Decolonizing Persian History – Review of British Museum's "Forgotten Empire, the World of Ancient Persia"

The Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia exhibition at the British Museum and the subsequent publication of the volume with the same name is a welcome addition to the study of Achaemenid civilization. With this work J. Curtis and N. Tallis have made an effort to bring balance to the realities of the ancient world, demonstrating the immense importance of one of the greatest empires in antiquity. The exhibition was followed by a conference which brought to light the various aspects of Achaemenid religion, politics, and the arts. The conference papers represented some of the best known scholars in the field of ancient Persian studies, such as the most important historian of that period, P. Briant, and M.W. Stolper who is the expert on the Elamite language. It was heartwarming that two Iranians have contributed to the volume on religion and burial customs (Sh. Razmjou), and the legacy of ancient Persia (V. Sarkhosh Curtis, whom I imagine is one of the main reasons why the British Museum has paid so much attention to Ancient Persia in the past decade or so).

Ancient Persia and its history are rarely discussed on its own terms and importance and when done, it is usually as only an appendix or a footnote to Greek history.  This is true of the textbooks in grade schools to the universities in the United States, and I suspect in most other countries. The reason for their marginal role in history books is that most of the sources that have remained provide a skewed vision of the ancient world. Unfortunately for the Persians, most of the evidence for their history comes from Greek sources which tend to be hostile, setting the Greek way of life against that of the “Oriental,” or “Barbarian.” It is noteworthy to mention that this paradigm was basically revitalized in the West in the modern period and shows its ugliness in such works as S. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” While this bi-polar view of the world may have exited in antiquity (among Greeks), its continued existence today is certainly uncalled for and indeed a tragedy.

A piece that came out from the British newspaper, The Guardian by Jonathan Jones summed up the typical Western view of the “Orientals,” in this case the Persians and their empire’s art. How should we react to such an article? For some it has been outrage and dismay that even as there is an effort by the West (thanks to the curators of the British Museum) to understand the world of Ancient Persia, someone again gives voice to the antiquated and formulaic Eurocentric verbiage on the Persians. I, too, was dismayed, but withheld my commentary, although asked by friends to write something. As a historian who deals with Mediterranean world as well as the Persian world, it was not entirely out of the ordinary to see this warped view of the past.

The reason for the lateness of my response is that, even among those who deal with the Persian empire, this colonial, bi-polar and Eurocentric view continues to exist. Consequently, I was not surprised at what was happening. As late as 1983 in J.M. Cook’s The Persian Empire, one saw an “Orientalist” in action when he writes in conclusion:

“Clearly they [i.e., Persians] were not a people that we should call intellectual. They do not themselves seem to have had an inclination towards literature, medicine, or philosophical and scientific speculation.”

He goes on to say that “The Greeks judged the Persians by comparison with themselves; and historians in modern times have tended to follow them…” This antiquated and Orientalist view of the Persians is even more sad because it was expressed by the individual who had written the most up-to-date history of the Achaemenid Empire in the past century and who was commissioned by the Cambridge History of Iran to write the chapter on the political history of that empire. I do not blame the ancient Greeks for this view because Persia was hostile toward them, and the Greeks saw the entire East set against themselves. Even so, some Greek authors had the fortitude and interest to explore Persia in an unbiased way, according to ancient standards. But, what about our modern historians of the ancient world? What about J. Jones who blindly mimics what has been said by some of the ancient Greeks, couched in the guise of modern world divisions? One sees in the title of Jones’ article, “the evil empire,” and in Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” echoes from the reservoir of sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious Orientalism.

Another scholar, the late H. Sancis-Weerdenburg, who recognized this bias among modern historians stated: “It is not so much the facts that distort historical reality as the outlines into which they are fitted,” and of course here the outline is that the Persians are wholly different from the Europeans and remain so because they have remained unchanged for the past 2,500 years. This view very much resembles a colonial and imperialistic view of the East, and although we live in allegedly post-colonial world (although some see recent military actions as the continuation of colonial policies) or post-imperial world (although some see recent military actions and the idea of the New World Order as continuation of imperialistic aims), still this line of thought continues to exist and continues to be propagated from academia to the media. Thus, what is needed is a decolonized approach to the history of Ancient Persia.

One can easily find a different perspective on the Greeks and the Persians. I do not wish to give a long list, but a few examples suffice to suggest that the Greek history is also reworked and mythologized to fit Eurocentric ideals. While Mr. Jones in his article portrays “free Greece” as the bastion of democracy and contrasts it against the “slave nation” of Persia, it is worth mentioning that democracy (literally, rule by the people, Greek demos) was but a brief experiment in Greek history. Some estimates suggest that when Greek democracy was at its height in 431 BC, less than 14% of the members of this society were allowed to participate in this “government by the people.”  Not only was the vast majority of the population excluded from policy making, but nearly 37% lived in actual slavery. This is the Greek elitist “democracy” onto which the modern West mistakenly projects its own version of democracy.

In the context of the Greco-Persian wars we usually get the bizarre view of the “free” Greeks fighting the “slave nation” of Persia, while in fact things are quite the opposite. A recent study has demonstrated that slaves played an important part in the very same Greek armies which the West perceives as made up of free “citizen-soldiers,” while the Persians
employed paid mercenaries. Autocractic or hegemonic rule is not a uniquely “Oriental” characteristic as some in the modern West like to believe. The battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) has been recorded  as the last stand of 300 Spartans who died to the very last man to protect free Greece, and is a myth held up by the modern West as a symbol of resistance to the East. It is quite probable that in this battle each Spartan had seven slaves (Greek h?lots who also fought to the death) with him in battle, bringing the total to 2400, plus another 2,000 non-Spartan Greeks (Thespians and Lacedaemonians) who also died in this battle. It should also be noted that when Athens became the absolute power (Greek hegemon) in parts of Greece, it behaved in a quite un-democratic fashion: the city-states that resisted were punished by having their wealth confiscated or their populations enslaved.

The phobia of Eurocentrists is best captured in the subtitle of a recent book on naval battle in antiquity. Barry Strauss’ The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – and Western Civilization is a good book, where the author himself negates the very same idea that is presented in the subtitle. I wonder how much the publisher was involved in the creation of this title to sell the book to an audience in bookstores across America.

On the other hand ancient authors such as Herodotus, whom I believe to be an exceptional man who has been misunderstood in the East, especially in Iran, provides us with some very interesting anecdotes about Persian intellectual and philosophical outlook. For example the earliest Western political theory is expressed in a debate at the Persian court on the best forms of governance (Herodotus Book III.80-2).  Three Persians discuss their favorite forms: democracy, oligarchy and monarchy, citing their virtues and vices. Otanes proposes democracy as the best form of governance for Persia, while Megabyzus suggests oligarchy and criticizes democracy, while Darius chooses monarchy and criticizes oligarchy. But the monarchy that Darius proposes is a constitutionalmonarchy! This and other positive characteristic attributed to the Persians by Herodotus was the cause of his later fall from grace among the Roman intellectuals who saw nothing positive about the Orient. Consequently Herodotus was called philobarbaros (Barbarian-lover) and was demoted from “Father of History” to “Father of Lies” by the Romans, and the modern Iranians blindly mimic this formula without ever really understanding Herodotus.

When it comes to philosophy, Persian influence seems to be looming over the pre-Socratic philosophers. The second half of the sixth century BC was the time of Persian dominance and the time of the eminence of pre-Socratic philosophers in Anatolia. In his important and controversial book M.L. West attempted to demonstrate the amount of knowledge owed to Persians and Zoroastrianism by the pre-Socratic philosophers. The identification of Time with a primeval god in Phyerecydes, the identification of fire with Justice (Greek dik?) in Heraclitus, Anaximander’s astronomical ideas, and Hippocratic view of the human body likening it to the world, all suggest Persian influence. The Persians hired explorers such as Scylax of Carydanda who traveled the Indus River and the sea route to the Suez which was later opened by Darius. It should also be noted that Greeks craftsmen and architects who traveled to the East brought the idea of the Persian garden (Greek paradeisos) to the Mediterranean.

My purpose here is not to give a laundry list of Persian influence or to glorify Persia. Rather it is to state that one can find many things in the ancient sources and what is found depends greatly on what the researcher is looking for and on their political and ethical views. This is an academic affair and practioners must be trained in the field of history in order to carry it out. I am bewildered when Iranians ask me why one should study history. Writing books on the “glory of Persia” in Persian does nothing to further the interests of Persia or to bring Persian culture to the attention of the West, since Western readers rarely know Persian. And those books written in Persian, with the few exceptions, are written by novice historians who know neither the languages needed, nor the techniques of textual criticism needed to evaluate the sources used, nor do they understand the appropriate historical context and philosophical outlook. Thus, anything Greek automatically becomes “bad” and Old Persian inscriptions automatically become “good” sources, while in reality both sources are important and useful as long as one knows how to use them to provide a clear vision of the past.

What world needs is a critical history of antiquity, where the interrelations and interactions of the people and their cultural contributions are made manifest.  What is not needed is a glorification of either side at the expense of the other. If the West prides itself on the ideals of equality, justice, and scholarly study of the history of humanity at large, then it needs to let go of biases about the past. This may be a hard task to perform, but the recent exhibition and publication from the British Museum are important steps in the right direction.

December 6, 2005