In the early sixth century bce the Persians occupied a small region known as Parsa (Persis to the Greeks), now Fars, in south-west Iran. They were allies, perhaps subordinate allies, of the Medes, and had no apparent ambition for greater power. Yet under Cyrus II (559-30) they conquered Lydia, Ionia, Media and Babylonia – most of what today is known as the Near and Middle East – and drove northwards to the Russian steppes and eastwards almost as far as India. By the time Cyrus died, while campaigning beyond the Caspian Sea against the Massagetae nomads, Persia was the most powerful nation in Eurasia. Cyrus had been justified in calling himself ‘King of the World, Great King, Strong King, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters’.
His son, Cambyses II, succeeded him smoothly, and added Cyprus and Egypt to this sudden empire. But cut-throat intrigues were already at work. Cambyses died in mysterious circumstances in 522 and, to make matters worse, he did not leave a direct heir. The throne was finally won, after more than a year of battles, by a contender – one among many – called Darius. The unhappiness at his victory was such that he had to put down nine major rebellions immediately after his accession. Though he was of noble birth, Darius’ familial connection to Cyrus was dubious: it’s possible that he invented it. He claimed the otherwise obscure Achaemenes as an ancestor, and went out of his way, as Matt Waters points out, to insist that Cyrus, too, had been an Achaemenid, though Cyrus himself had never said anything of that sort. Darius became an even more dominant Great King and so, despite the possibly mythical status of Achaemenes, the rulers of the Persian empire became known as the Achaemenid dynasty.
That the prize Darius won was worth fighting for hardly needs saying. Herodotus, who spent the first half of his Histories exploring the many nations under Achaemenid rule, tells us that the annual tribute they paid was the equivalent of 14,560 talents; since the bulk of the sum was paid in gold and silver, with the talent set at a weight somewhere above 57 lbs, the Persian empire’s reputation for vast wealth wasn’t a literary myth. When Alexander raided the Achaemenid treasuries a century later, the takings funded his costly campaigns – including vast bribes to battle-weary veterans – for several years, and still left plenty for his successors.
The vast size of the empire didn’t diminish the effectiveness of its administration. In the last few years primary evidence for Achaemenid government and economics has revealed that a complex and highly sophisticated Persian bureaucracy – with a chain of command that spread outwards from the absolute fiats of the Great King, via the satraps of two dozen provinces, to the most remote villages of the empire – maintained a remarkable degree of control over the empire’s large and various territories. A network of good roads, with stations at the end of a day’s journey to provide fresh mounts, riders and refreshments, produced a courier service unrivalled for speed and efficiency in the Mediterranean world. An unusually tolerant laissez-faire attitude to local government, customs, languages, religious beliefs and culture in general seems to have proved a great success. When Alexander took over the Achaemenid administrative system virtually unchanged he wasn’t merely displaying his notorious lack of interest in the details of government.
All this, however, could only be maintained at a heavy price, as the Greeks, with the lessons learned from their own less amiable tyrannoi, weren’t slow to point out. The absolute power of the Great King, under his divine protector Ahuramazda (the ‘Wise Lord’ and upholder of truth in Zoroastrian scripture), ensured that all his subjects, high or low, were in the last resort his slaves, and were often described as such in edicts. With absolute power came the exercise, without recourse by those affected, of arbitrary judgments. Random favours were matched by random punishments; and since the regime’s penalties tended to be quite extreme, ranging from physical mutilation to stoning or anal impalement, especially for any offence that could be construed as treachery or even lèse-majesté, the ambitious in particular had to tread carefully. It was inevitable that advice would be valued according to its fit with what the ruler wanted to hear. The rewards of ultimate power were so huge that those in pursuit of it were willing – as several cases of disputed succession make very clear – to take disproportionate risks, and to kill those who got in their way.
Finally, and fatally, the empire’s virtually inexhaustible supply of manpower meant that despite possessing an elite fighting corps – the Ten Thousand – the Great King for the most part relied on quantity rather than quality: opponents were to be steamrollered and never mind the losses. His prestige was established by a combination of attributes: ancestry, natural authority and, above all, military supremacy. Ahuramazda’s divine favour was crucial; but, given royal blood, charisma and (as with Cyrus II and Darius I) impressive achievements in the field, that could be taken for granted. For more than two hundred years, from the mid-sixth to the mid-fourth century bce, the Great Kings held sway over the largest and most sophisticated empire the Mediterranean world had ever known. But the cracks were there from the beginning, and grew larger and more dangerous as time went on.
Towards the end of Darius I’s reign, in 499, the Ionian cities of coastal Anatolia revolted against satrapal rule. The main motive suggested by scholars was a desire to emulate the recent democratisation of Athens. More probable is resentment at the crippling restrictions on hitherto lucrative trade imposed by Darius I’s new Fort Knox-like fiscal policy. The rebellion was brought under control, but it took five years and was mainly achieved by the Great King’s Phoenician fleet. Early in the outbreak Athens sent a squadron to support the rebels, but all it achieved before beating an undignified retreat was the accidental burning of Sardis, capital of the Lydian satrapy. The Great King took note, swore vengeance – the Athenians, who in 507 had given earth and water in token of submission to him, were, as he saw it, his own subjects – and in 490 sent a small punitive expedition to bring these insubordinate arsonists to heel. No one in living memory had defeated Persian troops in the field, and when the Athenian hoplites did just that, crushingly, at Marathon, the boost to Greek morale was of an almost mythic intensity.
To Darius, however, furious though he was, Marathon was no more than a setback, a minor skirmish on a distant frontier, and he planned to reverse the defeat by mounting a full-scale invasion. The Greeks’ advantages – better armour, more powerful weapons, more imaginative tactics and strategy, and stronger collective discipline – had either not been reported to him or were disregarded.
Darius died in 486 and his son and successor, Xerxes, was kept busy for several years settling major rebellions in Egypt and Babylon; it wasn’t until 482 that preparations for the invasion of Greece began. The delay, most opportunely, gave Athens the chance, aided by a lucky strike in the Laurium silver mines, to launch a crash programme of warship-building. The result was the stunning naval victory of Salamis, followed by Xerxes’ withdrawal from Greece. The task force he left behind was defeated in engagements in 479 at Plataea in Boeotia and Mykale on the Anatolian coast.
Xerxes still portrayed his campaign as a success. He had, after all, defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae, and killed their king, Leonidas. He had taken, sacked and demolished Athens (his deputy Mardonius sacked it a second time in 479). He had sold his captives into slavery and, in theory, imposed tribute on the survivors before returning to Asia. Salamis had been lost by Egyptian and Phoenician squadrons; he hadn’t been present to hearten his troops at Plataea. Further, as Waters reminds us, ‘while Xerxes’ defeat certainly imposed new challenges for the Persians in the north-west, we discern no impact on the empire in its integrity or its stability.’ Yet Xerxes’ military reputation had certainly suffered, which may in part explain his assassination in 465 in a palace coup led by his younger son.
Despite these domestic upheavals, Achaemenid power remained undiminished. In 340, after a brutal campaign to subdue revolt in Egypt (largely carried out by Greek mercenaries), Artaxerxes III formed an alliance with Athens to help curb the growing influence of Macedon under its aggressive king, Philip II. After Philip’s suspiciously opportune assassination in 336, the expedition against Persia’s Asia Minor satrapies that he’d initiated was taken over, and vastly expanded, by his young and inexperienced son Alexander. It is all too easy to see why the new Great King, Darius III (a cousin of Artaxerxes III and, like more than one of his predecessors, on the throne as the result of a coup), fatally underestimated the threat of the Macedonian invasion force. An initial Persian defeat at the Granicus river (334) could, like Marathon, be written off as the result of satrapal inefficiency. But by the time of the battle of Issus in 333, won by Alexander from an unfavourable position in a risky reversed-front engagement, it was clear that this foreign intervention was the most dangerous threat the empire had faced in the two centuries of its existence.
Darius made impressive preparations for the inevitable showdown, which took place at Gaugamela in northern Iraq in the autumn of 331. Troop numbers were increased still further, and the front line now consisted almost entirely of mail-clad cavalry from the eastern satrapies under their leader Bessus, a kinsman of Darius. But once more Alexander’s strategic and tactical genius won out, against overwhelming odds. For the second time, Darius fled in his chariot before the battle was over. Not long afterwards he was assassinated by Bessus, who considered him a liability and proclaimed himself Great King in his place. For this act of lèse-majesté Alexander, who wanted Darius alive to legitimate his own succession, had the captured Bessus mutilated and executed as a traitor in proper Persian style. The Achaemenid empire was now in Macedonian and Greek hands.
To the victors the spoils , and by the victors the official history. We have no full Persian narrative of these events to counterbalance the accounts in Greek and Roman sources, primarily Herodotus; it’s highly unlikely that such a narrative was ever written. Thus, over the centuries, the Greek picture of Persia’s imperial ruling class became fixed in Western minds: cruel, despotic slavemasters and harem studs, obscenely wealthy nabobs to whom the very idea of freedom was anathema, and who became more decadent as that wealth corrupted them still further, eventually turning them into cowards on the battlefield. The victories of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, and the heroic sacrifice at Thermopylae, were enshrined as triumphs of the Hellenic love of freedom over a theocratic autocracy. To the Greeks, the ancient Persians were the barbarian Other, and so until very recently, though with misgivings, the Western world continued to regard them.
From the mid-19th century, a mass of non-classical evidence – archaeological, linguistic, epigraphic – drawn from the provinces of the empire began to shed fresh light on Achaemenid culture, society, administration, economics, religion and chronology. Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian and Aramaic clay tablets and inscriptions, many from the two centuries of the empire, have been discovered and deciphered. Particular value attaches to the long epigraphical account of his accession (522/1) by Darius I, which is often compared with the Res Gestae of Augustus; to the clay tablets from Persepolis known as the Fortification and Treasury Archives, which contain administrative records; and to the numerous Babylonian king-lists, royal catalogues of conquests, business memoranda, astronomical diary-datings and temple archives. Achaemenid architecture, especially that of Persepolis, has always been considered impressive; investigation of the new evidence has made clear that during the fifth century bce Persia enjoyed far closer social, cultural and business relationships with Athens than had previously been assumed.
This revisionist movement brought its own dangers. There was always a likelihood that those eager to do justice to the Achaemenids and their empire would reinterpret historical evidence in their favour; and this impulse was given vast encouragement by the rise of postcolonial theory, particularly as embodied in Edward Said’s Orientalism. This took as its central point the Us v. Them notion of the barbarian Other, and injected a powerful moral stimulus into the debate, so that there was a constant temptation, not always resisted, to let faith dictate interpretation.
The elimination of overt racial prejudice and stereotyping has been a good thing, but not all of the unwelcome reports in the Greco-Roman sources can be dismissed as instances of prejudice, propaganda or inventive literary and rhetorical anecdotalism. Darius I may have pontificated against the ‘liar kings’ who opposed him, but the evidence suggests that he was an accomplished liar himself. Achaemenid palace coups did take place, and with increasing frequency: the nastiness of reported court intrigue is far from incredible, but no nastier than it was in the Greek and Macedonian Hellenistic kingdoms. The system was rigidly autocratic, and this was its weakness at least as much as its strength. In the last resort Achaemenid military superiority prevailed only internally, over those conquered peoples whose methods of warfare resembled but seldom matched its own. Defeats from Marathon to Gaugamela tell their own story. When Darius III fled the battlefield for the second time, he may indeed have been acting not out of cowardice but in a tradition which insisted that the king must live at all costs. Even so, Bessus probably came to wish that he had let the vanquished Great King commit suicide, as Darius had wanted to do.
A good index to modern scholarship’s success in avoiding such compensatory pitfalls is provided by those new general accounts of the Achaemenid empire – of which Waters’s Ancient Persia is one of the best – that take the findings of the last half-century into account. Waters at times pays lip service to ‘Greek stereotypes’, but without embracing them. Was it possible, for instance, that Herodotus invented Croesus’ bad advice to Cyrus about attacking the Massagetae just ‘to emphasise a literary motif’? The question is wisely left open. Arrian’s explanation of the reason the satrap Mazaces surrendered Egypt to the Macedonians (contempt for Darius’ flight at Issus predisposed him to favour Alexander) ‘follows Greek stereotypes’. But Waters at once goes on to remind us that Mazaces’ position was untenable, and he knew it. The same applies to Waters’s take on the ‘direct influence of the royal [Achaemenid] women on royal policy or the like’. This he sees as deriving ‘mainly from the Greek tradition, more appropriate to the study of Greek literary tropes than Persian politics’, but he stresses the royal women’s active independence, and then has a paragraph on the alarming influence of court eunuchs (whom he blames for mistaken Western notions of Persian effeminacy). Common sense prevails throughout.
Ancient Persia is, in the best sense of the word, a handbook; Waters’s notes, bibliographical references and suggestions for further reading hit the right notes and the right works for beginners. His clear maps have been worked up from specialist originals in the Cambridge Ancient History and the Cambridge History of Iran. Welcome aids include a full timeline, numerous in-text figures and illustrations, as well as a detailed stemma of the Achaemenid dynasty. He spends more time than usual on early Elam, Assyria, Babylonia and the Anatolian kingdoms, and the part they play in Persia’s development. He takes us through the empire’s history at a trot, from Cyrus by way of Darius I and Xerxes to the imperial Götterdämmerung enforced by Alexander.
Perhaps the most valuable quality of Waters’s text is his historiographical readiness to admit that there are some problems to which we simply don’t have the answers, and others that remain obstinately ambiguous: this exemplary lesson to would-be historians recurs at crucial points. His discussion of the much debated evidence for Darius I’s accession is a model of the way such propaganda-ridden events should be approached. Similarly, he’s ready to entertain the possibility, based on the lack of corroborating evidence, that the dramatic exchange of letters between Darius and Alexander after Issus, reported by Arrian, may be no more than ‘a piece of Macedonian propaganda’. In the circumstances it’s interesting that the overwhelming impression left by his survey is that, despite the deeper and more nuanced picture of just about every aspect of Achaemenid culture provided by recent research, one’s general estimate of Achaemenid imperialism, and the aristocratic caste that maintained it, hasn’t shifted all that far – even with due allowance made for racial stereotyping – from the verdict arrived at by Herodotus and his successors.
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