Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (paperback reprint; first published 2013). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvi, 374. ISBN 9781107577152. $39.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas, Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site


In 547 BCE, the Persian King Cyrus captured the city of Sardis and established Persian rule over most of Anatolia. In 334 BCE, local representatives of Cyrus's successors peacefully surrendered the city to Alexander the Great; most of the peninsula fell out of imperial grip soon thereafter. What was the impact of two centuries of Achaemenid imperial rule on Anatolia and its people? In a wide-ranging book, now published in paperback, Dusinberre attempts to answer this difficult question. The author is well qualified for the task, having done research and fieldwork on Achaemenid archaeological remains at major sites in the region, including Sardis, Gordion, and Kerkenes.

The nature of the relevant textual and archaeological evidence poses a challenge to any scholar wanting to study Achaemenid Anatolia. On the one hand, epigraphic sources in Persian, Aramaic, and the indigenous languages of the region, including Lydian, Lycian, and Carian, are meager. In addition, contemporary literary accounts are written in Greek mostly by people who variously idealized or abhorred the Persians. On the other hand, even at provincial capitals archaeological evidence is uneven and scarce. At Sardis, for example, a site that has been excavated continuously for more than half a century, traces of Achaemenid presence are neither abundant nor conspicuous; the most obvious marker is arguably the so-called "Pyramid tomb," an odd funerary monument which poses major interpretive challenges since it has no parallels other than the tomb of King Cyrus himself.1 At Dascylium, Achaemenid-period monumental architecture looks disconcertingly Hellenic. And at Celaenae, systematic archaeological exploration has begun relatively recently and has not involved extensive excavation.2

The main virtues of Dusinberre's book are first, that it offers an up-to-date readable synthesis of widely scattered and diverse material, usually treated separately by various specialists, and second, that much of it involves archaeological evidence. Scholars of ancient Anatolia and of the Achaemenid empire, the book's obvious readership, will find sound analysis and copious illustrations. In a previous monograph, which dealt with the same topic but was confined to the city of Sardis, Dusinberre structured her argument according to classes of material remains (e.g., inscriptions, tombs, sealstones, bowls).3 By contrast, this book is organized thematically. The author devotes substantive chapters to political and military control, eating and drinking, funerary and cult practices, and education. In her introduction, she provides brief theoretical remarks as well as historical and geographical overviews, and in her conclusions she reflects about empire and identity. Each of the thematic chapters is driven by clear questions: By what means was the territory of Anatolia guarded and kept in check (Chapter 3)? What was the effect of imperial occupation on local religious practices (Chapter 6)? How were young and old educated under Achaemenid rule (Chapter 7)? This thematic breakdown allows Dusinberre to make geographic and chronological extrapolations, but it also tends to highlight the paucity and unevenness of the available evidence. When she has an abundance of data, as in Chapter 4 ("Eating and Drinking with Class and Style"), her conclusions are persuasive. While the monumental legacy of the Achaemenids in Anatolia is elusive, their mark on consumption practices is unmistakable. Ceramics and metal vessels, as well as a host of visual representations of banqueting and dining demonstrate that imperial power was legitimized and negotiated through embodied performances. As Margaret Miller showed a few years ago, this material perspective illuminates how Achaemenid imperial realities were experienced by actual people with actual bodies in actual spaces.4 Equally successful is Chapter 5 ("Dealing with the Dead"). As Dusinberre observes, the remarkable variety of monumental tombs in Achaemenid Anatolia attests to the continuity of local architectural practices, but such diversity is counterbalanced by the uniformity of grave goods, many of which reveal the will of the deceased to use Achaemenid imperial markers of status.

By contrast, there is very little relevant information with which to explore education in Achaemenid Anatolia. Her venture into questions about pedagogical matters in Chapter 8 ("Educating the Young and Old") is brave, but some of her points are so general as to be banal (e.g. the old educate the young, hierarchies are strict for both student and apprentice). This chapter and indeed several others throughout the book (including Chapter 3 "Controlling Anatolia, Guarding the Empire" and to a lesser extent Chapter 6 "Worshipping the Divine") are reliant on texts. Such dependence is unavoidable, but Dusinberre could have extended to Greek authors the same care that she uses to interpret Achaemenid portable objects. She seems to take ancient literary sources at face value, with only passing attention to the circumstances and dates of their production. Polyaenus, Strabo, and Athenaeus, the last of whom lived in the second/third century CE, are treated as no less informed about Achaemenid life than eyewitnesses such as Herodotus, Xenophon, or Ctesias. A related problem, which also stems from the relative sparseness of evidence, is that the author frequently makes use of material contemporaneous with Achaemenid rule, but whose relevance to the topic of the book is not always transparent. For example, a noticeable cultural change such as the increased use of writing to mark funerary monuments in Lydia and Lycia coincided with the period of Achaemenid control in Anatolia, but how indigenous writing practices were affected by Achaemenid rule, if at all, is far from clear.5 Similarly, there is Achaemenid-period evidence for the lasting importance of indigenous Anatolian divinities such as Tarhunt(a)- and Malija in Lycia, but this is almost certainly the result of the stability of local populations in the region since the early Iron Age, and is only tangentially related to Achaemenid imperial practices.6

An obvious solution to the problem of patchy evidence is to engage in further comparisons at many scales, which the author generally avoids. For example, a chapter on the afterlife of the empire in Hellenistic and Roman Anatolia would have been welcome and it could have been an opportunity to address the reliability of post-Achaemenid textual sources. The book's chronological scope largely coincides with that of Achaemenid occupation, but obviously Achaemenid monuments and practices did not simply disappear in Alexander's wake. Similarly, evidence from Persepolis and Pasargadae looms large throughout and informs much of Dusinberre's analysis. In addition to material from the center of empire it would be useful to ask whether the situation in Anatolia was significantly different from that in Achaemenid Judaea, Egypt, or Armenia.7 And what about comparisons with other empires? In her introduction, Dusinberre summarily identifies deficiencies in existing approaches to the study of empire (such as core-periphery and world-systems analysis) and proposes an alternative, which she terms the "authority-autonomy" model (pp.1-7). The author wants to add nuance to models that seem overly preoccupied with geography and excessively monolithic or top-down; she conceives of empire as a "web of relations" in which different social groups exercised varying degrees of authority and autonomy. While most scholars of empire from around the world would surely sympathize with Dusinberre's goal, explicit references to other empires (if not actual comparison as suggested above) would allow readers to assess the virtues of the author's model and help her arguments gain conceptual specificity as well as widespread applicability.

In her preface, Dusinberre proposes that her book should matter to people other than specialists because "imperialism is hardly a thing of the past" (p. xvii). That observation is unassailable; but quite apart from the contemporary urgency of thinking historically about current imperial ventures, the phenomenon of a powerful ancient empire whose impact has been hard to detect and interpret archaeologically has much to offer those whose interests lie in other regions and periods. The seemingly light touch on the ground of the Achaemenid empire in Anatolia is intriguing, especially when contrasted with its specter in much of Greek literature. The apparent scarcity of obvious and widespread physical markers of imperial presence in Anatolia is complicated by the fact that even where such markers appear, they tend to form part of complex cultural bundles. The banqueting scenes in the wall-paintings of the Karaburun tomb in Lycia, for example, seem to commemorate specifically Achaemenid feasting practices, but they are part of funerary structures whose architectural shape is clearly reminiscent of traditional Anatolian monuments, including the great tumuli of the last Lydian kings. Similarly, the already mentioned inscriptions on Achaemenid-period funerary monuments in Lydia and Lycia were written largely in local vernaculars, not in the favored language and script of the Persian administration (the so-called Reichs-Aramäisch) nor in the cuneiform used on royal monuments in Iran and Armenia. These are idiosyncrasies that would be worth examining from a comparative perspective; in a classroom setting, one could perhaps encourage students to compare the evidence Dusinberre has compiled with analogous phenomena at other moments in the history of Anatolia, in other provinces of the Achaemenid Empire, and, ultimately, with other empires elsewhere.

The illustrations in the book are profuse and generally of high quality (figs. 107 and 149 are blurry exceptions). The maps, however, deserve separate comment: they are abundant, but of doubtful service. Some are unnecessarily repetitious (for example, figs. 3, 4, and 21; 2, 8, and 9; 47 and 54), while many others are produced from eccentric angles; the foreshortening of the continental landmass in figs. 17, 24, 25, and 47 make these satellite images confusing and the labeling (especially of rivers) unclear. As a native of the equator, I am all in favor of a judicious assault on the hegemony of the north in modern cartography, especially if the point is to attend to the indigenous experience of a place. However, a view of western Anatolia from an extraterrestrial satellite looking "east" (fig. 24) is jarring and it most certainly does not convey—as the caption claims —a "Greek perspective."

This is a book about a relatively under-studied period in Anatolian history, 8 which will be of interest to Anatolianists and students of ancient empires more generally. Whatever its limitations, they are compensated by the author's concerted effort to synthesize and by her insistence on incorporating archaeological evidence into historical narratives that have been built largely on texts. ​


1.   On which see Christopher Ratté "The Pyramid Tomb at Sardis" Istanbuler Mitteilungen 42 (1992), 135-161.
2.   On recent work at Celaenae, see Lâtife Summerer, Askold Ivantchik, Alexander von Kienlin (eds.), Kelainai-Apameia Kibotos: développement urbain dans le contexte anatolien. Actes du colloque international, Munich, 2-4 avril 2009 / Stadtentwicklung im anatolischen Kontext. Akten des internationalen Kolloquiums, München, 2.-4. April 2009. Kelainai, 1. Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2011. BMCR 2012.05.45
3.   Elspeth R. M. Dusinberre, Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. BMCR 2004.02.20
4.   Margaret Miller "'Manners Makyth Man': Diacritical Drinking in Achaemenid Anatolia". In Erich S. Gruen (ed.), Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean, (pp. 97-134). Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2011. Cf. BMCR 2011.07.47
5.   To borrow Ramsay Macmullen's expression "epigraphic habit" to describe those practices (as the author does on p. 262) is somewhat misleading given that the entire Lydian and Lycian extant inscriptions are infinitesimal compared to those inscribed in Greek or Latin under Roman rule.
6.   On the tenacity of Anatolian onomastics in Lycia, see Philo Houwink ten Cate The Luwian population groups of Lycia and Cilicia Aspera during the Hellenistic Period. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1961.
7.   In the case of Armenia in particular, such comparison will be more easily carried with the recent publication of Lori Katchadourian's Imperial Matter: Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires.
8.   Even the recent Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia, 10,000-323 BCE barely mentions the Achaemenids, as pointed out by Naoíse Macsweeney in BMCR 2012.04.38. ​

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