From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire 
by Pierre Briant, translated by Peter Daniels.
Eisenbrauns, 1196 pp., $79.50, January 2002, 1 57506 031 0
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Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD: reissue 
by Josef Wiesehöfer, translated by Azizeh Azodi.
Tauris, 332 pp., £35, April 2001, 1 85043 999 0
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Handel’s Xerxes begins with a famous largo, ‘Shade as it never was’ (Ombra mai fu), sung by the self-same King of Kings to his beloved: a plane tree. Aelian, a collector of amazing historical facts, provides the fullest account of this bizarre episode:

That Xerxes fellow was a clown … he was slavishly devoted to a plane tree, as if the tree was something to be wondered at. At any rate, they say that in the middle of western Turkey [Lydia] he saw a specimen of magnificent proportions and stayed there all day long, for no particular reason, even pitching camp in the deserted region where the tree stood. What’s more, he put expensive jewellery on her, honouring her twigs and branches with necklaces and bracelets, and he left her in charge of a caretaker, like a guard protecting a sweetheart from unwanted attentions.

But did any of this add to the noble beauty of the tree? The ornaments it had acquired did not suit it one bit, but just hung there, making no contribution at all to its loveliness, since a plant’s assets lie in noble branches, a thick canopy, sturdy trunk, deep roots, the wind as it shivers through the leaves, a spreading pool of shade, the way it changes through the seasons, water from irrigation channels to make it grow, water from the skies to sustain it. Attached to the plane tree or any other tree for that matter, there was nothing noble about Xerxes’s robes, and barbarous gold, and all his other gifts.

Students of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (c.550-323 BCE) of Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I-III, Xerxes I-II, Artaxerxes I-IV and Alexander the Great are not short of good material. On the one hand, there are numerous colourful tales preserved in the narratives of the Jews and the Greeks, offering a worm’s-eye view of the rich, vast Persian imperial carpet, ‘the beautiful figures and patterns of which,’ according to one Greek turncoat, ‘can only be shown by spreading and extending it out.’ Sometimes they are admiring, often they are in awe, and not infrequently they seek to undercut the power they are in awe of with ethical condescension. Even Xerxes’ charming Christmas tree is turned into an exemplum of the vanity, folly and artificiality of the man the Greeks called simply ‘the King’.

As well as these tinsel tales, there are large numbers of records, still being slowly translated, which provide a complement to the operatic version of Persian history: the Persians in documentary. There is also a certain amount of archaeological material from all corners of the Empire, a vast territory centred on the area of Persis – around Shiraz in south-western Iran – but reaching at times from Egypt and northern Greece in the west to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the east, although these are not always the most convenient places, currently, for archaeological excavation.

Making history out of this material is not easy. One of the most important events in the creation of the Empire, for instance, was Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Iraq in 539 BCE. Iraq was dominated by the city of Babylon, about fifty miles south of Baghdad, a city which had reached its peak in size and magnificence a few decades earlier under Nebuchadnezzar (II). This momentous episode is nowadays remembered above all because the victorious Persians allowed 4600 prisoners of war from Judah, deported to the rivers of Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, to go home after fifty years in detention.

A ‘king’ of Babylon called Belshazzar, the story goes, made a feast for a thousand of his nobles and served it on the gold and silver vessels plundered by ‘his father Nebuchadnezzar’ from the Temple in Jerusalem. During the feast, a human hand appeared and wrote five words on the wall in fire. The words were those of a shop-keeper, denoting unspecified costs, ‘Mene, Mene, Teqel u Parsin’ – ‘mina, mina, shekel and apportionments of silver’. Belshazzar demanded exegesis. The winner of the reading competition was one of the Judaean deportees, the magico-mythical Daniel. Not only can Daniel read Aramaic – why ‘the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers’ could not remains a mystery – but he goes further, producing a virtuoso display of the art of paronomastics. Mene he reads as menah: Belshazzar’s kingdom is ‘counted’. Teqel: he himself has been ‘weighed’ – teqilta – ‘and found wanting’. Peres he reads as perisat: his kingdom will be ‘apportioned’. To cap it all, Daniel is able to produce a third level of reading and to discover in this invoice on the wall the identity of the conquerors. Iraq will not only be apportioned, it will be ‘apportioned by the Persians’ (Paras). And yea verily, ‘in that night was Belshazzar the King of the Babylonians slain. And Darius the Mede took the kingdom, being about three score and two years old.’

The Book of Daniel is a Hellenistic compilation of legends and pseudo-prophecies cobbled together c.165 BCE, at the time of the Jewish revolt against the Macedonian/ Greek King Antiochus IV. It is full of obvious errors and, as history, hopelessly confused. Apart from anything else, it was not Darius but Cyrus who conquered Belshazzar’s Babylon and enabled the Jews to return to Jerusalem, which is why Isaiah praised Cyrus as ‘Messiah’: ‘Anointed’ or, in the Greek translation, ‘Christ’. Moreover, Belshazzar (Bel-shah-usur) was not Nebuchadnezzar’s son, not even a king, but the son of a dictator called Nabonidus who had seized power 17 years earlier.

Although the episode is fully documented, how Iraq fell is the subject of much debate. According to Herodotus, Cyrus diverted enough of the Euphrates to enable his troops to wade into Babylon. ‘The Babylonians themselves say that, owing to the great size of the city, the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it.’ He concurs with Daniel about the feast: ‘And they continued to dance and enjoy themselves until they learned the news.’

Xenophon’s account in his novelistic biography of Cyrus is similar, feast and all, but much more detailed. Before the army invades, Cyrus gives his troops a pep talk. He knows that those invading a city are often terrified that the people will ‘go up onto the roofs and shoot at them from all directions’. Don’t worry, he says, ‘we have plenty of pinewood for torches which will quickly produce a conflagration . . . they will abandon the roofs in no time at all, or, in no time at all, they will be burnt to a crisp.’ In his account too, however, this proved unnecessary, and the city was handed over intact: ‘And when day came and those manning the citadels realised the city had been taken and the King killed, they handed over the citadels . . . Cyrus ordered the heralds to make a proclamation that all Babylonians deliver up their arms, and he ordered that wherever weapons were found in a house, all the occupants be put to death.’

From the 19th century onwards, a treasure-trove of chronicles and inscriptions started to come to light in Babylon. Many were removed to the British Museum, where they remain. Among them is the Chronicle of Nabonidus, which carefully records all the sacred rituals missing from the dictator’s diary: ‘This year the King didn’t . . . nor did he . . . there was no . . .’ It seems Nabonidus had been away for ten years on some military adventure deep in Saudi Arabia, leaving Iraq in the hands of his son, Belshazzar, and the gods feeling neglected.

The Chronicle breaks off at this point. When it resumes, Nabonidus has returned. It records a great battle around Baghdad (Opis) on 10 October 539 BCE, between Nabonidus and Cyrus (Kurash), who it seems had turned a provincial commander, Ugbaru. After that, ‘the people of Iraq’ – Akkad – ‘retreated’. Cyrus ‘had the booty taken away, the people killed’. On 11 October, Nabonidus fled. On the 12th the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle. Nabonidus, having mysteriously re-entered the city, was arrested. A couple of weeks later the conqueror himself arrived. ‘Cyrus entered Babylon, green branches were spread in front of him – peace reigned. Cyrus sent greetings to all Babylon.’

The British Museum also holds Cyrus’ own account of the conquest on the Cyrus Cylinder. There, Nabonidus is accused of being a cruel dictator, of removing gods from their sacred cities in southern Iraq and shipping them up to Babylon. He even neglected Marduk, Babylon’s own greatest god, a fatal miscalculation. ‘He did evil towards his city unceasingly . . . Under a pitiless yoke he crushed them all.’ Eventually, Marduk himself, seeing that his people ‘had become like corpses’, felt pity. He looked through all the countries for a remedy and found one in Cyrus. It seems likely that the hand Belshazzar saw writing on the wall was Marduk’s.

Like a friend and companion Marduk went by Cyrus’ side. His great army, whose number was immeasurable like the water of a river, marched with their arms at their side. Without battle and fighting he let them enter his city Babylon. He saved Babylon from its oppression. [Marduk] handed over Nabonidus, who did not honour him, to Cyrus. All the inhabitants of Babylon, the whole of the land of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors knelt before him, kissed his feet, rejoiced at his kingship; their faces shone. ‘The lord, who through his help has brought the dead to life, who in the midst of disaster and oppression has benefited all,’ that is the way they celebrated him joyfully, honouring his name.

Cyrus adds a postscript in the first person: ‘I Cyrus, King of the Universe etc . . . when I had entered Babylon peacefully . . . My numerous troops marched peacefully through Babylon. I did not allow any troublemaker to arise in the whole land.’ Behind the tales of diverted rivers, feasts, hands of god and writings on the wall, the sources seemed to agree that Cyrus had taken Babylon without a fight, and the Babylonian documents seemed to explain why. Nabonidus had been a cruel tyrant and impious. The population must have welcomed Cyrus as a liberator.

On his own documents, however, several of them also in the British Museum, Nabonidus presents a very different picture. The dictator calls himself ‘reverent shepherd’ and vaunts his antiquarianism: ‘I carefully looked into the old clay and wooden tablets and did exactly as in the olden days.’ He boasts of weeding old sanctuaries, and uncovering the ground-plans of old temples so that he could rebuild them as they were supposed to be. He even found a statue of Sargon (2340-2284 BCE), as ancient for Nabonidus as Marcus Aurelius is for us. He glued it back together and re-erected it.

Pierre Briant’s greatest achievement in his encyclopedic history of the Persian Empire, From Cyrus to Alexander, translated, with a few additions, from Histoire de l’Empire perse (1996), is the range of material he manages to include.* Something of that range can be gleaned from the indexes, which contain separate lists of words in Greek, Akkadian, Aramaic, Avestan, Egyptian, Elamite, Hebrew, Iranian, Latin, Lycian, Middle Persian and Old Persian. Somehow, Briant manages to integrate all these different voices and texts into a coherent narrative.

This can be seen in his revisionist account of the conquest of Iraq. In the first place, ‘the rapidity of the conquest is a distortion,’ Briant suggests, and it is most unlikely that Iraq ‘could have fallen without resistance’. From the Babylonian Chronicle he deduces that there was already international tension, since Nabonidus had removed the gods into Babylon; his outrageous action was designed to keep them safe from a looming invasion (or, we might add, as hostages for good behaviour). Clearly, he was already preparing for a siege. What had happened, Briant suggests, is that from his vantage-point in the mountains east of Iraq, Cyrus had managed to win over Ugbaru, governor of the province around the Diyala river, which flows from Halabjah to Baghdad. Together they met the forces of Nabonidus, who had decided to confront the invader at the crossing of the Tigris.

The Chronicle’s mention of massacres around Baghdad following the battle ‘attests to the vigour of the resistance’. Nabonidus didn’t flee but made an orderly retreat to Babylon in order ‘to lead resistance in the capital’. There is some truth in Cyrus’ speech about how to deal with shooting from the rooftops. It clearly shows that he was expecting resistance from the city’s inhabitants. ‘As fictionalised as it is, Xenophon’s tale seems nonetheless to be based on oral transmission of Ugbaru’s story.’

Whether or not this reconstruction is correct, it is characteristic. Strikingly, Briant gets much more out of Greek sources, even the ‘fictionalised’ account of Xenophon, than others have managed. You just have to know how to ‘decode’ or ‘decipher’ or ‘cleanse’ them, how to retrieve from this operatic material the authentic theatre of a Persian ‘empire of signs’.

This goes hand in hand with the main thrust of his book, characterised by the Assyriologist Matthew Stolper as a ‘vision dure’. This has nothing to do with an acknowledgment that the Persians could sometimes be brutal, though sometimes they certainly were. Rather, for Briant, the Achaemenid Empire represents a world’s first, bringing together the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey into a ‘single unified state’, with provinces, tribute and governors. The substantialness of Briant’s book, with its 1196 densely documented pages, is a reflection and a proof of the substantialness of the subject. This is a serious empire, the object of a serious field of inquiry, based on masses of serious material. The book has something of the fiatic about it, the insistence of Persian presence in ancient history. On every page Briant sides with solidity. He wants Aelian and Xenophon to have solid Persian facts, he wants Persian Cyrus to have to fight to conquer Babylon at the head of a proper Persian army, ‘more than an ad hoc assembly of tribal contingents fighting in loose order’. He wants Persian imperialism to be something you can stub your toe on.

This neo-positivist Persia represents an implicit attack on the Postmodern tendency to treat statements about Persians merely as examples of Orientalist discourse, containing little or no objective information about their supposed object of knowledge, and useful only, or mostly, as evidence for Greek self-definition and its imaginary Other. Well-meaning and salutary though the Orientalist critique has occasionally been, the dogma that the Greeks made of the Persians whatever they found most ideologically convenient has reinforced the Hellenocentrism of classical studies and authorised the continuing neglect of the reality of the others the Greeks encountered. It is not Briant’s use of Near-Eastern documents and archaeology that is new, so much as his use of those documents to give backbone to Greek authors who turn out to be rich in misunderstood information about the ways the Persians constructed themselves and the world.

So substantial a volume is not easy to digest in one go. On the other hand, there is scarcely a topic Briant has neglected to document and barely a document he does not discuss. The light he throws on this most important actor on the ancient stage illuminates all of ancient history, and his book should be not only required reading for classicists, but also of great interest for students of later monarchical systems, from Britain to Mughal India. There is an indirect royal line, dotted with parks and tiaras, hunting, bowing and feasting, which leads from god-given Cyrus to our own anointed Queen, with Alexander, Julius Caesar and Byzantium acting as intermediaries. It could indeed be argued that the Persians laid the foundations for the Babylon of minorities and bickering diasporas – Greeks, Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, Jews – that somehow persisted in the eastern Mediterranean under Greek, Roman, Arab and Turkish umbrellas, which still seemed to gel less than a lifetime ago, but already seems amazing.

Josef Wiesehöfer’s Ancient Persia agrees with Briant on many points; he, too, finds evidence that Nabonidus’ regime was ‘efficient and sensible’, and does a partially convincing deconstruction of the opposition between Cyrus and Xerxes as good cop and bad cop. In style and format, however, the books could not be more different. Wiesehöfer manages to cover the Achaemenid period in just a hundred pages, before going on to look at other ancient Persias: the Parthians who fought against the Romans, and the Sasanians who fought against the Byzantines. His account of a millennium of Persian history is highly readable, balancing a broad, clear and authoritative overview with frequent swoops into the vivid business of original documents (no notes, no references), not excluding a brief guide to reading the brand new script that Darius ordered to be created so he could write propaganda in Old Persian, the medium so much a message in itself that the message must have been mostly unreadable. Most interesting are allusions to the uses of Persian history by succeeding dynasties up to the last Pahlavi Shah, and by the Nazis, who blamed Iranian (= ‘Aryan’) decadence on the Semitic merchants of Iraq. The curious should start with Wiesehöfer and move on to Briant for more luxurious detail, as Briant’s translator recommends. When you want more than Briant, it is probably time to consider enrolling on a course in Akkadian.

Though Briant’s book answers emphatically ‘yes’, he concedes that ‘Did the Empire exist?’ is a question worth asking. Archaeologists have found more Persian material in the provincial satrapies than they have hitherto identified, he suggests, and, he suspects, have destroyed much in their eagerness to restore the Greek and Roman levels; nevertheless, so long-lasting an empire might have been expected to leave more of a mark on its territory. The more temporary Greeks left gymnasia, statues, temples and inscriptions as far east as Afghanistan. The Romans left amphitheatres, aqueducts and bits of wall all over Europe, North Africa and the Near East. So far only one monumental statue of a Persian king has turned up, a statue of Darius, most dur of the Achaemenids, discovered at Susa in 1972, decorated with hieroglyphics and cuneiform. It was first installed in Egypt at Heliopolis in the temple of Atum, ‘in order’, it says in three languages, not including Egyptian, ‘that anyone in future will know that the Persian Man ruled in Egypt’, but even this was withdrawn to the centre at an unknown date for unknown reasons – statues are like chess pieces in the ancient Near East, full of power and significance, always being kidnapped, rescued and triumphantly returned. Perhaps the profligate stone-chiselling habits of the Greeks and Romans have raised expectations about the correlation of impact and artefact, but what kind of empire could the Persian have been, if its provincial traces can be scuffed over so easily?

The lush monumental centres of power at Persepolis, Pasargadae and Susa provide something of an answer. They represent the kings almost as war-gamers, ‘rassembleurs de terres’: in the words of Darius, collectors of nations ‘from the Aegean to India’ and ‘from Tajikistan to the Sudan’, two great geographical diagonals with himself at the intersection. Persepolis especially shows the lines of subjects who brought gifts across the vast plain, which lay before it like a parade ground, marching up the stairs to the ‘Gateway of All Nations’, or, less subtly, supporting the throne itself. ‘How many are the countries which King Darius held?’ Darius overhears a tourist asking, and replies from his tomb: ‘Look at the figures who bear the throne.’

It was this convening of distant tributaries to the centre that seems to have provided the most vivid image of their Empire. The monumental centres were the embodiment of that convention, reflecting the long reach of the king in the infrastructure of the building. This, for instance, is how Darius describes the foundation of the sea-green palace of Susa, across the border north-east of Basra:

And the beams of cedarwood were brought from a mountain called ‘Lebanon’. The Syrians brought it as far as Babylon, and, from Babylon, Carians [from southern Turkey] and Greeks brought it to Susa. The yaka-wood [sissoo?] was brought from the region of Kabul and from the mountains north of Hormuz . . . The precious stones of lapis lazuli and carnelian, which were worked here, were brought from Suguda [Tajikistan]. And the precious stones of turquoise were brought from south of the Aral Sea and worked here. The silver and the ebony were brought from Egypt . . . The ivory which was worked here was brought from Kush [Sudan], and from Hindu [Punjab], and from the region of Kandahar . . . The men who worked the baked brick were Babylonians. The men who decorated the terrace were men of Media and Egypt.

This particular piece of propaganda was unread until recently, having been buried under the walls – a description of the palace’s magnificence to be revealed only when the palace was in ruins, a profound piece of Ozymandian irony or a perfectly timed rebuke to the demolition-workers when demolition eventually came.

The artists took care to identify the King’s tribute-bearers by their distinctive national costumes, and inscriptions differentiate between ‘the pointed-hatted Saka’ and ‘the haoma-drinking Saka’, or ‘Greeks’ and ‘sun-hat-wearing Greeks’. In a later period a note of what each visitor was wearing was written up in an official register. In short, the Empire was a wealth of nations. Sometimes it seems that new conquests were undertaken merely so the king could look behind him at the colourful host of different kinds of soldier he was able to command, or so that his peoples could see themselves, as one more people was added to the collection. The diversity of the Empire certainly seems to have been a source of pride. The king was ‘King of the countries containing all races’ or ‘King of the peoples of many origins’, or just ‘King of Kings’. Too much Persianising of the provinces might seem to lessen an empire so conceived.

Imperial diversity was reflected in flora and fauna as well as in bricks and mortar. After a revolt of the Greeks in Turkey, ‘the best-looking boys were chosen for castration and made into eunuchs.’ Periodically, the Sudan sent 500 boys to the king, Georgia sent 200 boys and girls, and Iraq 500 young men pre-castrated. Near Eastern specialists have made a determined effort over the last few decades to play down or even disclaim altogether those aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture that get modern Europeans too excited: child sacrifice, dying gods, ‘sacred prostitution’, ‘harems’ and palace eunuchs. Briant likewise insists that although there certainly were castrati among them, many of the ‘herd of eunouchoi’, literally ‘keepers of the bed’, must have been genitally intact, even perhaps the conspiratorial ‘eunuch’ Artoxares, ‘who had a woman make a false beard and moustache to give him the appearance of a man’ – not ‘of a man’ but ‘of the King’, Briant suggests, deciphering, decoding and cleansing.

With or without testicles, ‘eunuchs’ from all over the Empire seem to have provided the most personal services to the royal family, attending at bedtime and mealtimes, guarding the women, even raising children. On arrival at court they seem to have been given new identities and Persian names. With no familial or political ties to anyone but the king, they often exhibited ‘une fidélité quasi-animale’, but inevitably, thanks to their proximity, they were also believed to be heavily involved in corridor conspiracies. The most notorious, an ‘Egyptian’ eunuch, called, generically, Bagoas, was king in all but name, it was said. He first killed Artaxerxes III, chopped him up and fed him to the cats, while turning his thigh-bones into knife-handles, then killed his successor Artaxerxes IV and was about to poison a third king, Darius III, when he was ordered to drink the proffered cup himself. The ‘cats’ suggest an Egyptian origin for this unpleasant tale, according to Briant, at the time of a long and bitter revolt.

The women of the palace also reflected the Empire’s diversity. The most beautiful girls were sent to Darius’ Court from recaptured Greek cities. Following the savage suppression of the revolt of Sidon in Lebanon in the mid-fourth century, large numbers of women were taken prisoner and, the Babylonian Chronicle says, ‘entered the King’s palace’. His Queen encouraged Darius to make war on Greece, Herodotus says, because she wanted ‘Spartan girls, and girls from Argos, Corinth and Athens’ to wait on her. The Book of Esther describes the King sending out commissioners to search throughout the Empire in order to bring beautiful young virgins to Susa, which is not, Briant says, ‘outside the realm of possibility’.

By far the most extraordinary and significant of the imperial collections, however, were the huge fortified gardens, the ‘paradises’, where the kings gathered plants and animals from all over. Briant’s analysis of the paradises shows him at his best, drawing on the widest possible range of different types of evidence. First and foremost the paradises were luxurious hunting parks, Versailles with panthers, allowing the king to kill quantities of kingly and exotic animals alongside his most intimate and trusted companions; but the hands-on gardener king who could conjure rain, as Darius once did, by disrobing on a high hill at dawn and striking the earth with his sceptre, or who made the desert bloom with verdant foliage, was a well-established image of royalty in the Near East. And this was not mere fantasy. One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years was made at Ayn Manawir in southern Egypt, north-west of Aswan. In what is now a desert region, deep fissures, or qanats, had been cut to collect water from the porous rock in order to irrigate fields and provide ponds and gardens for the settlement; the archaeologists even found remains of trees. Briant spec-ulates about an imperial ‘plan of regional development’ using new Iranian technology. The Achaemenid Empire may be the first to reveal its true impact only in pollen analysis.

As for Aelian’s story about Xerxes’ love-affair with the plane tree, Briant produces a parallel: a seal of Xerxes which depicts a kingly figure about to offer a crown to a stylised tree of life; Aelian has misunderstood an important and resonant ritual act. The King owned more than one plane tree made from solid gold, though the one seen by an Arcadian ambassador in 367 was ‘not large enough to afford shade for a grasshopper’. The King also slept and held court under a golden vine with clusters of rubies and green crystals, the same vine, perhaps, that spread out from between the legs of Cyrus’ mother until it covered all Asia, according to a dream of her father. The same golden-coloured vine, together with a relief showing a paradise hunt, festoons the sarcophagus of one of Alexander’s new appointees, a Phoenician who in Persian terms was highly qualified to govern: a ‘gardener’.

For both the Persians and their subjects, paradise meant power. Its trees were symbols of royal authority. Even during an emergency and despite the King’s orders, his men did not dare to chop them down, until the King himself chopped down the biggest and most beautiful of them. On the other hand, the first thing the people of Sidon did when they revolted was to make for the local paradise and inflict terrible injuries on the vegetation. The Spartans, likewise, made straight for the paradises during their short-lived invasion of Turkey. The satrap begged them to desist.

Briant does not dodge the apparent contradiction between his insist-ence on imperial consistency and the evidence for provincial variety. The peculiar genius of the Achaemenid Empire lay, he suggests, in the balance between cultural diversity and political unity, putting the former at the service of the latter. He reaches for a biological metaphor: ‘The Empire was in fact a new single-celled organism that grew by absorbing scattered hostile cells that then co-operated within a new cellular dynamic.’ In practice, he believes, what kept the whole thing together was a ‘dynastic pact’ with a thin but enduring layer of ‘socio-ethnic’ imperial aristocrats, essentially Persian, though not nationalistic, and able to integrate with provincial elites through marriage. Alexander, ‘the last of the Achaemenids’, had no choice but to maintain this dominant elite, even arranging for the Macedonians to marry into it en masse, and it was because the marriage failed that the Empire fell apart under his successors.

The pride of these elite Persians, their obsession with dignities and sensitivity to slights, sometimes seems to be the source of great instability, leading to secessions and satrapal revolts, but this was merely the flipside of an engrossing competition for proximity to the centre, which, though bitterly contested, had the net effect of holding the whole thing together, not least when the game itself seemed under threat.

The balance between unity and diversity seems also to be bound up with the personal nature of the Empire and the mechanisms of gift-exchange, in the construction of power as superior dignity and subjection as obligation. The financial structure of the Empire, with its king’s land, crown land, royalties, burdens and gifts, is extremely difficult to disentangle. Although the tribute was often a precise sum of money, it could be seen as dishonourable for the king to receive ‘pay’. Indeed, because he seemed too keen to fix tributary obligations, Herodotus says the Persians labelled Darius the ‘commodity trader’: kapelos. Perhaps because of this anxiety, even in the Empire’s last years revenue was partly imagined not as a fee paid in minas and shekels and apportionments of silver, but as the monetary equivalent of feasting the king or providing wine or bread for one of his friends, or slippers or a veil for the queen.

The king’s subjects maintained an autonomous and separate identity because they were also supposed to be subjects, however inferior, who more or less pleased and more or less benefited the king, showering him with presents, human, animal, vegetable and mineral, building materials and transport services, gifts which spoke of themselves, which represented themselves with a greater or lesser degree of realism (so that Newcastle’s taxes might be ‘to provide coal’ for the king, Detroit’s ‘to provide the king’s cars’), which allowed them to see themselves not so much as things used, but as persons involved in relationships of exchange with the person at the centre, as contributors to and humble participants in the magnificence of Susa and Persepolis. Such relationships are essentially mutual, and the king could be extravagantly generous to those who pleased him, although such a construction of power also allowed him to see his subjects as ‘liars’ or backstabbers if ever they summoned up the courage to withdraw from the game, thereby exposing the insincerity of their respects – ‘You said you loved me!’

In other words, a degree of distinctiveness from the centre was perhaps necessary not only to maintain the rich and splendid variety of different nations over which the King of Kings was king, but to allow imperial burdens to be constructed in part as favours which vaunted the king rather than as payments which slighted him; and, in turn, the mechanism and language of gifts and services helped to construct a sense of separation and autonomy from the centre, a gap for giving across.

Even as Briant insists on the solidity of the Persian Empire, historians of the Roman one are emphasising the patchiness of theirs, but when you place the two side by side, the difference remains striking. The Roman Empire was the empire of Rome, a city, a thing and its large and ever increasing body of lookalike Latin-speaking citizens. The emperors ruled by virtue of their position in that body, and, indeed, ‘Romans’ from Andalusia, Africa and Syria came to occupy that position. The Roman Empire was all in all a far more fully integrated machine, soft and broad in the political centre but hemmed in on all sides with walls, deserts, rivers and border guards, a centre more accommodating to provincial ambitions, but therefore more devastating to provincial cultures.

The Persian Empire was only ever ruled by a person, one man from one family surrounded by a series of tight circumferences, his noble clan, other noble clans, Persians, Iranians, the rest. If its centre was a tiny, hard, inaccessible nut, it was much mushier around the edges, the very exclusivity of power protecting local differences. Not only were the provinces not stamped with Persian culture, but in the western provinces, from Turkey to Egypt via Lebanon, the Empire seems to have encouraged a certain amount of pre-Alexandrian Grecification.

Rome was an enterprise that engaged large numbers, flowing out along the roads that always led to it, leaving deposits of a colloquial version of the language of Latium as far away as Hadrian’s Wall. The Persian Empire was something altogether classier and more exclusive, an empire of far-flung personal prerogatives, bringing from the fringes a gradually rising pile of exotic splendour, a personal prize-collection of real live countries with real live people and as many real live gardens filled with as many real live trees as any one man could wish for.

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