Persian versions

“There are certain areas of scholarship”, wrote Iris Murdoch in The Nice and the Good, “early Greek history is one and Roman law is another, where the scantiness of evidence sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the player lies in complicating the rules.” It is a passage much cited by historians of early Greece, evoking a type of intricate source criticism, a history in miniature, that is now largely extinct. But the special challenge of early Greek history (I cannot speak for Roman law – a “kind of perversion”, feared Murdoch’s character, John Ducane) is as nothing to the difficulties facing the historians of the Achaemenid Persian world, the Persia of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, against which the ancient Greeks faced off.

It is not simply that the evidence is scanty. Indeed, ever since the soldier-geographer-diplomat Henry Rawlinson and others used the trilingual inscription of Darius at Bisitun as a basis for the decipherment of cuneiform (by guessing at the names that were common to the different versions), there has been a proliferation of textual evidence. But the scale of the Persians’ empire – “from the Sacae who are beyond Sogdia to Kush, and from Sind to Lydia”, in words of one Persian royal pronouncement – ​​requires a superhuman range of skills: the ability not only to read Old Persian, Babylonian, Elamite, Aramaic, Egyptian and Greek (hard enough), but to understand the cultures that gave rise to those texts – not to mention keeping abreast of the burgeoning results of archaeological fieldwork across such a geographical expanse.

The disparate sources, moreover, rarely intersect. The royal inscriptions speak grandiosely to the king’s power, virtues and achievements. Set alongside the public art of the palace of Persepolis, they convey a spellbinding imperial vision of subjects of many nations joyfully acceding to the king’s will. Clay tablets discovered at Persepolis give down-to-earth records of journeys traveled and rations dispensed in a handful of years. Babylonian archives or Egyptian texts (like the testament of Udjahorresnet, an Egyptian collaborator with the Persians, who boasts of bringing the foreign invaders into line) testify to the impact of empire on its subjects. But for any sustained narrative we rely on the accounts of the Greeks: Herodotus, Xenophon or a host of “fragmentary” historians. And only rarely – Udjahorresnet is a notable exception – there is other evidence against which we can test their versions.

As a result of this distribution of sources, historians have tended to proceed by a kind of “auto-correct”, projecting plausible motives for Persian expansion (securing trade routes?) or reducing the Greek wars to scale (“skirmishes on the [Persians’] North-West frontier”). In the final decades of the last century, as modern Iran moved beyond reach, there began a concerted movement to liberate its ancient counterparts from the Hellenocentric perspective of previous generations, to “decolonize” Persian history. Given our unavoidable reliance on Greek sources, emancipation from them tends to involve a degree of having your cake and eating it. Anecdotes of the Persian court can be dismissed as Orientalist projection, but mined for residual evidence of “protocol”. Persian queens are held up as active and enterprising (the antithesis of the Greek ideal), but stories of their brutality are dismissed or justified. Decolonizing Persia has the ironic end result of western scholars identifying zealously with an aggressive imperial project – Persia was the undoubted superpower of its day – to the exclusion of its own (albeit noisy) subaltern voices.

Into this minefield enters Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. His Persians promises a radical departure. Unlike other (“Western”) histories, it offers us a “genuine ancient Persian voice”, the “inside story”, based on “genuine, indigenous, ancient Persian stories”. Llewellyn-Jones acknowledges the violent and exploitative nature of Persian imperialism. He elaborates, in particular, the cruel and unusual punishments meted out by royal Persians on their enemies in lavish detail: from bog-standard impalement, through suffocation in cold ashes or skull-crushing, to exquisitely staged poisonings or stuffing and plastering the victim with milk and honey, and leaving them in the heat of the sun.

Fundamentally, however, in place of “Western eulogistic histories” (I am hard pressed to think of a recent one), we are given instead a eulogy of the Persians. Empire is empire, Llewellyn-Jones concedes. But the Persians’ model of empire – a “laissez-faire” despotism that refrained from imposing a common language or religion on its subjects, just so long as they paid up – was a better one. The Roman and British empires are the foil here. The Persian ideal of imperial harmony – as reflected, above all, in the “dreams in stone” of Persepolis – reveals a degree of “self-awareness” (?!) that empires such as Rome never attained. If the “Persian Version” – a phrase borrowed from a poem by Robert Graves – had been taught at Eton and Sandhurst, Llewellyn-Jones suggests, the experience of millions of British subjects might have been better for it.

Some British imperialists of the nineteenth century, in fact, looked back to the ancient Persians, their royal roads and taxation, as models of a distinctly Protestant administrative efficiency. “How they have fallen from their first estate!”, George Fowler lamented in his travel memoirs (1841). Persians, by contrast, is animated by a romantic identification with a timeless Iran. The book concludes with a paean to the resilience of Persian civilization in the face of western threats and scaremongering. And it is filled throughout with loving descriptive detail: of the intense gaze and sculpted facial hair of the kings; of the plants and birds of Cyrus’ “paradise” at Pasargadae; and of the wives and concubines competing for the favor of the king.

This exuberant portrait is sustained by a fair number of surelys and no doubts, and a generous dollop of creative license. Darius “took enormous satisfaction.” Alexander “must have smiled”. Cyrus’ entry into Babylon is accompanied by “an eerie silence punctuated by the rhythmical tramping of the feet of [his] soldiers and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the occasional neigh or snort”. I was reminded at times of the Michael Wood documents that were the fall-back of tired history teachers when I was a teenager. So, of William the Conqueror before Hastings: “We don’t know whether William slept well that night but, knowing him, he probably did.” It would be churlish to ask how we know this or that detail, or what was going on in a given king’s head. Such in-fill forms part of an implied contract with the reader.

Persians also exhibits its own distinctive cake-and-eatery. Llewellyn-Jones encourages us to set aside the western narrative of Persiannce, of an empire “ruled from the decade harem by the machinations of castrati and concubines”. The king’s “harem” (a term that most historians eschew) was nothing, he insists, like the Orientalist fantasy: an “Oriental pleasure palace, filled with scantily clad nubile virgins, stretched out on pillows in languid preparation for nights of sexual adventure in a sultan’s bed”. But, as that sentence suggests, Persians still leaves itself a little scope for such fantasy in passing. The attempt to restore agency to the king’s wives and concubines – to insist that their power consisted in their separation from the public gaze, while dwelling on their physical features (Stateira’s cheeks like pomegranate blossom, her body “round and fulsome and fleshy”) – is at the very least an uncomfortable balancing act.

Rarely are we given a glimpse into the historians’ workshop, into why a given source is preferred to another. Ctesias, the “Persia-based Greek historian” whom Llewellyn-Jones has done much to rehabilitate (as a kind of historical novelist), gets a free pass, with his stories of “harem intrigue” given extensive paraphrase. Herodotus, on the other hand, undergoes a drawn-out death by misrepresentation. Llewellyn-Jones’s Herodotus is hell-bent on constructing a version of Persia as the “antithesis of Greek civilization”, on taking swipes at the Persians’ moral laxity or constructing poisonous caricatures of their kings. His account of the Greek–Persian wars is a “ragbag of stories of war exploits”, although it should not be “completely written off”; you can uncover some historical truths if you dig deep, or if a story is too good to let go. But this is the same Herodotus who undercuts any triumphalist narrative of Greek victory by foregrounding the Greeks’ trickery and division, and whose Histories – far from revealing crude pro-Athenian sympathies – repeatedly suggest an analogy between Persia and Athens.

One day, perhaps, we may see a history that allows itself to adopt multiple perspectives on Persian imperialism, that offers a sympathetic reconstruction of Persia on its own terms without reducing the Greek sources on which it relies – and that calls a truce in the 2,500 -year Persian wars.

Thomas Harrison is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews, and the author of Writing Ancient Persia2011

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