Sunday, April 15, 2012


Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, James Robson (trans.), Ctesias' History of Persia: Tales of the Orient. Routledge classical translations. London; New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. x, 253. ISBN 9780415364119. $120.00.

Reviewed by Dominique Lenfant, Université de Strasbourg (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume includes a substantial introduction to Ctesias' History of Persia by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (pp. 1-87) and an English translation, by James Robson, of the testimonia on Ctesias and of the fragments of his work on Persia. There had been no English translation of the fragments of Persica as a whole before this one was published in 2010, at the same time as another by Jan Stronk.1 There was only an English collection of the fragments of Persica, that by John Gilmore, published in the end of the 19th century, which comprised an introduction, Greek text, and notes, but no translation.2 Consequently, English readers could only use scattered translations of authors who had quoted Ctesias, like Photius, Diodorus, Athenaeus, Plutarchus or Aelianus.3 Furthermore, there has been a great deal of scholarly work on Ctesias' text since Gilmore's edition, above all Felix Jacoby's edition (FGrHist III C n° 688, Leiden, 1958) and the more recently published Budé edition by myself,4 to say nothing of the many papers on fragmentary historians, or on various isolated aspects of Ctesias' work,5 as well as the increased attention to Ctesias associated with the huge development of Achaemenid studies during the last decades.6 In such a context, an English translation of Ctesias' fragments was absolutely necessary, and called for an extended introduction at the very least. Whereas Stronk's introduction, text and translation comprise more than 400 pages, the present publication is a more concise overview and as such is probably more accessible to a larger audience, especially among English-reading students and scholars.

Llewellyn-Jones's introduction is an extensive one. The beginning is rather surprising, since it relates the plot of a recent novel about a doctor who attended Amin Dada and compares it to Ctesias' case, before describing the latter's work as a historical novel – an expression that Llewellyn-Jones, unlike Jacoby, does not use as a negative judgment (pp. 3-7). Some people might consider the comparison irrelevant or useless within such a framework, and I also wonder if it is not inserted too early, since a reader not familiar with Ctesias would lack at this point some important information about his life and work that are needed to understand its meaning.

There follows a depiction of Ctesias' life that is skillfully inserted in its historical context and is vividly presented (pp. 7-18). Then the author indicates in general terms the type of fragmentary texts through which we know of Ctesias' Persica (there is also a final glossary of the authors who quote Ctesias). He mentions the main past collections of fragments, and explains that the Greek text and numbering system of the Budé edition will be followed in the present work (pp. 18-22). Llewellyn-Jones then gives a survey of modern scholarly verdicts on Ctesias' reliability and how they are divided: from Jacoby's harsh criticism to recent Achaemenid studies, Ctesias has appeared as a gossip-monger, as expressing Greek prejudices towards Easterner foreigners, indeed as the first proponent of an orientalist vision, whereas some scholars have expressed more qualified verdicts and less skepticism about his court stories (pp. 22-31). Llewellyn-Jones points out, as other scholars have done before him, that ancient criticism was already divided (pp. 32-35) and that the authors who quoted Ctesias probably filtered his account to serve their own purposes (pp. 35-47). He sets Ctesias' Persica within the more general framework of Greek literature on Persia (pp. 45-55), before commenting on his sources (pp. 55-65), some oral (at least court gossip) and some written: Llewellyn-Jones defends the possibility that Ctesias may have used official Achaemenid annals (p. 58) before admitting that this cannot be confirmed (p. 61). Nothing is said, however, about the possibility of comparing or crosschecking Ctesias' account with Near Eastern evidence on any given point, although it should contribute to an evaluation of Ctesias' possible sources. It is all the more surprising that Llewellyn-Jones is far from being ignorant of such evidence, as can be seen from the beautiful pictures in the book, most of them made by the author himself, with detailed captions that establish a link between Ctesias' account and archaeological material. Moreover, possible Greek sources are not mentioned as such, which is especially surprising in the case of Herodotus, since Ctesias explicitly knew of his work. The Persica is then described by Llewellyn-Jones as being close to court history as attested in the Old Testament (the author stands up for dating Esther to the Achaemenid period, while, in the opinion of some scholars, it could rather date to the Hellenistic period and depend on Greek sources). After the sources, Llewellyn-Jones discusses at length the question of the literary genre to which the Persica belongs, its relation to the historical novel and the sense of Ctesias' being described as a poet by Demetrius (pp. 68-80). Llewellyn-Jones claims there that "at no point was Ctesias under the illusion that he was writing straight history" (pp. 70-71) and that he "refuses to be pinned down as an author of any specific genre" (p. 79). That seems, however, to be contradicted by Ctesias' claim to surpass Herodotus (T 8). In fact, Demetrius clearly does not refer to the genre practiced by Ctesias, but rather to some features of his style.7 In the same way, Llewellyn-Jones claims that "pleasure was the touchstone of reading Ctesias in antiquity, or so it would appear from the various Testimonia" (p. 79), although there are still more testimonia that criticize his style (see Budé, p. clxiii, n. 661). The conclusion rightly points out that Ctesias opts to explore the Persian world from its royal center (p. 81), but in my view that does not mean that it was "a history composed mainly from a Persian and Babylonian tradition" (p. 81): this should at least be expressed with more caution. Finally, Llewellyn-Jones contests the labelling of Ctesias' picture of Persia as orientalist or decadent.8

Other details could be discussed. For instance, Llewellyn-Jones's desire to adopt a Persian perspective makes him call the Greeks barbarians (p. 9: "the barbarians to the west – the Greeks"; p. 56 "such a barbaric language"). Now this is a bit incautious, since nothing says, especially in Persian royal inscriptions, that Persians categorized people in this manner, and finally, that could be a hellenocentric view of the Persian perspective. Concerning the method, Llewellyn-Jones sometimes resorts to the authority of quotations which in fact do not prove anything (p. 78: the fact that Plutarch once prefers Ctesias to Dinon is supposed to attest to the "amount of fact" in his account for that period; p. 83: Llewellyn-Jones considers that Lucian "confirms" that "Ctesias penned a pro-Persian history of Persia", although a comparison with the fragments should lead one to criticize Lucian, who might have not read the Persica (see Budé p. 229 n. 48)). Moreover, Llewellyn-Jones tends to forget that we only have fragments and to postulate absences which we cannot be sure of (e.g. p. 86 n. 205: "the wives of Darius I do not figure in the Persica at all"; p. 55: Persica "tend to ignore (or at best underplay) military history" – a military history which is in fact far from being absent from Dinon and even less from Ctesias' fragments, as is proved by the recent 50-page paper of C. Tuplin on "Ctesias as a Military Historian", in Die Welt des Ktesias cited in n. 2).

The translation by J. Robson, based on the text of the Budé edition (p. 93-94), is a close translation. I have noticed only some slight omissions (T1 (p. 95 and p. 8): ἐν Πέρσαις, T7d: μάλιστα), some minor mistakes (T11a: "one does" instead of "one did", "no account of the ancient history of Persians" instead of "no ancient account of the history of Persians"), some misprints (p. 144 Sarandapallus (three times) instead of Sardanapallus, p. 196 Ariscas instead of Arsicas) and, exceptionally, a curious gloss (p. 195 § 54 "As he was a eunuch" is a pure interpolation of the translator). But these are quite rare and not serious: the translation is in fact most accurate. Its presentation is clear thanks to subheadings indicating the content of the fragments which follow them. Perhaps a heading on the top of the page with the number of the current fragments would also have been helpful for the consulting reader.

This volume does not include a commentary, but a few brief notes, including sometimes puzzling suggestions (e.g. p. 99 n. 9: why should the Spartan messengers need the King's protection, and from whom are they being protected?). Of course, this is a slight drawback, especially where fragments are concerned, and the reader should keep in mind that caution is needed in interpreting particular wording or so-called quotations as being reliable testimony on Ctesias' original lost work.9

The appendices are helpful, especially the 12-page final index which includes subjects, and not only proper names as in the Budé edition. The genealogical tree entitled "The Persian royal family according to Ctesias' Persica" (p. 228) reproduces that in the Budé, p. 340, except that it introduces some oddities (Spitaces, Amytis and Cyrus seem to have had five children between the three of them. It would have been better to distinguish the children that Amytis had with Spitamas from those she had with Cyrus. A branch is lacking between Damaspia and Xerxes II, who appears without origin). Some such oddities are also to be seen in the family trees on p. 229, such as the m (=marriage) between Phaedyme and… the daughter of Gobryas (Phaedyme was instead the wife of Cambyses: cf. Hdt. 3.68). True, it is not easy to represent all these family links, technical blunders may have occurred here, and these trees remain in any case most useful.

Lastly, some slight corrigenda could be added concerning the introduction and the bibliography. There are some false references to the testimonia and fragments: p. 2 and 12, "Testimonium 5" instead of "3"; p. 11, "Fragment 71 [158-158]", probably instead of F27 §71; p. 11 "Testimonia 1, 2, 11" instead of "1, 1b, 11h"; p. 56: "Fragment 15 § 7" instead of "§47". Some minor mistakes: the hypothesis about Ctesias' being a captive of Tissaphernes after having taken part in Pissuthnes' revolt is attributed to Stronk 2004 (p. 14), although it was first made by Brown (1978, p. 4 and 7-10). Democedes is said to have escaped during a Sicilian mission (p. 14 n. 25), although it happened in Tarentum (Hdt. 3.137). Müller's Latin collection and translation of Ctesias' fragments was not part of his Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (p. 20), but appeared as a 200-page appendix to Didot's edition of Herodotus (1844). Misprints in the bibliography (and some of the corresponding footnotes): p. 233 has Compoli instead of Comploi, p. 235 has Henkeleman instead of Henkelman, p. 236 (and p. 15 n. 27) Lollesch instead of Kollesch.

These remarks should not impress the reader unfavorably, since they generally concern details. A Ctesias for beginners (and others) in a limited number of pages is certainly a challenge and, all in all, this volume is welcome. It certainly fills a gap and should give a wider access to Ctesias' Persica.


1.   J. Stronk, Ctesias' Persian History I, Dusseldorf, 2010, with Greek text; a commentary (II) is forthcoming. An English translation of the fragments of Indica by Andrew Nichols has also appeared recently (Ctesias. On India, Duckworth, 2011), with commentary.
2.   The Fragments of the Persika of Ktesias, London, 1888. I have to confess an unforgivable mistake in D. Lenfant (ed.), Les Perses vus par les Grecs, Paris, 2011, p. 102, where I erroneously ascribed an English translation to Gilmore.
3.   There were, however, a German translation by F.W. König (Die Persika des Ktesias von Knidos, Graz, 1972) and two French translations successively by J. Auberger (Ctésias. Histoires de l'Orient, Paris, Les Belles Lettres: La Roue à livres, 1991) and by myself (D. Lenfant, Ctésias de Cnide. La Perse. L'Inde. Autres fragments, Paris, Les Belles Lettres: CUF, 2004).
4.   Cf. above, n. 3.
5.   See most recently J. Wiesehöfer, G.B. Lanfranchi, R. Rollinger (eds.), Die Welt des Ktesias. Ctesias' World, Wiesbaden, 2011.
6.   See P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire, Winona Lake, 2002, and A. Kuhrt, The Persian Empire. A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, New York – London, 2007, who both quote and comment on many of Ctesias' fragments.
7.   On Ctesias clearly considered as an historian in Antiquity, see D. Lenfant, Les Histoires perses de Dinon et d'Héraclide, Paris, 2009, pp. 316-7 n. 2.
8.   See D. Lenfant, "La "décadence" du Grand Roi et les ambitions de Cyrus le Jeune: aux sources perses d'un mythe occidental?", REG 114, 2001, pp. 407-438, esp. pp. 429-434.
9.   On the necessity of taking into account the available text as a "cover text" which has first to be considered in its own context, see G. Schepens, "Jacoby's FGrHist: problems, methods, prospects", in G. W. Most (ed.), Collecting fragments-Fragmente sammeln, Göttingen, 1997, pp. 144-172, esp. pp. 166-7 n. 66.

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