New Trends in Acheamenid History

Pierre Briant
Collège de France, Paris
March 23, 2001

I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to the Permanent Committee of the Foundation for Iranian Studies for having chosen me to deliver the 2001 Noruz Lecture, and to George Washington University, which co-sponsors these annual lectures. It is an honor for me–both a great honor and a daunting one–to speak before such a distinguished audience and at an occasion so dear to the hearts of Iranians. I am keenly aware that in offering me such a distinction, you also bring honor to the Collège de France.

It has become common to emphasize that the conquests of Cyrus and his successors opened an entirely new historical phase. For the first time, all the peoples and territories between the Indus and the Mediterranean, between the Syr Darya and the Western Desert of Egypt, were joined into a unified political formation, the Achaemenid Persian empire. Although Achaemenid studies have been persistently undervalued (for reasons which I have often discussed), they have entered a new, flourishing period, especially in the last twenty years. In this lecture, I would like to try to comprehend and to explain how Achaemenid history is structured today, and what perspectives will determine its development in the future.

To pose such a question is an easy task. But how to answer it in a brief, synthetic fashion? It is five years since I tried to do so in my Histoire de l’empire perse [2]. The fifth part of that book is called “The Fourth Century and the Empire of Darius the Third in Achaemenid longue durée: an Assessment and Prospect.” I would like to pursue the reflections which I introduced there. Since then, in fact, I have continued to build up my files, which I have placed at the disposition of researchers in a periodic publication called Bulletin d’Histoire Achéménide, “Bulletin of Achaemenid History.” The first issue (BHAch I) appeared in 1997, in the form of a very large article [3], and is also now available on line. The second issue (BHAch II) has just emerged in the form of the book [4]. The first Bulletin analyzed more than five hundred books and articles that appeared between Autumn, 1995 and Autumn, 1997. The second deals with about 850 titles that appeared between Autumn, 1997 and Autumn, 2000. The purpose of this work is plainly not to prepare tedious bibliographic lists. It is rather to make a structured inventory in a way that tries to present new information and new results produced not only by new documents recently brought to light and/or recently published, but produced also by the testing of hypotheses and by truly innovative lines of research.

When one strives to follow and evaluate research and publication on a day-to-day basis and in an exhaustive manner, one unavoidably develops a permanent habit of painful epistemological questioning of the real results of the research. This question is particularly difficult to resolve in the Humanities, where accumulated erudition and bibliographical tautology sometimes take the place of evidence that is accepted but misleading for scientific innovation. To speak bluntly: what is really new in what is published recently? In our domain, what are the signs that permit us to assert that this or that study marks progress in the order of knowledge? The answer may seem easy as long as one is dealing with publications of documents, but it is quite a different matter when one considers interpretative publications. And even among publications of documents one has to make distinctions: some of them add only one unpublished document in a series that is already known, without modifying the general sense by much; others, on the other hand, call attention to documentation that in itself may suggest wholly new lines of interpretation.

I will begin by giving an overall evaluation, in a very synthetic form. Then, in a second part, I will try to go more deeply into the analysis, starting with a close-up view of a regional case: I have chosen Egypt for reasons that I will give presently. As a conclusion, I will try to explain what seem to me to be the conditions and methods for an international collaboration in this field.

In order to avoid diffuseness, and in order to give a conceptual coherence to my topic, I have chosen to organise the presentation around a theme, “Center and Periphery,” which I consider of decisive importance even if it is expressed in such a banal phrase. At this point, I would like to recall a memory. In May, 1986 the fourth “Achaemenid Workshop” took place at Groningen, convened jointly by the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and Amélie Kuhrt [5]. The theme was precisely “Centre and Periphery.” The relationships between the Achaemenid central authority and the various provinces were actively discussed there. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg herself presented a paper with an extremely revealing title, “The Quest for an Elusive Empire.” Indeed the discussants underscored the apparent weakness of control by the center over the periphery, so much so that the chairman of one of the sessions expressed this thought, with a sort of exasperated surprise: “Was there ever a Persian empire?” (p.XIII) I myself repeated the thought as the introduction to a very recent article on method, published in the form of a dialogue with my friend and colleague Matt Stolper, who had been invited by the editors of the celebrated French journal, Les Annales, to comment on my book, Histoire de l’empire perse (Paris, 1996) [6]. As Matt Stolper remarked in his contribution, the question that I posed–“Did the Persian Empire exist?”–was rhetorical. I agree: no-one actually doubts the historical reality of the Achaemenid empire. Nevertheless, beneath its falsely naïve or truly absurd appearance, the question expresses very neatly one of the major trends of the research carried out during the last twenty years, a trend which I would summarize with a series of interconnected questions: What are the various markers of the Persian presence in the lands of the empire? How can they be identified? What relationship can one establish between the number of Achaemenid objects found in the provinces and the intensity of imperial power? Must one continue to espouse the thesis that has so long been taken as something obvious, according to which the imperial hold on the territories was limited to a few closely-controlled enclaves and to the axes of the major royal routes? Mentioning this sort of interpretation leads back at once to the question that I have already raised: obviously not whether the Achaemenid empire existed as such, but what its nature and organization were.

I will begin by considering the imperial territories as a whole, but without trying to be exhaustive. By way of samples, I have selected for analysis the results of recent research under four headings: (i) first, new archaeological findings; (ii) second, the development of iconographic studies; (iii) third, the sometimes radical reinterpretation of known documents; (iv) finally, a re-examination of the “statististical” approach to imperial control.

(i) It is essential to recognize first the progress brought about by the growing number of excavations and surveys. In Iran proper, excavations are continuing at Tepe Hagmataneh, excavations are carried out at Susa, and eletromagnetic survey recently carried out at Pasargadae by a Franco-Iranian team has revealed sub-surface structures even where the available plans offered no hint of their existence [7]. Nevertheless, for well-known circumstantial reasons, interest has been displaced from the lands at the center of the empire to the lands on the periphery, especially the western periphery. Aside from Egypt, of which I will speak at greater length in a moment, one should mention the Transeuphratian territories; the team connected with the journal Transeuphratène has just produced a voluminous general assessment, which accounts of work during the years 1985-2000 [8]. New information is also coming from lands which had hitherto been thought of as lying on the margins of the empire: excavations in Georgia and Armenia now reveal the intensity of Achaemenid influence. Several sites in Turkey are especially important for our topic, the satrapal capitals of Dascylium and Sardis, but also Gordion in Phrygia, as well as the two cities of Lycia, namely Xanthos and Limyra, which were the centers of client principalities under imperial rule. As an example, I point to the particularly interesting direction given to the excavations at Gordion since 1992-93, and the first results that the two directors recently characterized thus: “Research on the effect of Achaemenid rule on other aspects of technology and economy at Gordion has just begun, but significant changes in ceramics, horse gear, and military equipment are apparent even at this preliminary stage of analysis [9].”

(ii) A second matter to be acknowledged is an axis of research that has been especially well developed recently. That is the political analysis of inconography from the center of the empire, beginning with this question: to what extent does the presence of images copied or adapted from the imperial court (audience scenes, the royal hero, and so forth) reflect the Persian presence in the provinces, and, indeed, the imperial ascendancy [10]? The question is not new, but the discussion has taken on a new life, on the one hand, because of the refinement of new ways of reading the images, and, on the other hand, because of the publication of very interesting corpora. I am thinking in particular about the seal impressions and coins from Samaria, published between 1997 and 2000 [11]; but I am also thinking about truly extraordinary reliefs of Persepolitan type discovered at the Cilician site of Meydancikkale (the final publication of these was very recent [1998] [12]); and again, I am also thinking of an Egyptian stele, which I will discuss in a moment. Other corpora, already known from examples, will be extensively published in the next few months: the seal impressions from Dascylium and part of the impressions on the Persepolis tablets. The number and distribution of Persian images in provincial corpora raises interpretive problems that have been treated in several recent colloquia and books.

(iii) A third point: of course, progress does not come only from the publication of new documentary material; it comes also from the re-examination of documents that have been known for some time. I will take just one example that I know well, the epigraphic corpus from Asia Minor, composed of Greek, Aramaic and multilingual inscriptions. Three of these documents–the “Letter of Darius to Gadatas” (known since 1889), the Xanthos trilingual (published in 1974), and the inscription of Droaphernes at Sardes (published in 1975) belong to the dossier on the bonds between the imperial authorities and the local sanctuaries and pantheons. The documents have been analyzed frequently in the general context of Achaemenid royal policies toward the sanctuaries of Babylonia, Egypt, and even Jerusalem. But the re-examinations that I have offered recently (between 1998 and 2001) [13], have led me to the following conclusions:

–in one case (the “Letter of Darius to Gadatas”), the document is a forgery of the Roman period.

–in a second case (the inscription of Droaphernes at Sardis), the text does not illustrate how the Persian community at Sardis fell back upon its own religious traditions; quite the contrary, it indicates the intense intercultural exchanges between Persians of the imperial diaspora the local elites.

–finally, in the third case (the Xanthos trilingual), the life of the local sanctuaries was not overseen or controlled by a special office of the satrapal administration; the local communities managed their sanctuaries and organized their cults autonomously.

(iv) To bring this selective tour around the horizon to a close, I come to my fourth point, he critique of what I am call a pseudo-statistical approach to imperial realities, an approach which consists of asserting a mechanical relationship between the number of documents found in a province and the intensity of the control exercised by the central authorities. On this logic, an apparent sharp diminution in the number of documents is interpreted as the mark of a decisive political devolution. One of the best examples is Babylonia, where it has been observed that some archives are interrupted in the first years of the reign of Xerxes. It has been usual to connect this observations with the revolts known from Classical sources, and with the Babylonian usurpers attested in a few tablets. All these matters are put in a cause-and-effect relationship with Xerxes’ brutal repressive measures against the Babylonian temples, and against Babylonia itself, supposing that Babylonia was separated at this date from the Transeuphratian territories. In recent years, however, publications of tablets long held in museum reserves have led Assyriologists to question their ideas about archives and the closing of archives, and to be far more prudent about the political inferences which one can or cannot draw from them.

The four areas that I have just surveyed have a common characteristic. The development of research in them illustrates a pronounced movement toward better recognition of the Achaemenid phase in the historical scale of the lands of the Near East during the first millennium, by archaeologists as well as by historians. The periods called “late,” long neglected by specialists, now give rise to many investigations. Babylonia is a good example. Until the Seventies, the period of Persian rule had been studied relatively little by Assyriologists. But the landscape has changed completely because between 1982 and 2000 no less than fifteen books on this region were published, not to mention corpora and catalogues of tablets. At present, Babylonia has become one of the best-known lands of the empire, although a provisional synthesis is still lacking. One can assert the same development for Egypt, to which I will turn next.

In fact, as a way of going more deeply into the practice of research I would like to do a case study–Egypt, which was under Persian domination first between 525 and about 400, and then again for a short period between 343 and 332. Recent studies have modified the historian’s point of view remarkably. The view that has long prevailed is of a land in rebellion against foreign domination–a land which did not hesitate to go into armed revolt against the Persian authorities on many occasions. Egyptians were incapable, it was supposed, of remaining under the imperial yoke for long. This thesis went in lock-step with another, no less significant, the thesis that Persian material evidence was absent or insignificant in Egypt–a thesis that was in turn tied to a conviction that was reaffirmed incessantly, namely, that Egyptian civilization continued to live and develop, unaffected, after the Persian conquest just as before. The proof of this was seen in the maintenance of traditional architecture and sculpture. In this centrifugal view of the empire, the Egyptian aristocrats who were known to have worked within the imperial administration were regularly characterized as “traitors” or “collaborators,” isolated from an indigenous population that regularly burst into revolts called “nationalistic.” [14]

Obviously, I do not intend to review each of the arguments proposed, nor each of the frameworks of reasoning and interpretation most frequently proposed. No-one would dream nowadays of denying the vitality of Egyptian cultural traditions, nor the occurrence of revolts. I would simply observe, first, that the case of Egypt, specific as it may be, should not be set apart from the other lands of the empire. As I have insisted, the pseudo-statistical vision of the imperial presence must be refined, at the very least. The force of the dominant thesis has sometimes prevented specialists from cataloging objects or artifacts correctly. This has been recently shown by D.A. Aston in a study devoted to the funerary archaeology of the Persian period in Egypt [15]. Progress comes from a distinct improvement in the precision of work on the ceramics of the Achaemenid period. These efforts make it possible to establish much more finely differentiated chronologies. But progress also comes–and will come–even more from a modification of the way in which the Egyptologists view the Persian period in Egypt. Aston observes, somewhat caustically: “It is hard to believe that, magically, in 525 BC a change in funerary customs suddenly resulted in nothing being buried with the deceased!” He can thus demonstrate that some of the funerary material had long been attributed to the Saite period rather than to the Persian period because of erroneous assumptions. On the level of method, his article seems to me to exemplify the renewed interest in the Achaemenid period, but also to exemplify the need for active research in museum reserves and for revisions of catalogues and inventories.

What is more, Egypt has not been left out of the renewal of Achaemenid documentation. I do not intend to present a catalogue of discoveries made during the last fifteen or twenty years, or even in the last five years. But before dwelling more specifically on a discovery that I consider to be one of the most important for the Achaemenid empire as a whole, I will quickly mention three examples:

First, the discovery of the tomb of an Egyptian long since known from his inscribed statue, Udjahorresnet, traditionally listed among the Egyptian “collaborators” with Persian imperial power under Cambyses and Darius. The recent publication (1999) of his tomb by our Czech colleagues has put the whole assemblage of archaeological and epigraphic information at the disposal of researchers [16].

Most important and also newest is the 1995 publication of funerary stele that is already justly famous [17]. The stele has three registers: on top, a winged disc; in the middle, a traditional Egyptian scene of the display of the deceased on a bed; and on the bottom, an extraordinary scene: facing left are two individuals, apparently Egyptian, each shown standing behind an offering table; one holds out a sort of crown decorated with a flower to an individual seated on a Persian-style throne, turned to the right; his feet rest on a footstool; he is depicted in Persian costume, wearing the long pleated robe with wide sleeves that is also worn by kings on the reliefs and seals from Persepolis and elsewhere; he has a lotus flower in his left hand, and he raises a cup in his right hand; on his hair, worn in a bun, he has a sort of metal diadem decorated with a flower-bud in the middle, that is, over the man’s forehead. This iconography, fascinating in itself for the mixture and union between Egyptian traditions and Persian elements, is accompanied by a double inscription, in demotic and hieroglyphic. Along with a traditional prayer to Osiris, the inscription refers to the ka of Djedherbes, son of Artam, born of the Lady Tanofrether. Thus we have an explicit mention of a mixed marriage, between a Persian or an Iranian, Artam, and an Egyptian woman, Tanofrether, and it is very interesting to observe that the son has an Egyptian personal name. This document gives rise to thoughts about the intensity of intercultural exchanges in the Egypt of the Great Kings.

A third example: in 1993 Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni brought out the third volume of their corpus of Aramaic documents from Egypt. (The fourth volume appeared in 1999.) It included a fascinating document, recovered from a palimpsest under the famous text of the “Wisdom of Ahiqar.” It is an administrative text, dated in a regnal year of one of the Achaemenid kings, either Xerxes or Artaxerxes I, with a summary of ships entering and leaving Egypt [18]. Some of these ships are described as Ionian, and the names of their captains sound Greek; the ethnicity of the second category is not explicitly recorded, but it is practically certain that these boats come from Syria-Phoenicia. This is clearly a partial register from a customs post located at the entry of the Canopic mouth of the Nile, probably in the town of Thônis. It mentions the nature and rate of the taxes levied on the ships and on the goods. The Ionian ships pay in gold or silver, the other ships pay ten percent of each item–which tells us what the cargos contained (wine, oil, wood, metals, pottery, etc.). I need not insist on the exceptional character of a document like this, absolutely unique in Antiquity. Its contents show not only a continuity with practices attested in Egypt both during the Saite period and during the period of independence in the fourth century, but also adaptations introduced by the Achaemenid imperial administration. The document renewed two hitherto little-known chapters of Achaemenid history, one on customs levies, the other on commercial exchanges in the Mediterranean basin.

I come now to what is in my view one of the most important discoveries of recent years. It took place less than ten years ago in the Western Desert, south of the Khargeh Oasis, more precisely in the region of Dush. The Achaemenid period at the oasis was long known, since the temple of Hibis built by Darius I was identified long ago. Qanats had also been discovered there, but there was debate about their dating and the possible introduction of an Iranian technique into Egypt. In 1992-93 a new site was discovered, 3 km west of Dush, the site of Ayn Manâwîr, located at the foot of an isolated hill. Since then the site has been excavated by a mission of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale under the direction of Michel Wuttmann. Voluminous reports have been published every year, so I will not review in detail the results to date [19]. I merely want to draw attention to the new elements that these discoveries have introduced into discussion of the history and structure of the Achaemenid empire, both at the level of regional history and at the level of imperial history.

In brief, the archaeologists have discovered an entire ancient village buried in the sand, with houses, fields, orchards, irrigation channels and even the hoofprints of bovines in the dried mud of a pond where the animals were watered. The establishment and survival of the community were secured by a novel means of access to the subsurface water trapped in the sandstone hill: more than ten qanats have been discovered there. And in an almost miraculous coincidence, a temple of Osiris has been discovered, and, in an attached house, hundreds of archival texts written in demotic on large ostraca. That is, the archaeologists were able to work in nearly ideal conditions, since they could use archaeological and written sources in combination. The presence of precisely dated texts on the ostraca made it immediately possible to date the pottery with great precision and complete certainty, and so to make a new and decisive contribution to the general framework of Persian-period archaeology in Egypt. Furthermore, the contents of the documents themselves are very illuminating. They are private contracts of purely Egyptian type, drawn up among Egyptians. Not a single Iranian or Persian personal name has yet been found in them. At the same time, the contracts are dated by the regnal years of Achaemenid kings, Artaxerxes and Darius. The consensus is that they are Artaxerxes the First and Darius the Second. But during the last campaign (Autumn, 2000), an ostracon dated by Xerxes was discovered [20], so it is possible that some ostraca dated by Darius could be attributed to the reign of Darius the First: on this plausible hypothesis, the documentation of Ayn Manâwîr covers the entire Fifth Century. What does this documentation afford us? I would say: a certainty, and a new lead.

(i) First of all, a certainty: It has long been a matter of agreement, even in recent publications, that after the reign of Xerxes the imperial authorities were largely uninterested in Egypt. The main thing offered in support of this view was the supposedly sudden drop in the quantity of Achaemenid documentation, according to the pseudo-statistical view whose foundations I have been challenging since a study published in 1987 [21]. The documentation from Ayn Manâwîr has destroyed this vision once and for all: now, the second half of the Fifth Century is especially well documented.

(ii) In the second place, a new lead: It has been opened by the firm Achaemenid dating of the qanats. This discovery has contributed to two important, interconnected, topical areas, the qanats themselves on the one hand, and the possible policy of regional development on the other. These new discoveries plainly invite us to resume the discussion on the origin and dating of qanats. For the first time, on can date qanats to the Achaemenid period with near-certainty. What should we deduce from this? I organized a conference last year at the Collège de France, precisely in order to deal with this point; the papers of the meeting will be published next June, in the series that I recently inaugurated, Persika [22]. During the conference, archaeologists compared evidence from Ayn Manâwîr, Iran, the Persian Gulf, and Urartu. The participants included specialists in Greek epigraphic and literary sources.

I will briefly review the discussion. The only ancient mention of qanats, as has been well known, is a passage of the Hellenistic historian Polybius (Histories, X.28), describing an expedition conducted by Antiochos the Third against the Parthian king Arsaces the Third, in Parthia itself, between Rhagai (just next to Tehran) and Hekatompylos (at modern Shahr-i Qumis). The information in the text is both technical and political. Here is what it says (for convenience, I quote the translation by Paton, in the Loeb Classical Library, even though it is debatable in places [23]):

“In this region of which I speak, there is no water visible on the surface, but even in the desert there are a number of underground channels communicating with wells unknown to those not acquainted with the country”. (X.28.2-3)

Polybius also provides information on the origin of these qanats:

“At the time when the Persians were the rulers of Asia they gave to those who conveyed a supply of water to places previously unirrigated the right of cultivating the land for five generations … [so that] people incurred great expense and trouble making underground channels reaching a long distance …”

On the technical level, the passage is quite imprecise. Polybius clearly did not understand the logic and function of a qanat. Indeed, I am certain that if one were not familiar with the qanat from experience, one could never reconstruct it from this passage. On the other hand, the passage has great interest for the historian because it mentions privileges granted to the diggers of the qanats. In exchange for their investment of money and labor, local communities obtained usufruct of the land brought under cultivation for a very long period, five generations, about a century and a half. Even more decisive, Polybius explicitly credits the Achaemenid Great Kings with this policy, and he draws a direct connection between the spread of a technology and a political initiative. He thus opens for the modern historian a familiar problem, that of the relationships between technology, state and society. The information that Polybius communicates clearly refers to a plan of regional development under the initiative of the central government. This observation in itself contributes to the debate on the rationality of the imperial economic system.

So what can we glimpse at Ayn Manâwîr? The excavations to date show that the village as it has been found was a new creation of the Achaemenid period. It is also plain to see that this creation ex nihilo could only have happened with recourse to a new technology, the qanat, very probably a technology that came from the Iranian Plateau. We may add that the site of Ayn Manâwîr is not unique, for surveys have shown that other nearby sites were supplied with water during the same period. If we add the construction of the temple of Hibis during the time of Darius I, all these elements combined suggest the existence of a plan of regional development, comparable to the one we can infer as the background to Polybius. To be sure, problems remain, including the reasons for such plans. Two hypotheses are possible: an economic hypothesis, which stresses a desire on the part of the political power to exploit previously unproductive land and to draw tribute from it; or else a political hypothesis, which instead gives greater emphasis to the desire of the same imperial power to control the main conduits of movement, the Great Khorasan road in the one case, and the oasis route in the other. At bottom, these two hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

It is apparent here to what extent the discoveries still in progress at Ayn Manâwîr have confirmed and amplified our knowledge of Egypt under the Great Kings, in a spectacular and decisive manner. If we consider the totality of new published documents, we must conclude that, in a few years, the whole of the traditional interpretative framework has been put on trial, on the basis of evidence whose reality is incontrovertible. To be sure, I must repeat, no-one can doubt the vitality of Egyptian social structures and ideology, nor the existence of revolts against the conquerors. But at the same time, one should not doubt the solidity of the imperial hold on the Nile valley, and one should not reduce the Persian presence in Egypt to a kind of epiphenomenon without any real consequence. In this respect, the discoveries and publications on Achaemenid Egypt that I have presented in brief are not just recent, they are really new, and they open prospects of fundamental new growth in the near future.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about Achaemenid research in the foreseeable future. It must be admitted that Achaemenid research still suffers from persistent marginalization in the academic world. Nowhere is there a research team specifically devoted to this field, and to my knowledge there is only one solitary chair of Achaemenid history, the one that the Collège de France recently created for me. In these conditions, future vitality is by no means assured, for presenting a doctoral dissertation on Achaemenid history is not a viable way of obtaining a university post. The teaching of antiquity is still organized around the Parthenon and the Forum, and (in a less hegemonic fashion) around the more ancient Near East of the third and second millennia B.C [24].

This situation is all the more unfortunate because, paradoxically, archaeologists, numismatists and art historians are showing a renewed interest in this period. The problem is that the research is extremely compartmentalized, conducted within a community which has had neither a common location for a common strategy since the end of the Achaemenid Workshops in 1990.

It was for this reason that about a year ago, bearing in mind the experiences and pioneering results of the Oriental Institute at Chicago, I decided to plan an Internet site devoted exclusively to Achaemenid history. This site,, was presented for the first time at the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale that took place at the Collège de France in July 2000. And in last December, an international colloquium at the Collège de France gathered many researchers who were interested or already involved in the project, and an International Steering Committee was formed [25]. Perhaps some of you have visited the web-site. If not, you will find a presentation of its strategy and its aims in a brochure which I will present to you, and which is also available on the website. The basic aim is to make accessible and downloadable all documents pertinent to Achaemenid history: texts and inscriptions in every language and script, seals and seal impressions, coins, reliefs, results of excavations and surveys, etc. All this will take time, but the process has been launched.

One final word. It is often remarked that the Internet permits the development of “virtual communities.” In the case of Achaemenid research, the situation is a little different. I think that a site like will rather permit the transformation of a virtual scientific community into a real scientific community–that, at least, is the hope that inspires us.

I thank you very much for your patient attention.