Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Western understanding of the ancient Persian kings has always been skewed by histories written by Greek scholars such as Herodotus whose understanding has been incorporated as our own. Llewellyn-Jones sets out to correct this mindset by supplying an authentic Eastern vision. I’m not convinced that he has been successful.
No doubt exists about the expertise of the writer. His knowledge of his field is unchallenged, his familiarity with his subject unparalleled, and his articulateness when writing of this period of ancient history cannot be faulted. What his readers experience is a very solid book that can be relied upon to expand the readers’ knowledge. From within its pages, we learn that the Great Kings of Persia ruled over the largest Empire of antiquity, stretching from Libya to the Steppes of Asia, and from Ethiopia to Pakistan. We are introduced to “the fabled palace-city of Persepolis where the Achaemenid monarchs held court in unparalleled grandeur. From here, Cyrus the Great, Darius, Xerxes, and their heirs passed laws, raised armies, and governed their multicultural Empire of enormous diversity”. The account is fleshed out with original Achaemenid sources that include inscriptions, references to recent archaeological discoveries, and a minimum of art.
Professor Llewellyn-Jones, however, devotes much time to revealing that the Achaemenid dynasty was outstanding in its dysfunctionality with family members seeking power over their kin. Examples of brother fighting brother in an unending search for power, wives and concubines plotting to appoint their offspring to positions of distinction, make up much of the book.
The issue of what constitutes an authentic Eastern vision needs clarification. The book is said to use genuine, indigenous, ancient Persian sources to tell a story markedly different from the one told in the ancient Greek accounts. “Far from being the barbarians of the Greek imagination, the Persians emerge here as culturally and socially sophisticated, economically strong, militarily powerful, and intellectually gifted…It provides us with an original, sometimes startling, understanding of Persia’s place in antiquity and highlights Iran’s contribution to world civilisation” (5).
The author explains the structure of the book early in the introduction. He adheres to the plan he outlines. He plots the rise, spread and consolidation of the Persian empire. He examines the lives of its monarchs and explores the way in which the dynastic politics affected the governance of the empire at large. As he introduces individual characters, the author pauses to explore their religious ideas, their political thoughts, and their territorial aspirations. Llewellyn-Jones goes on to claim that “we will discover how and where they lived, what they ate, how they dressed, what they thought and how they died. This book is both a political history of ancient Iran’s first great empire and a socio-cultural exploration of the world of the Persians” (6).
But will we really?
After an extended, comprehensive introduction which contains amongst a load of other material the non-Greek, Persian approach to recorded history, the book opens into Part One, that focuses on the origins of the Persians in Central Asia and their subsequent migration into the Iranian plateau. This segment is necessarily narrative, covering as it does about 900 years. The first three chapters are devoted to a discussion of the emperor Cyrus, and constitute one of the most focused chapters in the book. “Legends have a power to create their own truths. But whatever way we look at them, Cyrus’ achievements were, and remain, astonishing” (87).
After Cyrus, unfortunately, the book becomes uneven. Herodotus was scathing when he claimed Cambyses was out of his mind. Llewellyn-Jones was right to debunk the anecdote Herodotus repeats, but thereafter, our author has great difficulty remaining focused on the ‘Persian nature’ of his account. He provides substantive evidence that, had Cambyses not been bookended by two giants, Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great his reign may have been thought of more positively than at present. But the book moves into an account of the impact of Darius, and in particular, his employment of ‘the Lie’. The chapter becomes directed towards the justification for the ill-treatment and murder of the enemy.
The next section pauses in the narrative of certain kings to explore the people and the protocols of the royal court, the dynastic heart of the empire, and the thought processes of the Persians themselves. In many ways this section provides the promised ‘Persian’ approach we were told about in earlier chapters. For once this section is completed, the book becomes a tale of murder and mayhem, as one factional leader after another devises an increasingly cruel means of killing the opposition. Historical analysis of a high order remains a feature of the book, but the continual murdering of opponents buries the thesis outlined in the introduction.
The emphasis on the shedding of blood, portrayed in living colour, is a weakness in the book. However, disregarding that aspect of Persian life, readers will find much that is new. Chapters such as Constructing Majesty, A Court under Canvas, Slavery by Another Name, and Crowns and Concubines hold immense interest. What really goes on in a harem was a section of devouring interest.
I have barely touched the surface of the material in this dense, but fascinating, book. I recommend it to the reader who is prepared to think a little further. It has much to say to all of us.
by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
$34.99; 448 pp