BMCR 2008.07.44

Persian Responses: Political and Cultural Interactions with(in) the Achaemenid Empire

, Persian responses : political and cultural interaction with(in) the Achaemenid Empire. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2007. xxv, 373 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781905125180 £60.00.

The last several decades have witnessed a virtual revolution in scholarship on the history of the Persian Empire. With rare exceptions such as A. T. Olmstead, historians in the first half of the twentieth century made little effort to write the history of the Achaemenids from the perspective of Persia. Instead, the history of the last and greatest of the ancient Near Eastern Empires was treated almost as an appendix to the history of Greece with the Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480/79 BC and their background almost eclipsing all other aspects of the empire’s history.

The problem was, of course, the sources or, more precisely, the lack of Persian sources. Uniquely among the ancient Near Eastern empires, extant native written sources for the Persian Empire are minimal: a few highly formulaic royal inscriptions in the Old Persian script, the Avesta, and the still only partially published Persepolis Fortification Texts virtually exhaust the list. The result has been that historians have to depend on non-Persian sources—especially the Greek historians Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon—to provide the core narrative of Persian history, and, inevitably, the biases of these sources often influence histories of the empire based on them. The new Achaemenid historiography has radically changed this situation—placing Persia at the center of its own history—by making the fullest use possible of archaeological and art historical evidence, and, above, all, by deconstructing the Greek sources on which the narrative of Persian history has to be based. The new scholarship has produced some major full scale studies such as Margaret Cool Root’s pathbreaking The King and Kingship in Achaemenid Art: Essays on the Creation of an Iconography of Empire (Leiden 1979) and Pierre Briant’s remarkable Histoire de l’Empire Perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre (Paris 1996). The signature genre of contemporary Achaemenid scholarship, however, is not the book but conference proceedings such as the ten volumes of the Proceedings of the Achaemenid Workshops ably edited by Amélie Kuhrt and the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg. Persian Responses follows in the tradition of the Achaemenid Workshop volumes, being the proceedings of a panel entitled “Persia and the Greeks: Reactions and Receptions” held at the 2004 Celtic Conference in Classics at Université de Rennes II. Like the Achaemenid Workshop volumes, the fourteen papers in Persian Responses are loosely organized around the theme “Political and Cultural Interaction with(in) the Achaemenid Empire.” The papers fall into four thematically unified groups: Greek historiography, regional studies, the limits of cultural response, and post-antique reception.

The four historiographical papers highlight the problematic nature of the evidence for Achaemenid history provided by the classical sources. John Hyland’s’ “Thucydides’ Portrait of Tissaphernes Re-Examined” provides the first full-scale study of the treatment of Persia in Thucydides’ history since A. Andrewes’ well known 1961 Historia article “Thucydides and the Persians.” Unlike his predecessor, however, who explained the unique prominence of the Persians in the eighth book of Thucydides’ history by Thucydides’ belated recognition of the significance of the Persian factor in the Peloponnesian War, Hyland maintains that the explanation lies instead in the historian’s mistaken belief that Tissaphernes was following Alcibiades’ advice to not let the Peloponnesians become too strong by not providing their promised pay instead of taking seriously the satrap’s claim that he had fiscal difficulties in fulfilling his promises to the Spartans.

In “Xenophon’s Wicked Persian or What’s Wrong with Tissaphernes? Xenophon’s Views on Lying and Breaking Oaths” Gabriel Danzig suggests that the apparent contradiction between Xenophon’s condemnation of Tissaphernes’ treachery and perjury in the Anabasis and his praise of the tactical use of deceit in the Cyropaedia can be resolved by reference to Xenophon’s adherence to a prudential ethic in which “perjury is an exceedingly dangerous tactic that is liable to produce grave problems if it is discovered (p. 45).”

In the third paper in this group, “On Persian Truphe in Athenaeus, ” Dominique Lenfant argues convincingly that, while Athenaeus provides the largest body of source material for life at the Achaemenid court, the emphasis on Persian truphe in the Deipnosophistai probably reflects the bias of Athenaeus rather than that of the fourth century historians he quotes.

Finally, in “Treacherous Hearts and Upright Tiaras: The Achaemenid King’s Head-Dress” Christoper Tuplin suggests that the puzzling absence from Persian art of the upright tiara, which Greek sources treat as the king’s distinctive headdress and which he identifies with the headdress worn by Darius III in the Alexander Mosaic, can be explained by the Greek accounts for unknown reasons emphasizing in their descriptions of the Great King Median ceremonial dress rather than Perso-Elamite regalia depicted in Achaemenid art.

The focus switches to the provinces of the Persian Empire in the next four papers. In “Darius I: Suez and Hibis” Alan B. Lloyd deconstructs the evidence for Darius I as a benevolent ruler of Egypt supposedly provided by the Suez Stelae and his role in the construction of the temple of Amun at Hibis by demonstrating, first, that in actuality Darius had nothing to do with the construction of the Hibis temple; and, second, that, while the Hieroglyphic texts of the Suez Stelae portray Darius as Pharaoh as would be expected, the Babylonian and the Old Persian versions of the texts are unabashedly “Persocentric,” highlighting Darius’ position as king of Persia and emphasizing his role as conqueror and ruler of Egypt.

Frederic Maffre’s “Indigenous Aristocracies in Hellespontine Phrygia” makes an important contribution to our understanding of Persian provincial administration by assembling the evidence for Greek and other Anatolian aristocrats in the service of the Satrap of Dascylium and demonstrating that the apparent predominance of Greeks is misleading, reflecting the bias of the Greek sources rather than reality.

In “Hellenization and Lycian Cults during the Achaemenid Period” Eric A. Raimond uses the example of Lycia to add significant nuances to the discussion of Hellenization in Achaemenid Anatolia, showing how Lycian aristocrats selectively adopted Hellenic elements in their public representation without compromising the Luwian core of Lycian cults.

In the last article in this group, “Babylonian Workers in the Persian Heartland: Palace Building at Matannan during the Reign of Cambyses,” Walter O. Henkleman and Kristin Kleber use an Akkadian document (YOS7, 187) dealing with the recruitment of laborers in Babylonia for construction work in Iran to demonstrate that a bureaucracy similar to that documented in the Persepolis Fortification Texts was already functioning during the reign of Cambyses.

The theme of cultural interaction between Greeks and Persians loosely connects the next four papers. The first, Margaret Cool Root’s “Reading Persepolis in Greek: Gifts of the Yauna,” can only be described as a tour de force and a model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Drawing on both contemporary classical and Persian studies, she imaginatively recreates the possible reaction of an Athenian visitor contemplating the depictions of Greek tribute bearers at Persepolis, suggesting that her imaginary Athenian observer would have found the—to him—predominantly “feminine” associations of these images deeply offensive. This paper, with its cross cultural reading of Achaemenid iconography, is a significant contribution to ancient cultural studies, although unfortunately a key question is left unanswered: were the negative overtones in terms of Athenian values she convincingly identifies in the Persepolis images intentional or not?

In “Boxus the Persian and the Hellenization of Persis,” Nicholas Secunda uses the figure of Boxus—a Hellenized Persian informant the second century BC historian Agatharchides of Cnidus claims to have met in Athens—to examine the place of Greek culture in second century BC Persis.

By analyzing the fascination of fourth century BC Greek intellectuals with the figure of Zoroaster and Persian dualism in “The Philosopher Zarathushtra,” Phiroze Vasunia convincingly shows that the claim that there was implacable hostility between Greeks and Persians in the wake of the Persian invasions of the early fifth century BC is a gross oversimplification of a complex situation in which Greeks found many aspects of Persian culture attractive.

In the final paper of this group, “Alexander the Great: ‘Last of the Achaemenids’?,” Robin Lane Fox successfully deconstructs Pierre Briant’s influential thesis that Alexander was the “last of Achaemenids,” clearly establishing that Alexander never made such a claim and perceptively noting that the Achaemenid Empire represented only a phase in Alexander’s career that would have gradually faded had Alexander survived and turned westward as “his last plans” indicate that he intended to do.

The final two papers in the volume examine the development of European views concerning Persepolis. In “Chilimnar olim Persepolis’: European Reception of a Persian Ruin” Lindsay Allen illuminatingly discusses the interaction of Medieval Persian accounts of the ruins at the site Persians called Chilimnar and classical texts in leading Europeans to recognize in Chilimnar the city destroyed by Alexander. Particularly valuable is her demonstration (pp. 329-330) that the idea that the Persian kings celebrated the Nowruz or Persian New Year festival at Persepolis, which repeatedly appears in recent histories of Alexander, is in actuality a medieval legend without support in ancient sources that entered European scholarship via the accounts of early modern visitors to the site.

In the other paper in this group, St. John Simpson provides an overview of the history of European exploration of Persepolis from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century AD in “Pottering around Persepolis: Observations on Early European Visitors to the Site.”

The papers in Persian Responses are excellent examples of the new Persian historiography. They range widely over the whole field of Achaemenid studies and well illustrate the potential of the new critical approach to the sources characteristic of it to offer new insights into all aspects of Persian history. They do, however, also inadvertently highlight its chief limitation: the continuing centrality of the Greek sources to the writing of Persian history. Critical analysis of the Greek sources is essential if historians are provide a clearer view of the reality behind the familiar accounts of Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon; but it is no substitute for native Persian sources. The result is that studies such as, for example, the fine analyses of Thucydides’ and Xenophon’s accounts of Tissaphernes in this volume sometimes contribute more to the understanding of the authors in question than to that of Persia in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BC. That said, Persian Responses: Political and Cultural Interactions with(in) the Achaemenid Empire will interest all scholars interested in Achaemenid history.