Thursday, March 29, 2012


Dominique Lenfant (ed.), Les Perses vus par les Grecs. Lire les sources classiques sur l'empire achéménide. Collection U – Histoire. Paris: Armand Colin, 2011. Pp. 432. ISBN 9782200270353. €35.80 (pb.).

Reviewed by Amélie Kuhrt, University College London (

Version at BMCR home site

Before the decipherment of the old scripts of the Middle East in the nineteenth century, scholars depended on classical writers and the Bible for reconstructing the history of the Achaemenid Persian empire. And even with the ability to read the texts produced by the Persians and their subjects, the long-established picture of the empire was barely modified, as there were few, if any, narrative sources: virtually all of the rich harvest of documents are either formal, royal pronouncements or provide administrative and legal data. They are, of course, important in giving different perspectives, but incapable of yielding the longed for 'Persian Version' of events retailed in classical literature. In creating an enduringly influential picture of the empire, pride of place goes to the Greek authors of the fifth and fourth centuries, such as Herodotus, Xenophon and the only partially surviving Ctesias, who were its contemporaries.1 There were other authors, but they are only rather scantily preserved, such as Deinon of Colophon and – yet more fragmentary – Heraclides of Cumae. To these must be added the writers who accompanied, or lived at the time of, Alexander the Great. The latter's campaign involved marching through the larger part of the immense imperial space, including parts of Iran, Central Asia and the Indus Valley. Their works have not survived, but they were drawn on intensively by Roman period authors (Diodorus, Arrian and Quintus Curtius), so that the picture they painted of the Persian empire has survived to some degree. While the debt owed by these 'Alexander historians' to their now lost sources is clear, all those writing after the end of the empire used the works of their classical period predecessors: Plutarch and Cornelius Nepos for their Lives, and in Plutarch's case for his moral discourses, too; Athenaeus for his display of learned anecdotes; Polyaenus for vignettes of clever strategies; Aelian for his stories of remarkable events and examples of odd animal behaviour. It is clear that someone like Strabo, too, drew heavily on earlier writers so that often what he presents is, in part at least, a picture of conditions several centuries earlier than his own time. And there are many more such instances. Each work that we read does not necessarily constitute a new and different source for viewing the empire, but may rather represent a selection of material drawn from an earlier writer whose text has not survived. Tracing this can be hard, as many authors do not divulge whence their material has come. In other words, the classical material is rich, but textually interdependent, highly complex, shaped by a variety of contexts and the diverse audiences individual writers are addressing. And this does not even take into account the fact that none of the authors we use for constructing our histories would be described as historians now.

Despite all these problems and caveats, the classical sources remain important for trying to understand the history of the Persian empire, precisely because of their narrative style. Despite their capacity to seduce, they can and do contain crucial information, so historians need to learn how to navigate this enticing literary terrain. And that is the aim of this book: to provide a guide to the great diversity of authors and works spanning a millennium (late sixth century BC [Simonides of Keos] to early fifth century AD [Metz Epitome]).2 Dominique Lenfant, who produced what is now the authoritative commented edition of Ctesias in the Budé series (Ctésias de Cnide: La Perse; L'Inde; autres fragments, Paris 2004), as well as one of the Deinon and Heraclides fragments (Les Histoires perses de Dinon et d'Héraclide. Persika 13. Paris 2009), has directed and worked with a group of researchers to provide a critical introduction to this wealth of complex material, for the use of students and teachers, as indicated by its publication in the 'Collection U' series. The very well-informed introduction, which includes a helpful chronological table of authors together with indications of genre (e.g. 'lyric poet', 'philosopher', 'orator' etc.), is followed by a guide to the 54 relevant writers in alphabetical order for easy reference, a chronology of events in Persian history and an index. Under each name is a brief general biography, a list of relevant works, discussion of how, where, why and when Persia figures, and then a summary of those passages. At the end is a detailed bibliography of editions, translations, studies and research tools. Inevitably, there is some selectivity – there are a host of good translations of Herodotus into English, such as that by Greene (1987), while no German ones figure in the case of this writer, for example. But these are minor quibbles. Questions that some may ask are: 'Why, when the title refers to the Greek vision of Persia, are people writing in Latin (such as Justin, Quintus Curtius, Nepos, Ammianus) included? And what about individuals whose specific aim it was to provide the history of their communities in opposition to the Greek stories by drawing on local sources, such as Josephus and Berossus?'3 But the former are heavily dependent on the earlier Greek accounts so that for someone like Ammianus, for instance, the contemporary Sassanian Persians have become timeless figures, interchangeable with those of Herodotus' day. In the case of the Jewish and Babylonian authors, it is their confrontation with the Greek material that draws them into the same stylistic and thematic framework. In this sense, it is indeed the case that all the writers discussed partake of a shared cultural milieu, which is Greek.

No doubt, those specialising in the study of individual authors will find points of disagreement (see my own reservations in footnote 3, below) – that is only to be expected in a work of this kind. But such individual criticisms on matters of detail will not undermine fundamentally the usefulness of such a guide to this exceptionally complex material.


1.   The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have played the main role in crediting the Persian kings (wrongly) with a unique policy of religious toleration, but this has had little effect on popular perceptions, as witnessed by, for example, the recent film '300'. Esther, being a story of intrigues at the Persian court, is very different and chimes more with the images found in the classical stories, as argued by, for example, A. Momigliano, 'Eastern Elements in Post-Exilic Jewish, and Greek Historiography,' in id., Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, Oxford 1977: 25-35.
2.   I have to declare an interest: I am personally acquainted with Professor Lenfant and was one of her examiners in 2006
3.   The Berossus article could do with some improvement and corrections. To say that Berossus is not writing a Greek history (p.84) is to ignore O. Murray's article ('Herodotus and Hellenistic culture,' Classical Quarterly 22 (1972): 200-213) where he sets out the standard pattern of Hellenistic ethnography: first, local geography, creation and other legends, to set the scene, then ancient history and finally more recent recorded events. This is precisely the lay-out of Berossus' work and certainly the first (geography and local resources) does not fit at all with Babylonian traditions of history writing. Conversely, giving the early kings reign lengths of thousands of years reflects the Mesopotamian traditions about kings of old, while the places where reference is made to biblical material are almost certainly later insertions and not original to Berossus at all, while Enuma Elish is emphatically Babylonian, dealing as it does with the rise to power of Babylon's patron deity Marduk and the building of the city, not Assyrian. See now Geert De Breucker's edition, translation and commentary on Berossus in Brill's New Jacoby, 680, available on line by subscription.

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