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Book Reviews: Ancient Persia

Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 A.D., J. Wiesehöfer (English trans. A. Azodi), I.B. Tauris, 1996; reprint 2001 (332 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Wieshöfer's (a German) book consists of three parts: Achaemenid Persia, Parthian Persia and Sasanid Persia. If you are interested in Alexander, only the first 144 pages are relevant. But Wiesehöfer proves that he is a master of his subject and even the concise information about Achaemenid Persia found here is very readable, fascinating and full of food for thought. Wiesehöfer for once and for all does away with the concept that Persia was a weak state when Alexander entered it in 334 B.C.: the great majority of the élite of subject peoples saw the Persian king as the guarantor of stability, order and prosperity. Real dangers did not threaten the empire until the Macedonian invasion. Whether you want to read about the position of Persian women ("active, enterprising and resolute" - even "both attractive and dangerous"), the religious status of Persian kings or common life in Achaemenid times - Wiesehöfer's study is academic, entertaining and accurate. When your interest in ancient Persia is stretching even beyond Alexander's time, this book is a wonderful buy. If you care only about the Achaemenids dealing with Alexander, paying the full book price to read only the first hundred pages or so is still something you should really consider.

From Cyrus to Alexander, P. Briant, 1996. English translation: 2002 (1024 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Though I have to admit I did not yet finish all 1000+ pages of Briant's history of the Persian Empire - I am already convinced this is the book to buy if you really want to possess an in-dept study of Achaemenid Persia. Forget about Olmstead. Wiesehöfer is much shorter and therefore more appropriate to the casual reader. If you want to go all the way, no one surpasses Briant.

The Persian Empire, J.M. Cook, New York, 1983 (275 pages; 24 pages of photographs).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
The inner sleeve of Cook's The Persian Empire reads: "In meeting the long-standing need for a new and authoritative history of the Persian Empire..." Now, two decades later, we may conclude that Cook did somehow fail to achieve his goal. His book seems to have more or less slipped into oblivion. It has never been reprinted. Far more studies quote Olmstead (1948) than Cook. Your only chance to buy this one is on the second hand market - it appears you will have a reasonably fair chance to get hold of a copy. Why did this study not become one of the best known modern overviews of Achaemenid Persia? One can only guess what happened. Cook wrote The Persian Empire after his retirement - in 1976 - as a professor of Ancient History and Archaeology at Bristol. It might be that his academic star was fading. But, in all aspects, this is a far more enjoyable, readable book than Olmstead's study. And I am convinced it does more justice to the complex, alien and intriguing society that ancient Persia actually had been - before Alexander came rushing in. The book roughly consists of four parts: an overview of the sources (literature, excavations) that we possess about ancient Persia - a narrative of the rise of the empire - an overview of Achaemenid administration, art, religion, kingship - a narrative of the fall of the empire. What Cook maybe lacks is an elaborate system of sources and references. He attests that Philip II had forged an alliance with Artaxerxes III Ochus, but fails to mention that Arrian is the only ancient author who mentions this pact. So Cook's comparison of this alleged agreement to the Hitler-Stalin pact prior to World War II may be over the edge. We might accuse Cook of occasionally drawing to many conclusions from to little facts. But this hardly denies the overall quality of the work. My personal copy of Cook's book is now full of pencil marks. On almost every page Cook has written something that struck me as remarkable, memorable, informative. Maybe its weakness is that the book seems to be aimed at two groups at the same time: to scholars it might prove not scholarly enough; to the general public it might appear to academic. It is not popular history. It is not a purely academic study. Maybe this accounts for the limited exposure that The Persian Empire has had. For anyone interested in Alexander, Cook's work is one of the finest studies on ancient Persia that one could get hold of. He at least discusses the reign of Darius III in some detail. I would much prefer Cook's personal insights and - sometimes - hastily drawn conclusions above any other study treating the Achaemenid Empire as if bisecting a dead animal.

History of the Persian Empire, A.T. Olmstead, University of Chicago Press, 1948 and 1959 (568 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
This book about ancient Persia has survived half a century - still being reprinted, sold, read and being readily available. To me, however, Olmstead was a bitter dissapointment. I will gladly admit that Olmstead's book is a great feat of scholarship. The problem of the book is its focus: it looks upon ancient Persia still very much through the eyes of the chauvinistic Greeks. Olmstead dedicates two full chapters to the science of the Achaemenid era, but then only discusses Greek scientists: Democritus of Abdera, Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates and Athenian astronomers. He talks about Philip's and Alexander's aggression against Persia as "the crusade". The Hellenic influences on Persia he addresses as "fresh breezes from the west". The big problem with studies about Achaemenid Persia is that we possess rich materials from Herodotus, focusing on the mighty early kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes. It is this bias that is annoying about Olmstead's work: events up to Xerxes' defeat at Salamis comprise roughly the first 280 pages - more than half of the book. On the Persian calendar this barely covers the first century of the empire: 559 to 465 BC. From that point on Olmstead's attention shifts almost exclusively to developments in the Greek world: the wars between Sparta and Athens are discussed in detail. Olmstead's treatment of later Achaemenid history, after Xerxes, remains quite sketchy to say the least. His book should have been entitled "History of the Persian Era" - not "Empire". So one downside of Olmstead's book is that it confirms - probably not intentional - popular misunderstandings about ancient Persia as an empire that soon became weak and lost its vitality as well as its leading role in the early Antique world. Modern studies have inspired new debates about these questionable viewpoints. Another downside is that Olmstead apparently did not 'love' Persia that much that he could free himself from anti-Persian Greek propaganda. It seems he is siding with the Greeks, not with the Persians. Although Olmstead was a child of his times and his work was of outstanding quality in 1948, modern insights may have made Olmstead's overall approach obsolete. Perhaps it is that eurocentric approach that accounts for Olmstead's popularity? To many readers in America and Western Europe it might be rather comfortable to find this undertone that presents Greece as the society that inspired progress and development, not Persia. Anyone that wants to broaden his or her perspective on Alexander's time by reading books about ancient Persia would be advised to start with reading Wiesehöfer's, Briant's or Cook's studies. Olmstead should be the last one on your list.