In 1891, George Nathaniel Curzon, ‘the very superior person’ of the mocking Balliol rhyme, and future viceroy of India, arrived at Persepolis. Torched in 330 BC by Alexander the Great, it had once been the nerve-centre of an empire that stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush. For Curzon, whose tour of Iran had already taken him all over the country, the ruins of the great palace were a particular highlight. The Persia of the Achaemenids, the ruling dynasty of the ancient empire, was, so he declared, ‘immeasurably superior to medieval Persia in its attributes and even now more respectable in its ruins’. Coming from a man who was himself no slouch at imperial pomp, this was high praise indeed.
It was not merely as a prototype of the British Raj, though, that ancient Persia could be admired. To generations raised on the Bible, the Achaemenids glimmered as agents of the Almighty. Cyrus, the king who had founded the Persian empire and released the Jews from their Babylonian captivity, was hailed in extravagant terms in the Book of Isaiah as the ‘Anointed One’: the ‘Messiah’. Such praise helped to balance the mingled fear and contempt with which the other great literary influence on men of Curzon’s background, the ancient Greeks, had tended to regard the Persians. Darius the Great, the king who had consolidated the empire founded by Cyrus, had sent the task-force that was defeated in 490 BC by the Athenians at Marathon; ten years later, his son, Xerxes had forced the pass at Thermopylae, and then watched the destruction of his fleet at Salamis. The ‘mute stones’ of Persepolis visited by Curzon, in all their ‘ineffable pathos of ruin’, were nothing that the Greeks had ever mourned. Alexander, so it was said, had burned the great palace as pay-back for the incineration of the Acropolis by Xerxes. Persia, in the Greek version of its history, had ended up the epitome of decadence, and its fall been richly merited.
‘Great Kings’, the Achaemenids called themselves — but, as Plato once sneered, since the time of Xerxes ‘there has been been scarcely a Persian who has ranked truly as “great”, other than in name’. The conviction that Persia was ripe for a fall had a venerable pedigree in Greece. Aeschylus, who had fought at Salamis, and made it the centrepiece of his groundbreaking tragedy The Persians, described an Asia that had been emptied of its manpower by the defeat. ‘Xerxes tore his robes and shrilly screamed, and straightaway gave an order to the infantry, rushing away in disorderly flight.’ That Persians were not merely cowardly but effeminate was something that patriotic Greeks liked to take for granted. What else could they be, after all, when they would insist on wearing trousers?
Yet there was a paradox in the Greek attitude to Persia. It was not just that the Achaemenids, despite their supposed decadence, continued to head the world’s greatest power; it was also that to insist too dogmatically on their contemptibility risked diminishing the achievement of having defeated them. The Great King may well have served the Greeks as the model of an imperious despot; but that did not stop some of them — as Emma Bridges, in her fascinating and compendious survey of ancient attitudes to Xerxes, points out — from painting him in occasionally ambivalent colours.
The greatest writer to do so was Herodotus, whose account of the Persian wars includes numerous comments respectful of both Persian customs and courage. No matter that he describes Xerxes burning temples, chopping off the head of a Spartan king and flogging the Hellespont, he also praises him as a man more than worthy to lead a great empire. In all the massive Persian invasion force, so Herodotus declares, ‘There was no one so handsome or so imposing that he would have been better fitted to wield supreme power than Xerxes himself.’
There were some Persians, though, whose good looks and imposing stature served only to compound their reputation as losers. The archetype of these was a second man notorious for his failures against Greek arms. Darius III was the Great King defeated in two pitched battles by Alexander, and whose abandonment of Persepolis had resulted in its subsequent destruction. Whether in histories written by the ancients, or contemporary films and novels, his role is invariably to serve as the stooge of his conqueror, a paradigm of failure.
A dim and obscure figure rendered all the more phantasmal by the blaze of Alexander’s glory, ‘the Great King is doomed to lose the battle of memory’. The phrase is that of Pierre Briant, the greatest living historian of the Achaemenids, and the scholar who has probably done more than any other to make sense of how their empire actually functioned. Now, in a new translation of a book originally written in French a decade ago, he has applied his seasoned eye to Darius III; but not to write a biography. To penetrate to the truth of his personality and reign is, Briant states flatly, ‘an insurmountable challenge’. His aim instead is simultaneously less ambitious and considerably more so: to explore all the various traditions told of Darius, and by doing so to elucidate the very nature of ancient history.
Details that can be gleaned from contemporary sources are few to vanishing. So too are Persian records; and even were there more, it is evident that they would portray a king who was no less of a construct than the Greek portraits of him.
As a result, we are dependent for our knowledge of Darius III on authors writing often centuries after the events they describe, and whose agenda was rarely a simple desire to get at the truth.
Is it necessary to repeat that, despite the generous designation ‘historians of Alexander’, granted purely for the sake of convenience, the authors we use — for lack of anything better — are not historians in the sense we understand that expression?
Briant’s rhetorical question hints suggestively at where he is going. His quarry is not ultimately Darius at all. Instead, it is the golden figure of Persia’s conqueror who is the real subject of his book. Just as Alexander hunted the defeated Darius through the uplands of Iran, and — according to most traditions, at any rate — never managed to take him alive, so is Briant hunting Alexander, and likewise failing to corner him. At the end of his book, after more than 400 pages of detailed and incisive analysis of every conceivable tradition told about the last king of Achaemenid Persia, he throws up his hands, and acknowledges, ‘we still do not know who Darius was’. Only then, though, does the really intriguing confession come: our uncertainty about the ‘real’Alexander has also increased.
Easy Briant’s book is not; but it is, for anyone interested in ancient history, as brilliant a demonstration of its mingled frustrations and fascinations as one could hope to read. As with early Rome or the origins of Islam, the fact that much about the Achaemenid empire will always be uncertain has not prevented it from taking on the character of myth — just the opposite, in fact. Enshrined in some of the foundational texts of western civilisation as an object both of wonder and of dread, it remains to this day the primal example of what Curzon, making up in flamboyance what he lacked in political correctness, once hailed as ‘that picturesque wealth of pomp and circumstance which the East alone can give’.