achaemenid Empire’
Margarethe Folmer — ‘Bactria and Egypt. Administration as mirrored in the Aramaic sources
Annalisa Azzoni — ‘The Empire as Visible in the Aramaic Documents from Persepolis’
André Lemaire — ‘The Idumaean Ostraca as Evidence of Local Imperial Administration
Alexander Schütze — ‘Local Administration in Persian Period Egypt According to Aramaic and Demotic Sources’
Mark B. Garrison — ‘Sealing Practice in Achaemenid Times’
Ryka Gyselen — ‘L’administration sassanide et l’usage des sceaux’
Christopher Tuplin — ‘Serving the Satrap. Lower-rank officials viewed through Greek and Aramaic sources’
Damien Agut-Labordère — ‘Administrating Egypt under the First Persian Period. The Empire as visible in the Demotic sources’
Kristin Kleber — ‘Administration in Babylonia’
Michael Jursa and Martina Schmidl — ‘Babylonia as a Source of Imperial Revenue from Cyrus to Xerxes’
Matthew W. Stolper — ‘Investigating Irregularities at Persepolis’
Pierre Briant — ‘De Samarkand à Sardes via Persépolis dans les traces des Grands Rois et d’Alexandre (Concluding Remarks)’
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