Thursday, October 8, 2015


Pierre Briant, Darius in the Shadow of Alexander (translated by Jane Marie Todd; first published in French 2003). Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. xvii, 579. ISBN 9780674493094. $39.95.

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn, Marquette University (

Version at BMCR home site


To scholars of ancient studies, Pierre Briant will be undoubtedly be a recognizable name. His Histoire de l'empire perse: De Cyrus à Alexandre (translated into English in 2002) broke ground in historical studies as an exemplum for an egalitarian incorporation of Classical and Near Eastern source material, and its methods were at the forefront of a profusion of novel interpretations of cultural interaction in the ancient Mediterranean.1 Promised in this initial study was an evaluation of the source material related to Darius III, the much-beleaguered opponent of Alexander the Great. Briant delivered, with the publication of Darius dans l'ombre d'Alexandre in 2003. This edition, now translated into English, is unmodified, excluding the addition of a new preface. Briant maintains that the last sentence of the introduction to the first edition should be unchanged: the objective remains "to explain why Darius, along with so many others, is condemned to haunt the realm of historical oblivion" (x).

Chapter 1, aptly named "A Shadow amongst his Own," begins a tour de force through the Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian material that aids in piecing together a portrait of Darius III. Briant provides a fair assessment of the scanty extant documentation. In Chapter 2, "Darius Past and Present," we are presented with literary and dramatic representations of Darius, beginning with the Renaissance Humanist version, wherein Darius was a king abound in "pathetic Romanticism." Briant continues on to 18th and 19th century iterations of Darius, primarily sympathetic and often citing Darius' valor in battle with the Cadusians during the reign of Artaxerxes III. Juxtaposed with this view was the "other model" (based mostly, of course, on the "Official" tradition), which contemporaneously identified Darius as an incompetent coward, rather tragically "crushed between two powerful personalities [Artaxerxes III and Alexander] with indisputable imperial achievements" (89). In the formulation of many scholars, Darius was simply the culmination of an empire steeped in its own decadence, and doomed to fall by it. Part I of the work is a beautifully written entrée to the main portion of the book (throughout which Briant permits that the sources, through extensive quotations, seamlessly tell the story for themselves).

Briant also displays fantastic command over principles of ancient rhetoric and historiography, as is especially evident in Part II. Here Briant establishes historical exempla as a literary category and provides a very readable introduction to the Greco-Latin source material, before entering in Chapters 4 ("Arrian's Darius") and 5 ("A Different Darius or the Same One?") into specific examples of the heroic literary portrayal of Alexander (and by extension, the rather demeaning representation of Darius), through Homeric and Xenophontic mimesis. As opposed to Arrian's stance, the Vulgate authors provide a more colorful depiction of Darius, at times heroic and sympathetic. These authors utilize paradigmatic topoi such as that of the heroic dual combat, also, Briant argues (perhaps not as convincingly), of the Homeric variety. But is Alexander himself not the subject of varying interpretations? One begins to wonder if it is really impossible, as Briant's dichotomies seem to imply, to meet somewhere in the middle, between historiography and moralistic fantasy. He answers this query in Chapter 6 ("Darius between Greece and Rome"), explaining the emergence of a negative current, based on a "Persianized" Alexander (focused again on the theme of decadence), as a function of Roman attitudes towards the Parthians in the 2nd century CE, at which point Alexander "becomes" Darius (as explicated in Livy Book IX). Though important to his main argument, this chapter failed to flow as well as the previous ones. Amidst excursuses on the theory of imperial succession and attestations of Roman knowledge of the Achaemenids, this reviewer lost Darius III (and even Alexander) for a moment.

The study of apophthegmata is expanded beginning in Part III, in Chapter 7, "Upper King and Lower King," wherein we get specific examples of exempla used to formulate Darius' character, this time focusing in great part on Herodotean, and again, Xenophontic mimesis (in which Cyrus and Artaxerxes II often stand in as analogues for Alexander and Darius): main topoi include the debate with courtiers; the motif of the flatterer; the monomachia; the king in flight from battle. The clarification of these exempla continues in Chapter 8 ("Iron Helmet, Silver Vessels"), where the focus is on the trope of Persian decadence as opposed to Macedonian (or Greek) frugality and abstemiousness. This dichotomy is set in the context of food and drink (allowing for what were at times rather odd digressions on water). However, Briant's strict oppositions at times fumble, as in pages 304-305, where suddenly the Persian Artaxerxes II appears as a counter- example to typical Persian decadence, in a guise that could easily be mapped onto Alexander himself. This apparent inconsistency is not sufficiently explained.2

Chapter 9 ("The Great King's Private and Public Lives") focuses on the women and eunuchs in the Persian entourage and Alexander's personal contact with and chivalrous treatment of them. He sets up Alexander's relationship with the eunuch Bagoas as a pivotal moment in which the Orientalization of Alexander is marked by our literary sources, an example of the depravity of the Asian monarchy (344-354). It is curious, therefore, that there is not even a mention of Alexander's Macedonian hetairos Hephaistion in this capacity. Even if the nature of their relationship was a matter of controversy in both ancient and modern scholarship, the special proximity of these men preexisted the "Orientalization" of Alexander. It is notable that Bagoas' disposition is described by Curtius 10.1.25 as obsequio corpore; in Justin 12.12.11 Hephaistion is given as obsequiis regi percarus. In the Greco-Latin tradition, both Hephaistion and Bagoas are understood as the eromenos in a pederastic relationship with Alexander. Such evidence may indicate that Alexander's relationship with Bagoas can resist the vacuum in which Briant places it. Regardless of this oversight, Part III is a clinic in literary analysis, and really makes up the meat of the study.

Part IV, Chapters 10 ("Dārā and Iskandar") and 11 ("Death and Transfiguration"), is an important study of the reception of Alexander and Darius in later Persian and Arabo-Persian tradition, a much-needed move away from Orientalist viewpoints towards a full picture of Darius III. In Chapter 10, Briant reconciles the Iranian traditions about Alexander and Darius, showing that, though there appear to be inconsistencies in the representation of the two kings, Darius' character always has the same flaws: defeat was due to his inattention and harshness towards his intimate circle, which sowed the seeds of treason and betrayal, leading his men to defect to Alexander (Iskandar) (385). Chapter 11 deals with the images in the various traditions associated with the death of Darius and the (symbolic) transfer of his kingdom to Alexander. Briant demonstrates how the later traditions utilize and manipulate Darius' image as a legitimation device, especially for the Sassanid Ardašir; through the former's vilification, the latter is legitimized. Chapter 12, "Darius in Battle: Variations on the Theme 'Images and Realities,'" offers a method for extracting plausible historical information from the sources about the functioning of the Achaemenid Empire, reconciling us somewhere between "truth" and the literary artistry of our sources. He uses comparative history and a fair reading of all available sources involved to show the ways in which this can be done, in this case suggesting that there may have been a logical rationale behind Darius' flight from battle: as the keeper of the empire, it was his responsibility to stay alive. These chapters betray a real interest for Briant in utilizing later reception of Darius III to glean some historical factoids, and contains the most novel contribution in the book.

For this reviewer, the most important portion of this edition is the reaction to criticisms of the first edition of the book, comprehensively presented in the preface. A historian's concerns are especially highlighted in the review of M. Brosius, 3 who worries that such a deductive approach as Briant has taken in this work "reduce[s] history to a literary construct" (430). Briant in fact demonstrates his awareness of this problem in the body of the book: "In reality, a purely factual quest is not the first priority of the present-day historian, who is more interested in the significance to be granted to the genesis and diffusion of a literary and monarchical motif" (259). He rebuts Brosius' argument by claiming that the classical sources can indeed be used productively, provided that we understand how to extract their "Achaemenid informative kernel," in which case they can be used to aid in a reconstitution of Darius' character.

The deconstruction of our sources employed throughout the book is countered in Chapter 12 in such a way as to provide hope for some collection of useful historical information. This latter analysis serves to reiterate Briant's aims, not to leave "the historian completely incapacitated," but to show that "There is no contradiction between literary analysis and historical inquiry: the first is a preliminary to the second, or rather, the two are inseparable" (xv).

There is a masterful treatment of all of the sources: numismatic, archaeological, art historical, and literary; Greco-Latin, Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian. It is a winding journey, at times reading like a novel (for example, in the description of early travelers to the East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on pages 15-22). Though for the most part Briant's reading of the Greco-Latin source material is fair across the board, throughout the work this reviewer noted what might be categorized as "respectful disdain" for the Vulgate authors, depicting them as literary opportunists (as for Curtius: "The author does not hesitate to reconstitute public speeches and private conversations, even in their slightest details" (279); "In his characteristically heavy-handed and bombastic style, Curtius does not fail to improve on the Alexander panegyric" [323]).

The thematic notes at the end of the book make for a distraction-free read for the non-specialist; for the specialist they are an incredibly erudite resource for further research (though one does wonder why no notes are included for the 11th chapter). The translation style is eloquent and readable, and the book contains only a few typographical errors.4 The pictures are scattered throughout the book (they should have been compiled as a collective at the end) and of rather poor quality. Besides these minor qualms, Briant's work, as always, is a significant contribution to Achaemenid studies, a display of historiographical learnedness whose methods can benefit historians across ancient studies. ​


1.   E.g. M. Miller, Athens and Persians in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity (Cambridge, 1997), on the archaeological side; for literary studies, exemplary is J. Haubold Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature (Cambridge, 2013). See also the recent collection of articles in Kulturkontakte in antike Welten: vom Denkmodell zum Fallbeispiel: Proceedings des internationalen Kolloquiums aus Anlass des 60. Geburtstages von Christoph Ulf, Innsbruck, 26. Bis 30. January 2009, eds. R. Rollinger and K. Schnegg (Leuven 2014).
2.   This chapter at times becomes repetitive (e.g. citing and repeating the same passage from Strabo at least three times), but these infelicities are overwhelmed by the convincing nature of the arguments as a whole.
3.   In Gnomon 78, 2006: 426-430.
4.   Mediation for meditation, p. 18; follow for follows, p. 165; be for he, p. 209; Callihroe for Callirhoe, p. 328; princes for princess, p. 328; moment for moments, p. 414.

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