Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Matt Waters, Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xx, 252. ISBN 9780521253697. $29.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Catherine M. Draycott, British Institute at Ankara (cdraycott@biaatr.org)

Version at BMCR home site

Literature on the Achaemenid Persian Empire has flourished in the last half century and continues to gather pace in a way that almost echoes the rapid expansion of the Empire itself. Much of the most recent material consists of specialist papers in edited conference volumes, which while valuable can be difficult for beginners to penetrate and for teachers to use as class set texts.1 J.M. Cook's 1983 The Persian Empire (London) is out of date and while Pierre Briant's 1996 Histoire de l'Empire perse (Paris) remains essential, it is more encyclopaedic than introductory. Newer books by Lindsay Allen, Maria Brosius, Joseph Wiesehöfer and Amélie Kuhrt are more wieldy and all good, but cover slightly different ground: Allen's is a highly readable overview, strong on art and archaeology and especially on the historiography and Greek representations of Persia. Brosius' and Wiesehöfer's books cover more abbreviated parts of and extend beyond the Achaemenid period, and Kuhrt's collects essential textual sources with important commentary.2

Matt Waters's book should now be the first stop for those wanting an introduction to the Achaemenids and the study of them. It is a traditional history handbook, a chronological political narrative punctuated with social themes, but a thoroughly enjoyable one: well written and stimulating, the chapters pull the reader along through the book, and while concise it is packed with information and satisfyingly detailed, lucid discussions. A few typos aside, the copy is clean and well-illustrated with images and good maps.3 It shares with the books mentioned above the approach of the 'New Achaemenid History', wherein biases in the preponderance of Greek literary sources are made explicit and balanced with the different quality of information available from Near Eastern sources.4 Waters's book is a great success in these terms. The author displays equal control over the Greek and the myriad of non-Greek sources, which range from trilingual monumental royal inscriptions, clay tablets, Babylonian chronicles and the Bible to inscriptions and private letters from Egypt. From these he deftly weaves the story of this first Persian Empire, from their origins in the early Iron Age groups of Iran through to the take over of their vast territory by Alexander the Great, integrating into it the character of the sources.

A particular strength is Waters's expertise in the pre- and early Achaemenid periods, situating the rise of the Achaemenids within a rich, if obscure history of kingdoms in western Iran, particularly the Elamites. The Achaemenid trajectory is thereby portrayed as both grounded and extraordinary. The book will make a good companion to handbooks on archaic and classical Greek history as it covers the activities of the Greeks in Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean from a Persian perspective. Of course not everything can be covered in a concise history; Waters is strong on texts, briefer on (although not inattentive to) the archaeology. The only real deficiency, though, is the limited secondary references. The endnotes contain a wealth of valuable references, but they are few in number and can feel arbitrary (e.g. a note for discussion of 'Medizing', p. 122, but not for debates about army estimates, p. 121). An overburden of endnotes might be deemed undesirable for an introductory handbook, but the selectivity here limits readers' ability to pursue scholarly debates flagged by the author.

The book is split into twelve succinct chapters of roughly 15–20 pages each. The front matter includes explanation of textual sources, and relevant volumes and internet sites through which they can be consulted (xv–xvii). After a brief sketch of geography and terminology ('Persian', for instance), Chapter 1 further characterizes the Near Eastern and Greek textual sources, with an excursus on issues surrounding use of the latter. Chapter 2 follows with discussion of Early Iron Age Iran, including the migration of Iranian-language speakers into the area and the major powers: Elam, Assyria, Babylonia and various Anatolian kingdoms. The Medes, whose empire the Persians subjugated according to Herodotus, get their own sub-section. Here marriage of story and sources is not as crisp as elsewhere, some details skimmed over. For instance, it is only at the end that one learns about Babylonian and Biblical traditions of the Medes as a major power. Explanation of how these compare with the scarce Assyrian allusions to them as a collection of fortress-based, dynast-led groups rather than an empire (a la Herodotus) would be helpful.

Any fears that skimming may be a consistent feature of such a concise book are quickly vanquished through the following chapters. Chapter 3 deals with the emergence of Cyrus and the early Empire. This is a particularly obscure area, but Waters's expertise in the Near Eastern sources allows him to balance Greek tradition with what can be understood of the Iranian context, flagging areas such as the role of Anshan in Elam and the importance of hostage princes at Assyrian courts for knowledge transfer. Chapter 4 covers the death of Cyrus, the reign of Cambyses, the extensive problems surrounding his death and the accession of Darius I, with much discussion of Darius' Bisitun Inscriptions and Herodotus.5 Waters shows Near Eastern precedents for the rhetorical formulas employed at Bisitun and proposes that later adjustments to add Darius' Scythian campaign may have been felt so important because this was the (general) region in which Cyrus died in battle.

The next four chapters (5 through 8) alternate the reigns of Darius and Xerxes with social institutions: first Darius' triumphs over rebellions, his rhetoric (Bisitun again) and campaigns; next the 'mechanics' of empire (the court, administration, payment of tribute, satrapies, army and roads); then the accession of Xerxes through to his invasion of Greece; and following that the 'anatomy' of empire (capitals, ideology, religion). 'Court' gives welcome consideration to gender (women and eunuchs), but discussion of court and capitals could have been brought together in the same chapter for a more holistic discussion of urbanism and the architecture of court, both material and social. Limited space means some skimming here too: one would like a bit more detail on the remains of some of the capitals (Susa, for instance).6 Concerning the economy, Waters explains how clay accounts tablets from Persepolis are helping to clarify this, but the lack of resolution in understanding payment systems in the western satrapies and how coinage relates to this could be flagged more strongly. Such issues do not disturb the overall achievement of the book, however. The structure allows the author to introduce themes then picked up in subsequent chapters in a way that conveys diachronic development. Religion, for instance, is considered further in the royal inscriptions of a number of rulers, where new gods are introduced. The initial discussion of Achaemenid religion handles the primary issue of whether it can be called 'Zoroastrian', with specific attention to Zoroaster, as well as the contradictions in sources about whether the Achaemenids were laissez-faire about allowing worship of other gods. One matter that might be considered further, and aside from the Zoroastrian question, is the conceptualisation of Ahuramazda.

The next three chapters, 9 through 11, run through the reigns of the subsequent seven Achaemenid Kings, who ruled from the 460s to the 330s BC: Artaxerxes I, Xerxes II and Darius II (Ochus) (Chapter 9); Artaxerxes II (Arses) and Artaxerxes III (Ochus) (Chapter 10); and Artaxerxes IV and Darius III (Chapter 11). Court intrigues surrounding accession were a popular subject in Greek literature, and Waters weighs these judiciously against Near Eastern evidence. Of the numerous things covered in these chapters, the traditions surrounding various rebellions through the empire are examined perspicaciously, including ongoing affairs in the northwest of the Empire, the Aegean and Mediterranean. Waters offers lucid, critical discussion of such issues as the Peace of Kallias, the Persian role in the Peloponnesian War and continuing fourth century conflicts of the Greeks, who frequently appealed to the rulers of Western Anatolia for alliances and aid. Chapter 11 ends with the rise of Macedonia and Alexander's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. He places Alexander's incursions into Asia in the context of Philip's campaigns in Hellespontine Phrygia, a region with close connections to Thrace and Macedonia. Here, as with the earlier Greco-Persian wars, Waters highlights New Achaemenid History's revisions of old-fashioned, Hellenocentric ideas of Persian impetuousness and weakness. For instance, Darius' retaliation following the Ionian Revolt fits well into Near Eastern traditions of punishing recalcitrant subjects, already made abundantly clear at Bisitun (Waters reminds us that an Athenian embassy had at one point given earth and water to the King). Xerxes' larger campaign implies he was set on expansion, which also fits traditional Near Eastern ideologies of a ruler's duties. In the fourth century BC, what seem like constant rebellions attested in Greek sources are not necessarily an indication of an empire in decline, but a more or less continuous feature of such a large empire. Hence, Alexander's conquest was down to continued military successes rather than because the Empire was on the brink of collapse. At the end of Chapter 11 and in a short epilogue (Chapter 12), Waters also makes clear the difficulties Alexander faced in stepping into the role of the King as a peripheral foreigner.

The book closes with four appendices: a useful reference timeline; a chronological list of Kings; a genealogical chart of the Kings; and further readings. As noted earlier, endnotes are limited. The further reading list is also select, with readings listed under general headings rather than according to the book's chapter and section headings, which would be a more useful reference tool. This aside, this book is a strong synthesis, which will be instrumental in disseminating the gains of the last decades of Achaemenid studies to a broad readership and in encouraging scholarship that transcends the traditional disciplinary boundaries of Classics and Ancient Near Eastern studies. It is not only useful, but a model of engaging scholarly writing, and a good read.


1.   Many are referenced either in the further reading or endnotes. Some from the last five years that are not: Lanfranchi, G.B. and Rollinger, R. (eds) 2010: Concepts of Kingship in Antiquity: Proceedings of the European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop held in Padova, November 28th–December 1st, 2007 (Padova); Summerer, L., von Kienlin, A., and Ivantchik, A. (eds) 2011: Kelainai–Apameia Kibotos: Stadtentwicklung im anatolischen Kontext. Akten des Kolloquiums, München 2 April–4 April 2009 (Bordeaux), BMCR 2012.05.45; Ro, J.U. (ed.), 2012: From Judah to Judea: Socio-economic Structures and Processes in the Persian Period (Sheffield); Rollinger, R. and Schnegg, K. (eds) 2014: Kulturkontakte in antiken Welten: vom Denkmodell zum Fallbeispiel. Proceedings des internationalen Kolloquiums aus Anlass des 60. Geburtstages von Christoph Ulf, Innsbruck, 26. bis 30. Januar 2009 (Leuven); Frevel, C., Pyschny, K., and Cornelius, I. (eds) 2014: A 'Religious Revolution' in Yehûd? The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case (Fribourg).
2.   Allen, L. 2005: The Persian Empire: A History (London); Brosius, M. 2000: The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I (London); Brosius, M. 2006: The Persians: An Introduction (London), BMCR 2007.10.10; Wiesehöfer, J. 2001: Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to 650 AD, 2nd English ed., trans. by A. Azodi (London) (=1993: Das antike Persien von 550 v. Chr. bis 650 n. Chr. [Zürich]); Kuhrt, A.I. 2007: The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, (London).
3.   For 487/86 on p. 165 read 387/86. In further reading list, p. 227, Ruzcka should be Ruzicka (see BMCR 2013.03.21).
4.   For recent overviews, more explicit on postcolonial approaches: Colburn, H.P. 2011: 'Orientalism, Postcolonialism, and the Achaemenid Empire: Meditations on Bruce Lincoln's Religion, Empire, and Torture'. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 54, 87–103; McCaskie, T.C. 2012: '"As on a Darkling Plain": Practitioners, Publics, Propagandists, and Ancient Historiography'. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, 145–73.
5.   J.M. Balcer's 1987 Herodotus and Bisitun: Problems in Ancient Persian Historiography (Stuttgart) is not referenced.
6.   More detail in Allen (see n. 2, above). Now on Susa Perrot, J. 2013: The Palace of Darius at Susa: The Great Royal Residence of Achaemenid Persia (London). ​

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