Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
Persians: The Age of the Great Kings
Wildfire, UK, 2022
ISBN-13: 978-1472277299

Persians

 

"The book is filled with fascinating detail, particularly of the interwarring that went on among the Achaemenids, painting a portrait of a dysfunctional family in which, as with other great dynasties, the lust for power and the right to rule resulted in countless deaths and upheaval for the masses."

The Persians, it seems, have had a bad rap - at best driven by ignorance and at worst driven by a deliberate effort of the ancient Greeks to discredit them. Historian Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones aims to correct that misapprehension with this comprehensive history of the Persian Empire spanning the period from about 600 BC to about 330BC.

From the reign of Cyrus the Great, Llewellyn-Jones, who is professor of ancient history at Cardiff University and director of the Ancient Iran Program for the British Insitute of Persian Studies, charts the history of the Achaemenid "great kings" - including such still familiar names qs Darius and Xerxes - while also spending a third of the book taking a detailed look at life in the empire. He also helpfully spends some time explaining the relationship between the Persians and other ethnic groups, many of which are mentioned in the Old Testament, including the Elamites, Babylonians, Medes, and Assyrians.

While the Greeks have traditionally been a key source of information on the Persians, Llewellyn-Jones goes to considerable lengths to point out the biases in such sources (Herodotus, in particular, receives a serve for his exaggerations and at times blatant untruths although other writers like Ctesias of Cnidus and Xenaphon are praised at times for their accounts). He then looks to Persian sources - in particular information unearthed on stone tablets found in ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Persians - to balance such accounts and provide a more nuanced view of the Persians and their empire.

Llewellyn-Jones also acknowledges the Bible as a useful source of information on the Persians who make appearances in numerous Old Testament books including Ezra, Nehemiah and, most notably, Esther, a book which he notes, among other things, supplies some of the "best information about the practice of concubinage in Achaemenid Iran". Where Llewellyn-Jones does touch on matters contained in these Biblical books, it's - as one might expect - as an historian and not as a theologian - he doubts, for example, that Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their homeland from Babylon "under divine authority", suggesting instead that it was more likely a pragmatic move "to reduce tension in Babylon".

The book is filled with fascinating detail, particularly of the interwarring that went on among the Achaemenids, painting a convincing portrait of a dysfunctional family in which, as with other great dynasties, the lust for power and the right to rule resulted in countless deaths and upheaval for the masses. At the same time, we're also given a window into the lives of the functionaries and bureaucrats who served them, their religion, customs, art and architecture.

A useful read for anyone looking to know more about this often overlooked ancient empire, including those interested in providing some more context to significant parts of the Old Testament.