Against Hellenocentrism

Peter Green

  • Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BC by Stephen Ruzicka
    Oxford, 311 pp, £45.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 976662 8
  • King and Court in Ancient Persia 559 to 331 BCE by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
    Edinburgh, 258 pp, £24.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 0 7486 4125 3

In 545 BCE – immediately after the conquest of Lydia by Cyrus, the aggressive and imperially expansive young king of Persia – the Greeks of Asia Minor, who had previously lived under the easy-going rule of Croesus the Lydian, and had received a sharp rebuff when they tried to get a similar deal from Cyrus, approached the Spartans for a protective alliance. The Spartans, notoriously shy of overseas commitments, refused their request; but they did, Herodotus tells us, send a diplomatic mission to Sardis. Its purpose was ‘to deliver a proclamation of the Lacedaemonians, warning Cyrus against harming any city on Hellenic soil, since this they would not overlook’. Cyrus’s reaction, when the diktat reached him, was to ask who on earth, and how numerous, these Lacedaemonians might be, that they dared to address him in such terms.

To most people in the Mediterranean world at the time his response would have seemed eminently reasonable. Both the books under review include maps of the Persian empire that justify Cyrus’s attitude. Though the empire had not yet reached the dimensions it was to attain under his successors Darius, Cambyses and Xerxes, it was already impressive. From Macedonia and the eastern coast of the Aegean, Achaemenid rule extended in a vast sweep of territory, by way of the Black Sea and the Caspian, Syria and the Levant, through modern Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, towards the Oxus river, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. At the extreme western end of the map was the physically diminutive and politically fragmented territory of mainland Greece. Who indeed were these Lacedaemonians?

Persia soon found out, and was not allowed to forget. The next two centuries saw this minuscule region’s improbable defeat of Darius’ and Xerxes’ huge armies at Marathon (490), and Salamis and Plataea (480/79); the subsequent emergence of Athens as an imperial power and a uniquely creative cultural and intellectual centre; and the final disruption and takeover of the Persian empire (335-23) by the short-lived and ambiguously Hellenic world conqueror Alexander III of Macedon. These extraordinary events – and the Greek writers who, propagandists all, preserved them for posterity – dictated, in definitive and compelling fashion, the triumph, over two millennia of European history, of the Hellenocentric attitude that had aroused Cyrus’s incredulity and contempt.

Hellenocentrism has distorted and diminished the achievements of any civilisation that had the bad luck to come up against the Greek and Macedonian wunderkinds during their brief period of dazzling preeminence. Despite the fact that the Macedonians quickly eliminated the Greeks, and that both fell victim to Rome, and later to the Ottoman Turks, their legacy has survived, to be polished and enhanced by century after century of post-Renaissance enthusiasm. The Greek achievement, against overwhelming odds, should never be underrated. But it has cast an exceptionally wide and long shadow, and it is only in recent years that there has been a serious movement – aided by new archaeological and epigraphical research – to give the Persian Achaemenids proper credit for their remarkable imperial and cultural record.

The case of Egypt is rather different, primarily because far more has always been known about it: its status as the home of a high culture is better documented archaeologically and (ever since Champollion) in literary terms, and it has the most ancient recorded pedigree of any Mediterranean country. There is much less to add or correct. But one area remains in which Egypt too has been, so far as the sixth to fourth centuries are concerned, regularly subsumed to the Greco-Macedonian story: political and military history. Classicists note the Egyptian revolt (487/6) against Persian overlordship that delayed Xerxes’ invasion of Greece; the activities of the Egyptian fleet at Salamis; the mysterious and costly fifth-century relationship between Athens and anti-Persian rebel dynasts such as Inarus or Amyrtaeus; the use of Egypt by Alexander as a strategic and economic base from which to pursue his dream of world conquest. But such a perspective remains for the most part unrelated to the larger overall pattern of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history, in which the Greeks and Alexander, though disruptive, play an essentially peripheral role.

Stephen Ruzicka sets out to correct this in Trouble in the West, and he does so with formidable scholarship, a talent for extracting the maximum possible amount from evidence often as obscure as it is patchy, and a commendably objective approach to the sort of topic that is too often distorted by ideological predilections. He sets out his general thesis and its sources with admirable clarity. While rightly conceding that, for the Greeks, ‘Persian-Greek conflicts … were responsible in broad terms for much of what happened in the Greek world between the 540s and 330s,’ he reminds us, again rightly, that because Persia was so important to Greece, Greeks were convinced that Greece must be of equal importance to Persia: that the Greek states were the top priority when it came to the Achaemenid empire’s implementation of foreign policy. Since most of our testimony comes from Greek writers, this belief has enjoyed a long life. Ruzicka’s purpose is to demonstrate that in fact, from time immemorial, Persian interests in the West were primarily centred not on Greece but on Egypt. The two attacks on Greece received plenty of Greek publicity, but there were no less than ten (plus two aborted attempts) against Egypt, while the largest venture of all was not, as might be supposed, Xerxes’ Greek expedition in 480, but an all-out assault on Egypt in the 340s.

Ruzicka makes it clear that the Persian-Egyptian conflict went back at least a thousand years and was ‘rooted in geography’. There were ‘two cores, roughly 800 miles apart, one centred on Egypt, the other on Mesopotamia, both very rich alluvial regions which at an early date developed centralised, bureaucratic governments that managed highly productive agricultural economies’. Between these two powerful regions, and separated from them by the Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian desert respectively, lay a ‘middle territory’, the Levant (i.e. Syria-Palestine), which offered tempting attractions, such as its stands of fine timber, and had been broken up into small kingdoms that weren’t able to hold out against their larger and more powerful neighbours. Egypt and Persia squabbled over the region’s rich pickings – though Egypt’s expansionism remained defensive, and its rulers never made any serious attempt to expand beyond the middle territory.

There had been, for several hundred years from the 15th century on, a recognition of expansionist parity on both sides, perhaps the earliest case on record of balance-of-power politics. Middle territory cities benefited commercially from this stable and pacific state of affairs. But from the mid-12th century a combination of population movements, drought and poor harvests saw the break-up of the Hittite empire and the withdrawal of Egypt from the Levant. Faced with threats from Nubia in the south and Libya in the west, Egypt began training a hereditary force of peasant soldiers, the so-called machimoi. From this group, which was reinforced by constant immigration, came those ‘partially Egyptianised Libyan military commanders’, who established numerous petty dynasteiai in the Delta and temporarily turned Upper Egypt into a virtual breakaway state. Athens would attempt to forge alliances with these ‘rebel leaders’ in the fifth century.

To invade, let alone conquer, Egypt was not easy. The country was protected by mountains, sea, the large, marshy Nile Delta and well-placed stretches of waterless desert, which presented intimidating problems to any would-be attacker. But in 525 Cyrus’s son Cambyses, with the Mesopotamian ‘core’, plus the middle territory of the Levant and the Iranian plateau to the east already under Persian control, overcame them and made Egypt the latest province of the Achaemenid empire.

Holding it was another matter. As soon as they had been subjugated, the Egyptians revolted continually, and with a considerable measure of success, aided by a centralised Nilotic government, a strongly nationalistic priesthood and a ready-made military force in the machimoi – not to mention the numerous foreign (especially Greek) mercenaries who strengthened their ranks, and the various anti-Persian outsiders who threw in their lot with them. For a while, Upper Egypt achieved near-independence: the Libyan marshes provided a perfect base for nationalist leaders who dreamed of restoring pharaonic rule, and towards the end of the fifth century that dream was briefly realised. It was destroyed once more, ruthlessly and effectively, by Artaxerxes III in 343. The degree of ruthlessness can be gauged by the Egyptian reaction to the arrival of Alexander towards the end of 332: they welcomed him as a deliverer.

Ruzicka, in the detailed and illuminating narrative of this long struggle that takes up most of Trouble in the West, manages to resist the temptation to digress from his main theme. But his determination to counter Hellenocentric bias has led him to underemphasise some of the key motives for Persia’s westward expansion. One was economic: the Persian Fort Knox-like and inflationary practice of storing tribute in specie, thereby keeping it from recirculation, meant that the Achaemenids were always looking for fresh sources of taxes. Another is naval: Persia, as an inland nation, had no fleet of its own, and the Achaemenids throughout their history depended – not always reliably – on the Egyptian and Phoenician navies.

There is also one major question that Ruzicka’s avoidance of Hellenocentrism leads him to treat cursorily: what made Athens invest, and ultimately lose, hundreds of triremes, thousands of men and huge amounts of cash in a dangerous and remote venture, supporting the anti-Persian nationalists in Egypt? Ruzicka suggests a plan for joint control of the eastern Mediterranean at Persia’s expense. But why should Athens risk or want this? An inscription recording the huge gifts to Athens in grain from one Egyptian rebel leader when there was famine in Attica suggests – as does the later Sicilian Expedition, a similarly remote and costly venture – that such campaigns may have been motivated by a more pressing and practical need.

The history of Persian relations with Egypt and the West from Cyrus to Alexander reveals certain fundamental weaknesses in the Achaemenid military machine: slowness in mobilisation, inadequately trained rank and file, communication problems and a lack of efficient, up-to-date equipment. It is not – a favourite myth of Greek orators – that Persians were effete, or lacked personal courage and determination as fighters: both Cyrus and Darius achieved a striking and sustained record of military victories. But these were against enemies of their own kind, no more advanced than they were themselves in arms or strategy, while the few successes of note scored in Egypt, or elsewhere in the West, tended to have extenuating circumstances. Cambyses’ invasion benefited enormously from an ongoing war between local Delta dynasts and the precariously established pharaoh Amasis, as well as from early defection to the Persians by the Arabs and Phoenicians. More significantly, in the mid-fourth century, Artaxerxes III recognised the superiority of Greek mercenaries in equipment, training and tactics, and hired them in large numbers to spearhead the reconquest of Egypt.

Achaemenid arms were only really effective within the large, semi-enclosed and technically less advanced regions that during the late sixth century were turned into satrapies of the Persian empire. The Egyptian campaigns revealed the flaws in the Achaemenids’ instrument of conquest and subjection. Philip of Macedon, a canny strategist, took note of Persian failures in Egypt, and of how Artaxerxes managed to overcome them. Proof of Greek military superiority, as Ruzicka makes clear, encouraged Philip, and Alexander after him, to risk an invasion of so vast a territory, against such hugely superior numbers. Hellenocentrism has the last word in Trouble in the West after all.

*

Research on ancient Persian civilisation has intensified during the last half-century or so. New work in archaeology, and the renewed scrutiny of Egyptian, Babylonian and biblical written records have shown – most strikingly in Margaret Miller’s ground-breaking Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity (1997) that Greece and Persia enjoyed a remarkable degree of cultural inter-penetration and receptivity in their relations with each other. The notion, still widely held, that Greece regarded Persia as a barbarian Other, has now been considerably modified.

But we have yet to find an extended ancient Persian historical narrative. Academics would happily settle for a Persian Diodorus, never mind a Persian Herodotus, but we don’t even have that. Both the Cyrus Cylinder and the lengthy Behistun Inscription of Darius are, like other such surviving annals from Egypt and elsewhere, no more than bare, if carefully edited, lists of events, primarily royal conquests. While they may partially meet Herodotus’s first requirement of history, that it should preserve the memory of past great deeds (Cyrus and Darius followed tradition in limiting the record to their own), they fail to address his second: that it should figure out what one’s wars were about, why the two sides fought each other – the essential difference, that is, between annals and history.

That should not obscure the fact that we do have a considerable haul of new, or newly interpreted, material to be going on with, which has been masterfully edited and presented by one of the leading scholars in the field, Amélie Kuhrt, in a two-volume work, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (2007). Apart from a small but crucial contribution to military history, largely from (still annalistic and chronographical) Babylonian tablets, the majority of this evidence is domestic and cultural and has been the focus of most subsequent scholarship – of which Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’s King and Court in Ancient Persia 559 to 331 BCE is an admirable example.

By one of those incomprehensible quirks of academic fashion, some thirty years ago, Llewellyn-Jones reminds us, ‘courts were seen as moribund institutions and the study of kings and courtiers was thought of as old-fashioned at best or, at worst, simply irrelevant.’ Seldom can the dangers of such modern anachronising have been better illustrated than by the counterexample of the Achaemenid empire in which power – religious and social no less than political – was exercised and contested with a ruthlessness that might have made Stalin squirm. Of the twelve Great Kings no fewer than seven were assassinated (I would be inclined to add Cambyses to their number), and Llewellyn-Jones’s chapter on ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Court Life’ takes seriously evidence that a more innocent and meliorist age had dismissed as lurid fantasy.

Llewellyn-Jones is a skilled philologist and has a special interest in ancient dress and gender studies. His study of the Achaemenids is given extra depth by his knowledge of the culture of contemporary Iran (unusually, he has learned Farsi: Greek historians who add modern Greek language and culture to their repertoire will at once understand what a huge advantage this gives him). Whether analysing the court as such (‘without doubt the hub for the creation of imperial royal ideology and the dissemination point for all forms of official Achaemenid dogma’); taking the measure of the Great King himself and his immediate circle of intimates and advisers; parsing the significance of ceremony and ritual; following the annual movement of the court through the empire; or sorting out myth from reality in the matter of the harem and the political influence of royal women, Llewellyn-Jones blends an easy mastery of widely disparate sources with a clear-cut, jargon-free prose style.

King and Court in Ancient Persia succeeds in conveying more of the Achaemenid empire’s organisational strength and stability, its vast resources and cultural achievements, its crucial role in the evolution of Near Eastern history, than our Greek sources are willing to concede. The illustrated documentary sources that form the second part of the book remind us of the scope and majesty of ancient Persian architecture. The visible and inflexible authority of royal protocol, religious immediacy and aristocratic hierarchy everywhere underpinned and reinforced a vast, and surprisingly efficient, administrative bureaucracy in which command travelled in an unbroken chain from the Great King – sole ruler and effectively vox Dei – to the smallest village in the most remote satrapy. The passion for trees, gardens and pleasure-parks is also striking.

But Lord Acton’s aphorism about absolute power is confirmed again and again in these pages. Anyone with the temerity to challenge imperial authority in even the slightest way was severely punished: the record of eye-gouging, impaling and similar retaliatory mutilations is endless. At a higher competitive level the Persian court was, Llewellyn-Jones writes, ‘the locale of intrigue, subterfuge, cruelty and danger as Achaemenid kings and queens plotted against their opponents and murdered their rivals, or else were outmanoeuvred and assassinated first.’ Like the court of the Medici, it was also ‘a place of sophistication, culture, pleasure and delight’. Was the cultural gain worth its cost? In the case of the Achaemenids, it’s hard to forget that their might and majesty was challenged, and finally destroyed, by citizens of the tiny nexus of quarrelling minor states that Cyrus scorned, but that, for all their faults, still sometimes settled their quarrels by free debate.