There are historians who have spent their whole lives trying to separate the truth from the fiction in works like Herodotus’.
I actually laughed out loud when I read Pierre Briant’s book, ‘From Cyrus to Alexander’. Briant is one of the great historians of Ancient Persia, and his book is like an encyclopaedia.¹ It is very detailed and very specific. It is 1,200 pages long. It’s an enormous, comprehensive book, and the very first lines in it—as part of the opening page—he quotes Léo Ferré, an artist who says,
“Et même si ce n’est pas vrai. Il faut croire à l’histoire ancienne.”
“And even if it’s not true. You have to believe in ancient history.”
Does anything better set up the dichotomy here?
How wonderful that in a 1,200-page book, that is exhaustive as all get-out, that the very first line from the historian is, “Yes, it might not be true, but you have to believe it anyway.”
It is wonderful, and it sums up the problem with ancient history, and that is that you have the feeling that most of what you are reading here is the truth, and these events did happen, but there is a lot of fiction mixed in, and it is difficult to know what is what, and it’s difficult to separate one from the other. It is also difficult to know where to begin the story.
This is a classic problem anybody had, trying to explain something. How do you begin a story of Cyrus II and the Persians? When does that start?
All history is connected as we know, right? It’s all a bunch of tumbling dominoes. One event, and series of events, lead up to other ones and set it all up.
Where is the logical starting point?
I’m terrible at this, by the way; I talked once about the decline and fall of the Roman Republic for hours and hours and hours because I was trying to find the logical place to start a story about Cleopatra! I didn’t even get practically to Cleopatra…²
It was all dominoes before then.
Herodotus starts with the earliest thing he knows about it, and it’s a miracle he knows about it at all. He begins by talking about the Assyrians. He also talks about having multiple versions of this story. So Herodotus, being Herodotus, he says, “Listen I’ve heard a lot of different things. Here are my sources. The story begins, ‘Boom!’”, and here’s what he writes:³
“From here, our story demands that we inquire further about Cyrus and the Persians: who was this man who destroyed the empire of Croesus, and how did the Persians become the leaders of Asia? I shall write this account using as my sources certain Persians who do not intend to magnify the deeds of Cyrus but rather to tell what really happened, although I know of three other ways in which the story of Cyrus is told.”
Then he begins the story using a phrase that should probably be preceded by a line like “Once upon a time…”
“The Assyrians ruled inland Asia for 520 years, and the Medes were the first to revolt from them. It would seem that they proved themselves to be truly courageous men by fighting the Assyrians for the cause of freedom, and they succeeded in casting off slavery and were liberated. Afterwards, [the] other ethnic groups freed themselves as the Medes had done.”
Well, the Medes need a little explaining, just like at the biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast, when he said that the empire was going to be divided between the Medes and the Persians.
The Medes and the Persians are a related people. The Greeks used the terms interchangeably; they were practically like ‘brothers’ in the eyes of the Greeks.
When I was growing up, they were just starting to change from the ‘brothers’ sort of interpretation into maybe saying, “Uhh… Maybe they were more like ‘first cousins’.” Some of the more recent histories I’ve been reading, you could say would downgrade the relationship even a step further into something like, ‘second cousins who fought sometimes’.
Historians differ on when these related peoples arrived in the area, where they can now play a role in the history of this enclosed, sort of, geopolitical world with Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and all of these places. There is even few historians who think they may have always been there, but you just didn’t hear about them.
Nevertheless, the world upon which they have intruded is so old it’s hard for modern people to get our minds around, because it’s hard for us to imagine something 2,500 years ago.
You know, when the battle of Thermopylae was happening, imagine something 2,500 years before that. And that’s how old this world is.
I love the way, in the 1940s, historian A.T. Olmstead tried to give the reader a sense of how old this world was and how the people who lived in it knew it was old. He starts by talking about Cyrus II, Cyrus the Great person, after he takes over Babylon trying to describe how old the world is that Babylon represents, and he writes:⁴
“When Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 BCE, the world was old. More significant, the world knew its antiquity. Its scholars had compiled long dynastic lists, and simple addition appeared to prove that kings whose monuments were still visible had ruled more than four millenniums before. Yet earlier were other monarchs, sons of gods and so themselves demigods, whose reigns covered several generations of present-day short-lived men. Even these were preceded, the Egyptians believed, by the gods themselves, who had held sway through long aeons; before the universal flood the Babylonians placed ten kings, the least of whom ruled 18,600 years, the greatest 43,200.
Other peoples knew this flood and told of monarchs—Nannacus of Iconium, for example—who reigned in prediluvian times.⁵ The sacred history of the Jews extended through four thousand years; modest as were their figures when compared with those of Babylon or Egypt, they recorded that one prediluvian patriarch almost reached the millennium mark before his death. Greek poets chanted a legendary history which was counted backward to the time when the genealogies of the heroes “ascended to the god”. Each people and nation, each former city-state, boasted its own creation story with its own local god as creator.”
He then goes on to diagram that in the 600s and 700s BCE, there were quite a few rulers and quite a few of these old countries that became archaeological buffs, where they would go back and pay for the excavation of earlier rulers that ruled 1,500 years before them; and in Egypt may have dressed similarly, that’s the continuity of the Egyptian fashion look.
My favourite story that really gives you an idea of the antiquity of things and how the peoples of this region understood it and knew it in a way that you don’t normally think about, has to do with an archaeological excavation that happened in the late 1800s, early 1900s, in modern day Iran, in the city—through much of the historical period—that was called Susa.⁶
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Pierre Briant (September 30, 1940) is a French Iranologist, Professor of History and Civilisation of the Achaemenid World and the Empire of Alexander the Great at the Collège de France (1999 onwards), Doctor Honoris Causa at the University of Chicago, and founder of the website achemenet.com. He studied History at the University of Poitiers (1960–1965), and reached his doctorat d’État in 1972. His works deal mainly with the Achaemenid Empire, and related matters as Alexander the Great or the Hellenistic Era.
² Some day will come when I tell you all about the Roman Republic and Cleopatra. Just be patient, and thank you for reading.
³ Extracted from the book, The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, by Pierre Briant.
⁴ Extracted from the book, History of the Persian Empire, by A.T. Olmstead.
⁵ Prediluvian times means the times before the biblical flood.
⁶ Susa was an ancient city of the Proto-Elamite, Elamite, First Persian Empire, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires of Iran, and one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. It is located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km (160 mi) east of the Tigris River, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. The site now “consists of three gigantic mounds, occupying an area of about one square kilometer, known as the Apadana mound, the Acropolis mound, and the Ville Royale (royal town) mound.”