BMCR 2000.03.09

Das frühe Persien: Geschichte eines antiken Weltreichs

, Das frühe Persien : Geschichte eines antiken Weltreichs. Beck'sche Reihe. Wissen. München: C.H. Beck, 1999. 127 pages : illustrations, maps ; 18 cm.. ISBN 3406433073 DM 14.80 (pb).

Four years ago appeared Pierre Briant’s L’empire perse (Paris 1996), which described 230 years of the Achaemenid empire in 1100 pages of text and notes, followed by 170 pages of bibliography and indexes. W[iesehöfer]’s work is at the other extreme: he has 116 very small pages of text and six of apparatus for the 1200+ years from Cyrus’ rise to the Arabs’ destruction of the Sassanian kingdom. This is one volume in a Beck series — ‘C.H. Beck Wissen’ — which specialises in ‘nutshell’ works, such as Geschichte der USA in 144 pages, or (my favourite) Einsteins Relativitätstheorien in 109 pages! Obviously this is not a book with detailed discussions or new insights; one can only ask, does it give a fair overview of the subject to an interested lay-person?

In W.’s case the answer is definitely positive: he packs a great deal of information into his pages, while rarely making them unintelligible. For readers of German, this book can confidently be recommended as a quick guide; but it is not required reading for anyone who finds German difficult.

Despite its good qualities, the book does have some faults. The Achaemenid empire lasted a little more than 200 years; after a further 200 years of Hellenistic rule, the Parthians definitively expelled the Seleucids from Iran and Mesopotamia, and their power continued for a further 350 years; finally, the Sassanians ruled Persia and many areas around it for over 400 years. One might therefore expect that a general survey would give about equal space to Achaemenids and Seleucids, considerably more to the Parthians, and still more to the Sassanians. Instead, as usual, the Achaemenids get by far the largest share: 66 pages, or well over half the book. The Seleucids get ten pages, the Parthians nineteen, the Sassanians eighteen.

Not surprisingly, the book has no photographs, but it does contain some good line-drawings; it is a pity that none of them is of Arsacid and Sassanian coins, to illustrate the very different ways in which the two dynasties represented themselves to their subjects — the contrast with royal Hellenistic coins would also be revealing.

The small map given as frontispiece includes a remarkable amount of information, but the following places (of which several are not part of general knowledge) are not included on it, though mentioned in the text: Aegean Sea, Babylonia (though Babylon is), Caucasus, Cyprus, Heliopolis, Hellespont, Ionia, Lydia, Phoenicia, Thrace, Xuzistan, Zagros. Similarly, many names and concepts would certainly be new to most Anglophone readers in their first introduction to Persian history, but in his Achaemenid chapter W. mentions all the following without explanation: Herodotus, Xenophon, the ‘Necho-Kanal’, ‘König Psammetich III’ (when Amasis had just been introduced as king of Egypt), the ‘Schlacht am Eurymedon’, Themistocles, ‘Perikleszeit’, ‘Nauarch’, Mithra and Anahita, Auramazda, ‘A2Sa’ (!) (in fact a Persian inscription of Artaxerxes II, found at Susa), Marduk, and Strabo; nor do any of these appear in the index. Perhaps the average German ‘general reader’ has a wider general knowledge than his British and American counterparts.

There is a reasonably coherent account of the military and political history of the Achaemenid period; the later dynasties (inevitably) are treated much more sketchily, and leave a vivid but impressionistic picture. It would have been better to treat all the periods more evenly; better still to include Achaemenids and Seleucids in one volume, and devote another to the Arsacids and Sassanians.

Of necessity the bibliography is highly selective — though W. laudably includes works in French and English, and does not assume that his readers are monolingual (would that Anglophone writers and publishers always did the same!) — and one cannot reasonably complain about the omission of any particular work; but it is odd that, when the section ‘Quellensammlung’ lists sources like Hallock, Persepolis Fortification Tablets, and Sachs & Hunger, Astronomical Diaries … from Babylonia, it does not include translations of Herodotus, Xenophon, and Procopius. Any reader, general or not, would surely learn more about ancient Persia (and get more enjoyment) from these authors than from Hallock or Sachs & Hunger. A work which must have appeared too late for inclusion is V.S. Curtis and others (edd.), The art and archaeology of ancient Persia (London 1998).

A reviewer has the duty of noting faults and, where possible, suggesting remedies. It would be wrong to close on a carping note. W. has already given us a large-scale work of high quality, Das antike Persien (Munich 1994); for his new booklet he was set a problem with no perfect answer, and has handled it remarkably well.