Der Achtimenidenhof Edited by BRUNO JACOBS and ROBERT ROLLINGER. Classica et Orientalia, vol. 2. Wiesbaden: HARRASSOWTTZ VERLAG, 2010. Pp. xi + 941, illus. [euro]118.
This volume, while a substantial addition to the impressive resurgence of Achaemenid studies, is a difficult book to review. (In preparation, I consulted David Engal's review of this book in the Bryn Mayr Classical Review. 2011.3.39 [http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011-03-39.html].) Among other things it contains a few submissions of near monograph length; the constraints of a journal review cannot do justice to their arguments. Some authors present thoughtful new approaches to Achaemenid history, while others give summaries of august careers. And the different types of evidence that authors use to elucidate the subject of the Achaemenid Court cut across multiple disciplines. Any broad-themed approach to the Achaemenid Empire, if done correctly, will produce similar results. The difficulty, then, has less to do with working through a dense 900+ page book than in dealing with a wide range of opinions and approaches.
With this in mind. I commend the editors for not letting the wide range of evidence employed in the various papers take the book too far off course. Moreover, the editors clearly made an effort to have the contributors translate ancient words or passages into German or English; this is quite beneficial for those of us who have long since forgotten one ancient language in order to concentrate on others (or. obviously, for those who are unfamiliar with any of them). This only rarely went unheeded. The submissions from archaeologists, although few, are some of the most compelling. Despite the effort to make the book useful for all of those interested in the Achaemenid empire, it is ultimately a work for specialists.
The first part of the book (Vergleichsperspektiven und systemtheoretischer Ansatz) discusses court systems, either at a great temporal and geographic distance from the Achaemenids but with an eye toward the theoretical (Hirsbiegel), or in close proximity in time or space (Lanfranchi, Jursa, Potts, and Coppola). Lanfranchi ("Greek Historians and the Memory of the Assyrian Court") pursues a variety of theses. The first is that, ideologically, the Assyrian imperial machine produced a "ruthless line of command"; the king had the power to inflict cruel punishment and death, and the subjects had to declare their fear and obeisance. Greek historians, he argues, pick up on this ideological theme when discussing Assyria. Ctesias had a major role in this, given his contribution to the cliche of the "oriental court." The question, though, is whether Ctesias inaccurately projected the "cruel and fearful" etiquette of the Assyrians onto the Persians, whether his depictions came from direct experience with the Persians, or whether the Persians borrowed courtly ways from the Assyrians. Lanfranchi discusses the influence of Assyrian imperial etiquette on the periphery and concludes tentatively that "Assyrian royal etiquette might have been transferred to the Persians" through what he calls the "matrixes' of the universal emperors" (pp. 47ff.).
Second, on the question of royal inaccessibility, which both Ctesias and Herodotus take as typically "oriental," Lanfranchi concludes that this was not common practice under the Assyrians. The stereotype of being inaccessible even to elites, indeed, "does not agree with what we would expect from any court" (p. 54). Instead, for the Greek historians, it was an example of the unbalanced and unstable nature of relations between the universal sovereign and his subjects (and nobility). Finally, Lanfranchi argues that some actual memory of late Assyrian court life may have inspired the ideologically tinged models of Herodotus and Ctesias. I found these arguments compelling, if difficult to follow.
Jursa ("Der neubabylonische Hof") uses the under-appreciated Hofskalendar and so-called "palace archive" of Nebuchadnezzar II (along with his own database of Neo-Babylonian texts) to flesh out what we know about the Neo-Babylonian court down to the smallest detail. On the other hand, Potts ("Monarchy, Factionalism, and Warlordism: Reflections on Neo-Elamite Courts") teases out what we know about courts in the Neo-Elamite period, using a very wide-ranging and diverse (and at times gratuitous) set of parallel historical examples. Given the limited and at times very difficult evidence, one needs to...