Xerxes: A Persian Life

Xerxes: A Persian Life
Richard Stoneman
Yale University Press  288pp  £25

Darius in the Shadow of Alexander
Pierre Briant, tr. Jane Marie Todd
Harvard University Press  608pp  £25

‘Historians and readers’, says the French scholar Pierre Briant at the start of his book, ‘have always been fascinated by the history of great empires and especially by their emergence and disappearance.’ The problem, of course, is that historians need sources on which to centre their views, to frame their arguments and to base their conclusions. As these two contrasting studies make clear, trying to make sense of the great Persian Empire of antiquity – and of its leaders – is a frustrating exercise. 

The lack of narrative sources offering a Persian perspective on the reigns of Xerxes, the subject of Richard Stoneman’s volume, or on Darius III, the focus of Briant’s magisterial study, make life difficult for the historian. As both writers make abundantly clear, it is also highly problematic that what scraps and snippets of information that can be gathered from the Persian archaeological record (much of it freshly discovered in recent decades) are drowned amid the Greek and Latin sources that tell an insistent story of Persian decadence, fecklessness and superficiality that illustrates the triumph, heroism and bravery of ancient Greece and of Alexander the Great against the mighty empire centred in western Asia.

Stoneman and Briant are keen to explore how the story of the failed invasion of Xerxes and his setbacks at Salamis in 480bc and at Plataea a year afterwards and the fall of Darius III a century and a half later have set the tone for impressions of both rulers and of Persia more generally for nearly two and a half millennia. Authors who wrote about Xerxes having the sea whipped, or Darius as a coward who thought more about what luxuries to take on campaign than about military strategy, were no more reliable the closer they were to the time than they are today: authors such as Arrian, Plutarch and Quintus Curtius, says Briant, were not ‘historians’ whose work can be trusted, but men writing exempla that were intended to instruct their readers; as such their accounts are scarcely more reliable than Boccaccio, Ferdowsi, Corneille or, indeed, the cartoon-
like Hollywood blockbusters that have perpetuated the same myths and propaganda about Greeks and Persians as heroes and villains.

Both these books attempt to strip these layers back, with varying degrees of success. The account by Stoneman, a distinguished classicist, is breezily written and rich with detail. His use of all available materials, ranging from the antique accounts to A.E. Housman and Gore Vidal’s fictionalised ones of Xerxes, is ambitious, though somewhat off-putting for purists – although it does underline the enduring legacy of the traditional tales. This approach does fuzzy further the lines between fact and fiction, already hard to distinguish. ‘Perhaps Xerxes was always under the shadow of his great father’, he writes; but perhaps he was not.

Briant’s book, essentially a translation of a work that came out in French a decade ago, is comprehensive, methodical and relentless. Written sources are handled judiciously and objectively, being exposed warts and all for their shortcomings. The process, though exemplary, is often a laborious one that requires grit and determination from the non-specialist reader to keep on going. Although the breadth of Briant’s scholarship is second to none and we learn much about the context of the fourth century bc, the sense is always of being one step off the pace. The opening chapter, entitled ‘The Impossible Biography’, is a statement, rather than a problem that will be solved. Indeed, by the end of the long text, writes Briant, ‘we still do not know who Darius was’. He is clear at the outset that his aim was specifically not to write a biography and, as such, his candour in recognising and pointing out the problems is reasonable enough. But he admits not to having cleared the waters, but having muddied them still further: for in addition to being no closer to understanding Darius, ‘our uncertainty about the “real” Alexander has also increased’.

What these two very different books do reveal is just how little we still know about the past and how important (and interesting) it is to question truisms about the glories of Alexander or the wantonness of Xerxes – who suffered no ill effects from his setback against the Greeks (which suggests that the disastrous defeats were not that bad after all). We all know that the winners write the history; having it underlined so clearly by two first-rate scholars such as these is no bad thing at all. 

Peter Frankopan is Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. 

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