BMCR 2008.05.16

Religion, empire, and torture. The case of Achaemenian Persia, with a postscript on Abu Ghraib

, Religion, empire, and torture : the case of Achaemenian Persia, with a postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xvii, 176 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780226481913. $30.00.

Table of Contents

The focus of this study is the relation between religion and empire. Already in one of his earlier studies Lincoln noticed the similarity in the way two empires—ancient Iran and modern United States—employed ethical dualism in justifying their imperial expansion,1 and this problem is here explored in greater detail. The main part (pp. 1-96) of the book deals with the religious ideology and related problems of Achaemenid Persia, the Western Asian empire which existed from 6th to 4th century BC. This is a valuable contribution, as the problem has not often been treated in the secondary literature, especially in recent times. A short postscript near the end of the book (pp. 97-107) is a study of some recent events connected with the war in Iraq, when, according to Lincoln, the United States utilized an ideological framework similar to that of ancient Persia.

In the preface the author emphasizes the importance of the royal Achaemenid inscriptions. Indeed, most of the book is based on interpreting these texts, and within them Lincoln finds the evidence for his reconstruction of the ideology of the empire. One of his main arguments from the inscriptions is that the Achaemenid king considered himself to be “God’s chosen instrument,” who acted beneficially on behalf of his people, with the ultimate purpose of reconstructing primordial happiness. At the same time, Lincoln rightly avoids taking part in a recurring debate on labeling the religion of the Achaemenids and determining to what extent one can call it Zoroastrianism. For him cosmological, ethical, and soteriological issues, and their implications for the ideology empire are far more important (pp. XIII, 15-16).

At the beginning of the “Introduction” Lincoln contrasts two ostensibly opposite faces of the Achaemenid empire: on the one hand elaborate and spectacular gardens, known by the Greeks as paradeisoi, on the other hand sophisticated and extremely cruel tortures (pp. 1-2). The author also discusses the ideological aspects of the transition from the reign of Cyrus to that of Darius (pp. 3-5). An introduction to the early history of the Persians follows, where the author makes some necessary simplifications for such a short text (e.g. Persians and Cyrus are still presented as vassals of Medes, an idea which has been completely rejected by some scholars2).

The figure of Darius, the founder of the royal ideology, is of much importance for the book (pp. 8-9). Lincoln focuses on important terms employed for the first time in Darius’ inscriptions. There, the king himself is shown as the protector against three main menaces to the well-being of his people: enemy armies, famine, and the Lie, and he employs appropriate means to prevent these threats (pp. 10-12).3 Persian kings exercised power over the world: the Old Persian word, which was employed to name their territories, bumi, translated often as “empire,” in fact denotes “earth” (p. 13).

At the beginning of the next chapter, “Center and Periphery” (chapter 2), Lincoln analyzes the composition of Darius’ relief in Bisitun (p. 17), which, in the author’s opinion, symbolizes the power relationships of the empire. According to the author, Persians, as the “dominant class-ethnicity” (using Pierre Briant’s term “ethno-classe dominante”), “exercised power over a large . . . number of other peoples, who retained their ethnic identity but were politically and economically subordinated. . . .” (pp. 22-25). The author observes that the list of satrapies on the inscriptions is organized according to the four cardinal directions,4 and the less their distance from the center, the higher their position and importance. He claims that Persians followed the same principle described by Herodotus [I.134] regarding the gradual spread of power in the Median empire.5

In chapter 3, “God’s Chosen,” Lincoln refers to the different ways in which Persian rule was legitimized. He mentions the well-known examples of the Herodotean legend regarding the origin of Cyrus, the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Book of Isaiah. Similarly, Egyptian inscriptions present Cambyses with proper titles, and Herodotus quotes his alleged links with Egyptian royalty (pp. 33-36). Lincoln rightly notices that “the early Persian kings showed little interest in imposing their beliefs” (pp. 44-45). In the later period, Darius clearly informs us about his god, the Wise Lord (Ahuramazda). He is the deity who bestowed the kingship (or kingdom) on Darius, and his successors. The god’s purpose in this bestowal of authority is also clear. As Lincoln observes, Darius is shown as the antithesis of the Lie and his mission is to restore order (pp. 44-49).

The chapter “Creation” (chapter 4) refers to Ahuramazda’s act of creation. This is the god’s only action that did not have the Persian king as its object (p. 51). In the DNa inscription, in contrast to the myth of creation found in most mythologies, the making of the earth ( bumi) occurs first, before the creation of the sky. This implies that when Ahuramazda made the earth he knew that Darius would later become the ruler of it (p. 53). An important observation that Lincoln especially emphasizes is the interval implied by the Achaemenid cosmogony, which occurred between the original creation and the moment when Ahuramazda installed Darius as king. In this period original happiness was lost because of the assault of the Lie, which manifested itself for example in rebellions and usurpations. However, with the installment of Darius, the forces of good are triumphant: “the Lie is destroyed, and perfect happiness will endure forever” (pp. 59-62).6

In chapter 5, “Microcosms, Wonders, Paradise,” Lincoln interprets Achaemenid inscriptions through comparison with Zoroastrian myths, where the Wise Lord’s original creation was corrupted and fragmented by the Assault of the Evil Spirit. This is supposed to be reversed at the end of history, when the pollution will be cleansed by frashgird, that is “the Renovation” or “Wondermaking” (p. 67). The Achaemenids wanted to reunite the creation of Ahuramazda. One such attempt was Darius’ palace in Susa, which is called a frasha, “wonder.” As this term originally denoted the pure, uncontaminated matter of the universe, Darius’ palace, according to Lincoln, was a place where rare and exotic substances from the whole world were again reunited as part of the attempt to restore the primordial perfection (pp. 73-76).

Walled parks, which bore the Old Persian name of paridaida (the ancestor of the English word “paradise”) were also such a place of reunification. The paradise was a place in which ideally all species should be gathered. However, until the Persian king conquered the whole earth, he would achieve only something less than ideal. Thus, for Lincoln such an Achaemenid paradise was “a foretaste of the delights awaiting the righteous after death and at history’s end” (pp. 78-79). In fact, it seems that Persian paradises might also have served more mundane purposes as craft and livestock centers. However, the “sacred” character of these places might be confirmed by the possibility that these gardens were places of cultic activities as well.7

The next chapter, “The Dark Side of Paradise,” explores sinister aspects of the existence of the empire. Lincoln quotes the history based on Ctesias’ account cited by Plutarch ( Artaxerxes XIV.3-XVI.4; FGrH 3c, 688, F26), which describes the punishments of a certain Carian soldier and a Persian noble called Mithridates, who both refused to acknowledge the crucial role of the king Artaxerxes II in killing his brother Cyrus the Younger at the battle of Cunaxa (pp. 85-87). Although Ctesias is usually portrayed as a biased and unreliable author,8 here drawing on the stereotype of a barbarian despot, Lincoln offers a convincing interpretation of this fragment, while at the same time making Ctesias’ account more reliable than generally thought. According to the author, methods of torture cited by him find their explanations in Iranian traditions, which were transmitted by Zoroastrian writings. Lincoln collates these events with the ancient practice of judicial ordeals, and therefore does not interpret them as a vindictive punishment.

The second individual, Mithridates, was put to death in an especially cruel way [Artaxerxes XVI.2-4]. He was confined between two troughs, smeared and fed with honey, and attacked by insects until death. This kind of torture is sometimes referred to as scaphism. Mithridates’ claim that he himself was responsible for the death of Cyrus made a liar of the king. Achaemenid kings, according to their ideology, were God’s chosen because they were antithetical to the Lie. Through the ordeal of troughs, the king was thought to be cleared of suspicion, and Mithridates convicted of the crime of lying (pp. 88-93). In this perverse way the vicious defense against gossip becomes a part of the sacred struggle against the Lie. Lincoln shows this as an example where the empire is able to commit extremely inhuman actions and interpret their results as an evidence of its lofty ideology (p. 94).

Summarizing the section on the Achaemenid religion, Lincoln sees two phases in the history of the Persian Empire: a first phase in which conquest and exploitation of the conquered are shown as an attempt to rebuild primordial paradise and the deeds of the king bear a soteriological justification, and a second phase in which it becomes more and more difficult to reconcile ideals with practice. In this second phase, the representatives of the empire had to be convinced again that these disgusting actions were an appropriate way to accomplish the sacred purpose (pp. 94-96).

In the postscript to the book, “On Abu Ghraib and Some Related Contemporary Matters,” Lincoln observes similar mechanisms in the contemporary history of the U.S. He begins with the May 2003 address of George W. Bush, in which one may find the same motifs as in Achaemenid ideology: “ethical dualism, a theology of election, and a sense of soteriological mission . . .” (p. 97). In this sense he proposes an appealing interpretation of the incident at Abu Ghraib. Like the torture of Mithirdates, the disgraceful treatment of Iraqi prisoners, according to Lincoln, was a way of confirming the American soldiers’ prejudices against Iraqis (p. 100). Again, after a time the representatives of the empire became suspicious that cruel actions did not create happiness or bring freedom (p. 104-105). As Lincoln observes, the empire produces spectacles for the benefit of the unconvinced, to reassert its lofty ideology: some of these displays are “elegant, sincere, and aesthetically appealing,” others, like the tormenting of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the Achaemenid tortures, are bestial acts based on devious thinking (pp. 105-106).

One of the important merits of this book is that it can satisfy the expectations of both a non-scholarly and scholarly audience. The first part of the book lacks footnotes and hardly provides bibliographical references, which makes reading easier for the non-specialist. On the other hand, the book includes detailed research notes to each chapter and to each subsection at the end (pp. 109-142), as in Briant’s Histoire de l’Empire perse. These notes deepen some detailed aspects of the book, and provide an insight into some of Lincoln’s scholarly inspirations.

Although convincing, Lincoln’s interpretation of the Achaemenid religion must be seen as just one of many propositions. The religion of Achaemenid Persia is a source of constant debate among scholars. Lincoln’s focus on Iranian traditions might be one source of objections. Even though it seems to explain many aspects of Achaemenid culture very well, one might, for example, point to the Elamite tradition as a source of some notions present in the Achaemenid inscriptions. Recent studies have shown many similarities between these Old Persian texts and Neo-Elamite royal inscriptions.9 Clearly, Neo-Elamite culture is chronologically much closer to the Achaemenid period than Zoroastrian writings, which are mostly of Sasanian or later date. However, one must acknowledge that the official Achaemenid religion, which is the subject of Lincoln’s book, is richly imbued with concepts and terms of Iranian origin.

Lincoln’s book presents an absorbing interpretation of the Achaemenid ideology. The system of Persian beliefs and concepts, as presented by the author, constructs an incredibly coherent and clear vision. The book constitutes a revealing guide to understanding the religious aspects of royal Achaemenid inscriptions. Thus, it explores in a very erudite and thorough way an area rarely investigated by other authors: the relation between empire and religion. Lincoln convincingly shows the sacred justifications of imperial activities in Achaemenid Persia, from building spectacular paradises to employing sophisticated tortures. Significantly, he adds a moral aspect to this interpretation. He is not afraid to show the ethical relativism of the ideology of ancient Persia, and of the contemporary American empire. Therefore, his book is not only a source of reliable knowledge and understanding of ancient culture, but also a stimulus for reflection.


1. Bruce Lincoln, Death, war, and sacrifice: studies in ideology and practice (Chicago, 1991), 140.

2. See e.g. Burkhart Kienast, “The So-Called ‘Median Empire’,” Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 34 (1999): 59-67, 65; Robert Rollinger, “Zur Lokalisation von Parsu(m)a(s) in der Fars und zu einigen Fragen der frühen persischen Geschichte,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 89, no. 1 (1999): 127-134.

3. For further analysis of Darius’ inscriptions see another work by Bruce Lincoln, “The Role of Religion in Achaemenian Imperialism,” in Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond, ed. Nicole Brisch, University of Chicago Oriental Institute Seminars 4 (Chicago, 2008), 229-231.

4. A. Shapur Shahbazi, “Darius’ ‘Haft Kishvar’,” in Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte der Achämenidenzeit und ihr Fortleben, ed. Heidemarie Koch and D.N. MacKenzie, Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, Ergänzungsband 10 (Berlin, 1983), 242-246, based on the same inscriptions, also concluded that Persians divided the world into seven great regions.

5. For another interpretation of the statement of Herodotus see e.g. Willem J. Vogelsang, The rise and organisation of the Achaemenid Empire: the Eastern Iranian evidence, Studies in the history of the ancient Near East 3 (Leiden, 1992), 116-118.

6. See also the interpretation of creation in Lincoln, “The Role of Religion,” 223-225, 227-229.

7. A recent study based on Persepolis Fortification Tablets by Wouter F.M. Henkelman, “The other gods who are: Studies in Elamite-Iranian acculturation based on the Persepolis fortification texts,” Ph.D. thesis (Leiden University, 2006), 328-383 points to such a possibility. For further interpretations of the Persian paradise see also Bruce Lincoln, “À la recherche du paradis perdu,” History of Religions 43, no. 2 (2003): 139-154.

8. Lincoln acknowledges and discusses this point (p. 94). In addition to secondary literature about Ctesias suggested by the author (p. 141), one may consult Schmitt, Rüdiger, s.v. “Ctesias,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica, ed. Ehsan Yarshater (New York) ( website), who suggests that Ctesias was too harshly treated by classical scholars.

9. See e.g. Wouter F.M. Henkelman, “Persians, Medes and Elamites: acculturation in the Neo-Elamite period,” in Continuity of Empire (?): Assyria, Media, Persia, ed. Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Michael Roaf and Robert Rollinger (Padova, 2003), 188, fn. 24; Idem, “The other gods who are,” 7-8, 291-298.