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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)

Holland, Persian Fire

Like Kaveh Farrokh, Tom Holland must be praised for trying to break with the Greece-centeredness that is so customary in books of ancient history. And Persian Fire. The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2005) is not bad. Still, it leaves too much to be desired.

The main problem is, again, ignorance of the achievements of modern scholarship. Holland does mention the translation of Briant's Histoire (above) in his bibliography, but he appears not to have read it. To name but one example, Holland refers to a document known as the "Gadatas Letter" as if it were genuine, which is not the case, as he would have known if he had reached page xviii of the English translation of the Histoire. Of course this is a trivial mistake, but it was avoidable.

Another book Holland claims to have consulted is Grayson's Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. (1975, 1977). Holland's reading must have been superficial, because on pp.13-14, and in many other places, he mentions Cyrus' Lydian campaign as taking place in 547 BC, referring to the Nabonidus Chronicle, one of the most famous texts from ancient Mesopotamia. Under the year that corresponds to our 547, this tablet does indeed record a campaign of Cyrus in an area beyond the Tigris called "the land of Lu..." The text breaks off after this first syllable. Holland says that its "applicability [...] to Lydia is almost certain; damage to the inscription prevents it from being inconvertible". Quite the opposite. In an appendix to his book, Grayson maintains that Lu... cannot be read as "Lydia".[1] Holland could have known this even without consulting Grayson's book: Briant explains this on p.34 of the English translation of the Histoire.

Like Farrokh, Holland is too easily convinced by Herodotus.[2] For example, there was no eclipse when Xerxes left Sardis (p.240): Herodotus' statement in Histories 7.37 must refer to the eclipse of April 481, when the great king left Susa. On p.7, Ecbatana is presented as a city with seven walls, a fairy tale motive from Herodotus (1.98) unconfirmed by archaeology. On p.14, Croesus again miraculously survives the pyre. Holland's account of the last fight in Thermopylae ignores the doubt that the Greek researcher himself expresses: introducing the story with gnom (his usual indication that what is about to follow will be a personal opinion), Herodotus in fact admits that we cannot know what happened at Thermopylae. The battle remains, as Charles Hignett famously stated in his Xerxes' Invasion of Greece, "an unsolved riddle". Holland, who has read Herodotus and Hignett, has ignored both warning signs.

The most impressive borrowing from Herodotus is the incompleteness of Persian Fire, which corresponds to what is covered by Herodotus' Histories. A historical description of the Persian War cannot end at Plataea and Mycale, but must continue with the Greek expeditions to the Bosphorus and Cyprus (478) and the fall of Eion (c.477). True, Plataea and Mycale were decisive, but that does not mean that, having reached the summer of 479, the historian can stop. Holland's book is like a history of the Second World War that ends just after El Alamein, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad. Essentially, Holland makes his historical judgment dependent on what happens to be covered in his incomplete sources.

The book contains many unnecessary mistakes. Cyrus' tomb is not immense and is not directed to the rising sun; its entrance faces the northwest (p.20, 22). Hippias' brother Hipparchus was not a tyrant (passim). Monotheism does not have its roots in the period of the Persian wars (p.xxii): the author of the Deuteronomistic History lived long before the conflict between Greece and Persia. The harems of Persia (p.168) never existed outside Greek fantasies.[3]  The strait between Artemisium and Magnesia has a width of "barely six miles" on p.255, but has grown to ten miles on p.277. It was only in Islamic times that Babylon became known as the "metropolis of sorcerers" (p.43). The Behistun relief is not a radical departure from earlier self-promotion (p.55): it is a creative copy of the four reliefs at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab. And Holland maintains that Cyrus was, "no doubt by temperament", a mild ruler (p.12), in spite of his often cruel behavior[4] - apparently, Holland is another victim of the propaganda of Mohammad Reza Shah, and of Cyrus himself. 

Often, it is Holland's effusive language that creates confusion. He loves lines like "As the storm clouds of seeming Persian invincibility loomed ever darker over Ionia, so strange shadows from the past returned to haunt Athens, too" (p.163). Two metaphors in one sentence is overdoing it a bit. This forced attempt to evoke something and get the reader emotionally involved, becomes problematic when Holland writes that people deported by the Assyrians were "naked" (p.4) - very moving, of course, but the reliefs in the Louvre and the British Museum prove otherwise. Another example: the presumed joy with which the fall of Nineveh was greeted (p.6). In fact, there is - except for the prophet Nahum - no evidence: on the contrary, the Babylonians nowhere received support, which one would have expected if the fall of Nineveh were such a joyful event.

Another example of Holland's being carried away by his own attempts to get the reader involved, is his use of the word "Christ" for Cyrus (p.147). True, Isaiah calls the conqueror the "anointed of the Lord", but this was the common title of any Judaean king, priest, or prophet. Messianism was born in the second century BCE, and the now common connotations of the word "Christ" were simply missing in the sixth century. Mistranslation is too strong an instrument to get the reader's attention.

On p.208, Holland takes the Daiva inscription, which mentions how Xerxes, at the beginning of his reign, put an end to the worship of demons in one of the satrapies, as evidence for the suppression of a revolt in Egypt. As far as I know, there is no evidence of an interruption for any of the Egyptian cults. On the other hand, it is certain that in 484 Xerxes proceeded harshly against the Esagila in Babylon and took measures against organizations that were related to the traditional Babylonian religion. This is clear from the cuneiform evidence, Herodotus, Ctesias, and perhaps Arrian.

The issue is important, because Holland proposes a spectacular interpretation of the Persian War: not Salamis was decisive, but Xerxes' having to suppress a revolt in Babylonia (p.361). This is apparently his own idea, because he does not refer to Briant's article that has dealt with this matter.[5]  However, there is no reasonable doubt that the Babylonian revolt of Šamaš-eriba and Bl-šimnni took place in 484, and the "general murk of Near Eastern history in this period" that Holland mentions on p.401 is no longer there - at least not here. The only way to save Briant's thesis is to accept a second revolt in Babylon in 479. As evidence, Briant refers to Arrian, who states that Xerxes sacked Babylon on his return from Greece (Anabasis 7.17.2), and to Ctesias, who mentions two captures of the city. Neither author is known for his reliability regarding the Esagila. For the time being, the recall of the Persian troops from Europe, and the consequent Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale, remain what they have always been: a mystery.

Generally speaking, Holland’s book has a strangely nineteenth-century feel. For instance, on page 20, Holland says that Cyrus died in 529, something that was believed in the nineteenth century, until it was discovered in the 1880s that it happened in August 530.[6] The strange mistake with the date of the eclipse, mentioned above, is another case in point, and so is Holland's adherence to the idea that a grandson and namesake of Zopyrus was an informer of Herodotus (p.382). If this were true, the younger Zopyrus knows awfully little about his grandfather's career.[7] Finally, Holland prudishly translates the famous words of Leonidas, Molon labe, as "Come and get them" (p.271). Which might have been fine in the Victorian age, but in our age, there is no reason not to translate an obscenity as an obscenity.

But the most obviously nineteenth-century aspect is Holland's overall theory, put forward on p.xvii, that "There was much more at stake during the course of the Persian attempts to subdue the Greek mainland than the independence of [Greece] ... Much that made Greek civilisation distinctive would have been aborted." Holland explains that the Athenian democracy and the philosophy of Plato would not have existed if the Persians had not been expelled (p. xxii, xvii). Holland quotes nineteenth-century philosophers like Hegel and Mill, but could have strengthened his case by referring to historians - after all, the past is their profession.

As it happens, the importance of the Persian War has been the subject of a famous theoretical discussion between Max Weber and Eduard Meyer, who had, in 1901, written that if the Persians had won the war, "the outcome would have been that some kind of church [...] would have put Greek life and thought under a yoke and would have chained all free dynamics, and the new Greek culture would, like the oriental cultures, have had a theological-religious nature."[8]

Weber, who is best known as one of the founders of the social sciences but started his career as a pupil of the great ancient historian Theodor Mommsen, responded with a simple question: how did Meyer know that a Persian victory would have obstructed the rise of freedom, democracy, and rationalism? Weber could easily prove[9] that Meyer's reasoning was counterfactual: he explains the significance of an event by pointing at what would have happened if it had not taken place. And counterfactual explanations are, as any student of history learns in his first year, rarely reliable.[10]

Weber's criticism may seem obvious today, but it was one of the first occasions on which historians analyzed the quality of their methods, and it marked the beginning of methodology as a subdiscipline. Weber's arguments are now textbook examples and I was surprised that Holland was unaware of them. It is true that he is writing for a large audience, but that is not an excuse for repeating refuted nineteenth-century scholarship. I was even shocked to read Paul Cartledge's review of this book in The Independent - not just because he was a contributor to Persian Fire (p.ix) and ought to have refrained from writing a review, but because he praises this book for its contention that, if Xerxes had won, there would not have been something called western culture.[11] A Cambridge professor ought to recognize a logical fallacy, not praise it.

Most of the time, Holland does not rise above this nineteenth-century level: he is too faithful to Herodotus, unaware of new insights, and thinks that a counterfactual interpretation is permissible. When he does bring something new, like the idea that the Persian War was decided by an insurrection in Babylon, he has no grip on the complexity of the problems. Persian Fire might as well have been written in 1875. Still, it would be exaggerated to call this a bad book, although it isn’t a good book either. The book is unnecessary.

>> to part three >>

Note 1:
The most plausible hypothesis is that it refers to the kingdom of Urartu: 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 2:
Holland is aware that there is debate about Herodotus' reliability, but confuses this with the debate about the Fehling thesis (p.377). Generally speaking, it can be said that Egyptology has more or less confirmed Herodotus' information, while Assyriologists have shown that Herodotus can never have visited Babylon. To be fair to the Greek researcher: he nowhere claims to have been there - he usually says things like "this was still the case in my time" and "people who have not been there will find it hard to believe that…" (I owe this observation to Bert van der Spek.)

Note 3:
M. Van de Mieroop, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (1999), 147.

Note 4:
Herodotus 1.128 mentions the massacre of a Median army and the Nabonidus Chronicle mentions the same fate for a Babylonian army in 539. According to the same chronicle, a king was executed in 547.

Note 5:
P. Briant, "La date des rvoltes Babyloniennes contre Xerxs" in: Studia Iranica 21 (1992) 7-20.

Note 6:
The first known document to the sole rule of Cambyses (31 August) is J.N Strassmeier, Cambyses (1890), #1.

Note 7:
Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002) and Bichler/Rollinger, Herodot (2000) do not even bother to refute this old theory.

Note 8:
Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (1901), part 3, pp. 445-446.

Note 9:
M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufstze zur Wissenschaftslehre (1973), pp.282-287

Note 10:
Take, for instance, these considerations. In 493, a mere thirteen years before Xerxes invaded Greece, his general Mardonius had accepted democracy as system of government of the Greek towns in the Persian empire. And how hostile were the Persians towards rationalism? The research program of the Chaldaeans in Persian Babylonia followed a purely scientific method. In Xerxes' eastern capital Taxila, Panini wrote the world's first scientific grammar. And in Judah, the book of Job was written, in which God and man discuss the nature of good and evil. In other words, for any example Meyer and Holland mention, one might offer a counter-example.

Note 11:
Paul Cartledge, "A Clash of Civilisations?" in: The Independent of 2 September 2005.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 21 March 2008
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