BMCR 2007.10.10

The Persians. An Introduction

, The Persians : an introduction. Peoples of the ancient world. London: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xviii, 217 pages) : color illustrations, maps, plans.. ISBN 0203068157. £15.99 (pb).

This book is one of Routledge’s series of works ‘peoples of the ancient world’, which form an introduction to various civilisations of the ancient world. This particular volume does far more than the title suggests, as it actually covers the three main ‘native’ civilisations of the Iranian region; namely the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians, and thus covers the period from sixth century B.C. to the Muslim invasions of the seventh century A.D. The work is an ambitious one in terms of its scope and aims to give the reader a general overview of these three civilisations, not merely in terms of the history of these peoples and empires, but also their religions, social structures and culture in general. The books states that the intended audiences are students and non-specialists.

The structure of the work is a simple but effective one with a basic introduction and one chapter on each of the three empires, taken in chronological order. The introduction sets out the need for western audiences to take note of the civilisations of the east in order to avoid a purely western based view of the ancient world and does so admirably. What is absent, however, is any discussion on why the Seleucid period has been omitted or why the author believes that the Parthians can be labelled as a ‘Persian’ culture; both of which issues need to be addressed.

Chapter one deals with the classical Persian civilisation of the Achaemenids and is broken down into sections: historical survey, king and court, organisation and administration of the empire, religion and art and architecture. Although each section is nothing more than a brief overview, the cumulative effect is to give the reader a good understanding of the civilisation as a whole. The history section covers the creation, apogee and decline of the Persian Empire in a brief, but intelligible manner and leaves the reader with a good understanding of the key points. The section greatly benefits from the author’s close focus on events in Persia and the Persian point of view, and places the Greek world on the periphery of the Persian empire rather than the other way around. A particularly good example of this comes with the coverage of the ‘Persian Wars’, which are viewed from the Persian perspective. This is illustrated in the dismissal of Thermopylae with “In September 480 Xerxes’ army utterly defeated a Greek force of 300 Spartiates and Thebans, led by the Spartan King Leonidas, at the pass of Thermopylae,” and the destruction of Athens with “In the eyes of the Xerxes the Persian objective of the campaign, the punishment of Athens, had been achieved”. The wars as a whole are summed up well with “it appears that the Persian defeat and territorial losses in Greece had no repercussions for the stability of the empire”. If nothing else, a Persian view of the wars is a great benefit given the glut of recent scholarship focussing on the Greek version of the wars. This chapter is supported well by a dozen footnotes and a strong bibliography, all of which come at the end of the book.

A key issue arises towards the end of chapter one however and the beginning of chapter two. Rather than end with the overthrow of the Achaemenid dynasty by Alexander the Great, we are given the following “Stability was only partially restored under Alexander’s successors in the former Persian empire, the Seleucids. The Seleucid empire lasted for almost 100 years before they were challenged by a new Persian power, the Arsacids, in 247”. This is the link to chapter two, which analyses the Parthians. Here we are faced with two key problems which the author does not face. Firstly we have the total dismissal of the Hellenistic period, and secondly we have the sweeping assumption that the Parthians can be labelled as a ‘Persian’ civilisation. The assumption here is that the Seleucids collapsed in 247 and were replaced by the Parthians, thus the “almost 100 years” link. The problem is that the Seleucids ruled an empire that included Mesopotamia and Media until the 140s, not the 240s and that the Parthians were actually brought back under Seleucid suzerainty by Antiochus the Great in the late third century. All this is ignored by the author’s desire to fit the history of the region into three native ‘Persian’ civilisations. This leads us to the second problem of whether the Parthians can ever be considered as Persian. Although this is a much wider argument, the author needs to justify the conclusion that they are, rather than ignore the issue altogether.

Chapter Two therefore moves onto the Parthian empire and again has sections on historical survey, king and court organisation of the empire, religion art and architecture. As in the first chapter the analysis is brief but informative and again builds up a cohesive picture of the Parthian civilisation as a whole. If there is one flaw in the analysis it lies with the thorny problem of detailing the origins of the Parthians in the third century B.C, for which we have no surviving contemporary accounts and several later traditions all of which clash with each other. Although the author is constrained by the need to be brief, this issue is brushed over in a cursory manner and more importantly appears to ignore the key recent work by J. Lerner, The Impact of Seleucid Decline on the Eastern Iranian Plateau (published in 1999), which is the definitive work on the Parthian origins and which has a number of conclusions which differ from those presented in this work. This is a notable omission given another impressive supporting bibliography for this chapter.

Once again the chapter is focussed on Parthia and Parthian actions, and the Romans appear on the fringes of the Parthian empire rather than the other way around, which again is a welcome change from the norm. One slight error has crept in though, when the author states that Augustus negotiated for the captured standards of Lucullus, Crassus and Antony. The problem here being that Lucullus never fought the Parthians let alone lost standards to them (Crassus begin both the first Roman commander to fight the Parthians and the first to lose standards to them). Nevertheless, again this remains a good introductory chapter to the Parthians civilisation as a whole.

Chapters two and three tie in smoothly as the Parthian Arsacid dynasty was overthrown by that of the Sasanians. Again there are sections on historical survey, king and court, organisation and administration of the empire, religion and art and architecture and again this forms a good overview of the history and culture of another neglected eastern civilisation. Unlike the second chapter, there are none of the problems associated with labelling this civilisation as Persian as the Sasanians deliberately cultivated this image and attached themselves to the first Persian empire of the Achaemenids. This in itself lends weight to the argument that even they believed that the Parthians were not a Persian culture, though again this is not noted by the author. The reader is again treated to a good overview of the Sasanian civilisation and the history of the period until the Islamic conquest of the region.

Chapter three is followed by an appendix containing the details of the rulers of the three dynasties, followed by the footnotes and bibliography, each divide into its three sections. What is noticeable by its absence is any discernable summary or conclusion. The last section of the text (on Sasanian court art) suddenly veers off into Sasanian artistic and cultural influences on the early Muslim dynasties; the Abbasids and Samanids, which last for three paragraphs. This section, on Sasanian art concludes with the final sentence “The world of ancient Persia had come to an end, but far from disappearing, its influence can be traced to the new eastern powers, and through their contact with the Holy Roman Empire, to Western Europe”. Whilst one can’t help but agree with such a sentiment, the reader is left with the feeling that this deserves to be in a summary or a conclusion which traced, even if briefly, the impact of ancient Persia upon the medieval and modern worlds, rather than being tackled onto the end of a section on Sasanian art.

If anything this sudden and unexpected halt to the text sums up the work as a whole. The reader is faced with three excellent chapters on three different eastern civilisations, but there appears little to draw them together. In fact the introduction talks about the Romans making no attempt to differentiate between Persians, Parthians and Sasanians (which isn’t entirely true), but then this work does not engage with the issues surrounding what these three have in common, if anything, aside from a connection between the Achaemenids and Sasanians, with the Parthians being sandwiched in the middle. The work lacks a concluding chapter that draws these disparate three chapters together and makes the case for the existence of a united Persian culture and its impact on the ancient world and its successors. Without it the reader is left with three separate works in one with little to draw them together.

Putting this issue to one side, the work is an excellent introduction to these three ancient civilisations which combines a depth of research, and a wide focus with a lively literary style, which makes it an easy and highly enjoyable read. The balance of the footnotes does appear to be heavily weighted towards the Achaemenid period (with 12 footnotes out of a total of 22) at the expense of the Parthian and Sasanian periods (4 each, the other two being from the introduction). As these last two periods suffer in comparison to the first, in terms of secondary works, it really should be the other way around and any non-specialist reader should be given more guidance on the key issue and debates. This is in contrast to the bibliography which if anything contains a large proportion of specialist works. Thus the two sections (footnotes and bibliography) appear to be pulling in separate directions, which might not be helpful to the non-specialist.

Overall, this work is an excellent introduction to the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian civilisations, and takes a refreshing, non western based, approach to ancient history. However, due to its dismissal of the Seleucid period and the absence of any overriding discussion on the issue of a wider overarching Persian civilisation, and its impact, it should be integrated by additional readings. It is a case of the sums of its parts being far greater than the whole.