Historical decadence — The Persians: The Age of the Great Kings by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones review

This is an expansive account of the ancient Achaemenid Empire. But has Llewellyn-Jones allowed his enthusiasm to cloud historical judgment?
persia llewellyn-jones
Sunset view of relief sculpture of the subject peoples of the Achaemenian Empire climb the stairway, Persepolis, Iran. Credit: Keren Su/China Span / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones has long been an enthusiastic proponent of all things Persian, engaging the public and students alike with his infectious energy. A similar vibe can be gleaned from this popular study of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, the first of Persia’s empires which dominated the Middle East from the middle of the sixth to the fourth centuries BC, when the dynasty, if perhaps not the empire, was overthrown by an adventurer from Macedonia, known to posterity as Alexander the Great. The problem with this study, however, is that the author appears to have absorbed rather too much of his subject, confusing myth with history and frequently letting his enthusiasm get the better of his judgment.

The book presents a narrative chronology of the dynasty, interrupted by an extensive thematic section – probably the strongest part of the book – looking at particular aspects of ‘Being Persian’. There are illuminating explorations here of the role of women, court etiquette, the nature of kingship and the role of slavery in the Persian Empire. The chapter titles are at times laboured in a somewhat too obvious attempt to be accessible: it is not at all clear to me that ‘Bureaucrats’ really did ‘rule the world’ at this stage and it is regrettable that much of the text is generously festooned with allusions and analogies that sit awkwardly with the subject. Llewellyn-Jones is not averse to being critical of the Persian Empire – notably on slavery – but the clear thrust of the book is to depict it as a ‘good thing’ – a multicultural empire – from which the West could learn, contrasting it favourably with both the Roman and, for apparent reasons of contemporary relevance, British empires. This exercise in ahistoricism even extends to comparing Darius’ fifth-century invasion of Scythia with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

Underpinning this argument is the view that the Persian Empire has been misrepresented in the available sources, much of which are in Greek and thus represent the view from the erstwhile enemies of the Empire. Drawing generously on Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, Llewellyn-Jones argues that subsequent European scholars drew on these sources to paint an unsparing picture of the Persian Empire. Yet, in truth, of all the Persian empires, it was the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus and Darius that enjoyed a more nuanced appreciation in the Western imagination. Cyrus was, after all, the Lord’s Anointed in the Bible (Cyrus remains a popular name among certain protestant communities, especially in North America), while Hegel famously pronounced that: ‘In Persia first arises that light which shines itself and illuminates what is around… The principle of development begins with the history of Persia; this constitutes therefore the beginning of history.’ This was a good deal more positive than the Iranians themselves, for whom the Achaemenids had receded so far into myth that they had been largely forgotten until modern (European) archaeology got to work in the nineteenth century.

It is with no little irony, therefore, that in order to redress the imbalance of the Greek sources, Llewellyn-Jones argues that he will turn to these archaeological sources to provide a distinctly Persian counter-narrative. The Greek sources, as scholars have been all too aware, are difficult to ignore. And the fact is, like all textual analysis, the key lies in how one interrogates them. Llewellyn-Jones clearly recognises this and, despite himself, returns to the Greek sources all too frequently, including his declared bête noire, Herodotus. Indeed, there are sections that are almost wholly reliant on the Herodotean account — for example, the depiction of the rebellion of Intaphrenes, though it is difficult to ascertain how much because, in a nod to apparent accessibility, the text eschews textual citations altogether. So, while we are told that ‘Herodotus says’, we aren’t told where he said it and how much detail he included. The reader is, by contrast, offered periodic references to archaeological inscriptions, though these are not much help if you are unfamiliar (as I suspect most readers will be) with their content.

Among other writers usefully drawn upon are the Greek doctor Ctesias, who as a doctor at the court of Artaxerxes II provides a helpful alternative account of the revolt of Cyrus the Younger, who is largely known to posterity through his eulogist Xenophon. Xenophon is given curiously short shrift, despite or perhaps because of the fact that he is a Greek author who can barely disguise his admiration for the Persians. His Cyropaedia — the education of Cyrus — is, as Llewellyn-Jones notes, one of the great works of literature that has survived from the period and was a great favourite among Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. The text is generally viewed as a paean to Cyrus the Younger (as a reflection of Cyrus the Great), though some recent scholars have suggested that Xenophon was, in fact, reflecting contemporary Persian views – indeed the emerging mythology – of the founder of the empire.

Although Llewellyn-Jones touches on oral traditions of Iranian historical memory, he doesn’t interrogate them and, indeed, the real ‘Persian version’, the mythical and legendary history recounted in poetic form by Ferdowsi in the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), isn’t addressed until the epilogue. In the Shahnameh, the Achaemenids are barely mentioned at all, although Llewellyn-Jones initially claims they were a source of inspiration to Iranians from ‘the early middle ages’ before contradicting (and correcting) himself a few pages later. Here, Llewellyn-Jones indulges in speculations which are all too characteristic of the wider text. He appears to suggest that Ferdowsi deliberately blurred the lines between myth and history to disguise the Achaemenid inheritance, while the inclusion of traditions from the Alexander Romance, in which the Macedonian conqueror becomes a Persian prince, is presented as Ferdowsi’s attempt to limit the villain of his piece to the Arabs. This is, of course, pure conjecture.

An unfortunate error of articulation occurs in the introduction, when Llewellyn-Jones suggests that Reza Shah thought the name Iran ‘was a fitting title for his country’, without making clear that all the Iranian government was doing was insisting that foreigners use the name for the country that the Iranians themselves used. There are many such oddities throughout the text, from the anachronistic application of central Asian Turkic tribal customs to the Achaemenids, complete with the use of the term ‘Khan’ to describe tribal chiefs, to colourful – and somewhat expansive – narratives of Cyrus’ upbringing, where we are told, for example, that ‘perhaps he cried as clinging onto Mandane’s veil with his soft little hands, he was passed into the arms of his father’. Later, we discover — much to the delight of this reviewer — that Cyrus was ‘lean and good looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome’. This is lyrical stuff.

Gibbon, in seeking to categorise the Persians, decided that they did not slot easily into either ‘Barbarians’ (reserved for the various Germanic tribes) or ‘Civilised’, in the sense that they were not heirs of Greco-Roman culture. He finally settled on the notion that they had become ‘over-civilised’, ruining themselves through excess. This might be the best description of this book. One might even call it decadent.

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, The Persians: The Age of the Great Kings. Wildfire, pp 432, Hardback £25

Ali Ansari

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute; and Honorary Vice President of the British Institute for Persian Studies.

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