In a curious passage of his Histories, the Greek writer Herodotus describes an otherwise unknown (and possibly mythical) water-hoarding system used by the Persians, the imperial power of his day. A high plain in Asia, Herodotus says, contains a huge reservoir of fresh water, which in former times flowed out through five clefts in surrounding hills to five neighboring tribes. But when the Persians got control of this plain, they dammed up the clefts and prevented the water from flowing. In summer, as their lands became parched, the tribes would send envoys to wail in distress at the Persian king’s palace doors; the king would then order one dam to be opened to benefit those who wailed loudest, and then the others in turn. Herodotus closes this picture of grim subjugation on a mercantile note: “The king gets huge sums of money for opening the sluices, above and beyond tribute payments.”
With this disquieting passage—more disquieting amid recent events in Ukraine, where thirst was again used as a tool of oppression—Herodotus ponders the nature of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the highly organized monarchic state that dominated Western and Central Asia for over two hundred years, beginning in the mid-sixth century BCE. With their technological skills and advanced construction techniques, the Persians achieved astonishing feats of engineering, but was their goal nothing higher than extortion? Did the immense stature of their ruler, dubbed “the Great King” or simply “the King” by the Greeks, rest, in the end, on the power to brutalize? A modern reader of this passage, and others like it throughout the Histories, confronts the further question of whether Herodotus can be trusted to give us a fair account. Could a Greek writer of the mid-fifth century BCE, conscious of the destruction wrought only decades before by an enormous Persian invasion of Greece, ever look at the great Asian empire through unprejudiced eyes?
Historians and curators of the ancient past have increasingly sought to escape the biases of classical authors when dealing with non-Greco-Roman cultures, while also, with the great Eastern empires, avoiding the exoticizing tendencies of nineteenth-century Orientalism. These goals are especially hard to achieve in the case of the Persians. Not only Herodotus but also Xenophon and Plutarch, as well as the author of the Hebrew Book of Esther, characterized the Persian court at its height as a place of fabulous riches and lurid sexual intrigue. The defeats of the Persian invasions of Greece, at Marathon in 490 BCE and at Salamis and Plataea in 480 and 479—the latter approaching its 2,500th anniversary this summer—have suggested to some observers, both ancient and modern, that Eastern monarchic systems were inherently flawed or that their “barbarian” subjects were enervated.
Finally, the astonishing fall of the Achaemenid Empire—conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, after it lost pitched battles in which it held a substantial advantage of numbers—was until recently often taken to mean that high living and internal rot had led to decline, a lesson for moralists in the corrupting effects of wealth. “Soft lands make soft men,” wrote Herodotus in the final sentence of his Histories, purportedly quoting a dictum of Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire’s founder, who urged his countrymen to stay in their rugged mountain homeland to preserve their power.
That homeland was a portion of southwestern Iran dominated by the Zagros mountain range and centered around the cities of Anshan and Susa. Cyrus’s ancestors, who included a legendary figure called Achaemenes (the Greek version of his Iranian name), seized power in Anshan around the eighth or seventh century BCE. Their ascent, and that of their kinsmen and neighbors the Medes, brought them into conflict with the superpower to the west, the Assyrian Empire, led in this era by hugely powerful figures like Ashurbanipal and Tiglath-Pileser III.
Struggles with Assyria taught the Persians and Medes the strength of their pastoralist culture, with its emphasis on horsemanship and archery, when ranged against farmers from Mesopotamian lands; together with their Babylonian allies, these hardy nomads defeated the Assyrians at the Battle of Nineveh in 612 BCE, an event that shook the ancient Near East to its core. Thereafter the Medes and Persians began to model their nascent states on that of the defeated Assyrians, especially with regard to the stature and centrality of the monarch. Ashurbanipal had called himself “king of the universe”; Cyrus, a century later, took the title “king of the world,” and the palace complexes his successors built at Persepolis, Susa, and Pasargadae owed much to Assyrian models at Nineveh and Nimrud.
Thanks to the ingenious conjunction of its two current exhibitions, “Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq” and “Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World,” visitors to the Getty Villa can explore the links between these two monarchic states and also see how the second, that of the Achaemenids, passed on its imperial mission to two subsequent Iranian dynasties, those of the Parthians and the Sassanians.
The first of these exhibitions features some of the finest stone reliefs excavated from the ruins of Nimrud and Nineveh in the mid-nineteenth century. The great kings of Assyria used these narrative panels to demonstrate their power to all who entered their palaces, especially their power to brutalize enemies. A scene from one of Tiglath-Pileser’s sieges, executed in astonishing detail, shows the king taking an enemy town, preceded by a tank-like siege engine; his soldiers are shown beheading the vanquished and suspending their corpses from stakes. In another panel, from Nineveh, Ashurbanipal is seen calmly enjoying a drink with his queen, surrounded by musicians and servers, while the severed head of his foe, King Teuman of Elam, hangs grimly from a nearby tree, a rope or ring through its mouth. (The Elamites seem to have taken revenge for this atrocity after the fall of Nineveh: the face of Ashurbanipal and the wine cup he holds have been obliterated by well-aimed blows.)
In another panel, Ashurbanipal corners and destroys roaring lions, then pours a libation onto four of their prostrate bodies. The hunting of dangerous beasts, lions above all, served the Assyrian kings, and later those of Persia, as a display of power and dominion; large game parks were established in capital cities to allow them to demonstrate their prowess. (The Iranian name for these lush, walled spaces comes into English, by way of Greek and Hebrew versions, as the word paradise.) The relief at the Getty gives a good sense of how the royal hunt was choreographed: attendants are seen releasing one lion from a cage and driving others toward Ashurbanipal to give him an opening for a solo kill. To judge by their thick necks and beardless faces, most of the attendants are eunuchs. Similar beardless retinues accompany the king in nearly every relief panel, shading him with parasols, keeping off flies with whisks, playing musical instruments, or serving him food and drink; their ministrations attest to his hypermasculine, superhuman stature.
The fall of the Assyrian palaces in 612 BCE made room for new powers in the Near East. The Medes briefly dominated the region but never created an overarching imperial structure; that task was left to Cyrus the Persian, who began his remarkable series of conquests around 550. After first overthrowing the Medes, his kinsmen and overlords, Cyrus marched west, subduing the Anatolian peninsula (including the Greeks on its coast), then back to Mesopotamia, where he overcame Babylon’s stout defenses in 539 BCE. He allowed the Jews of Babylon, captives there since their deportation from Jerusalem decades earlier, to return to their homes, for which benefaction the psalmist of the Bible’s Second Isaiah hailed him as the Messiah.
At some point during these campaigns, Cyrus began to build, inspired by the great structures he had seen in the cities he had subjugated. Monumental constructions in stone were not part of Persian tradition, but with the help of imported (and possibly enslaved) masons and engineers, Cyrus created a vast palace complex at Pasargadae, in what is now central Iran, and also perhaps a huge gateway covered in glazed bricks, surrounded by formal gardens; the remains of the latter were found only in 2015, at a site near the modern Iranian village of Firuzi. The gate’s iconographic program—fabulous animals set in a blue background—seems to have been based on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, through which Cyrus had marched in triumph to be crowned king of the world.
Cyrus’s three successors each expanded the empire and centralized its administration far beyond what the Assyrians had achieved. Cambyses, Cyrus’s son, added wealthy Egypt, then Darius and Xerxes, apparently members of a collateral branch of the royal family (their lineage is unclear), annexed parts of Eastern Europe, though not mainland Greece, which resisted invasions by both. By the early fifth century Persia’s realm spanned all three known continents and even reached eastward to what is now Pakistan.
These regions were connected by state-serviced roads, including the Royal Road, a superhighway linking the Persian heartland with Sardis, near the Aegean coast; stage houses along the way kept food and fresh horses for royal messengers—a rapid communication network that astonished Herodotus. (His admiring description furnished the sentence that adorns the old Post Office building, now the Moynihan Train Hall, on New York’s Eighth Avenue.) Provincial governors sent out from the center, called satraps by the Greeks (their version of an Iranian word), collected tribute and kept the king’s peace, or sometimes disturbed it themselves by rebelling. Fabulous sums flowed each year into the Persian palaces, not only those built by Cyrus in Pasargadae but others added by Darius and Xerxes in Susa and Persepolis. Ashurbanipal had styled himself king of the universe, but the Persians could actually aspire to universal dominion, at least until defeats in Greece stopped their westward expansion.
The remains of these palace complexes figure prominently in the Getty’s “Persia” exhibition, beginning with a panoramic digital reconstruction of the Persepolis site, projected onto a circular wall. The palaces, treasury, and reception hall there were designed, like their Assyrian models, to demonstrate royal power, but the iconography was focused more on unity and collaboration than brutalization of foes. Foreign peoples were shown at Persepolis not as bound prisoners of war but as voluntary bringers of tribute, each nation carefully distinguished by its envoys’ clothing, facial features, and headgear, and by the offerings they present.
Also represented were servants and attendants, no longer the eunuchs favored by the Assyrians but men in elegant cloaks and headgear, one of them bearded. The Getty show contains fragments of two such figures, bearing covered bowls no doubt containing delicacies for the king’s table. The Persian palace complexes also featured reliefs showing rows of elite guardsmen—archers in infantry gear, standing at attention as though awaiting orders. Two examples are displayed at the Getty Villa, one a fragment from Persepolis carved in dark, lustrous limestone (once painted), the other, fully intact, from the glazed-brick exterior of Darius’s palace at Susa. In contrast to the violent, kinetic scenes favored by the Assyrians, these serene warriors convey a sense of confident strength and consummate discipline.
The great age of Persian palace construction, the early fifth century BCE, was also an era of raging conflict between Persians and Greeks. The Getty presents both sides of that conflict, displaying Greek artworks portraying the Persians alongside their opposite numbers. For the most part Greek artists depicted the Persians as worthy, if inferior, opponents, but one red-figure vase stands out as an exception: it shows a Persian archer with a comically frightened expression, dressed in a kind of leotard, his body bent at the waist in an awkward position; on the other side of the vase, running as if to pursue him, a lightly clad Greek holds his erect penis in one hand. An inscription above the Persian figure declares, in Greek, “I am Eurymedon; I stand bent over.” The name seems to refer to the site of a battle in which a Greek force defeated the Persians, on their own territory, in the 460s BCE, in which case the image would represent that incursion into Asia as a sexual violation. As if in retribution, a Persian seal stone in the same gallery—a delicately carved emblem with which a high-ranking Persian would “sign” clay documents—shows a Greek warrior, wearing only a helmet and with genitals on full display, getting speared through the groin by a Persian king. The monarch stands proud and tall, in elegant robes and intricate crown, while the warrior crumples beneath him, his nudity anything but heroic.
In a campaign he advertised as payback for the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, Alexander the Great led his Macedonian army into the Persian heartland and in 330 destroyed the Persepolis palace complex in an enormous conflagration. The last Achaemenid king, Darius III, died shortly thereafter, assassinated by his own senior officers. Alexander, however, preserved much of the Persian imperial structure and kept many Persians in office as he took charge of the realm. Iranian power in the Near East was only paused, not extinguished. Revitalized by migrations, the Persians reconstituted their imperial state under new dynasties, the Arsacids (also known as the Parthians) and the Sassanians, and they continued to dominate much of Western Asia for nearly nine centuries, until the rise of Islam. The faces of many of their kings can be seen on coins at the Getty, most sporting tight-curled beards and shaggy hair, marks of their rejection of prevailing Greco-Roman culture, which favored smooth cheeks and neat locks.
Though the Greeks suffered badly as a result of Xerxes’ invasion, they did not demonize Persia as a civilizational enemy; indeed, in later decades they often sought grants of funds or diplomatic support from the Persian kings as they waged war on one another. Artaxerxes II, the monarch who reigned for most of the first half of the fourth century BCE, became so enmeshed in Greek affairs that a treaty he sponsored, known as the King’s Peace, was adopted by all the mainland Greek states in 386 BCE—their first attempt at a Panhellenic security arrangement. That cunning monarch (or perhaps his earlier namesake) is represented in the Getty “Persia” exhibition by a remarkably well preserved Persian short sword, called an akinakes, in an elaborate golden sheath. An inscription on the back of the sheath reads “Artaxerxes, king” in the empire’s three principal languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Probably this was not an ownership tag but a mark that the owner had received this fine weapon as a gift from the monarch himself.
As the Greeks grew more accustomed to entente with Persia, they also grew more enamored of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty and, to some Greeks, the embodiment of its early strengths and virtues. Xenophon of Athens wrote an idealized biography of Cyrus, the Cyropaedia, and Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician who served at the court of Artaxerxes, also gave an admiring account. The prevalence of this Greek-generated Cyrus legend complicates the task of modern historians, especially since the Greek sources do not often agree with one another, and we have no Persian narrative writings with which to compare them.
We do, however, possess a wealth of administrative texts inscribed on clay in cuneiform script, including the famous Cyrus Cylinder, a proclamation seemingly dictated by Cyrus himself and placed in the foundation of a Babylon temple. Matt Waters, an ancient historian at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, is one of those rare scholars capable both of reading the Cyrus Cylinder in its original Standard Babylonian—he includes a new translation as an appendix to his book King of the World—and also of writing about it, and its putative author, in an engaging, approachable way. His study takes us deep inside the career and achievements of Cyrus, while sensibly declining to reconstruct the king’s inner life. “The ‘real Cyrus,’” Waters acknowledges, “is unattainable based on our current sources.”
Cyrus developed his ideology of rule from that of the Assyrians, Waters maintains, especially from the towering figure of Ashurbanipal (who is mentioned by name in the closing lines of the Cyrus Cylinder, though a break in the text makes the context unclear). “It is not a coincidence that the Assyrian legacy loomed large in Cyrus’ endeavors,” Waters writes. “In both systems, the main component…was the centrality of the king in a universal empire.” As a representative of the gods, the monarch, in such a system, was seen as the bringer of order to the cosmos, “the sun around whom all else revolved.”
The Pasargadae palace complex, begun by Cyrus but finished under Darius, made this cosmic order concrete, and also, like the later Persepolis reliefs, promoted an ideal of the unity of the empire’s disparate nations. Waters pays close attention to a unique relief of a winged human figure found at Pasargadae, seeing in it “a microcosm of the imperial plan” that he thinks may go back to Cyrus:
Integrating an Assyrian-style posture and wings, an Elamite robe and hairstyle, and an Egyptian crown, the winged figure is a hybrid, an internationalizing construct….
If the figure was intended as a symbolic amalgam of a young empire, the fact that similar representations are not widely known is striking…. Was the figure representative of something unique to Cyrus or to his capital, Pasargadae?
Waters suggests that the winged figure may represent Cyrus himself, as perhaps indicated by an inscription seen in nineteenth-century drawings of the relief (later obliterated).
A cynic might regard such iconography as mere propaganda, but Waters is inclined to credit Cyrus with benevolent goals, promotion of religious freedom, and respect for the traditions of subject peoples. “Cyrus was clearly more than a great conqueror, he had a long-range vision” of an empire forged out of diverse regions, he writes. Where other Persian kings were routinely depicted, by our Greek and Judaic sources, as despots or sexual predators, Waters finds it noteworthy that Cyrus alone escaped such calumnies. Though he struggles to find hard evidence and sometimes concedes he must rely on extrapolations from later eras, his portrait of Cyrus is attractive and his research authoritative.
By contrast, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, a specialist on ancient Iran who teaches at Cardiff University, sees all the rosy ideals attributed to Cyrus as so much mythologizing. “The benign view of Cyrus as a poster-boy for free-thinking pacifism does harm to the historical figure who fought his way, knee-deep in gore, throughout the Middle East, slashing and stabbing a path to world domination,” he writes. The Cyrus Cylinder, in his view, is “a masterpiece of propaganda…where the conquest and subjugation of Babylon is written up as the city’s liberation.” This is one of many places in Persians: The Age of the Great Kings where Llewellyn-Jones, a colorful and strong-minded writer, pits himself against received opinion, whether it be pro- or anti-Achaemenid. He defines his book as an effort to get past ideas about Persia inherited from the Greeks and the Jews and thereby to present “the Persian Version of Iran’s ancient past,” a version now recoverable thanks to recent discoveries and fresh translations of cuneiform texts.
But even while treating non-Persian sources as biased straw men, Llewellyn-Jones nevertheless enjoys retelling their tales, sometimes in more detail than the originals, and only occasionally with caveats as to their credibility. From Herodotus, for example, whom he elsewhere accuses of indulging in “grisly…fantasy” writing, he borrows a very grisly fantasy indeed: the tale of the wife of Masistes, who, in an act of revenge for King Xerxes’ adulterous passion, ended up having her nose, ears, lips, tongue, and breasts amputated. Most modern historians discredit this tale as a product of Greek fascination with Persian court cruelties and harem intrigues, but Llewellyn-Jones presents it as sober historical fact.
In a similar vein, Llewellyn-Jones recounts several stories about Parysatis, the mother of Artaxerxes II, who, according to Ctesias and Plutarch, did away with numerous rivals and foes in spectacularly gruesome fashion. He admits that the theme of these stories—the savagery of an aging queen mother—looks “like a plot from a fairy tale,” but claims, naively, that the detail with which the Greek sources recount them supports their veracity. Since he supplies no footnotes that discuss the reliability of those sources or note diverging opinions, he leaves the reader with the mistaken impression that such matters are settled.
It’s unfortunate that an author who possesses so much expertise has taken such an irresponsible, sensational approach. Llewellyn-Jones knows an enormous amount about the Achaemenid era, as he demonstrates in an engaging middle segment of his book that surveys Persian social structure, customs, and daily life. In the narrative segments that precede and follow, however, he falls prey to the very exoticizing impulses he claims to resent, foregrounding the erotic and lurid wherever he comes upon it in non-Persian sources. He is right to say that the “Persian Version” of Achaemenid history is something modern readers very much want and deserve, but only occasionally in Persians does he supply it.