Persians: The Age of the Great Kings - A Review

By Owain Williams

Dr Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ (hereafter LJ) new book Persians: The Age of the Great Kings is the latest work to shine a much-welcomed light on ancient Persia, specifically the Achaemenid Empire. The book offers a grand narrative of the Achaemenid Empire, "from its modest beginnings as a tribal society in south-western Iran to the time it dominated the earth as the world's first superpower" (p. 5), from ca. 1000 to 330 BC.

According to LJ, this book endeavours to tell the ‘Persian Version’ of Achaemenid history, “a very different story from the one we might be familiar with, the one moulded around ancient Greek accounts” (p. 5). Divided into three sections, the first discusses the rise of the Achaemenid Empire to the reign of Darius the Great, where it takes a detour into section two, discussing the social, political, and religious aspects of Achaemenid Persian culture, before returning to the political narrative of the Achaemenid Empire to its defeat by Alexander the Great in section three.

Before this “story”, as LJ calls it, gets underway, the book begins with a discussion of the sources for Persian history. The core of this chapter is LJ’s discussion of the influence of Orientalism on discussions of Persia in past scholarship. As LJ rightly notes, Greco-Roman sources are filled with Orientalist tropes, and thanks to the centrality of these sources in the Victorian and Edwardian school system, coupled with the fact that the historical corpus was supplemented with Persian sources only from the mid-nineteenth century, such Orientalist thinking persevered into modern thinking, undermining attempts at studying the Persians. For example, when discussing the Persian ‘harem’, LJ notes that “any trivialisation of the Achaemenid royal harem as a brothel-like pleasure palace fails to do justice to its central role in the political milieu of the court or, indeed, of the empire at large” (p. 176). However, LJ also notes how “beneath every indigenous Persian source … there lies an imperial agenda” (p. 24). Yet, despite this seemingly well-balanced approach to the source material, LJ does not make it clear just how important Greek sources are to the study of ancient Persia. He does note how, in Herodotus, for example, “it is possible to extract from the Histories genuine, informative, and illuminating Persian materials” (p. 14), but the emphasis is placed primarily on the unreliability of Greek sources. It has been noted elsewhere that Greek sources “are of inestimable value for any reconstruction of Achaemenid‐Persian history” (Bichler and Rollinger, 2021, 169). Indeed, several times in the book the author writes how, without Greek sources, we would have little to no knowledge of some very important historical events, such as Darius the Great’s Scythian invasion or even Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, an event which we are “entirely dependent on Greek accounts for” (p. 244). This somewhat skewed emphasis, coupled with the fact that there is not a single reference throughout the book (a strange choice, given that LJ seems keen to point out when an author is being quoted), could very well mislead the reader into thinking Greek sources are of only secondary or even tertiary importance for the topic.

Given this emphasis on exposing the biases of the sources, one would think that extra attention would be given to examining the claims sources put forward, but this is rarely the case. One example that stood out to me is LJ’s mention of a passage from Diodorus Siculus which records Alexander the Great encountering Greek slaves in Persia who had been mutilated (17.69.2-9). LJ does say there is “some possible exaggeration about the rate of the mutilations”, but that “it would be too simple to dismiss Diodorus’ narrative as anti-Persian propaganda” (p. 169). Why, however, LJ does not specify, nor does he acknowledge that this passage was written 300 years after the event.

Additionally, despite the emphasis placed on the issues of Orientalism in previous discussions of Persia, LJ several times seems to employ Orientalist tropes. For example, it appears that the Persians are exoticised when LJ writes “He [Cyrus] was lean and good looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p. 52). Elsewhere LJ attributes the Persians’ nomadic-like wandering around their empire to a “deep-set instinct in the Persian psyche” (p. 148), which unfortunately reads somewhat like ‘Othering’.

LJ has a very evocative writing style, creating a story of love and war and dynastic politics that often reads like fiction, but there were moments when the style unintentionally obfuscates the reader. For example, when discussing the adoption of coinage in the Achaemenid Empire, LJ writes “it was under the Achaemenid rulers that the world experienced its first use of coinage. It began in Lydia on the west coast of Asia Minor around 650 BCE” (p. 142). To the casual reader, this will seem like coinage was created under the Achaemenids, yet, as LJ has already noted at this point, Lydia only came under Persian control in the mid-sixth century, a full century after coinage was first created. It is possible that LJ meant that coinage was widely adopted thanks to the Achaemenid Empire, but this still is not apparent from the text, nor does it account for areas beyond the empire that also adopted coinage, such as Athens or Aegina. 

Similarly, when discussing the revolts that occurred when Darius the Great first became king, LJ writes that Egypt “does not seem to have been heavily involved” (p. 114). This in itself is not that strange a statement, given the lack of detail that the Bisitun Inscription provides concerning the Egyptian revolt, only saying that it happened (although, LJ does not even acknowledge that it was mentioned in the inscription). Yet, if this is the reason behind LJ's statement, it is hardly a strong position, given that LJ had already noted how the Bisitun Inscription was an unreliable document, "a rich melange of untruths, spin, and pure bravado" (p. 104). Unfortunately, LJ does not provide a reason as to why Egypt does not seem to have rebelled. Moreover, a recent publication has discussed the evidence of an Egyptian revolt, concluding that there may have been one that was several years long, ending well after the inscription was finished, which may explain why there was little mention of the events of the revolt in the Bisitun Inscription (Wijnsma, 2018).

What’s more, there are several mistakes throughout the book. Some are simple spelling mistakes, such as Hycarnia instead of Hyrcania (p. 139 and p. 340), but others might mislead readers with incorrect information. For example, when discussing the Battle of Thermopylae, LJ writes that there were 700 Greeks present (p. 254), while Herodotus tells us there were 7000 (7.202-203). More egregious, however, is LJ’s discussion of the rearguard action at Thermopylae, which immortalised the 300 Spartans. Despite earlier dismissing the “Western fixation with the story of the 300 Spartans” (p. 255), LJ actually perpetuates this fixation by neglecting to mention the presence of the Thespians and the Thebans who also took part in this rearguard action (see Herodotus, 7.222).

The issues already outlined in this book are only exacerbated by the lack of any kind of referencing, save, curiously, for Persian royal inscriptions, making it impossible to verify the claims that LJ makes, as does the lack of a bibliography. There is a ‘Further Reading’ section, which includes a note from LJ on the merits of each of the entries, but it is hardly comprehensive.

The central premise of this book – bringing sources from the Achaemenid Empire to a wider audience – is one that is very welcome, shifting the focus away from the Greek sources, which do have very identifiable biases, to create a more well-rounded account of the Achaemenid Empire. Yet, ultimately, LJ’s book does not do the premise justice. The lack of references makes reading this book an act of faith in LJ’s abilities as an academic, which, to be clear, I am not calling into question. Rather, it is the formatting of this book, which makes unreferenced claims and does not offer much source criticism, which is the issue. History, especially one that purports to be concerned with the veracity of sources, is evidence-based, an approach that is lacking in the presentation of LJ’s work here. The confusing statements and obvious mistakes, coupled with the lack of comprehensive references, ultimately weaken any claim to trustworthiness this book has. It is undoubtedly well written, with a Machiavellian narrative of war and conquest, dynastic politics and schemes, chronicling the rise and fall of a great empire, and LJ's style is to be praised. However, this readability seems to have come at the expense of reliability.


R. Bichler and R. Rollinger, 'Greek and Latin Sources', in B. Jacobs and R. Rollinger (eds.) A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (Hoboken, 2021), 169-185.

U.Z. Wijnsma, ‘The Worst Revolt of the Bisitun Crisis: A Chronological Reconstruction of the Egyptian Revolt under Petubastis IV,’ JNES 77 (2018), 157-173.

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