Professor Touraj Daryaee
State University, Fullerton
to view caption
relief from the palace of Artaxerxes at
Persepolis, now in the Persepolis Museum; Fragment
from the Apadana frieze at Persepolis, showing a
member of the Ethiopian delegation to the Persian
king, now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran
Empire: The World of Ancient Persia
exhibition at the British Museum and the subsequent
publication of the volume with the same name is a welcome
addition to the study of Achaemenid civilization. With
this work J. Curtis and N. Tallis have made an effort to
bring balance to the realities of the ancient world,
demonstrating the immense importance of one of the
greatest empires in antiquity. The exhibition was followed
by a conference which brought to light the various aspects
of Achaemenid religion, politics, and the arts.
The conference papers represented some of the best known
scholars in the field of ancient Persian studies, such as
the most important historian of that period, P. Briant,
and M.W. Stolper who is the expert on the Elamite
language. It was heartwarming that two Iranians have
contributed to the volume on religion and burial customs (Sh.
Razmjou), and the legacy of ancient Persia (V. Sarkhosh
Curtis, whom I imagine is one of the main reasons why the
British Museum has paid so much attention to Ancient
Persia in the past decade or so).
Ancient Persia and its
history are rarely discussed on its own terms and
importance and when done, it is usually as only an
appendix or a footnote to Greek history. This is
true of the textbooks in grade schools to the universities
in the United States, and I suspect in most other
countries. The reason for their marginal role in history
books is that most of the sources that have remained
provide a skewed vision of the ancient world.
Unfortunately for the Persians, most of the evidence for
their history comes from Greek sources
which tend to be hostile, setting the Greek way of life
against that of the “Oriental,” or “Barbarian.” It
is noteworthy to mention that this paradigm was basically
revitalized in the West in the modern period and shows its
ugliness in such works as S. Huntington’s “Clash of
While this bi-polar view of the world may have exited in
antiquity (among Greeks), its continued existence today is
certainly uncalled for and indeed a tragedy.
A piece that came out from
the British newspaper, The Guardian by Jonathan
Jones summed up the typical Western view of the
“Orientals,” in this case the Persians and their
empire’s art. How should we react to such an article?
For some it has been outrage and dismay that even as there
is an effort by the West (thanks to the curators of the
British Museum) to understand the world of Ancient Persia,
someone again gives voice to the antiquated and formulaic
Eurocentric verbiage on the Persians. I, too, was
dismayed, but withheld my commentary, although asked by
friends to write something. As a historian who deals with
Mediterranean world as well as the Persian world, it was
not entirely out of the ordinary to see this warped view
of the past.
The reason for the lateness
of my response is that, even among those who deal with the
Persian empire, this colonial, bi-polar and Eurocentric
view continues to exist. Consequently, I was not surprised
at what was happening. As late as 1983 in J.M. Cook’s The
Persian Empire, one saw an “Orientalist” in
action when he writes in conclusion:
“Clearly they [i.e.,
Persians] were not a people that we should call
intellectual. They do not themselves seem to have had an
inclination towards literature, medicine, or philosophical
and scientific speculation.”
He goes on to say that
“The Greeks judged the Persians by comparison with
themselves; and historians in modern times have tended to
This antiquated and Orientalist view of the Persians is
even more sad because it was expressed by the individual
who had written the most up-to-date history of the
Achaemenid Empire in the past century and who was
commissioned by the Cambridge History of Iran to write the
chapter on the political history of that empire.
I do not blame the ancient Greeks for this view because
Persia was hostile toward them, and the Greeks saw the
entire East set against themselves. Even so, some Greek
authors had the fortitude and interest to explore Persia
in an unbiased way, according to ancient standards. But,
what about our modern historians of the ancient world?
What about J. Jones who blindly mimics what has been said
by some of the ancient Greeks, couched in the guise of
modern world divisions? One sees in the title of Jones’
article, “the evil empire,” and in Mr. Bush’s
“axis of evil” echoes from the reservoir of sometimes
conscious, sometimes unconscious Orientalism.
Another scholar, the late
H. Sancis-Weerdenburg, who recognized this bias among
modern historians stated: “It is not so much the facts
that distort historical reality as the outlines into which
they are fitted,”
and of course here the outline is that the Persians are
wholly different from the Europeans and remain so because
they have remained unchanged for the past 2,500 years.
This view very much resembles a colonial and imperialistic
view of the East, and although we live in allegedly
post-colonial world (although some see recent military
actions as the continuation of colonial policies) or
post-imperial world (although some see recent military
actions and the idea of the New World Order as
continuation of imperialistic aims), still this line of
thought continues to exist and continues to be propagated
from academia to the media. Thus, what is needed is a
decolonized approach to the history of Ancient Persia.
One can easily find a
different perspective on the Greeks and the Persians. I do
not wish to give a long list, but a few examples suffice
to suggest that the Greek history is also reworked and
mythologized to fit Eurocentric ideals. While Mr. Jones in
his article portrays “free Greece” as the bastion of
democracy and contrasts it against the “slave nation”
of Persia, it is worth mentioning that democracy
(literally, rule by the people, Greek demos) was
but a brief experiment in Greek history. Some estimates
suggest that when Greek democracy was at its height in 431
BC, less than 14% of the members of this society were
allowed to participate in this “government by the
people.” Not only was the vast majority of the
population excluded from policy making, but nearly 37%
lived in actual slavery.
This is the Greek elitist “democracy” onto which the
modern West mistakenly projects its own version of
In the context of the
Greco-Persian wars we usually get the bizarre view of the
“free” Greeks fighting the “slave nation” of
Persia, while in fact things are quite the opposite. A
recent study has demonstrated that slaves played an
important part in the very same Greek armies which the
West perceives as made up of free “citizen-soldiers,”
while the Persians employed paid mercenaries. Autocractic
or hegemonic rule is not a uniquely “Oriental”
characteristic as some in the modern West like to believe.
The battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) has been recorded
as the last stand of 300 Spartans who died to the
very last man to protect free Greece, and is a myth held
up by the modern West as a symbol of resistance to the
East. It is quite probable that in this battle each
Spartan had seven slaves (Greek h?lots who also
fought to the death) with him in battle, bringing the
total to 2400, plus another 2,000 non-Spartan Greeks
(Thespians and Lacedaemonians) who also died in this
battle. It should
also be noted that when Athens became the absolute power
(Greek hegemon) in parts of Greece, it behaved in
a quite un-democratic fashion: the city-states that
resisted were punished by having their wealth confiscated
or their populations enslaved.
The phobia of Eurocentrists
is best captured in the subtitle of a recent book on naval
battle in antiquity. Barry Strauss’ The Battle of
Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – and
Western Civilization is a good book, where the author
himself negates the very same idea that is presented in
the subtitle. I
wonder how much the publisher was involved in the creation
of this title to sell the book to an audience in
bookstores across America.
On the other hand ancient
authors such as Herodotus, whom I believe to be an
exceptional man who has been misunderstood in the East,
especially in Iran, provides us with some very interesting
anecdotes about Persian intellectual and philosophical
outlook. For example the earliest Western political theory
is expressed in a debate at the Persian court on the best
forms of governance (Herodotus Book III.80-2). Three
Persians discuss their favorite forms: democracy,
oligarchy and monarchy, citing their virtues and vices.
Otanes proposes democracy as the best form of governance
for Persia, while Megabyzus suggests oligarchy and
criticizes democracy, while Darius chooses monarchy and
criticizes oligarchy. But the monarchy that Darius
proposes is a constitutionalmonarchy! This and
other positive characteristic attributed to the Persians
by Herodotus was the cause of his later fall from grace
among the Roman intellectuals who saw nothing positive
about the Orient. Consequently Herodotus was called philobarbaros
(Barbarian-lover) and was demoted from “Father of
History” to “Father of Lies” by the Romans, and the
modern Iranians blindly mimic this formula without ever
really understanding Herodotus.
it comes to philosophy, Persian influence seems to be
looming over the pre-Socratic philosophers. The second
half of the sixth century BC was the time of Persian
dominance and the time of the eminence of pre-Socratic
philosophers in Anatolia. In his important and
controversial book M.L. West attempted to demonstrate the
amount of knowledge owed to Persians and Zoroastrianism by
the pre-Socratic philosophers.
The identification of Time with a primeval god in
Phyerecydes, the identification of fire with Justice
(Greek dik?) in Heraclitus, Anaximander’s
astronomical ideas, and Hippocratic view of the human body
likening it to the world, all suggest Persian influence.
The Persians hired explorers such as Scylax of Carydanda
who traveled the Indus River and the sea route to the Suez
which was later opened by Darius. It should also be noted
that Greeks craftsmen and architects who traveled to the
East brought the idea of the Persian garden (Greek paradeisos)
to the Mediterranean.
My purpose here is not to
give a laundry list of Persian influence or to glorify
Persia. Rather it is to state that one can find many
things in the ancient sources and what is found depends
greatly on what the researcher is looking for and on their
political and ethical views. This is an academic affair
and practioners must be trained in the field of history in
order to carry it out. I am bewildered when Iranians ask
me why one should study history. Writing books on the
“glory of Persia” in Persian does nothing to further
the interests of Persia or to bring Persian culture to the
attention of the West, since Western readers rarely know
Persian. And those books written in Persian, with the few
exceptions, are written by novice historians who know
neither the languages needed, nor the techniques of
textual criticism needed to evaluate the sources used, nor
do they understand the appropriate historical context and
philosophical outlook. Thus, anything Greek automatically
becomes “bad” and Old Persian inscriptions
automatically become “good” sources, while in reality
both sources are important and useful as long as one knows
how to use them to provide a clear vision of the past.
What world needs is a
critical history of antiquity, where the interrelations
and interactions of the people and their cultural
contributions are made manifest. What is not needed
is a glorification of either side at the expense of the
other. If the West prides itself on the ideals of
equality, justice, and scholarly study of the history of
humanity at large, then it needs to let go of biases about
the past. This may be a hard task to perform, but the
recent exhibition and publication from the British Museum
are important steps in the right direction.
Touraj Daryaee is Professor of Ancient History at
California State University, Fullerton.
Empire: The world of Ancient Persia, eds. J. Curtis
and N. Tallis, The British Museum Press, London 2005.
Worldof Achaemenid Persia Conference, 29 September – 1
October 2005 catalogue.
the great ancient historian A. Momigliano stated “if
progress in Oriental history can be measured in terms of
emancipation from Herodotus, it is evident that Persian
history has not been revolutionized by modern methods of
research,” The Classical Foundations of Modern
Historiography, University of California Press, Los
Angeles, 1990, p. 6. It should be noted that in the past
two decades the Achaemenid Workshop and P. Briant have
indeed begun to revolutionize Achaemenid history,
something that happened after Momigliano’s death.
Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign
Affairs, 1983, pp. 22-28.
Cook, The Persian Empire, Barnes and Noble, 1983,
Cook, “The Rise of the Achaemenids and Establishment of
their Empire,” The Cambridge History of Iran,
ed. I. Gershevitch, vol. 2, Cambridge, 1985, pp. 200-291.
Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “The Fifth Oriental Monarchy and
Hellenocentrism,” Proceedings of the Groningen 1984
Achaemenid History Workshop, ed. H.
Sancisi-Seerdenburg and Am. Kuhrt, Leiden, 1987, p. 131.
Traina, “Hellenism in the East; some historiographical
remarks,” Tradition and Innovation in the Ancient
World, ed. E. Dabrowa, Electrum, vol. 6, 2002, p. 21.
Those who have worked in this endeavor are J. Wolski,
“Antike Geschichtsschreibung und der Alte Orient im
Lichte der Enteuropäisierungstendenz,” Klio,
vol. 66, 1984, pp. 436-442; and P. Briant,
“Colonizzazione ellenistica e popolazione del Vicino
Oriente: dinamiche sociali e politische di acculturazione,”
ed. S. Settis, I Greci: Storia, Cultura, Arte, Società,
vol. II: Una storia greca, parte 3: Trasformazioni, Torino,
1998, pp. 309-333.
numbers is based on the work of A.W. Gomme, The
Population of Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries
B.C., Chicago, 1967, Table 1. also see N. Demand, A
History of Ancient Greece, Boston, 1996, p. 224.
Hunt, Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek
Historians, Cambridge, 1998, P. 32.
Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter
that Saved Greece – and Western Civilization, Simon
and Shuster, 2004.
West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient,
Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization,
Cambridge, 1971, pp. 127-128.