The Persian Empire fascinates and rightly so. Founded by Cyrus the Great in 559, represented the culmination of 2,000 years of Middle Eastern history. During their two centuries of rule, the Persians united much of the then civilized world, from Egypt to India. Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones argues, in partial justification for his new history, that this era is ignored or misunderstood, a claim that seems at odds with now a rather long list of books on the Empire that may be found on Amazon. As both Llewellyn-Jones, grudgingly, and Matt Waters, more graciously, demonstrate, we know a huge amount about this empire, in part because it coincided with the classical age of Greek literature. In addition, this Empire recorded in clay tablets every loaf of bread and cup of wine provided to its civil and military functionaries. The very richness of the archaeological and literary sources make constructing a coherent story challenging. Llewellyn-Jones makes the history cogent and exciting by stretching his sources about as far as they can go, and provides no footnotes. Waters uses the same sources, amply documented, and in a gingerly fashion, for his painstakingly complete life of Cyrus the great.
Both Llewellyn-Jones’s and Waters’s books emphasize how organically Persia arose out of the different strands of Elamite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Median experiences. The steppe origins of the Persians is tantalizing, but based on our current understanding, cannot be precisely chronicled. Llewellyn-Jones’s habit of referring to Persian chiefs by the Turco-Mongolian title of “khan” is a clue that he may be overplaying the similarities between the steppe nomads of the 13th century AD and the shadowy, Aryan origins of the Persians.
This broad brush approach is characteristic of Llewellyn-Jones’s style. He relishes in describing the Game of Thrones that was the ruling dynasty. No rules existed for succession. Polygamy, concubine taking and even incest resulted in the most complicated family trees. To study a dynasty like the Persians, one must focus on who is related to whom, and take these relationships seriously. Llewellyn-Jones does a creditable job at narrating these stories of lust, love and loss.
The problem is we don’t know if any of the underlying sources are believable. The power structures of the court would have been closely guarded secrets, and outsiders like Herodotus could only guess at what was going on in the harem. Llewellyn-Jones also extrapolates from the well-documented customs of the Ottoman harem backwards to the Persians. For example, he says that the concubines who had a male child with the king could never visit his bed again. There is no evidence of this.
Matt Waters’s approach is very different. Tentative, hedging his bets, citing, then evaluating all available sources, he very much wants to synthesize where scholarships has gotten us, always aware that additional discoveries are likely to emerge, for example, from the recent decipherment of Elamite. As an example of the different approach, Waters cites the Persian telling that the last king of Babylon and lone regional rival of Persia, Nabonidus, had gone mad, but he questions whether we should take the hostile Persians at face value: “Nabonidus surprisingly lengthy absence has been interpreted in a number of ways,” he warns us.
Waters’s caution with the sources is understandable. Occasionally archaeology and written sources corroborate one another, as when Herodotus’s tale of the Lydian King Gyges finds confirmation in an Assyrian cuneiform record of the Luddu King Gugu. Other times, we search in vain for evidence of a city reportedly sacked by Cyrus only to find it was apparently flourishing all the time. Waters does not try to weave a story out of incomplete threads.
Both writers provide close readings of the Greek sources, indispensable for our understanding of this history. Llewellyn-Jones argues, with some justification, that Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 485 BCE might have been far from the crushing defeat portrayed in Greek literature, and that reports of Persian decadence and decline stand at variance with the vigor and expansion of the empire down to its conquest by Alexander the Great.
Waters’s approach, if applied to all twelve Persian monarchs, would make a very long book. His deep dive on Cyrus is a worthy synthesis of our knowledge of this era. Llewellyn-Jones provides a readable narrative of two centuries of Persian rule, which, for all its flights of imagination, provides general readers with a good sense of what this dynasty was really about.