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Let’s Abandon Achaemenid Studies, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine, 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)

Lincoln, Religion, Empire, and Torture

Bruce Lincoln's Religion, Empire, and Torture. The Case of Achaemenian Persia is a scholarly book as it is meant be: well-researched and well-written, accessible to the non-specialist while offering a lot to the specialist as well. The author argues that Achaemenid religious dualism, in combination with the idea that a good Creation had been disturbed by Evil and the idea that the king had to restore the world's original goodness, could only create an imperialistic culture in which torture was common. After all, once the king had defeated his enemies, the original goodness of the world was restored, and those who still objected were, consequently, evil. Punishing them was a good thing to do, and doing bad things to bad people was considered to be a good thing.

The trouble is that we already knew this. Lincoln applies one of the lessons of Adorno and Horkheimer's famous Dialektik der Aufklärung: any ideology claiming universal applicability, even a rational system like Enlightenment, can turn into irrationalism and become extremely inhumane. It will be remembered that the example offered by Adorno and Horkheimer was modern Anti-Semitism, which beautifully illustrates the inner tensions of a society that wants all people to be equal, and becomes aggressive against a group that cannot be fully integrated. Many social scientists, like Michel Foucault, have arrived at similar conclusions.

Lincoln adds to his book a "Postscript on Abu Ghraib", because he thinks that his analysis of the Achaemenid case "suggests comparison to certain contemporary data" (p.xv). In this postscript, he refers to president Bush's sense that the USA are "God's chosen instrument for the accomplishment of his purpose for all humanity" (p.98), and claims that this universal ideology must lead to incidents like Abu Ghraib. Of course it is to be lauded that Lincoln places his results in a wider contact, but I do not understand why Lincoln makes precisely this point. After he had corroborated the main theory, there was no need to concentrate on some one parallel. He is understating his case.

I think that the explanation for Lincoln's postscript is that he assumes his readers to be ignorant of the Dialektik der Aufklärung. I also think that he underestimates his audience; it is not my experience that the general reader is unaware of the results of twentieth-century social science. However, if Lincoln is right, there is something wrong with our educational system that is almost as serious as the problem described by Adorno and Horkheimer and so elegantly corroborated in Religion, Empire, and Torture. So, unlike the books by Farrokh and Holland, Lincoln's book is not bad or unnecessary, although the author is essentially stating the obvious.


Must Achaemenid studies be abandoned, as I have suggested in the title of this overview? Of course it is a rhetorical question. Briant has brought Iranology from its preparadigmatic stage to the level of a serious branch of scholarship. Still, the books under review are bad, unnecessary, or stating the obvious - and these books are what reaches the general audience. If this is the best that Iranologists can offer to explain their studies, they risk losing support for excavations and other research, and the end of their discipline.

It is of course tempting for scholars to proceed with their usual research now that the discipline finally rests on sound foundations, but serious scholarship is - due to the internet - rapidly being overtaken by an unexpected revival of the scholarship of the 1970s, with its propagandistic implications. All progress that has been achieved is rapidly being undone.

Perhaps, Iranologists should indeed abandon Achaemenid studies for some time. The sources can wait as they have done for centuries, and archaeological remains in the ground are safe; what needs to have priority now, is to make the results available to others. Progress at the universities is irrelevant if it does not reach a wider audience. The tax payer has a right to know for what aims his money is spent and the scholar has a duty to explain.

We need better, accessible books. I mean books that are meticulously checked; writing for a general audience is not an excuse for sloppiness. And the readers must be addressed not below their level, but a bit higher. Popularizing scholarship does not mean that you simplify the results and present them at a lower level, but that you make the audience climb to a higher one.

[Thanks to Bill Thayer and Bert van der Spek]

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