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Let’s Abandon Achaemenid Studies

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine Three books on the Achaemenid Empire, all aiming at the general audience. One of them is just bad, the second one is unnecessary, the third explains what everybody already knows. This is the wrong way to introduce people to one of the most fertile branches of ancient history.
Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert (2007)
Tom Holland, Persian Fire (2005)
Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire, and Torture (2007)

Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert

[This first part of the review has, in a slightly different form,
also been published by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.]

One of the last lines of Kaveh Farrokh's Shadows in the Desert. Ancient Persia at War is that "there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980". If his book is indicative of the quality of modern-day Iranian studies, the decline can only be lauded. Shadows in the Desert contains dozens of factual errors, repeats Iranian propaganda from the 1970s, and contains numerous unnecessary digressions. Osprey Publishers have obviously invested a lot of energy in producing the book, which is indeed very attractive,[1] but all their care cannot hide that the manuscript ought to have been returned to the writer, much though he is to be praised for trying to redress the Greece-centeredness that bedevils most ancient history.

As the second title indicates, the book is about ancient Persia at war. It covers three periods: the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. (As the other books under review are on Achaemenid history, I will focus on the first part of Farrokh's book.) The century-and-a-half of the Seleucids, who dominated Iran from 311 to 141 BCE, receive ten pages, because Farrokh believes that the Macedonians "never managed to establish a loyal political base among their Iranian subjects" (p.115).

This view on the Seleucids, which may or may not have been influenced by the propaganda of Mohammad Reza Shah (who called this period "post-Achaemenid"), is not corroborated by the facts. The Seleucid armies, following the precedent by Alexander the Great, employed mounted archers from Sogdia (e.g., at Raphia); the use of these Dahae inside the empire showed the way to the Parni nomads who eventually founded the Parthian Empire. Iranian troops from Carmania, Persis, Media, Cissia, and Cadusia were also employed, which means that the Seleucids recruited their soldiers in the same area as the Achaemenids. Once the Parthians had seized power, they learned a thing or two about urbanism from the Seleucids and appreciated the military significance of the Greek cities. Since the publication of Amelie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White's From Samarkhand to Sardis. A New Approach to the Seleucid empire (1993), it is no longer possible to ignore the Seleucids as irrelevant to Iranian history. Even though the Greeks and Macedonians remained - as Farrokh correctly observes - "basically Hellenic islands in a vast Iranian realm" (p.115), ten pages is really insufficient.

If the reader is surprised because Farrokh ignores the Seleucid use of Iranian mounted archers, he will be truly flabbergasted to learn what the author does include in his book on ancient warfare: there are sections devoted to linguistics, Babylonian astronomy, the Silk Road, the Baghdad Battery, as well as the Alanic origins of the King Arthur legend. It surely makes for pleasant reading, but is irrelevant to ancient Persia at war.

The strangest inclusion is the Cyrus Cylinder, a document from Babylon in which the great conqueror presents himself as the ideal king: chosen by the supreme god, he restores order, repairs buildings, allows exiles to return home, and redresses malpractices. In the past, this text - which is absolutely topical - has been taken as evidence for Cyrus' illuminated policy, especially by the government of Mohammad Reza Shah, who even called it "the world's first human rights charter". Farrokh repeats this propaganda verbatim on page 44, apparently unaware of the extensive secondary literature on the subject.[2]

Farrokh has an incredible belief in the Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus. For example, on p.33, he uncritically uses Herodotus' statement that the Median army was formally reorganized by Cyaxares (Histories 1.103), even though most scholars now are highly skeptical about the reliability of Herodotus' Medikos logos.[3] He even believes that the Median state was more centralized than the Achaemenid Empire (p.39); if this were true, we would find some kind of common state architecture all over the Median realms, but so far, archaeologists have not been able to establish which objects are indicative of Median presence. (Usually, all finds below the Achaemenid stratum are called Median, but this does not mean that they resemble each other.)

On p.41, Farrokh, still uncritically accepting Herodotus' words, presents Croesus as one of Cyrus' courtiers, believing the Halicarnassian's story about Croesus' miraculous survival from the pyre. This story is a rationalization of the Third Ode of Bacchylides, who writes that Croesus was "taken away to the Hyperboreans", i.e., to the realm of the dead. Most scholars reckon Herodotus' story about Croesus' survival among those folkloristic tales about beloved leaders who have not really died (e.g., Nectanebo II, King Arthur, Frederic Barbarossa, Constantine XI, and Elvis Presley), and point at Croesus' role as "tragic warner" in Herodotus' second and third book. Farrokh is unaware of this, just as he is ignorant of the fact that Herodotus' story of Cyrus' being killed by the Massagetae was already contested in Antiquity (p.48; cf. Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.7 and Ctesias, Persica, §8).

One of Farrokh's aims is to balance the western prejudices against ancient Iran. In this, he is certainly right. Unfortunately, his almost unquestioning belief in Herodotus' reliability occasionally leads him to the opposite: he in fact strengthens anti-Persian prejudices. For example, he accepts the Greek historian's story that Thermopylae was betrayed - as if Xerxes' spies were incompetent and a Greek army could only be defeated after treason. Those who are looking for a fair judgment of Persia's war aims and achievements, would do better to read the chapters in the Cambridge Ancient History, written by historians who are no slaves to Herodotus.[4]

Often, Farrokh presents old hypotheses as facts. The eponymous founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Achaemenes, is presented as a historical figure - an idea that has not been without criticism. Farrokh adds that Achaemenes' son Teispes divided the kingdom between his sons Ariaramnes and Cyrus (p.38): an old hypothesis, introduced to solve a crux in the Behistun Inscription, but for which there is no evidence. On p.108, Farrokh presents the stone lion of Hamadan, without further discussion, as a monument to Alexander's lover Hephaestion; but this is just a hypothesis - a hypothesis that is very implausible, if only because the lion was found on a cemetery of the Parthian age. On the same page, Farrokh says that the Macedonian conqueror was aiming at "unity between Iranians and Greeks" - that old canard of Droysen (Verschmelzungspolitik), repeated by W.W. Tarn in the 1927 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, and famously refuted by Ernst Badian.[5]

Sometimes, Farrokh's praiseworthy attempts to stress the historical importance of Iran lead to absurdity. What to think of the statement that "Western scholarship has yet to acknowledge or investigate the role of Mithraic influence on the formation of European culture and Christianity"? This is ridiculous, since Cumont and Vermaseren wrote at great length on this subject, and were more than willing to accept Iranian influence on the rise of Christianity. In fact, western scholarship is now returning from its overconfident first identifications.
 
Shadows in the Desert contains many outright errors. Croesus was not defeated in the year 547 (p.41). Ahuramazda was not, as Farrokh says on p.46, the single god, but a supreme god - Mithra and Anahita are mentioned as divinities in Avestan and Achaemenid sources, which also call Ahuramazda "the greatest of all gods" (plural). On p.67, we learn that Scylax played a role in the creation of Darius' Suez Canal. This may be true, but I am unaware of any evidence to support this claim. On the next page, we are to believe that it was Darius who created an imperial navy. It was Cambyses.[6] On page 71, the Athenian involvement in the Ionian Revolt is dated after the sack of Sardis; in fact, this was the moment on which Athens withdrew its support. In his description of the battle of Marathon, Farrokh suggests that "wave after wave of missiles ... rained down upon the Athenians" (p.72) - a rather inefficient use of archery, because enemies can prepare for receiving a rain of showers, but not for irregular, continuous shooting.

According to Farrokh, Xerxes took with him the statue of the god Marduk when he sacked Babylon in 484 (p.74), a careless reading of Herodotus (Histories, 1.183). On p.81, the author maintains that the Persians never challenged the Greeks at sea after the naval battle of Salamis, apparently unaware of the outcome of the Social War in 355. Plutarch's Artaxerxes is not devoted to Artaxerxes I, but to Artaxerxes II (p.86). Inarus revolted in c.464, not 495 (p.86 again). Farrokh confuses Miletus and Melitene (p.99), the archery attacks at Marathon and Thermopylae (p.227), and Alexander's stays in Arbela and Babylon (p.105).

Cyrus' tomb was visited by Alexander in 324, not 330, and Cyreschata was not spared by the Macedonians but sacked (both on p.107). The fourth king named Artaxerxes was Arses, not Bessus (p.108).[7] Alexander did not die on June 7, but four days later (p.111).[8] The Maccabaean revolt did not take place during the reign of Antiochus III, but during that of Antiochus IV (p.120). The relief of Gotarzes II at Behistun does not stand today (p.147): it was damaged when a later Iranian monarch "improved" the monument with a mihrab-shaped niche, and the relief is only known from a seventeenth-century drawing.[9]

I will not digress on the spelling errors,[10] topographical mistakes,[11] and logical fallacies,[12] and will concentrate instead on what I think is Farrokh's main weakness: ignorance of recent literature. Today, Achaemenid studies are dominated by one man: the French scholar Pierre Briant. In the 1970s, Iranology was a divided discipline, still in its infancy and - in Iran - sponsored by a government that wanted to present Cyrus the Great as an ideal, secular leader. (When Mohammad Reza Shah offered a copy of the Cyrus Cylinder to the United Nations, he added a translation from which all religious references were left out.) Briant found a discipline in its preparadigmatic stage, and in the 1980s created Iranology’s first real paradigm. His magnum opus is Histoire de l’ empire Perse. De Cyrus à Alexandre (1995).

At the same time, Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg organized several Achaemenid Workshops, the results of which were published in a series of publications called Achaemenid History. For the first time, Iranology has a clear structure and this is - even according to more relativistic theories about the quality of scholarship - progress. One may regret the sometimes exaggerated admiration for Briant, but his accomplishment is real. Farrokh's statement that "there has been an overall decline of programs and studies of Iranica in western Europe and the United States since 1980" could not be farther from the truth.

Instead of referring to Briant's Histoire or Achaemenid History, Farrokh relies upon the internet. For instance, he quotes articles of the notoriously lackadaisical CAIS[13] on p.60, 106, and 230. Of course, this leads to mistakes. On page 106, he attributes to Heidemarie Koch a "thorough analysis" of Alexander's fight at the Persian Gate. In fact, she describes the road between Persepolis and Susa. The misunderstanding is caused by Farrokh's careless use of the web version of my own reconstruction of that battle, which is based on Henry Speck's brilliant identification of the Persian Gate with a mountain pass north of Yasuj. On my webpage, I summarize an article by professor Abuzar Hemati of the University of Yasuj, who proposes a pass south of Yasuj, called Tangeri, which he believes to be derived from Tang-e Ariobarzan. Farrokh, obviously not realizing that Speck and Hemati's theories are incompatible, states that today, the northern pass is called Tang-e Ariobarzan - attributing a hypothetical name to the wrong pass.

Ignoring good scholarly publications, relying unquestioningly on Herodotus and websites, and confusing hypotheses with facts: it is this method that makes Farrokh's book useless. Someone with a Ph.D. and employed by a university ought to know better. It is a pity, because Farrokh's goal to give to ancient Iran its rightful place in history is a good one, and I am glad that Osprey has done its best to produce something worthy of that goal. However, Shadows in the Desert remains, in four words, an extremely bad book.

>> to part two >>

Note 1:
I may be biased: I took several of the photos used in this book. Still, I think only a professional grumbler will deny that this lavishly illustrated hardback is a bibliophile's dream.

Note 2:
E.g., J. Harmatta, "Les modèles littéraires de l'édit babylonien de Cyrus", in: Acta Iranica 1 (1974) 29-44; A. Kuhrt, "The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy" in: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983) 83-97; R.J. van der Spek, "Did Cyrus the Great Introduce a New Policy Towards Subdued Nations?" in: Persica 10 (1982) 278-283.

Note 3:
E.g., Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, "Was there ever a Median Empire?" in: Achaemenid History 3 (1988) 197-212; Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, "The Orality of Herodotus' Medikos Logos" in Achaemenid History 8 (1994) 39-55; R. Rollinger, "The Median 'Empire', the End of Urartu, and Cyrus' Campaign in 547" in: Proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Cultural Relations between Iran and West Asia (2004).

Note 4:
Oswyn Murray, "The Ionian revolt" and N.G.L. Hammond, "The expedition of Xerxes", in the Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., vol.4 (1984), pages 461-489 and 518-590.

Note 5:
Ernst Badian, "Alexander and the unity of mankind", in Historia 7 (1958).

Note 6:
H.T. Wallinga, Ships and sea power before the great Persian war (1993).

Note 7:
As can be shown from texts from Samaria and Lycia.

Note 8:
Usually, June 10 and June 13 are mentioned; I have never seen a reference to June 7 before. The issue has been dealt with by Leo Depuydt, "The Time of Death of Alexander the Great: 11 June 323 BC, ca. 4:00-5:00 PM" in: Die Welt des Orients 28 (1997) 117-135.

Note 9:
Cf. Louis Vanden Berghe, Reliefs rupestres de l' Iran ancien (1983) p.44.

Note 10:
E.g., Oriontes for Orontes (p.54), Atoosa for Atossa (p.74), Nochus for Nothus (p.88), Longimans for Longimanus (p.297).

Note 11:
Drangiana (spelled as "Dragiana") is moved from the east to the southwest of Iran (p.36); the Pillar of Jonah is not south, but north of modern Iskenderun (p.100); Nehardea was not a part of Ctesiphon (p.151); Hecatompylos is not identical to Gurgan (p.174).

Note 12:
A textbook example of a secundum quid can be found on page 61, where it is stated that "it is a little-known fact that one of the most important functions of Persepolis was the celebration of the Persian New Year festival". The main evidence is that on the reliefs on the stairs of the Apadana, people are shown bringing presents, which suggests that gifts were offered to the great king. But it does not prove that this happened at the New Year Festival. Another secundum quid can be found on page 78.

Note 13:
The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies maintains a large website on ancient Iran. The quality is uneven: some pages are fine, but it is not unheard-of to find photos of cuneiform inscriptions upside-down. In the past, it has falsely claimed to be affiliated to the London School of Oriental and African Studies, and even the Wikipedia, which is not famous for its careful selecting contributors, recognizes the problems with the CAIS: one of its members, calling himself Shapour Suren-Pahlav, has received an IP-ban from the Wikipedia after using sockpuppets and trying to introduce the Shah's propaganda about Cyrus to the Wikipedia. Linking to the CAIS from a Wiki page has been made impossible by the moderators of the Wikipedia.

The report that the Iranian authorities will endanger the site of Pasargadae by building a dam in the Sivand, which has often surfaced in the blogosphere and probably is a hoax, was repeated on the CAIS website with a remark that "Iran's pre-Islamic past and Iranians' non-Islamic-national-identity and heritage have always been the subjects of abhorrence for the clerics. This diabolical plot by Ayatollahs in Tehran was set in motion in 1979 to destroy and erase all pre-Islamic Iranian past from the consciousness of the Iranian nation as part of their de-Iranianisation campaign." This is sheer innuendo. One cannot help but think that the CAIS is an anti-Iranian propaganda institute disguised as a scholarly resource.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 16 July 2008
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