BMCR 2023.04.28

Persians: the age of the great kings

, Persians: the age of the great kings. New York: Basic Books, 2022. Pp. xiv, 431. ISBN 9781541600348.

This volume by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is an intriguing and engaging book about the Achaemenid empire. The book begins around 1000 BC, explaining the roots and backgrounds of how the Achaemenids came to power, and ends with the fall of Darius III, who was conquered by Alexander the great.

Llewellyn-Jones has successfully dealt with the scarcity of sources on the subject. Despite the abundance of information about the Achaemenids in  Greek historians such as Xenophon and Herodotus, he has chosen to treat their accounts with a touch of skepticism, and rightfully so. Given the history of the Greco-Persian wars, the Greeks may not have been impartial narrators of the history of Persia. Llewellyn-Jones has therefore extensively used non-Greek sources to illustrate the origins of the Achaemenids and frequently countered Greek historians on their general representation of Achaemenid kings. For instance, the author’s portrayal of Cambyses, unlike the common portrayal of him as an inept king, depicts him as powerful and resilient, even if not as competent as Cyrus. The author has used archaeological findings and non-Greek textual sources such as Babylonian cuneiform tablets extensively in order to avoid a Hellenocentric approach and instead to reconstruct what possibly could be the “Persian version”.

“Persians” is not a tedious history book full of lifeless descriptions. With his literary abilities, Llewellyn-Jones has created an entertaining narrative of Persian history, so that reading “Persians” feels more like reading a novel than history. Excerpts and quotations are, however, used sparingly and without precise referencing, making it difficult to locate the source of information. Unless the reader is already familiar with every source that has been used, it is difficult to find the relevant data required to investigate the author’s position.

Nor does the author does provide a critical analysis of the literature. The bibliography provides an overview of the available sources, but a more extensive analysis could have been useful, especially for students. “Persians” is nevertheless well-researched and up-to-date about the most recent scholarship in the field and has taken into account recent textual and archaeological findings, such as the excavations in Tol-e Ājor. The book is well-organized, divided into three parts, each containing multiple chapters.

The first part, “Establishing Empire”, illustrates with extensive details how the Achaemenids came to power. It includes the rise and conquests of Cyrus and ends when Persia invades Egypt. In this part of the book, Llewellyn-Jones paints a comprehensive and multifaceted picture of the Persians and their historical importance, demonstrating how they influenced the civilizations around them and how they were influenced by them. Detailed descriptions of battle techniques and weaponry are prominent in this first part and throughout the book.

The second part of the book, “Being Persian”, combines a thorough account of the Persian court and details of royal relationships with fascinating insights about customs, social values, and conventions. The intriguing story moves from a comprehensive explanation of the governmental system, bureaucratic structure, palace-building, religion, and means of communication to the specifics of family dramas. The author includes even the smallest details of everyday life in the Achaemenid court, paying special attention to the role of women and the intricate royal relationships. We find multiple examples of the ties between sexuality and the political sphere in this chapter thoroughly analyzed. Additionally, in his detailed descriptions of court etiquette and gestures, Llewelyn-Jones rectifies some of the misunderstandings, such as how Persian prostration was perceived by the Greeks.

While the author continues to criticize the Greeks’ inaccurate portrayal of the Persians, he is not reluctant to reveal the Achaemenids’ own shortcomings. For instance, in the section “Slavery by Another Name”, he discusses the contentious subject of slavery, making the case that Achaemenid Persia was a slave-owning society. In this chapter, he argues that workers mentioned under the Elamite term “kurtaš” in the Persepolis tablets were in fact often foreign slaves, usually prisoners of war, who did not willingly immigrate to Pârs.

The third and final part of the book, “High Empire”, tells the story of the Achaemenids from Darius’ death to the fall of the last Achaemenid king. Here we find substantial descriptions of the Greco-Persian wars, relying primarily on Greek sources, as other resources are scarce. Although Llewellyn-Jones has used Greek sources cautiously in order to reach a “Persian version”, he still has to depend on Greek authors to fill the gaps when there is scant or no evidence outside of the account of Greek historians.

In the final chapters, the author argues that the Achaemenids did not go through a “rise and fall” scenario in which their authority gradually diminished and deteriorated. On the contrary, their end was sudden, and Alexander’s invasion came as a surprise.

Even though Llewellyn-Jones dedicated the second part of his book to the details of the Achaemenid royal court and their cultural and social values, there is a focus on the cultural context of events in other parts of the book as well. For instance, when describing how Alexander took possession of Darius’ Harem, the author provides a thorough explanation of the harem’s value, its symbolic role, and how it affects the king and his legitimacy. Moreover, it is intriguing to read about Persian military equipment, war strategies, and even the troops’ daily lives. The author’s observations and arguments on the significance and impact of war strategies help the reader to gain a better understanding of their outcomes.

Finally, in the epilogue, the author examines how the Achaemenids were received in three historical contexts: by the Sasanians, in Shahnameh, and in contemporary Iran. There are a few minor details where I disagree with how the current state of Iran is depicted in the epilogue, however, I admire the author’s accuracy in illustrating the significance of ancient Persia in shaping Iran’s national identity. It is interesting to see that just one year after the publication of this book, the contrast between Iranian youth and the theocracy of the Islamic Republic has yet again caused an uprising. One could only appreciate the perspicuity of the author, who has managed to engage with Iranians actively and gain insight into modern-day Iran.

In the appendix, “Dramatis Personae”, the original names of Persian kings, nobility, courtiers and non-Persians have been gathered and their meanings explained, an interesting addition that fits well within the content of the book.

To close, I return to my opening complaint about Llewellyn-Jones’ handling of sources. Despite his continued criticism of Greek authors, the book lacks a critical comparison of multiple sources and accounts. The lack of textual citations throughout the book adds to the problem. For instance, in chapter fourteen, the main references on the subject of castration in the Achaemenid military are Greek authors, particularly Xenophon and Herodotus. Finding the source of these references would be a time-consuming task, as there are no citations in the book. I assume it refers to the following passage in Cyropaedia 7.5.60:

τοὺς μὲν οὖν ἔχοντας παῖδας ἢ γυναῖκας συναρμοττούσας ἢ παιδικὰ ἔγνω φύσει ἠναγκάσθαι ταῦτα μάλιστα φιλεῖν: τοὺς δ᾽ εὐνούχους ὁρῶν πάντων τούτων στερομένους ἡγήσατο τούτους ἂν περὶ πλείστου ποιεῖσθαι οἵτινες δύναιντο πλουτίζειν μάλιστα αὐτοὺς καὶ βοηθεῖν, εἴ τι ἀδικοῖντο, καὶ τιμὰς περιάπτειν αὐτοῖς: τούτοις δ᾽ εὐεργετοῦντα ὑπερβάλλειν αὐτὸν οὐδέν᾽ ἂν ἡγεῖτο δύνασθαι.

In Miller’s translation (on Perseus), this becomes:

Those, therefore, who had children or congenial wives or sweethearts, such he believed were by nature constrained to love them best. But as he observed that eunuchs were not susceptible to any such affections, he thought that they would esteem most highly those who were in the best position to make them rich and to stand by them, if ever they were wronged, and to place them in offices of honour; and no one, he thought, could surpass him in bestowing favours of that kind.

Xenophon’s description continues for another four paragraphs, based on which we read on page 241 of “Persians”:

“The process of castration, it was thought, made men, like gelded horses and dogs, docile and more malleable. Xenophon unambiguously affirmed that it was Cyrus the Great who had first introduced eunuchs into his army for just this reason, although this cannot be qualified since castration was already a Mesopotamian practice long before Cyrus’ time.”

This is an instance where the lack of citations makes it difficult for readers to find the source, and to form their own understanding of the original if they wish. One could argue that the original Greek does not clearly affirm that Cyrus was the first to introduce eunuchs into his army, although it could be implied. In Xen. Cyrop. 7.5.65 we read:

εἰ δέ τι ἄρα τῆς τοῦ σώματος ἰσχύος μειοῦσθαι δοκοῦσιν, ὁ σίδηρος ἀνισοῖ τοὺς ἀσθενεῖς τοῖς ἰσχυροῖς ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ. ταῦτα δὴ γιγνώσκων ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῶν θυρωρῶν πάντας τοὺς περὶ τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σῶμα θεραπευτῆρας ἐποιήσατο εὐνούχους.

Again, in Miller’s translation, this becomes:

And if it is thought with some justice that they are inferior in bodily strength, yet on the field of battle steel makes the weak equal to the strong. Recognizing these facts, he selected eunuchs for every post of personal service to him, from the door-keepers up.

Unlike many other sources for Persia’s history, translations of Greek texts are plentiful. Even if readers are unable to read the original Greek, they can compare multiple English translations of the text, where they would see that most English translators did not understand the Greek word ἀρξάμενoς as implying that Cyrus was the first to employ eunuchs in the military, but rather as “he began to” do so. This is true of the translations by Miller (1961), Dakyns (1914, p.245), Crosse (1879, p.26), Watson and Dale (1891, p.230), Cooper (1810, p.273), and Ashley (1770, p.303).

The lack of textual citations is a disadvantage throughout the book, however, it is a minor issue in comparison to the book’s positive features. With his engaging writing style and accessible presentation of information, Llewellyn-Jones makes the book a delight to read, while offering an abundance of information about this important civilization and its place in world history. In the introduction, the author promises to avoid the “historiographic smear campaign” against Persia and he has been more or less successful in giving us a non-hellenocentric view of the Persian world. Indeed, what distinguishes this book is its focus on criticizing Greek accounts of the Achaemenids. This stance provides a unique perspective that differs from the norm in many introductory historical works on the Persian Empire.

Another distinguishing feature of “Persians” is the emphasis on the details of life in the Achaemenid court, making it a great introduction to the history of ancient Persia, particularly for those unfamiliar with the subject. While a great book for readers who are fresh to the study of ancient history, it might not be suitable for a more advanced reader. Nevertheless, “Persians” will undoubtedly be useful to the students for whom it is intended.



Xenophon. (1770). Cyropaedia, Or The Institution of Cyrus (M. Ashley, Trans.). J. & F. Rivington.

Xenophon. (1810). Cyropaedia (M. A. Cooper, Trans.). B. B. Hopkins & Company.

Xenophon. (1879). Xenophon’s Cyropædia books vii. & viii. (C.H. Crosse, Trans.). J. Hall and Sons.

Xenophon. (1891). The Cyropaedia, Or Institution of Cyrus: And the Hellenics, Or Grecian History (H. Dale and J. S. Watson, Trans.). Bell.

Xenophon. (1914). Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus ( H. G. Dakyns, Trans.). Macmillan. Available online.

Xenophon. (1961). Cyropaedia (Miller, W., Trans.). Harvard University Press. Available online.