Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Persians: The Age of the Great Kings. New York: Basic Books, 2022.
When does enthusiasm for the foreign become too intoxicating that one ends up defending the indefensible and offers up a mythology just as crude as the earlier mythology that portrays the foreign in a such a horrid, negative, light? No civilization, no empire, looms as large in the Western imagination in a negative sense than the Persian Empire. After all, weren’t the Persians those dastardly monsters as portrayed in 300? Weren’t the Persians the invaders and would-be conquerors of ancient Greece who threatened to eliminate the nascent democratic city-states of Hellas which would have prevented the eventual flourishing of Greek drama and philosophy?
Alienism is a good way to understand the modern anti-Western imagination, propagated especially by elite Westerners themselves—Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones among them. Alienism can be understood as an adoration and promotion of the alien, the foreign, at the critical expense—if not hatred—of the local, the normal, the native. Llewellyn-Jones is an enthusiast for everything ancient Persian. This is not a fault or a problem in of itself. I am a great admirer, as a layperson, of ancient Persian civilization too. It becomes a problem, though, in his new book Persians: The Age of the Great Kings when he glosses over Persian slavery, conquest, deportation of natives, and tries to imply the Achaemenid Empire was some tolerant beacon of light in the ancient world—a multicultural empire that we should learn from in our own multicultural age. Beneath a “history” of Persia is also an apologia for Persian enthusiasm that clouds what is an important work that attempts to restore a sense of Persian grandeur and importance to the conceptualization of the ancient world often too narrowly focused on Greece and Rome as hubs of liberty and the Ancient Near East as a dark backwater of despotism and tyranny.
Recovering Persia from the hands of Herodotus and the anti-Persian mythology that emerged in the Enlightenment during a new period of philhellenism, that equally tossed Christianity in the trash in understanding Western civilization, isn’t a bad thing. It is duly needed. Persia was, as Llewellyn-Jones rightly notes, the world’s first great superpower, a multicultural and multiethnic superstate that stretched across three continents and was a hub of art, culture, and civilization too caustically dismissed by the partisans of Hellenic exceptionalism. Unfortunately, our author overcorrects by not wanting to lift a finger in critiquing the ills and injustices of the Persian Empire too greatly for fear of perpetuating the stereotype he is trying to deconstruct.
Part of the reason for writing this book, our author informs us, is the partisans of Hellenic exceptionalism beginning with Herodotus crafted a sense of non-Hellenic civilizations as “lesser civilizations” that stereotyped foreigners as “decadent and despotic.” Persia is case and point. Further, many historians and intellectuals still promote this dichotomy of Western light and liberty and Eastern (Persian) darkness and despotism. Llewellyn-Jones wants to present the Persian case, not the anti-Persian polemics of Greek and later Roman, then Enlightenment, authors. But, in doing so, his narrative of Persian exceptionalism falls into the same trap as Hellenic exceptionalism—it blinds Llewellyn-Jones to the horrors and perversities of the Persian Empire which raped, pillaged, and conquered just as cruelly (if not more so) as his mirror negatives to Persian greatness: Greece, Rome, and, of course, Britain (it is now seemingly fashionable and necessary to condemn the British Empire even if it has no relevance to the historical epoch covered).
For example, Llewellyn-Jones “concedes” that “Persia grew in power and status” because of slavery. But he also wants you to think that Persia “was not a slave society in the way the Roman empire was.” Slavery and mass deportation was common in the Ancient Near East before the rise of Persia, so Persia cannot be blamed for inheriting and perpetuating slavery and benefitting from it. Or our author could be honest and admit that Achaemenid Persia was an empire that benefited strongly from slavery even if free and peasant labor constituted the larger bulk of the Persian socio-economic population than slaves (as was also the case in the Roman Empire despite that empire’s reliance on slavery which it also inherited).
Likewise, after describing the gruesome punishment known as the “Ordeal of the Boats,” in which the punished individual is force-fed in food and honey while buried in hardened mud until flies, vermin, and maggots consume his rotting flesh and stomach inside and out, Llewellyn-Jones suggests that this shouldn’t be seen as confirming the stereotype of Persia as a cruel and despotic entity. “[T]he Persian version of the punishment is far more complex and must relate to the Persian views of religious purity,” our author comments after describing the horrid practice. Rinse and repeat across all sorts of horrible practices that are brought up only to be dismissed as Greek propaganda or an apology for why we shouldn’t see cruelty and despotism in such practices.
I have begun with a critique because it is important for readers to recognize the shortcomings of this book from the start. Otherwise, one might be unknowingly and uncritically awed by misrepresentations, sophistic rhetoric, and blatant mistakes—especially considering that material on Persia is few and far between (and often, as our author rightly notes, presented by anti-Persian writers). Another misrepresentation, for instance, is Llewellyn-Jones’s implication that Reza Shah’s insistence of having the world refer to Persia as Iran was because of the dastardly ideology of philhellenic Orientalism in which “Persia” is coded language for “decadence, luxury, and a certain backwardness of thought.” The real reason why Reza Shah insisted on his country being called Iran and its people Iranian is because that’s what they called their country and themselves—not because they wanted PR change to alter the perception of outsiders.
These shortcomings, significant for a critical reader to be aware of, should not, however, dissuade one from the importance of this book in recovering a Persia that was at the heart of ancient civilization and culture. Persia really was a massive multicultural empire, a great world power, arguably the first superpower of the world that straddled three continents, and a civilization that spread significant influence across the world that is often forgotten or downplayed in favor of Greece and Rome.
The most obvious example of Persian influence in our world today was Cyrus’s decision to liberate the Jews from Babylon which permitted the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which would stand until destroyed by the Romans in the late first century. This ensured the survival of Judaism and the formation of the Hebrew Bible in a codified form which would continue to exert its influence through the rise of Christianity. Another example which is harder to recognize is that even after Alexander’s conquest of Persia the new Hellenism that arose was not strictly Greek despite; these Greek civilizations in the ancient Near East borrowed from Persian influences and style, especially the Seleucids. Moreover, though Llewellyn-Jones doesn’t make mention of it, Homer’s Iliad is now widely acknowledged as having within it Persian and other Near Eastern influences as an integral part of its compositional structure and use of memory. Hector, for instance, is remembered as the “breaker of horses.” This echoes the nomadic horseman tradition so essential to early Persian identity, not to mention the Trojans are depicted as noble and their society hierarchal and religious in ways that mirror the early Persians.
The story of the Persians begins over 5,000 years ago when “nomadic tribal peoples from Central Eurasia settled on the Iranian plateau.” These nomadic horsemen and cattle-drivers remained nomadic, moving from plateau to plateau with their herds of animals. Eventually, a group of these nomadic warriors formed the tribe of the Medes. The greatest of the early Median chieftains was Cyaxares, whom Llewellyn-Jones describes as a “born warrior” and a man who was “well-prepared for action.” Under the leadership of Cyaxares, the Medes successfully defended their autonomy from Scythians and Babylonians to cultivate one of the centers of eventual Persian power and identity.
South of the Medes lay another tribe of Persians who had centered their power around the cities of Anshan and Pasargadae. Although in the competitive sphere for the imperial ambitions of Assyria and then the Neo-Babylonian Empire, this dynastic tribe paved the way for the great king who would create a global superpower: Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was the son of Cambyses I of Anshan and Mandane of Media. Cyrus would eventually seize the territories and tribes of the Medes through war and political infighting in which he emerged as the victor and uniter of the two most important Persian tribal groups. Then Cyrus set his eyes west, attacking the Greek city-states along the Ionian Coast and storming the city of Babylon which created the Persian Empire of renown.
It is important, as our author points out, that the idea of Cyrus as a benign king and promoter of “human rights” is hogwash. “[Cyrus] was…an ambitious warlord and ruthless imperialist. His empire was founded on bloodshed.” Furthermore, if the Greeks are guilty of portraying Near Eastern civilization as chaotic and decadent, so too is Cyrus toward his enemies—for the Cyrus Cylinder which legitimized the Persian king as ruler of Babylon was founded on the lie that Babylon was a decadent and chaotic place toiling under bondage from acts of impiety from its previous rulers wherein the god Marduk chose Cyrus to restore order by bringing him into the city. Everyone tries to legitimize themselves as the bringer of order against a state of chaos, disorder, and decadence. This is not a Greek invention.
Cyrus the Great, though, is great and should be remembered as great. For it was under his rule that Persia emerged as the world’s first truly “global” superpower. Its power stretched over Asia, Europe, and Africa. It inherited and perfected an elaborate system of bureaucracy and state centralism from previous Mesopotamian kingdoms and empires. Under Cyrus, the state ritualism of politics, religion, and propaganda fused together in a dazzling display of wealth, power, and grandeur that would make the backwater town of Rome and the emerging commercial city-state of Athens blush in embarrassment of their insignificance.
The death of Cyrus wasn’t the end of Persia. It was just the beginning. After civil war, infighting, and palace intrigue Darius the Great ascended to the throne. In the true age of the “Great Kings,” which coincides with the Persian Wars against the Greek city-states, Persia perfected its empire. The bureaucratic structures inherited by Cyrus’s conquest were reformed. A system of roads and highways connected the far-flung reaches of the empire in a manner more efficient than the highways of Rome. Communication was the forte of the Persians and it linked the vast empire together in a well-oiled machine. Persia’s infrastructure was something to marvel at.
In describing the internal workings of the Persian Empire, however, Llewellyn-Jones runs into the problems of trying to sugarcoat the cruel and despotic which was part of that machinery. He asserts that Persia was a relatively tolerant and open empire, despite having just given us the history of its bloody conquest of other peoples. The careful reader will be left wondering how, after chapters of war, conquest, and imperialism our author can shift focus and claim toleration and enlightenment. Llewellyn-Jones only passingly mentions that under Darius “autocracy” was his goal after glowingly writing about the Persian administrative, bureaucratic, and communication system—impressive though they were these institutional apparatuses served an imperial autocracy. Likewise, the Persian spy network meant to snuff out dissent is only mentioned in passing and not critiqued as if no big deal. In detailing the magnificence and power of Persia, our author goes to great lengths to ignore or minimize its obvious atrocities, limitations on any notion of freedom, and always seems to gushingly side with Persia’s own propaganda of itself as a noble, enlightened, tolerant power.
In Llewellyn-Jones’s history we learn a lot about the Persian Empire and its civilization, how it was constructed, operated, and rivaled and surpassed the other great civilizations of antiquity. In accomplishing this, our author accomplished his noble task in restoring Persia to the heart of understanding the ancient world. However, Llewellyn-Jones also tries to downplay, as much as possible, any negative depiction of Persia by simply writing it off as Greek propaganda or that we need nuance in understanding ritual and religious significance of various practices. When negativity cannot be avoided it is merely mentioned in passing and with minimal commentary: Sure it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as others. This is a blight on an otherwise important book, especially now considering the renewed Iranian protests against the Islamist regime of the mullahs which also seeks to (re)claim some of that pre-Islamic Persian influence and heritage that had preserved under the shahs until the Iranian Revolution.
It is important that Persia be restored to its place as one of the great civilizations of the classical era. In many ways, as Llewellyn-Jones highlights in this book, the Persian Empire and its culture and civilization was every bit the rival of ancient Greece and Rome which too often steal the limelight when dreaming of antiquity. Persia did, in fact, outshine Greece and Rome in certain ways. Yet our author obscures some important facts about his imagined enlightened multicultural empire. Though somewhat tolerant, comparatively speaking (especially compared to the Assyrian Empire), the Persian Empire’s multicultural polity was the product of imperialism, conquest, rape, and plunder. This cannot be glossed over; if one is to harshly critique other polities built on imperialism, conquest, rape, and plunder then that should extend to non-Western civilizations as well.
Ancient Persia deserves its recognition as a great civilization; it should be taught alongside ancient Greece and Rome as it was in my undergraduate courses in ancient and Islamic history. But we shouldn’t pretend that it was an enlightened multicultural polity that we should emulate or have a lot to learn from. A healthy love for Persia also entails sufficient criticism and deconstruction of its brutality and shortcomings. Unfortunately, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’s enthusiasm for an ideological history of alienist adoration of Persia fails to convey that despite his otherwise easy-going and readable chronology of Persia’s rise and fall which serves to remind readers of just how impressive and important this ancient civilization really was.
*This review was first published at VoegelinView, 30 October 2022.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of Finding Arcadia, The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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