CTESIAS’ PERSICA AND ITS NEAR EASTERN CONTEXT

Matt Waters

Wisconsin (2017) h/b 159pp £52.12 (ISBN 9780299310905)

Ctesias from Cnidus was a Greek physician serving at the Persian court of Artaxerxes II, at the turn of the 4th C BC. Very little is understood about his life, but it seems that he was a member of the Persian court for 17 years before returning to Cnidus. Needless to say, his proximity to the Persian court and his familiarity with the royal entourage—he was present with Artaxerxes at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, and tended to the kings own wounds—should make him an invaluable source for Persian history, and indeed Greek history. He wrote a book chronicling the history of the Persian Empire (the Persica), beginning with the Assyrians, whom he deemed the predecessor of the Persians, and ending his work in his own time period. In addition, he penned a few works of geography, and famously one on India (the Indica) which, while fanciful in parts, still forms one of the most important accounts of ancient India, from the Hellenic world, until the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

Unfortunately, we are cursed with that common misfortune of ancient Greek history: we do not have any of Ctesias’ work in full. In fact, we have only fragments of quotes, usually without any context to the original works, or our information comes through epitomes, where we are left to trust in the thorough execution of a later writer to capture the true sense of Ctesias’ own work. As a result, Ctesias’ reputation has been left in tatters, with many of the surviving fragments creating an image of Ctesias as being unreliable, fanciful, and self-obsessed. His work is confusing, the transmission and tradition of his works are awkward, and at times historians have preferred to ignore him, or reduce him to their footnotes, rather than deal with these difficulties. W., on the contrary, follows a growing trend of Ctesias revisionism, and uses the Ctesias tradition as it exists to highlight an underappreciated aspect of his Persica: that Ctesias’ history has been deeply influenced by Near Eastern literary tropes.

W. begins with a concise introduction to Ctesias, his works, and its transmission. Following this, he splits his book into three mini case-studies which plunges the reader into some of the most exciting and riveting elements of Ctesias’ writing. In chapter 1, W. masterfully, and in my opinion successfully, deals with the issue of Ctesias’ obsession with eunuchs, based on an examination of linguistics (not as intimidating as it sounds). W. uses Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian evidence to argue that Ctesias conflated various administrative positions, evident in the literature, to create a character-type, his eunuch. All of these eunuchs play roles that can be linked to real Persian practices, but ultimately we cannot determine whether or not any given eunuch was actually a ‘eunuch’, or has been merely so labelled by Ctesias.

He examines the story of the legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis in chapter 2, and compares Ctesias’ version (via Diodorus of Sicily) with other Assyrian figures such as Sargon of Akkad. W. shows how Ctesias appears to be reflecting many of the literary tropes that feature in Sargon’s legend. He finishes this chapter with a fascinating, yet disappointingly small, entry comparing Semiramis with the goddess Ishtar.

Chapter 3 is the most interesting historically, as W. goes through the murky issue of Ctesias’ account of the life of Cyrus the Great, which differs greatly from other versions that have survived. W.’s suggestions make sense, and give credence to parts of Ctesias’ version, yet he is not averse to revealing the mistakes that Ctesias does make.

Chapter 4 is not a case study but an expansion of his main thesis: that Ctesias seems to be adapting Near Eastern legends. W. focuses on the legends of Arbakes and Belesys, Parsondes and Nanaros, and Zarinaia and Stryangaios to assert his argument, plus an additional section on the historical saga of Megabyzus. W. finishes his book with a concise conclusion, an appendix of Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian kings, a plethora of notes and an extensive bibliography.

This book makes for a very enjoyable read. W.’s academic diligence and expertise are closely matched by his ability to tell a story. His reassessment of Ctesias is a must-read for any doubters, or for anyone interested in the ancient Near East in general. W.’s work should be a staple of any reading list for Achaemenid history.

Owen Rees

 

 

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