Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.30

John O. Hyland, Persian Interventions: The Achaemenid Empire, Athens, and Sparta, 450–386 BCE.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.  Pp. xi, 257.  ISBN 9781421423708.  $54.95.  

Reviewed by David Branscome, Florida State University (


When modern historians of ancient Greece have approached the interactions between the Greeks and the Achaemenid Persians, two time periods have taken pride of place: 499–479 BCE (the Ionian Revolt through Xerxes’ invasion) and 336–323 (the career of Alexander the Great). By contrast, the history of Greek-Persian interactions that took place in between those two periods, whether in the Pentekontaetia or in the Peloponnesian War, has received relatively short shrift.1 For forty years, the only comprehensive historical treatment of Greek and Persian relations in the years from around 450 to 386 has been Lewis’ monograph. 2 With his book, Hyland aims not only to offer an updated study of those years but also to argue against the traditional scholarly reading of Persian policy and goals toward Greeks of the period. Hyland provides a revisionist narrative of Persian interventions in Greek affairs during 450–386 that is compelling and persuasive.

The book consists of eight chapters, a brief conclusion, and detailed endnotes; while the text runs to 172 pages, the endnotes run to almost 50 more. Chapter 1 serves as the introduction. In it, Hyland argues that advances in Achaemenid studies enable us to revise the view expounded first by Thucydides (8.87.4) that Persia’s main goal in 450–386 was to regain control of Ionia. The Persians therefore enacted a defensive policy of balancing, trying to ensure that neither Athens nor Sparta became too powerful, and they also tried to avoid direct military conflict between Persians and Greeks.3 But this theory does not match the worldview revealed by Achaemenid royal inscriptions: Persia had a claim to world dominion, and Persian kings had a duty (sanctioned by the god Ahuramazda) to establish order over chaos at the earth’s edges, which included Greece. Persian interventions in Greek affairs during this period were motivated primarily by such ideological beliefs and by economic considerations.

Chapter 2 explores why the Persian king Artaxerxes I (465–424) formed the Peace of Kallias with Athens in (probably) 449. Scholars have considered this peace—the historicity of which most now accept—a defeat for Artaxerxes because he lost control of Ionia. In Hyland’s view, the peace simply made good economic sense for Artaxerxes, since it would have removed the threat of constant naval skirmishes in the Aegean. Hyland explains how expensive building and maintaining a trireme fleet was, even for the Great King. Besides, Artaxerxes may have considered Athens a client state. It would have been in Artaxerxes’ interests that Athens be powerful (not weak), so that it could better defend the Persian Empire’s northwest borders. After 449, Artaxerxes’ support for Athens never seriously wavered.

In Chapters 3–5 Hyland turns to the reign of king Darius II (423–405). Scholars have usually seen Darius’ change of Persian support from Athens to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War as a response to Athens’ siding with the Persian rebels Pissouthnes and Amorges and to the Athenian disaster in Sicily (415–413). While both of these may have been contributing factors, Hyland argues in Chapter 3, a major reason for the change was that Athens, after Sicily, stopped collecting tribute in Ionia. Since Darius would have looked at Athens’ tribute collection as a gift conferred by the King, now the King was taking that gift back and giving it instead to the new western Anatolian satraps Tissaphernes and Pharnabazos. The Persians were operating under the false expectation that a weakened Athens would be defeated soon after 413. Chapter 4 concentrates on Tissaphernes and the treaty he brokered with Sparta in 411. Tissaphernes’ halving of his promised pay to the allied Peloponnesian fleet was due not to the balancing policy, but to the economic difficulty placed on his personal resources by the protracted war. He even began negotiations with Athens, until his agent, the Athenian exile Alkibiades, undermined them. Tissaphernes was trying to end the war as expeditiously and economically as possible. A favorable result of the Persian outreach to Athens was that Sparta became quicker to accept the treaty. In Chapter 5 Hyland dismisses the balancing policy as the reason behind Darius II’s recall of the Phoenician fleet sent in 411 to join the Peloponnesians in Ionia. Instead, Hyland blames the expulsions of Persian garrisons in Ionia. Not only did the expulsions—instigated by Peloponnesian sailors in anger over Tissaphernes’ payment delays and Alkibiades’ switching sides to Athens—represent a breach of the treaty by the Spartans, but also cities such as Miletos losing their Persian garrison meant that the Phoenician fleet would not have had friendly places to land.

The help in winning the Peloponnesian War that Darius II’s younger son, Cyrus, gave to Sparta forms the subject of Chapter 6. In the vain hope that his father would name him successor rather than his older brother Arsakes (the future Artaxerxes II), Cyrus was committed to ending the war. Cyrus contributed a large portion of his own fortune in 405–404 to propel Sparta to victory. He did not engage in a balancing policy, even when in 406, after the Spartan defeat at Arginousai, he temporarily stopped funding the Spartans.

The last two chapters focus on Artaxerxes II (405–359). Chapter 7 examines this king’s Anatolian policies in the wake of Cyrus’ failed rebellion against him. Artaxerxes’ preference for (cost-saving) diplomatic solutions for Ionian unrest is why it took so long for Persians to deal with Spartan incursions into Anatolia; contra Xenophon, it was not because of Tissaphernes’ cowardice. The restraint shown by Tissaphernes came from the King, who only executed him after the defeat of the satrap by Agesilaos and the Spartans in 395. By contrast, Pharnabazos, joined by the Athenian exile Konon, crushed the Peloponnesian fleet at Knidos in 394. If Artaxerxes II had only wanted Ionia back (as scholars argue), he would have stopped fighting Greeks after Knidos. Instead, he sent Pharnabazos and Konon to ravage the Laconian coast and to fortify Cythera. As Hyland points out in Chapter 8, Artaxerxes II was not practicing a balancing policy during the Corinthian War (395–387) and leading up to the King’s Peace in 386. In the 390s, the king had helped Athens (under the guidance of Konon) rebuild its walls. It was after the Persian karanos Tiribazos arrested Konon in 392 and an offended Athens turned against Persia that Artaxerxes switched his support back to the Spartans, who would become the agents for guaranteeing the dictates of the King’s Peace. By establishing peace in Greece and dictating its terms Artaxerxes demonstrated the reach of his influence.

In his conclusion, Hyland reiterates the implausibility of the balancing policy theory. He stresses the overall success of Persia in ending the Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars, the latter culminating in the King’s Peace. But two things prevented Persia from having even greater success against Greece in 450–386: economic conservatism, which led to reluctance on the part of the kings to commit money to the Persian fleet, and misunderstandings of Greek motivations, as evidenced by Tissaphernes and Tiribazos misunderstanding Alkibiades and Konon, respectively.

My criticisms of the book center on how Hyland deals with his target audience/s (presumably, students and specialists in ancient Greek history). First, it is not entirely clear how great a command of Greek he expects readers to have. All Greek in the text and endnotes is transliterated; the endnotes, which are geared more toward scholars, contain more transliterated Greek (and some Old Persian) than the text does. Readers of the text are still expected to know, however, what an oikos (59) is and what poleis and even chora (73) are.

Second, Hyland does not tell readers exactly why he begins his narrative at 450 and ends at 386. Although he does refer to the “interventionist period” (4) in relation to Lewis’ monograph, he does not establish what makes this period a distinct one worthy of study by itself. Why does Hyland not begin his narrative, say, in 479 and end it in 336? He needs to explain to readers what is unique about 450–386.

Third, by seeking to demolish the balancing policy theory, Hyland admirably tries to offset the Hellenocentric bias of ancient sources and modern historians depending on those sources. And yet such a bias occasionally appears in the book. Hyland says (171) that the King’s Peace represented “the point at which all the Greeks who mattered accepted membership in a universe ruled from Susa.” We do not know why ancient Greeks (beginning with Aeschylus in the Persians) believed that the Persian king’s primary royal capital was located at Susa; could it have been that the King conventionally met with Greek ambassadors at Susa, rather than at any of the other capitals? And for a book whose thesis rests in large part on how Achaemenid royal ideology shaped and motivated Persian interventions into Greek affairs, it is notable that Hyland almost never quotes from Achaemenid royal inscriptions, our main evidence for such ideology. In the text Hyland frequently mentions and occasionally quotes briefly or more extensively from Greek authors like Thucydides and Xenophon. While Hyland often cites Achaemenid inscriptions in endnotes (beginning with the very first note from Chapter 1: “XPh §3; cf. DSe §3; DPe §2” (173 n. 1)), quotations from non-Greek ancient sources in the book’s text are rare: a letter of Arshama, satrap of Egypt (58–9); a Persepolis Fortification tablet (80); seven words from an inscription of Darius I (165), and ten words that recur in inscriptions of Darius I and of Xerxes (167). These last two in-text quotations are the only ones from Achaemenid royal inscriptions, and they do not appear until the end of the book’s eighth and final chapter.

Fourth, there are problems with Hyland’s treatment of Pharnabazos. Hyland consistently refers to him as the satrap of Daskyleion (reflecting Greek terminology: Hdt. 3.120.2; Thuc. 1.129.1), but he never indicates for readers (in the text, at any rate) the region in which this satrapal seat was located, Hellespontine Phrygia. This region only appears in Map 3 on page 82. Overall, Hyland treats Pharnabazos sympathetically, and so it is all the more striking that, shortly after he has related (165) that Pharnabazos married Artaxerxes II’s daughter Apame, he lets Pharnabazos disappear from his narrative without a comment: he refers (167) to “the new satrap of Daskyleion, Ariobarzanes.” While we do not know what (if any) connection Ariobarzanes had with Pharnabazos, Weiskopf has reasonably suggested that Ariobarzanes was Pharnabazos’ son, especially since Pharnabazos had succeeded his own father, Pharnakes, as satrap of the region.4

These criticisms aside, Hyland’s book is an important one that all scholars dealing with ancient Greek or Persian history will henceforth have to take into account. As Hyland convincingly shows, the balancing policy theory will no longer stand.


1.   Scholarly studies of Greek and Persian relations have tended to concentrate less on historical events and more on either cultural interchange (e.g. M. C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity [Cambridge 1997]) or Persian perceptions of Greeks (e.g. R. Rollinger and W. F. M. Henkelman, “New Observations on ‘Greeks’ in the Achaemenid Empire according to Cuneiform Texts from Babylonia and Persepolis,” in P. Briant and M. Chauveau, eds., Organisation des pouvoirs et contacts culturels dans les pays de l’empire achéménide, [Paris 2009], 331–51).
2.   D. M. Lewis, Sparta and Persia (Leiden 1977). Lewis takes a single event, the Athenian general Aristeides’ capture of the Persian emissary Artaphernes, whom the Persian king had sent to Sparta in 425/4 (Thuc. 4.50), and fills in the historical narrative of 450–386 around it.
3.   See, for example, M. Waters, Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE (Cambridge 2014), who refers (185, cf. 166) to Persia’s “successful policy to keep the Greek city-states unbalanced and diminish their threats to Persian interests.”
4.   M. Weiskopf, The So-Called “Great Satraps’ Revolt,” 366–360 B.C.: Concerning Local Instability in the Achaemenid Far West (Stuttgart 1989), 27.

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