BMCR 2021.01.05

Ctesias’ Persica and its Near Eastern context

, Ctesias' Persica and its Near Eastern context. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020. Pp. 184. ISBN 9780299310943 $21.95 (pb).

There has by no means been a lack of studies on Ctesias’ work published over the past few decades, but Matt Waters’s book is of special interest. The author, an expert on Achaemenid Persia and its historical and cultural background, here presents “a series of case studies that illustrate prominent Near Eastern traditions and motifs in the Persica” (p. 16), guided by a close reading “through a Near-Eastern lens”. However, which text is the basis for such scrutiny?

The extant testimonies of the lost original of Ctesias’ Persica, or rather the very different texts of their transmitters, each raise their own problems. Waters discusses them briefly in his introduction. He uses the extant testimonies and ‘fragments’[1] as a “cover text” and—for his purposes—refers to Ctesias as “the originator of the thematic elements under discussion” (p. 8).

The analysis of these ‘recurrent themes’ brings attention to a series of figures in the Persica that are characterised by their status as being ‘in-between’ established sexual identities and gender roles. The themes of “feminization and inversion” were “fully at home within Greek literature”, but they were “hardly unknown in Mesopotamia” (p.14). Since Ctesias, due to his career, was deeply immersed in the cultural atmosphere of his Near Eastern environment and well acquainted with its customs and rich oral traditions, he was able to adapt them to serve his innovative literary ambitions. Although Waters is well aware that the widespread trust in Ctesias’ autobiographical statements is open to debate (p.6), he too accepts “for the purpose of argument” that Ctesias worked and lived as a doctor at the court of the Great King Artaxerxes II (p.10). His position as an eye- and ear-witness “put him in good stead in his competition with other Greek writers” (p. 9). Waters suggests that Ctesias could have collected information from people who had access to archive materials; also Parysatis, the powerful queen mother, is considered a possible source (p. 16-19).

The series of case studies starts with the chapter “The Eunuch In-between”, an important character type in Ctesias’ dramaturgy (p.20-44). Waters supplies a list of 22 eunuchs identified by name and 11 anonymous characters within the fragments of the Persica and draws a detailed picture of their roles in the narrative. So we meet treacherous eunuchs as well as faithful characters, and—most remarkably—six eunuchs who “were involved in some way with the transition between life and death, mainly through the official role of conveying the dead king’s body to his tomb” (p. 40). Ctesias’ “figure of the literary eunuch” is generally characterized by its “liminal position” between men and women and prevalent gender roles. In the palace, the eunuch “resides in the in-between”, i.e. between the King and his women, his other courtiers and his rivals.

While Ctesias’ eunuchs are castrati in the literal sense, the interpretation of relevant Near Eastern documents raises problems, as Waters demonstrates. Bearers of special court titles and military functions linked with the institution of eunuchs may, but need not, be “true eunuchs” (p. 24-28). Ctesias probably “conflated administrative titles with terms designating royal eunuchs” (p. 28). His character-type of the “perfidious eunuch”, innovative within Greek literature, is inspired by Near Eastern traditions. As a striking example, Waters points to the ‘conniving courtier’ who appears in the Assyrian annals dealing with the conflict between Ashurbanipal and the Elamite king Urtak (p. 28-29).  Eventually, Waters highlights surprising connections between the ritual functions of the eunuchs in the king’s passage from life to death, as recounted in the Persica, with a rich set of testimonies in Assyrian, Elamite and Persian documents (p. 40-44).

The chapter “Semiramis, Queen of Battle” resumes Waters’s presentation of “in-between” characters in the Persica. Although Semiramis’ “eponymous archetype” and the figure of the warrior queen can be traced back to former Greek and Mesopotamian traditions, Ctesias created something new, “a composite literary figure, whatever historical reality may underpin her legends” (p. 47). Since his portrayal of the famous female conqueror, transmitted mostly by Diodorus, has often been treated,[2] Waters places the weight of his analysis on those literary components “that dovetail with Mesopotamian thematic topoi” (p. 47). He references striking analogies between Semiramis’ career and the widespread legends about the origins and deeds of King Sargon of Akkad, which served as a role model for Neo-Assyrian kings, esp. the Sargonids (p. 48-58). Their self-representation as conquerors and creators of cities and spectacular monuments had its influence on Persian royal ideology, and the Achaemenid kings’ “expeditions to, and territorial claims upon, distant regions provided Ctesias with prototypes for Semiramis’ legendary campaigns in Egypt and India” (p. 53). On the other hand, the analysis of Ctesias’ portrayal of a warrior queen of semi-divine origin and “with an insatiable sexual appetite” reveals astonishing parallels to the appearance of the great goddess Ishtar, “goddess of battle (or violence) and sexual love” (p. 58).

The following chapter “A Different Kind of Education for Cyrus” presents us with a detailed analysis of Ctesias’ colourful story of Cyrus’ career, from humble origins to the defeat of Astyages, transmitted in the Byzantine fragments of Nicolaus of Damascus. How closely Nicolaus’ account reflected the original text is hard to discern. Waters plausibly assumes that the plot and the relevant themes had been created by Ctesias (p. 60). He gives a comprehensive introduction to the Near Eastern source material, the scholarly debates concerning Cyrus’ genealogy (p. 60-63) and his defeat of the Median king Ishtumegu (p. 6061, 65-67). While “Cyrus’ links to the Median dynastic line seem more like post-conquest justifications”, Ctesias’ “extrication of Cyrus from the Median dynastic line fits conceptually with an independent Persian kingdom that was able to challenge the Medes” (p. 67).

That brings us to Ctesias’ bizarre tale of Cyrus’ painful, but successful, career at the Median court and the final overthrow of his former master Astyages. Waters analyzes Ctesias’ literary skills and highlights the role of Cyrus’ helpers, esp. the Chaldean seer and Cyrus’ additional ‘right hand man’ Oibares.[3] He rather generally hints at the impact that the presence of omens, dreams and prophecies in the Near Eastern tradition had on Ctesias’ story (p. 71-72). He also compares Cyrus’ behaviour in various battles with the “hero-in-combat motif”, which also appears in a large number of Near Eastern documents, from the Sargon-legends to Darius’ royal ideology (p. 72-73). Photius’ excerpts concerning Cyrus’ further career are highly condensed, concentrating on dynastic troubles and the king’s campaigns. Waters treats them briefly, with few comments. Ctesias’ “curious departure from the version rendered by Herodotus” is only addressed in the introduction (p. 16).

The chapter ‘The Inverted Hero’s Many Faces’ deals with a series of stories that “fit a Greek milieu better than a Near Eastern one”, but “have their origins in Median and Persian oral traditions” (78). Ninyas, the son of Ninus and Semiramis, is the first in a long succession of ‘cloistered kings’. Living in the palace, embedded in a milieu of “idleness, luxury, and effeminacy”, they kept control over huge military forces and their commanders. Assyrian royal inscriptions and monuments suggest otherwise: the Neo-Assyrian rulers were proud of showing their “august status” in public, fulfilling religious ceremonies and leading their troops in military campaigns. There is, however, also an epigraphic parallel for the figure of the ‘cloistered king’: In a dream-story Ishtar admonishes Ashurbanipal before the battle of Tell Tuba against the Elamite King (653 BCE) to stay in his palace. He should honour her divine majesty with a feast, while she would overcome the enemy (p. 80-81). In Ctesias’ lifetime the worship of Anahita, syncretized with Ishtar, was promulgated by Artaxerxes II (as attested also by Berossus and Plutarch). The widespread worship of the goddess is generally seen as an important element of the Near Eastern background of the Persica (p. 81-82).

Next, Waters treats the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire by the Mede Arbakes and his helper, the Babylonian seer Belesys. He carefully draws analogies to Ctesias’ narration about the regime change from the Medes to the Persians (p. 82-86). He also focuses attention on the ambiguous characterization of the last Assyrian ruler. Sardanapalus represents, once again, the effeminate ‘cloistered’ king, but, before his spectacular end in the burning palace, he regains his strength; “discovering his inner Ishtar” he tries his best to resist the enemy’s forces (p. 84).

Feminization and masculine pride dominate the following episode, set in the epoch of the Median Empire. Due to the intrigues of the Babylonian Nanaros, the Persian hero of the story named Parsondes, “a sort of Greek Hercules, a Mesopotamian Ninurta” (p. 86), is forced to endure a painful process of feminization. Although Parsondes is eventually able to recover his masculine heroic forces, Waters assumes that his feminization should be seen as “an antecedent to what the Persians—especially in the person of their kings—will become” (p. 91).

The next section deals with the “tragic love story” between the Scythian warrior queen Zarinaia and the “eros-stricken” Mede Stryangaios. Since a part of the tale has been transmitted in the only preserved fragment of the original (POxy 2330), we may gain deeper insight into Ctesias’ literary qualities. Analyzing the complex plot and its parallels with other tales, Waters finds “a sort of Semiramis redux” in the character of the female protagonist (p. 92).

Finally, Waters follows up with the famous story of Megabyzus, preserved in Photius’ highly telescoped excerpt. The plot is set during the reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes I and also overshadows the dynastic troubles after Artaxerxes’ death (cf. p. 94, 99). Waters’s thorough analysis of the complex narration highlights Ctesias’ skills as romance writer. In the character of Megabyzus we see an “aggrieved hero, wronged by his king” (p. 94), whose qualities are in stark contrast to the court intrigues. However, although the story of this proud member of the Persian nobility comes close to “what may be termed a historical saga”, Waters avoids the “simple but important question” which elements of the story might be “historical”. He considers the differentiation between fact and fiction a problem “of second importance” (p. 94).

A similar tendency to leave the relation between fact and fiction uncommented can also be observed in the “Conclusion”, in which he engages in the last part of the Persica as transmitted by Photius’ greatly condensed episodes, once again brimming with “inversion, excess, feminization” (p. 102).

It is, in my opinion, a pity that Waters, whose book is an excellent, seminal work, inspiring further research, hesitated to discuss the relation between fact and fiction in the last sections of the Persica.[4] On the other hand, he impressively demonstrated Ctesias’ literary qualities and I fully agree with his final remark: “whether Ctesias was a historian or not should no longer be the point of the debate, but rather his place as an innovator in the genre of romance writing” (p. 104).

Waters’s most stimulating book should be welcomed by the scientific community! The reader is supplied with an excellent bibliography, fine documentations in the notes and, most importantly, challenged by the author’s approach of placing Ctesias in his proper ‘in-between’ position: between fact and fiction as well as between Greek and Near Eastern traditions. If I may use Waters’s terminology, Ctesias, like his “literary eunuchs”, appears as an “in-between character”, living in a “liminal position”: “As Ctesias himself was hybrid, an Ionian Greek serving at the Achaemenid court, so too, unsurprisingly, was his work” (p. 15).


[1] The so-called fragments of Ctesias are in fact (with one exception) not verbatim quotations but sections of later texts which are based more or less closely on the lost original: cf. Waters, pp. 6-10.

[2] Cf. now Stronk, J.P., Semiramis’ Legacy. The History of Persia According to Diodorus of Sicily, Edinburgh 2017: University Press.

[3] On Oibares cf. now Rollinger, R., “Herodotus and the Transformation of Near Eastern Motifs,” in Harrison, Th.; Irwin, E., Interpreting Herodotus, Oxford 2018: University Press, 125-148, esp. 143-147.

[4] On the reviewer‘s position cf. Bichler, R., Der Lyder Inaros, “Über die ägyptische Revolte des Ktesias von Knidos” (2006) in Rollinger, R.; Ruffing, K. (eds.), Bichler, Ges. Schriften Bd. 4, Wiesbaden 2016 (Philippika 18.4), 15-28.