BMCR 1998.09.10

Histoire de l’empire perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre


Pierre Briant’s monumental work contains 888 pages of text and figures, 180 pages of “Notes documentaires,” 66 pages of bibliography, and 89 pages of indices (general and source). It is without question the authoritative work on the Persian Empire to date. The text itself is prefaced by an introduction and prologue and then divided into six parts, each of which contains from one to four chapters. A short conclusion ends the text before the several hundred pages of notes, bibliography, and indices. To review thoroughly such a work lies beyond anything short of a comparable volume, so I will limit my remarks to a general overview and to a few specific areas.

The study of Achaemenid history involves material from a myriad of civilizations and languages, and Briant skillfully and thoroughly treats all the sources (textual, archaeological, and art historical). This is perhaps the foremost virtue of this study. Briant integrates the classical and Near Eastern material in a superb discussion not only of Achaemenid political history but also of numerous aspects of Persian culture, religion, and economics. It far surpasses a general overview in its expository approach to even fragmentary evidence.

In the Introduction (“Sur les traces d’un empire”), Briant traces his researches on the Achaemenid Empire and the evolution of this opus, a history of the book itself, including descriptive acknowledgment of those numerous scholars from whose work and support he has benefited. An overview of his methodological approach rounds out this section. The historiographical concerns discussed in this section reappear throughout the work, as Briant examines individual sources and authors. The Prologue (“Les Perses avant l’empire”) is a modified version of an article published in Iranica Antiqua 19 (1984), 71-118, wherein Briant consolidates recent research of this complex period. Because of the relative lack of Near Eastern documentation, and the significant difficulties dealing with what is extant, much of what Herodotus and the Greek tradition preserved cannot be checked. When Near Eastern evidence is available to test the Greek tradition, though, the Greek writers are frequently (but certainly not always) proven wrong. In this section Briant compares the Greek traditions of Cyrus the Great’s origins and rise to power with information proffered by Near Eastern sources.

Part I (“Les bâtisseurs de l’empire: De Cyrus à Darius”) consists of four chapters which detail the expansion of the empire under Cyrus the Great and Cambyses. Briant’s treatment of Cambyses’ place in the Egyptian tradition is a particularly valuable examination of the extensive difficulties surrounding Cambyses’ invasion, Egyptian reaction and collaboration, and the Greek tradition’s slanted portrayal of “the mad Cambyses.” This section typifies Briant’s balanced and critical approach to the source material. An overview of the satrapy system under Cyrus and Cambyses and the workings of the early imperial tribute system proves a fine example of Briant’s welding of political and economic history, particularly in his case-study of Babylonia during Cyrus’ and Cambyses’ reigns.

What inevitably occupies a central place is Briant’s extensive discussion of the crisis of empire occurring with the usurpation of Bardiya, Cambyses’ death, and Darius’ rise to power. Briant gives a comprehensive examination of Herodotus’ account of the plot of the Seven Conspirators and reconciles it (or debunks it, as warranted) with the evidence from the Bisitun Inscription of Darius. Sorting the facts from the propaganda regarding Darius’ accession is a monumental task, and the difficulties cannot be overestimated. Several questions still elude final answers: How did Cambyses die? What was Darius’ true role in the conspiracy? Why did Herodotus echo so closely the Bisitun Inscription (the official version) in some instances and yet in other ways so vastly diverge? How are the differing versions presented by other Greek authors to be reconciled? Briant provides an even-handed discussion of the evidence, although his bias for the Near Eastern material is frequently evident. This bias, however, is difficult to impugn.

Briant also makes a strong case for the view that Darius adopted Cyrus into the Achaemenid line (by way of a fabricated, shared descent from Achaemenes) for the cause of legitimization, a device not unknown in previous Near Eastern history. The long-recognized break between Darius and his predecessors is necessarily extended by the recognition that Darius not only usurped the throne but also instituted a new dynastic principle. With Darius’ marriages to Cyrus’ daughters, every Persian king’s lineage except Darius’ itself may be traced to Cyrus the Great.

But what sets Darius apart as remarkable is not only the scope of his military achievements but even more the effective and long-standing royal ideology which he created and which Briant explores in subsequent chapters. This section next treats Darius’ conquests beyond those bounds set by Cyrus and Cambyses: the Aegean, India, northeast Africa and southeast Europe. Part I concludes with the Battle of Marathon, set within the contexts of Persian imperialism and the phenomenon of Greek Medism.

Part II (“Le grand roi”) consists of four chapters and emphasizes Persian cultural and economic institutions. The Persian king is the sun around which a massive, many-layered apparatus of the royal family, courtiers, armies, subjects, and slaves revolves. Briant examines the king’s relationships with these various groups through inscriptions, iconography, the incorporation of text and image, construction works, festivals, cult, and the bestowing of gifts and honors. The capitals of Susa and Persepolis (especially the latter) became allegories for the new ideology and a new, inclusive world view. This is best represented in the Foundation Charter of Susa (DSf and DSz), which enumerates the numerous subject peoples and their contributions to the building of Darius’ palace, represented by the materials or workmanship for which each region was known. Briant explores the political roles of the army, the magi, eunuchs, and the king’s courtiers: the interplay between these various groups and the king, and by what mechanisms the king retained their support and loyalty. Particularly valuable is Briant’s analysis of the ethnic composition of Achaemenid officials and the relations between the kings, the royal family, and the Persian aristocracy.

Part III (“Espaces, populations et économie tributaire”) consists of four chapters which continue the emphasis on institutional analysis, especially communications, travel, and finance. These chapters include detailed discussions of the famed Persian roads, the satrapy-system, the collection of tribute, and the role of tribute in the economy. These topics benefit from Briant’s careful and productive analysis of the Elamite administrative tablets from Persepolis, the dates of which range between 509-458. These texts (of which only about half of the approximately 4500 tablets have been published) are essential sources, and this corpus is one of the best examples of the potential of the Near Eastern material to illuminate (whether it be to confirm or reject) information gleaned from classical sources. Briant here reveals his command of the sources and his versatility in the evaluation of these difficult documents. His discussion of imperial administration highlights the diverse character of the empire’s subject peoples and emphasizes that political unification was not exclusive to this heterogeneity — this is part of the Persian genius.

Part IV (“De Xerxès à Darius III, l empire en mouvement”) consists of three chapters, and it begins with further discussion of Hellenocentrism in the sources, as a prelude to Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. The Greeks’ cataclysmic struggle (from the Greek perspective) for independence and the subsequent conflict between Greeks and Persia are but one small part of the empire’s evolution, and Briant maintains the necessary, i.e. Persian, perspective. His analysis of the consequences of the Persian defeat provides a much-needed, balanced assessment. Xerxes was hardly the first (or last) Persian king to suffer a defeat in the field, yet the empire retained its vitality for almost 150 years after Mycale.

Briant’s examination of Greek-Persian relations post-479 is also to be lauded, especially his persuasive critique of the so-called “Peace of Callias.” Briant demonstrates that despite the growth of Athenian power in the Aegean, the Persians did not relinquish their territorial claims and were determined to contest them. The enormous problems with the source material for this episode aside, subsequent Greek-Persian interaction indicates heightened Persian involvement in western Asia Minor and the Aegean. Briant’s conclusion is compelling: If negotiations occurred between Athens and Persia c.449, it would be more accurate to term the results a King’s Peace rather than the Peace of Callias.

Part V (“Le IVe siècle et l’empire de Darius III dans la longue durée achéménide: Un bilan prospectif”) consists of two chapters which focus upon the empire in the fourth century. Briant provides a thorough inventory and discussion of each satrapy, broken down by geographic region. He examines the relations between the satrapies, their inhabitants, and the central authority; the resources available in each; and the place of each in the wider scope of the empire — with an underlying purpose to determine how and why the Persian Empire retained its power in the fourth century. From this base Briant examines the military and financial resources available to Darius III on the eve of Alexander’s invasion. Briant’s balanced approach manifests itself once more in his treatment of the composition of the royal armies, obviating the once-popular emphasis on Persian “decadence” in a detailed discussion of the Greek and non-Greek elements of the armies and the relations between them.

Part VI (“La chute d’un empire [336-330]”) consists of one chapter which details Darius III’s response to the Macedonian aggression. Three points of concern motivate Briant’s approach: the strategy of Darius III, the attitude of the Persian aristocracy, and the position taken by local elites toward Macedonian overtures. Once again, Briant’s superb historiographical and critical source analysis provides a balanced picture of the overthrow of the empire. A brief conclusion (“De Nabonide à Seleukos”) follows, wherein Briant summarizes the Persian achievement and its impact — in contrast with Alexander’s conquest of the empire and his successors’ inability to maintain it.

With due respect to previous histories of the Persian Empire, Briant’s achievement is the first to move so significantly beyond the standard approach of presenting a traditional, historical overview, many of which often leave contradictory evidence as something to be reconciled. Briant evaluates a myriad of difficult sources, offering new perspectives on many stubborn problems. Even though so much of Persian history must be viewed through a Greek lens, his work never gives the impression of a corrupt, effeminate, decaying empire. The inclusion of so much Near Eastern material balances the Greek source bias, and many a persistent Hellenocentric leitmotif is shredded justifiably and (hopefully) permanently.

Purists may bemoan the nontraditional footnoting scheme, since Briant utilizes the author-date system within a separate documentation section (subdivided into section headings corresponding to those in the narrative text), wherein he provides exhaustive bibliography and, frequently, additional analysis. Extensive quotes from primary sources enliven and support Briant’s narrative, and thorough primary source documentation runs throughout the work. The sixty-one figures and maps could certainly be supplemented by scores of others, but this is a quibble. Those which Briant includes serve their purposes well. The fact that they are black-and-white, while perhaps lacking pizzazz, certainly helped to keep the price of the work reasonable. For less than $70 one will be hard-pressed to find a more useful and informative volume. No one doing even tangential research on the Persian Empire should fail to consult this book.

Histoire de l’Empire perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre has also been published as Achaemenid History 10 (in two volumes), Leiden: The Netherlands Institute for the Near East, 1996, ISBN 90-6258-410-1. Eisenbrauns will publish a revised, English edition (translated by Peter T. Daniels) sometime in 1999. The Bisitun Inscription and Herodotus take pride of place in this dilemma, but additional evidence is not ignored: other Achaemenid royal inscriptions, Babylonian economic texts, Aeschylus, Plato, Ctesias, Diodorus, Justin, etc. Such comprehensive analysis and source citation are typical throughout the work.