10. The Sick Man of Asia?

Christopher Tuplin
If you will take, I don’t say unlimited time or many generations, but only these last fifty years immediately preceding our generation, you will be able to understand the cruelty of Fortune. For can you suppose, if some god had warned the Persians or their king, or the Macedonians or their king, that in fifty years the very name of the Persians, who once were masters of the world, would have been lost, and that the Macedonians, whose name was before scarcely known, would become masters of it all, that they would have believed it? Nevertheless it is true that Fortune, whose influence on our life is incalculable, who displays her power by surprises, is even now I think, showing all mankind, by her elevation of the Macedonians into the high prosperity once enjoyed by the Persians, that she has merely lent them these advantages until she may otherwise determine concerning them. (Translation by E. Schuckburgh)
Demetrius of Phalerum FGH 228 F 39 (Polybius 29.21)
The question that this paper seeks to address is simple: did fourth-century Greek historiography about Persia give the lie to Demetrius by displaying anys sense that the Achaemenid Empire might not be a permanent part of the geo-political landscape? The question is only truly significant if we are speaking of historiographical texts produced before the Empire’s non-permanence was revealed by the Macedonian conquest. But that line of demarcation is not always easy to establish and, in any case, the topic evokes the slightly wider question of the types of explanation given (at whatever date, though relatively early) for the potential or actual vulnerability of the Empire. The range of texts under consideration must therefore be extended a little. Moreover, at least to provide some sense of context, there needs to be an extension that is not only chronological: texts that are not strictly or at all historiographical come into view too. Let me start, therefore, by defining a little more precisely the authors with whom I am concerned.
First, there are the authors of historical works specifically devoted to Persia, i.e. Ctesias, Dinon, and Heraclides. Ctesias’ work was produced towards the beginning of century and is certainly that of someone who had not seen the fall of the empire. We cannot affirm this for sure with regards to the other two—nor can we deny it. That uncertainty already means that we cannot be doctrinaire about the 334 BCE limit, since it would paradoxical to exclude one, or even two, of the Persica-writers from our investigation. [1] It is perhaps worth stressing that, while something can be said of Ctesias’ explicit posture as a historian (cf. Tuplin 2004a), no programmatic statements survive from Heraclides or Dinon, and the scope of their works is rather obscure. (Did Heraclides provide much in the way of narrative history? Did he actually write two different works? How long a historical period did Dinon cover?) Next are the historical works that included material about Persia because the states that were the principal focus of their interest came into contact and conflict with the Achaemenid Empire: this category embraces works on pre-Alexandrine Greek history by Xenophon, Theopompus, Cratippus, the Oxyrhynchus historian, Callisthenes, Anaximenes, and Ephorus—at least some of which were products in part of the conquest era. [2] We should also put Thucydides’ Book 8 here, since it is reasonable to regard it as an early fourth-century product. Thirdly, we have the Alexander historians: ex hypothesi an intellectual product of the conquest era or its aftermath, they cannot simply be ignored as a possible source for explanations of Persian weakness, albeit ex post facto ones. Going back to the pre-conquest era, we then have, fourthly, a more miscellaneous bunch of texts: two works of Xenophon, viz. Anabasis and Cyropaedia, each sui generis but each in some sense historiographical; [3] commentary on Persia in philosophical publications (notably Plato’s Laws, but also—straying again into the early Hellenistic era—Aristoxenus or Clearchus); the works of pamphleteers and deliberative orators; and even poetic evocations of a Persian past from the pens of Timotheus and Choerilus. (Both might be wholly or partly late fifth-century authors, but both also reflect a resurgence of interest in Persia following her reappearance as a direct player in Aegean Greek politics—an event which is arguably the real start of the fourth century for our purposes. [4] ) Finally, we should not forget that many of the writings in these four categories survive in only fragmentary form. If we are asking ourselves about what ‘fourth-century historiography’ had to say, we are bound to take account of non-fragmentary texts (not necessarily themselves historiographical) written well after the fourth century that preserve material about Achaemenid history that is not attributed to any specific source but presumably derives ultimately from classical authors, and perhaps predominantly from fourth-century ones.
What we aim to discover from these documents is (a) whether there was a discourse uttered before 334–323 about the prospects for the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire and (b) whether any such discourse was produced, elaborated, or exploited by writers of history. The topic overlaps with the theme of Persian decadence—a notion that Dominique Lenfant (2001) has identified as a distinctively fourth-century epiphenomenon of the clash between Artaxerxes and Cyrus in 404–401 and the view that Artaxerxes was the unworthy winner—and the question of how Achaemenid historians should actually explain the fall of the empire. [5] A survey of that question by Josef Wiesehöfer (1996) reminds us that—both as historians of reality and students of fourth century Greek representation of reality—we should distinguish between decadence and abiding systemic weakness.
Many readers will be familiar enough both with the rhetoric of academic discourse and the substance of the material in question to have begun to suspect that the array of texts listed above is more impressive for extent than the degree of illumination it will cast upon our topic. The suspicion is justified. My paper (which focuses on Greek receptions, rather than modern historical explanations, and spends quite a lot of time with non-historiographical texts) is a report upon this sad fact.

1. Collapse or Weakness in Historiographical Texts

Our ideal would be to discover a surviving historiographical text that explicitly and unambiguously addressed the possibility of imperial collapse in advance of 334 BCE, and did so in the voice of the historian, not that of some actor in the historical drama. (The latter qualification rules out Hellenica 6.1.10, where Jason claims the King can easily be mastered because his subjects are slaves and his weakness is shown by the state to which he was reduced by the 10,000 and Agesilaus.) As far as I can see there is no such ideal text. There is, of course, Anabasis 1.5.9, where Xenophon comments that the empire’s lengthy roads and scattered military forces are a source of weakness, if someone makes war quickly, because of the time required to assemble a royal army. This is a serious observation, and a sign that Xenophon was minded to generalise from his observation of the younger Cyrus: the hypothetical war may even be to dismantle the empire, not merely usurp its throne. But the events of 401 demonstrated the difficulty of turning theory into practice. Indeed, the comment tends to point up Cyrus’ failure and its appearance is primarily to be seen in the light of the unsupportive overall attitude of Anabasis towards contemporary panhellenist ideas rather than as a contribution to a theory of imperial collapse. [6]
Denied an ideal source, we must look instead for historiographical texts presenting material that might have been part of an analysis of the empire’s potential vulnerability. To be more precise, we are looking for historians who dealt with an episode or an institution or other topic that could raise issues about the empire’s likely survival and who did so in a fashion that, whether by virtue of explicit evaluation or less tangible features such as disproportionate emphasis or literary manipulation, highlighted those issues. In searching for such material we can be guided either by our own imagination or by our awareness from non-historiographical texts of the sorts of topics that were sometimes adduced in the pre-conquest fourth century as signs of the empire’s weakness. Either way we are mostly deep into the realm of conjecture because we are characteristically dealing with fragmentary authors or an indirect epitomized or contextless tradition. I say that because, in the case of non-fragmentary authors, we can usually see immediately that what we are looking for is not really there.
Thucydides’ Book 8 presents a narrative about Tissaphernes that, visible in its totality, offers no reason to believe that the author saw in the Empire anything but a powerful and dangerous adversary. [7] The situation is not significantly different with Xenophon’s Hellenica and Anabasis. With a complete text before us there is no way that we can claim that occasional ‘negative’ features in Hellenica—e.g. Tissaphernes’ oath-breaking (3.4.5–6.11) or Pharnabazus’ mistreatment of Spithridates (3.4.10, 4.1.7 [8] )—are symptoms of a greater moral malaise that threatens the viability of the Empire. For it is plain that Xenophon is not concerned with any thesis about Persian weakness. Even the account of the 368/7 peace-conference, ending with Antiochus’ famous sound-bites—there are 10,000 cooks and servants but no men capable of fighting Greeks; the golden plane-tree is too small to shade a cricket—is much more about the inadequacy of Thebes than of Persia. [9] As for Anabasis, leaving aside Tissaphernes (who gets a distinctively poor press throughout the historical tradition), there is little real animus against Persia or the Persians and (as I have already suggested) the scattered hints at panhellenist themes constitute more of a warning against lack of realism than a considered argument that Persia is weak. This is particularly striking, of course, in view of the willingness of some to adduce the escape of the 10,000 as proof of Persian military inadequacy. In fact, to find Xenophon talking about the weakness of Persia one has to go to Cyropaedia. This is a historiographical text of sorts, but, in recognition of its peculiar generic status, I defer discussion until a later point in the argument. But I note now that near the end of his life Xenophon speculated that kings, tyrants, and satraps might be willing to invest money in the Athenian economy (Poroi 3.11). This does not sound like someone who thought the Persian system was going to collapse any time soon, even though (when it did) there were still people called ‘satraps’.
So, sticking to ‘normal’ historiography, the rest of this search for engagement by pre-Alexander historians with the intrinsically weak or actually decadent (but in either event potentially destroyable) Achaemenid empire has to be conducted amidst fragments and epitomes. And the truth is that it is next to impossible to find anything that really seems to count. Demonstrating a negative of this sort is potentially a rather tiresome exercise. But I do need to illustrate some of the possibilities that do not work, so the reader can see my criteria and assess my judgment. Turning this into an elegantly fluent discourse is not easy, and what follows is going to be little more than a list of various sorts of failure.
(1) I am prepared to guess that Dinon told the story of the visit of the wrestler Pulydamas to the court of Darius II and of his victory in a fight with three of the Immortals. [10] Someone certainly did, for it is in Pausanias (6.5.7). The story is emblematic of the superiority of Greek over Persian, but hardly a sign that Dinon (or whoever) elaborated a broader critique of Persian military qualities. Nor can I feel confident that there is any special point in the fact that, when telling the story, Pausanias labels Darius as “the bastard son of Artaxerxes, who had become king by killing the legitimate son Sogdius.” Darius’ success in emerging as the last one standing in the Year of Four Kings was certainly predicated inter alia on military resources, so one could, I suppose, say that Pulydamas’ demonstration has a special piquancy. But, as Dinon well knew, Darius was the king under whom a process was set in train that resulted in the Persian recovery of western Anatolia and the re-subjection of Asiatic Greeks to Achaemenid rule. So the victory of a freakish Greek wrestler might well in the long run seem embarrassing rather than substantively significant.
(2) Having started in the 350s to write a continuation of Thucydides (a work with no demonstrable specific Persian angle), Theopompus switched to the history of Philip of Macedon. But we have no reason to think he did so specifically because he saw Philip’s Macedonia as the power that could defeat Persia (and had seen this before the 330s)—indeed the absence of any report that he said anything like this is close to being a clinching argumentum e silentio against any such thesis. There are quite a lot of Persian historical fragments from Philippica, but we cannot be quite sure that there was a solid chunk of Persian history in Books 11-19 and there is no persuasive way of extracting a message of imperial vulnerability even from e.g. the mercenary-general Nicostratus (who took his son to court and made daily offerings to the King’s daimôn: FGH 115 F 124) or the famous description of Artaxerxes’ march to Egypt (FGH 115 F 263). The observation that there is a long established tariff for contribution to the King’s Dinner like that for tribute (FGH 115 F 113) is arguably a celebration of organizational strength, not a critique of decadent self-indulgence. (See below on Heraclides’ treatment of the same topic.) Artaxerxes’ comment (FGH 115 F 179) about the greedy extravagance of the Paphlagonian King Thys when a prisoner at the Persian court—to the effect that he ate as though he were about to die—might even pass as a pleasingly sardonic observation that reflects well upon the Great King. [11]
(3) The historian Anaximenes wrote a work with the evocative title Metallagai Basileôn (FGH 72 FF 18–19). [12] Two fragments survive: one names Pasargadae as the location of Cyrus’ defeat of Astyages; the other reports the competitive extravagance of Straton of Sidon and Nicocles of Salamis and notes that both suffered a violent death. Pasargadae is obviously a matter of Persian history, and Straton and Nicocles were prominent Achaemenid subjects in areas that saw significant disturbance at various times in the fourth century. Other sources claim Straton died (in the 350s and at the hands of his wife) after an alliance with the Egyptians, though nothing survives to link the death of Nicocles (before 354/3) with rebellious behavior. [13] One might spin from these data the image of a work that put the metallagê of Darius III into some wider historical context of the fate of kings and empires and perhaps dwelt on such familiar potential ‘weakness-of-Persia’ themes as extravagant truphê and provincial disturbance. But to do so would plainly be the merest conjecture – and assumes a post-conquest date.
(4) The Oxyrhynchus Historian famously commented on the unreliability of the King’s financial support to those fighting his wars (22.2–3): this would later attract comment from Isocrates (Panegyricus 142), but the awkward truth was that it did not in fact inhibit the King’s achievement of his goals. Indeed, the point of the historian’s report is that Conon was able to get the money he needed—and indeed secured more later by visiting the King, as we learn from Diodorus. [14] One could say that financial brinkmanship was a bit silly but since the King’s actual wealth is never denied, it would be hard for a historian to detect a potentially fatal weakness here. Where was the evidence that this sort of delay or the inclination to manipulate with money rather than deploy huge armies or the length of time it took to deploy large armies, all of which appear in the general historical tradition, were in the long run destructive of imperial power? This was not what caused major reverses such as the failure to conquer Greece or the late fifth century Egyptian revolt, and such reverses had anyway not caused the empire to unravel. The empire’s size did have implications (and not just those Xenophon noted in Anabasis): historians duly reflect this, as when Pharnabazus explains to Iphicrates that the King’s ultimate control from afar slows things down (Diodorus 15.41), but in their subsequent invasion of Egypt Pharnabazus’ on-the-spot decisions were a more important cause of failure than the length of time it had taken to mount the attack in the first place.
(5) The tension between Iphicrates and Pharnabazus exemplifies a phenomenon that recurs elsewhere in the historical record, that of conflict, often categorized as ‘jealousy,’ among members of the elite: one thinks of Themistocles at the Persian court, the uneasy relationship between Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, the defection of Datames, or the clash between Tiribazus and Orontes during the war with Evagoras. The final two items, like the problems between Iphicrates and Pharnabazus, certainly had locally disadvantageous consequences, but it is not clear that historians actually highlighted systemic weakness here. Significantly, perhaps, it is a theme apparently absent from non-historiographical critique of the empire. [15]
(6) Another interesting absence is satrapal rebellion. Isocrates happily lists regions over which the King (allegedly) had no control in ca. 380 or 346 or 339, but these are ethnically defined areas, and the only individual satraps ever said to be actually or potentially disaffected are the Carians Hecatomnus and Idrieus (Panegyricus 162, Philippus 104). [16] Philippus 104 does add that other satraps will throw off the King’s power if the Greeks promise them freedom (one thinks of Agesilaus tempting Pharnabazus with talk of autonomy in 394 [17] ), but he does not seek to prove this by alluding to the historical dissidence among Iranian satraps and any more general idea that the empire’s systemic weakness is demonstrated by such dissidence is never broached. So far as the historiographical tradition goes we can point to the fifth-century revolts of Megabyzus, Pissuthnes, and Terituchmes in Ctesias, [18] fourth-century troubles represented by Nepos’ Datames, scattered material in Trogus and the stratagem-writers, and a narrative in Diodorus. [19] Nepos’ categorization of Tissaphernes as a rebel who had apparently provoked the Spartan invasion of Asia Minor as a dissident act (Conon 2.2) is not a sign that someone had a doctrinaire view that satraps can be assumed to be rebellious. Rather, it is a post eventum Persian parti pris ‘clarification’ of history. What these have in common is that in the long run the King comes out on top. The Diodoran Satraps’ Revolt is particularly interesting: on the one hand, half the empire’s revenues were cut off, which sounds really serious; on the other hand, the rebels were spectacularly unable to maintain any cohesive unity. Modern accounts of the era doubt there ever was a unitary plan in the first place. [20] But, even if this were the case, we cannot be certain that historiographical claims to the contrary were meant to demonstrate imperial vulnerability: for the more rebel unity is falsely postulated, the more plain is its failure. As for uncoordinated dissidence, if Isocrates neglected it, I doubt the historians invested it with any more than anecdotal significance.
(7) This is the place to notice another oddity. Isocrates is not interested in Achaemenid succession crises; nor is at least part of the historiographical tradition. Ctesias retailed the Year of Four Kings, and Plutarch reports the deadly plots of the future Artaxerxes III (perhaps from Dinon), but both are absent from Diodorus. [21] This may be because the non-Persica tradition was in general unconcerned with events located in the court, unless they linked directly to stories from western imperial politico-military history. Two comments follow. First, this neglect means that the non-Persica tradition offered no thesis about Achaemenid weakness that centered on the luxury of the court or the unhealthy role played there by women or eunuchs: [22] Bagoas is an exceptional case and women barely feature. (Diodorus’ image of Mandane whipping up a mass popular protest against Themistocles and forcing the King to put him on trial is an odd exception in more than one sense of the word. [23] ) Secondly, when such neglect extends to convulsions around the throne it underlines the extent to which any Persian history outside the Persica is an epiphenomenon of Greek history. Any appetite for systematic presentation of Persian weakness would surely have seized greedily upon the instability of royal succession. The silence of Isocrates’ surviving discourses may be due to their dates, but historians had no such excuse. In these circumstances one has to be wary of assuming that anyone was thinking about the empire as such enough to be consciously formulating ideas about its future.
(8) We should bear this in mind when approaching items of histoire événementielle that are adduced in Isocrates as signs of Persian weakness, i.e. the escape of the 10,000, Agesilaus’ successes in 395/4, Evagoras’ revolt (and associated disturbances in the Levant), continuing Egyptian independence, and the Cypriot-Phoenician rebellions of the early 340s. All figure in the historiographical tradition preserved in Diodorus, Plutarch, and Nepos, and in some cases the mere telling of the relevant stories certainly offers an unwelcome spectacle from a Persian point of view. For example, it is hard to see how Evagoras could have got away with such favorable terms of surrender if Orontes had not accused Tiribazus of treason; [24] and the six aborted or failed attempts to regain Egypt before 343 are an embarrassing history, even if we cannot prove that all figured fully in Ephorus or elsewhere. [25] Our problem is that we cannot tell whether the presentation or explicit evaluation of such material exploited the opportunity for critique, and we certainly cannot say whether this happened in any pre-conquest text: for example, the Diodoran observation that Artaxerxes II’s failures in Egypt were due to lack of personal military ambition and reliance on generals deficient in courage or experience is presented as a foil to Artaxerxes III’s very different qualities. The Ephoran original is dangerously likely to be a post-conquest text but, in any event, since the context is Artaxerxes III’s success in repossessing Egypt, the critique would be at best rather ambiguous. But there are two things we can say on other episodes. First, the account of the 10,000 in Diodorus discloses nothing interesting, and Xenophon’s treatment is more about Greek success in very precise circumstances than Persian weakness in general terms. [26] Second, whereas Xenophon gives only a vague account of Agesilaus’ brief incursions into inland Asia Minor, produces evasive rhetoric about the results of the Battle of Sardis, and avoids any claim that either the Persian King’s life-style or Agesilaus’ political and military activities have actually done anything to weaken the empire, [27] the tradition in Diodorus (15.31), Nepos (Agesilaus 2.1) and Plutarch (Pelopidas 30) sees Agesilaus as planning the conquest of cis-Taurine Anatolia, aiming to attack the King in person, and fighting for possession of Susa and Ecbatana. This hype may go back to fourth-century, and perhaps to pre-conquest texts, but, since the whole point was that events in Greece involving Persian financial intervention wrecked Agesilaus’ ambitions, it does not seem to serve the thesis of Persian weakness very well.
(9) The most fully preserved fragmentary historian of Persia is, of course, Ctesias. Nuance and evaluation are elusive, but we are free to believe that the presentation of powerful eunuchs or scary royal women conveyed a message of difference, not inadequacy, and there is no plain sign that Ctesias postulated a decline in Persian strength or character since the early days of the empire (the same is true for the non-Persica tradition) or that Persian luxury masked or caused systemic weakness. (Ctesias does not even appear in Athenaeus’ major cluster of citations on truphê.) His record as military historian discloses no systemic criticism of Achaemenid armies: a comment on the lack of siege machinery was a purely factual one in an Assyrian context; and Artaxerxes’ apprehension about viewing Cyrus’ body while Greek mercenaries were still on the loose is no basis for large conclusions. [28] But there is one feature of Ctesias’ work (unique in what is preserved of Persica and other fourth century historiography) that makes it possible that he thought about the end of the Achaemenid Empire. This, of course, is the fact that it embraced the fall of two other near eastern empires. Were the lessons to be learned here? Can we imagine Ctesias pondering them?
In the case of Assyria the central features of the story are: (a) Arbaces’ contempt for the extremely enclosed, luxurious, and effeminized life of Sardanapalus’ court, (b) a Median and Persian desire for freedom, (c) the prolonged series of military actions (including repeated defeat for the rebels) required to bring about Sardanapalus’ defeat, and (d) the dependence of eventual success upon a conviction of divine support, an episode of complacency on the part of the loyalist army, and the exceptional weather conditions that finally fulfil a prophecy and break the siege of Nineveh. [29] This is quite a striking story. The Assyrian Kings had abandoned the military aggression of Semiramis and given themselves over to secluded self-indulgence generations earlier; [30] yet its troops still prove able to mount a strong defence—one that only fails because some higher force wants the empire to fall. Why is that so? Well, Ctesias is clear that Sardanapalus’ effeminization distinguished his life-style from that of his predecessors: we may say that it is this change (or decline) that engenders sufficient human contempt to provoke an insurrection and divine distaste to ensure its success. We might also say that effeminization is emblematic: it symbolizes a degree of truphê that is capable of undermining the capacity for self-defence. But if so, we must also insist that this is a model in which a less offensive degree of truphê can coexist with imperial power over huge periods of time.
The subsequent fall of the Median empire is a different affair. [31] Cyrus’ revolt is prompted by his mother’s prophetic dream, as interpreted by an anonymous Babylonian and further encouraged by the good-omened appearance of the Persian Oebaras. There are also hints that the Persians were suffering under a Median yoke, [32] but one has to say that in the surviving material these hints are not greatly developed and Astyages is not depicted in particularly lurid colours. There is certainly no discourse about truphê. What the process does have in common with the Assyrian story, however, is that the overthrow of empire requires immense military effort. Once again, the rebels are repeatedly defeated, and their eventual victory is put down to the desperation of a last stand (symbolized in the famous story about the Persian women’s obscene gesture to their menfolk) and the fact that (in some sense) fate was on their side.
Empires fall, then, only when their time has come—something that may, but need not, be the consequence of a change for the worse in their character—and only with great difficulty and amidst extensive violence. Fate may be unpredictable, but there is no reason why kings who enjoy their wealth and the luxury it affords in an appropriate fashion, and who do not play the role of military aggressor, should not rule for many generations. Looking at things in these terms Ctesias would have little cause to imagine that the Achaemenid realm had anything but a great future.
We cannot know whether he even confronted the question; but there are two observations that can be made.
First, there was no strong reason for Ctesias’ intertextual engagement with Herodotus to have prompted consideration of the issue, because Herodotus does not at all plainly propose a view on the matter. If we look at his treatment of the fall of earlier empires, we see that the end of the Median Empire attracts quite extensive narrative (1.107-130) and the underlying factors include Astyages’ cruelty (πικρότης) toward the Medes, Harpagus’ personal motive for fomenting the overthrow of Astyages, and the Persians’ desire to be free and to exchange hard labor for enjoyable leisure. In the case of the Assyrian Empire (1.103–106), what strikes one in the narrative is the story of the Medes attacking Assyria, winning a battle but then being interrupted by a Scythian incursion. Only when the Scythians are disposed of is war with Assyria resumed and Nineveh captured. But this does not technically represent the demise of the Assyrian empire, because that has apparently already taken place. The Medes have already become an independent kingdom (courtesy of Deioces) and acquired an arkhê, and other peoples have also asserted their freedom from Assyria: Nineveh is simply the seat of an isolated (albeit still prosperous) kingdom. So the fall of the Assyrian empire is not in fact described by Herodotus at all, and is only explained inasmuch as its subjects are represented as achieving freedom. That does, of course, recall Persian self-liberation from the Medes (so there is a common thread) and, in view of the fact that Histories ends with the Greeks of Asia securing freedom from the Persian yoke and with an example of what one might call Xerxes’ (or at least his wife’s) πικρότης to the Persians in the shape of the Masistius story, one could wonder whether Herodotus is speculating about the Achaemenid Empire’s vulnerability to a historically validated pattern. But there is no explicit sign of this in the text; there was no actual sign of such vulnerability by the time the text of Herodotus’ work reached the definitive form we now have before us; many readers think that the imperial future with which Herodotus was concerned, albeit sub rosa, was more that of Athens than of Persia; and the tantalizing final chapter which recalls Cyrus’ advice that the Persians should not emigrate en masse from their homeland if they do not wish to become subjects rather than rulers, while certainly inviting us to contemplate 479 in the light of the empire’s origins, is arguably as much a reminder that the fundamental change Cyrus feared has not happened as (for example) a hint that the mere fact of having conquered an empire and therefore gained access to wealth and the potential for leisure has undermined the imperial project’s viability. Reading Herodotus could, of course, have prompted Ctesias to explicit thought about Persian imperial collapse, just because any consideration of relevant parts of the historical past (presented by any source) might prompt such thought. But there is no reason to assert any special or specially peremptory influence. [33] Secondly, no hint survives that Ctesias commented openly on the issue at the end of Persica any more than Herodotus had at the end of Histories. The end of Persica was, of course, rather distinctive in the sense that the stopping point is not provided by any particular watershed event, but simply by the historian’s departure from the Persian court. The claim to autoptic and autecoic authority is central to Ctesias’ posture (or pose) as a historian, and it is this methodological feature that determines the scope of the work. It is true that the context of Ctesias’ departure means the introduction into the narrative of the latest part of a Greek political and military story that had begun in ca. 414 but (despite its implicit presence in the origins of Cyrus’ revolt) had been essentially absent from Persica. But I cannot see any reason to assign this more than contingent significance. The effect will have been that the steady continuum of Persian history was carrying on and it was simply an accident that Ctesias would no longer be in a position to report on it. By the time he published his work everyone may have known that this Greek story had ended in Artaxerxes’ favour with the King’s Peace, but it does not really matter. Moreover, if Ctesias’ story ended abruptly, the final element of the book was a description of the road from Ephesus to Bactria and India, and a list of the Kings of Asia from Ninus and Semiramis to Artaxerxes. This will have done nothing to undermine the assumption that the empire, vast in extent and heir to over 50 generations of history, was here to stay. The model for imperial collapse required a rebel from among the empire’s subject-nations. Where was that to be found? Cyrus’ rebellion was a story of usurpation, not empire-destruction and not one demonstrably intended to prove that the ‘wrong’ claimant had won, thus setting the empire on a downward path. It is not clear if Ctesias even mentioned the late fifth century revolt of Egypt and, although Evagoras would later give Isocrates a stick with which to beat the empire, his appearance at the end of Persica will hardly have struck Ctesias’ readers as the first appearance of a new Arbaces or Elder Cyrus.

2. Xenophon and Plato

I wish to turn now to two other fourth-century texts, in which the end of a non-Persian empire also appears in the context of a discourse about Persia, though their importance largely lies elsewhere. One is Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, the other Plato’s Laws, and so we are moving away from normal historiography. I have already deployed some tropes of non-historical criticism of Persia in the preceding discussion, but we need to confront certain non-historiographical texts more directly, since the characteristics and limitations of their discourse are intrinsically interesting and may cast light on what is likely to have been found in the lost historiographical discourse. It is worth stressing at the outset that there were, of course, people in the real world (not the historian’s study) who did not see a weak Persia. Demosthenes’ Oration 14 shows that people could believe the King might attack Greece—whether as a result of Athenian aggression or for some other reason, and whether after an eventual reconquest of Egypt or with preparation of an Egyptian campaign as the cover. [34] This fear of attack casts Persia as dangerous, and Demosthenes argues that the incurability of Greek internal dissension means one cannot envisage fighting the King except in a critical end-game, involving direct attack on Greece. Only for such a context can one produce any arguments to suggest that the King’s undeniable wealth and military power, including that derived from Greek mercenaries, might be less than they seem. And the evidence that Greeks would win a last-stand contest is precisely that they did so in 480; the claim is not based on any proposition about the character of current Persians or their military capacity. I would also stress that Isocrates’ position fundamentally differs from this only in its willingness to speculate that Greek political dissension might be cured. The alleged occasional or systemic weaknesses of Persia are primarily deployed as supports for the thought-experiment of Greek unity: Isocrates is saying that you can dare to think the unthinkable because Persia is not a wholly solid and impervious politico-military entity. We are dealing with an a fortiori argument, not with the listing of objective signs of imminent collapse. Some of the King’s successes may be due to Greek folly or his own exploitative φρόνησις rather than brute strength, but his local difficulties with dissident subjects are not irreversible (left to himself he may take firmer control of Asia again: Panegyricus 163) and, without Greek unity, the King is far too powerful to be confronted.
What, then, do Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Plato’s Laws bring to the topic? In a nutshell, a clear, if differently articulated, thesis of decline. I have alluded to the idea of decadence earlier, but this is our first direct encounter—and may be our last as well.
The final chapter of Cyropaedia paints a picture of contemporary Persia in which the decent habits of the past have been abandoned or subverted to produce a world of spiritual and physical decay. The first four sections of the analysis each contain explicit or implicit remarks about military consequences, [35] and the final section (8.8.20–26) addresses the matter directly with a claim that the ranks of cavalry are being filled with cooks, waiters, and body-servants. So we are certainly being told that Persia’s capacity to defend itself or attack others is compromised by a change in character for the worse that includes but is not confined to a surrender to truphê.
When did this occur? There are three chronological levels in Cyropaedia. [36] One is the time of Cyrus (that is, of the main narrative). One is the present to which the final chapter refers—in the reign of Artaxerxes and even as late as the later 360s. The third is elusive—it is the time to which many passages in the main narrative refer that say that a practice or institution still applies among the Persians even now (ἔτι καὶ νῦν), and it sits somewhere between Cyrus and the reign of Artaxerxes. The final chapter sets out to prove that, after Cyrus, πάντα ἐπὶ τὸ χεῖρον ἐτρέπετο [‘everything turned to the worse’], but this did not wholly happen immediately: the mercenary generals in 401 could hardly have been deceived by a belief that the oath of the Persian King or his representative could be trusted, if the morality had plainly dropped out of Persian behavior generations earlier. But Xenophon’s primary interest is not to define the rate or stages of this decline. His concern is different: he has constructed a quasi-historical narrative which provides a paradigm of excellence in arkhê. He now needs to protect the validity of this historical paradigm by (a) making clear that contemporary, mid-fourth-century Persians have changed, are not paradigmatic of good qualities, and cannot be adduced to disprove what is said about Cyrus (hence the final chapter) and (b) claiming that what Cyrus achieved, though not perfectly maintainable, was sufficiently grounded and historically real to apply in some respects for a considerable time after his death (hence the ἔτι καὶ νῦν statements). The two stages of change (dissension following immediately upon his demise; the subversion of good habits into their opposite characteristic of contemporary Persia) exist for rhetorical reasons, not historical ones, and it is no surprise that they cannot be tied down. Still one change—excessive and ill-controlled drinking together with the abandonment of regular hunting—is explicitly attributed to Artaxerxes (and evokes Cyrus’ reported critique of his brother in Plutarch Artaxerxes 6), and there is no reason to imagine Xenophon considered current Persian degradation to be of any great historical depth.
This real, but limited concern with post-Cyrean history also means that it is not Xenophon’s business to worry about the future fate of the current empire. Despite real stress on military consequences in the final chapter, no conclusion is drawn that the empire is vulnerable to destruction, and there is no inclination even hypothetically to say “if a serious force came against them they would be in bad trouble.” One might even say that the almost parodically satirical tone adopted to denounce contemporary Persia reflects Persia’s actual continuing status as a powerful force: in order to insist on the distinction between his historical paradigm and a contemporary national enemy Xenophon outdoes denunciations of the latter by politicians and pamphleteers. But in any case the focus of Cyropaedia is backwards to the days of the Elder Cyrus, not forwards to the prospect of a different geopolitical environment. There is a sort of parallel with Aeschylus’ Persians: that too provides an historical exemplum (one not about modes of rule so much as maintenance of bounds) and the future after Xerxes’ lament-filled return home is no more the issue than it would be if the ‘historical’ material were drawn from mythology rather than the contemporary world. Individual spectators may have been conscious of a dissonance between the ‘destruction of Asia’ bewailed in the play and the fact that in 472 BCE Achaemenid Asia was pretty much intact. But the play was no invitation to think about the end of the Achaemenid Empire.
Xenophon, then, provides an example of the ‘decadent Persian’ model of thought. The same is true of a passage in Plato’s Laws about the deleterious effects of Persian education of royal children (3.694a–697b). Cyrus and Darius, not brought up as sons of kings, were good and egalitarian rulers. The education of Cyrus’ sons, however, led them to τρυφή and ἀνεπιπληξία [‘impunity’ or ‘licentiousness’]. Cambyses killed his brother, was driven mad by drink and ἀπαιδευσία [‘lack of education’], and fell victim to a coup. Xerxes experienced similar παθήματα [‘misfortunes’], and since all that time ago pretty much no King has been Great, except in title. After an interlude Plato continues ἀνευρίσκομεν δὲ ἐπὶ ἔτι χείρους αὐτοὺς γεγονότας (‘they reached an even worse position’, not ‘their corruption increased year by year’, as Saunders 1970 has it) because they were too strict in depriving people of liberty and bringing on to despotikon; this removed τὸ φίλον . . . καὶ τὸ κοινὸν [‘friendship and communal spirit’]. Policy is driven by the interest of the ruler and even a slight prospective advantage means they make cities ἀνάστατοι [‘ruined’] and ruin and destroy friendly nations (ἔθνη φίλια ἀνάστατα πυρὶ καταφθείραντες). There is pitiless reciprocal hatred. The result is that they discover that, when they approach the demoi in need of soldiers, although they have countless myriads of subjects they are useless for warfare because there is no community-spirit encouraging them to fight. Hence, as though there were a population shortage, they have to hire soldiers, and they think they will be kept safe by mercenaries and foreigners. Their actions proclaim a belief that compared with gold and society, τὰ λεγόμενα τίμια καὶ καλὰ κατὰ πόλιν [‘those things that are regarded as honorable and good in society’] are just nonsense. The Persian set-up οὐκ ὀρθῶς διοικείται διὰ τὴν σφόδρα δουλείαν τε καὶ δεσποτείαν [‘is not well-regulated because of excessive servitude and despotism’].
A number of observations may be made: [37]
1. Plato has found an ingenious way to reconcile the fact that early kings conquered an empire with a claim that the Persian system was intrinsically weak—a weakness consistently present since Xerxes and already present under Cambyses. Plato does say that the Persians became worse, but the seeds go back very early: Cyrus and Darius are the accidents in this story. There is no mention of the Persian Wars in the remarks about Xerxes (they are reserved for a subsequent discussion of Athenian history) and what Plato means by his references to demolished and burned cities is unclear; if things got worse it is simply that the accident of history provided no further kings who had not been educated as royal princes and perhaps because the consequential effects mount up. But the mechanism, the rate, and future trajectory are not of much interest to him. (The statement “as of now Persian affairs are badly run because of despotism” even theoretically allows the possibility of change for the better.)
2. The basic principle is that lack of virtue and experience of restraint makes children inimical to κοινωνία [‘communal partnership’] and ἰσότης [‘equality’] and so forth. And it is the wider absence of these community virtues that matters. Τρυφή is mentioned but seems to be no more than an epiphenomenon. This focus matches the context in Laws: Plato’s concern is with political structures and the immediate context is a contrast between monarchy (Persia) and democracy (Athens), on the one hand, and a Spartan-Cretan model of polity, on the other. But it is not unique to Laws: Isocrates Panegyricus 150-151 is also more concerned with lack of equality than with truphê, and even in the Xenophontic analysis truphê is not the unique source of trouble.
3. It is notable that a specifically military conclusion is drawn. In a parallel passage about Athens the consequence of extreme liberty is figured in general terms as misery such as that suffered by the Titans (3.701c): since in the good old days before extreme liberty Athenians had been able to fight off two Persian invasions (3.698b–699d), one may assume that the Titans’ character as the victims of crushing defeat is of pertinence and that, at least implicitly, military ineffectiveness is the consequence of the faults of democracy just as it is of the faults of monarchy. Since, in Plato’s view, extreme democracy results in everyone thinking he knows best and so in a breakdown in respect for authority and the laws, one can certainly see that military effectiveness would suffer—especially as (again in Plato’s view) what made the Athenians able to defeat Xerxes was the beneficial fear that is learned by being subject to an ancient code of laws. But a question remains: is it a predetermined desire to figure the consequence of poor political structure as military weakness that dictates the allusions to this point in the two case studies? Or is it a predetermined idea that contemporary Persia is paradoxically greedy for Greek mercenaries that dictates the crafting of a parallel element in the Athenian case? One’s first inclination may be for the latter, on the ground that the point is implicit, and perhaps a touch artificial, in the Athenian case. But the wider context pits Persia and Athens against a Spartan model (which naturally evokes military excellence) and the historical discourse in the immediately preceding section of Laws speaks of the Dorian League (3.682e–686a) and its function as a military protection for the Peloponnese and Greece against, for example, the threat of an Assyrian attack in revenge for the Greek sack of Troy. (Modern Sparta is the only bit of that old league that retains its character and expectations.) So I think the question may remain open. In any event, of course, Plato is incorporating in his argument an externally given proposition: that Persia proved her weakness by employing foreign mercenaries was an idea already in the air.
4. What might follow from this is unclear. Both Persian and Athenian discourses end with a steady state—in the case of the Titan-like Athenians, presumably one stretching into eternity!—and it is not Plato’s business to speculate about the end of the Persian empire. The situation is thus like that in Xenophon, even if the processes that produce it are rather differently figured.
There is another difference. Unlike Plato, [38] but like Ctesias, Xenophon has a narrative embracing the fall of another empire—though only one, since there is no Median empire here and Cyrus incorporates the Median kingdom into his own realm via matrimony and the demise of the previous king. We thus move directly from an Assyrian to a Persian empire, thanks to Cyrus’ invasion of Assyria, defeat of the Assyrians’ allies, acquisition of Anatolia, and eventual capture of Babylon. All this starts because of Assyrian aggression and ends as it does because of Cyrus’ faultless excellence as a leader of men. If there is a transferrable principle, it is that empires fall when a tyrant’s greed for power provokes an exceptionally gifted opponent. That is a different model from the one in Ctesias, which depends upon rebellion by existing subjects inside an empire, not successful resistance to aggression by the empire against potential new subjects outside. It is also a model that Xenophon could not rationally have thought applicable to the current Achaemenid state: for it is hard to see how a state whose military arm is as totally corrupted as Xenophon suggests would be likely to engage in the sort of proactive aggression against new outside victims that the model requires. Should we, then, infer that Xenophon was consciously, if implicitly, arguing that the empire had no reason to worry about its future? Probably not. The model of Assyrian imperial failure is entirely a by-product of Xenophon’s need for a version of history in which Cyrus won an empire with no taint of aggression on his own part and against a background in which Persia and Media provide parallel inputs into his educational and therefore political make-up (hence a fight for freedom against Median imperial rule had to be eliminated). The applicability or otherwise of the model to contemporary Persia is simply not part of Xenophon’s project. It turns out, then, that, although both Xenophon and Plato are engaging in political analysis rather than historical anecdote and might in theory be more likely to think about the consequences of systemic weakness (especially when it involves an element of decline and therefore raises questions about change), they are in the event just as hidebound as everyone else. Perhaps what this really illustrates is how difficult it was for anyone to contemplate the possibility of a world without the Achaemenid Empire.

3. Decadence, Military Weakness, Despotism, and Luxury

I shall end with some further remarks on four themes raised by Plato and Xenophon. First, decadence. The acknowledgment of change for the worse appears in Xenophon and Plato for specific reasons that are not primarily to do with actual judgments about Persian history. In Xenophon it is needed to protect his historical paradigm from the distaste for Persia that he assumes will characterise many of his readers. In Plato it arises because his big project is construction of an ideal polis and his definition of some of the parameters operates within the model of serial constitutional change already established in Greek political thought. [39] For both of them Persia is a tool with which to think about non-Persian things. When this was not the case the issue of systemic change and decay was less important. I have already noted the general absence of obvious reasons to identify it as an element in historiographical texts—or at least the absence of evidence for its presence. More positively one might mention the surprisingly positive view of Artaxerxes I, whom various texts label as mild, peaceful and successful, [40] and whose evaluation in such terms may be unconsciously reflected in Plato’s contextually senseless statement that since Xerxes ‘almost’ no Persian kings have been great except in name. This is an aspect of the historical tradition’s way of dealing with the Persian defeat in 480/479: instead of any suggestion that the empire went into decline at that point (an idea that is not to be read into Herodotus and is vanishingly elusive in fourth century texts), [41] we have a positive evaluation of the abandonment of large-scale schemes for the conquest of new lands. Again, although Artaxerxes III is a less attractive character, there is a story that the magi foretold for his reign a great deal of death but also a great deal of prosperity (Aelian Varia Historia 2.17). The prosperity is figured as agricultural, but I think we have here the reflection of an assessment of his reign as pragmatically quite successful. [42] The trajectory of a king’s reign may have ups and downs (the aged Artaxerxes II cuts a rather pathetic figure) but with each new reign the story, so to say, starts again: the Alexander historians do not construe Darius III as intrinsically weaker than his predecessors (though some express more hostility towards him than others, and Arrian is particularly critical). A different version of this sort of continuity is the way in which in Isocratean discourse the King is generally anonymous and a strangely unchanging entity—so that, for example, one can speak of defeating the King in 480/79 and then making a shameful treaty with that same King in 387/6. More generally, indeed, it seems to me that decadence is not a very powerful feature of the Isocratean discourse about Persia. His tendency to adduce contemporary ‘proofs’ of Persian weakness is primarily a function of his wish to prompt contemporary action, rather than a belief that contemporary Persia is peculiarly enfeebled. A passage such as Panegyricus 150–151, explaining the impact of Persian upbringing and education upon military failure, seems comparatively timeless, while Philippus 124 postulates that the Persians were already ruined by truphê by Darius’ time. [43] Furthermore, though in some circumstances Cyrus can be deployed as an admirable exemplum, Philippus 66 and 139 picture the empire created by a foundling as from the start necessarily feeble compared with the realm of Philip of Macedon. On the whole, the idea that Greeks have suffered decline since the good old days is a much greater concern for Isocrates and other fourth-century observers than any comparable idea about Persians. And with good reason: in the clash of Greek and Persian, at least, the King had won in 386, and the diplomatic and political history of the next four decades repeatedly reminded everyone of this fact. This is as likely to have affected historians as pamphleteers. [44]
Second, military weakness. Xenophon and Plato encapsulate this in the proposition that Persians cannot recruit useful troops of their own and must depend upon Greek mercenaries. Isocrates makes similar observations. All three are talking about a phenomenon that, as a matter of fact, did not go back through the whole history of the Empire. Xenophon and Plato evidently knew this. Isocrates surely did too—after all Greek mercenaries as a class were for him a sign of a change for the worse in Greek society—but he does not exploit it as a sign of diachronic Persian decline. Instead it is simply a fact about the present that makes it particularly reprehensible that the Greeks fight one another instead of attacking Persia, as Persians had attacked Greece 135 years earlier. Readers of historiographical sources will find plenty of references to fourth-century Persian employment of Greek mercenaries—and may suspect that they are sometimes (e.g. in the Diodoran narrative of the reconquest of Egypt) accorded a greater prominence than the actual facts justified. But there is no way of validating that suspicion, and contemporary historians generally think it reasonable that the Persians should have made heavy use of them—indeed, even that the willingness to use foreign military technology is a sign of self-confidence and strength. Fourth-century historians are really displaying Greek chauvinism (there is more pride in the Greek contribution than criticism of the Persian use), and even in the accounts of the empire’s actual fall, presentation of Darius’ mercenaries is sufficiently nuanced to suggest that no one has radically misrepresented the facts. No one suggests either that he would have done better without them or that he needed (and knew he needed) many, many more or that he did not know how to use them—even if there could be awkward (even fatal) moments of culture clash between Persians and their Greek employees. [45] Stress on the misfortune of Memnon’s death is again, at worst, Greek chauvinism. Meanwhile there are certainly non-Greek troops capable of fighting well, if eventually unsuccessfully, in defence of the empire. The chances at Issus were fatally compromised by bad choice of battle-site and, in one strand of the tradition at least, the outcome of Gaugamela is made to turn on a false belief that Darius had been killed. In the Politics (7.2.1324b11) Aristotle still counted Persians among the barbarian races who valued the ability to fight: I do not imagine that his view was eccentric.
Thirdly, freedom and despotism. The corrupting effects of despotism are integral to Plato’s analysis of the poor state of Persia and prominent in Isocrates Panegyricus 150–151. Compare Jason of Pherae’s comment that the Persians practice slavery not ἀλκή (Xenophon Hellenica 6.1.12). Desire for freedom is also an element in the historical models for imperial collapse in Ctesias and Xenophon, but it is presented as a sentiment that contributes to the process rather than one that sets it going. Isocrates speaks of sowing the word eleutheria (the word that destroyed the power of Athens and Sparta) in Asia—at least among the ruling elite: the generality of barbarians are to be exposed to Greek supervision (ἐπιμέλεια)—but this is only relevant when the world has already been changed by an outbreak of Greek unity. Empires do not collapse just because people would prefer not to be ruled by others and, as Alexander showed, it is not necessary to offer much unambiguous freedom to displace an imperial dynasty. After all, when we are dealing with the succession of empires, not their complete demolition, freedom is a dangerous weapon. (What really destroyed the Achaemenid empire was not Darius’ replacement by Alexander but the power vacuum caused by Alexander’s death, and the only freedom that mattered then was that of one ambitious satrap in relation to another.)
One place where despotism and freedom play no part in the analysis is the final chapter of Cyropaedia. Xenophon wanted readers to draw appropriate lessons about leadership from his historical account of the creation and character of a benevolent autocracy in charge of an imperial super-state, and he needed to put distance between this benevolent autocracy and the ‘real’ Persian empire as known, or imagined, by those readers. So why did he not write a final chapter contrasting Cyrus’ state with the non-benevolent and tyrannical autocracy of contemporary Persia? Because he thought it would be hard to describe the latter without reinforcing the complaint that the work was an invitation to admire an alien political form. One of the lessons of Cyropaedia is that achievement of significant power involves a delicate balance between republican and monarchic modes of rule. Even in the terms of the Cyropaedia narrative, there are rather uncomfortable features to the rule of Cyrus in Book 8. Drawing a contrast with a stereotype image of contemporary Persian kingship (while concentrating solely on methods and strategies of rule) might not make readers acknowledge the actual necessity for manipulative autocracy in any effective exercise of power over others. To say that Cyrus’ nice version has degenerated into the contemporary nasty version may provoke the response that Cyrus’ version is actually nasty too. The whole thing would be additionally difficult if, as I suspect, Xenophon did not believe the current Persian system (as a system of arkhê) to have become fundamentally corrupted. The general principle of king, court, and satrapal elite, and of the control exerted by the first over the others through manipulative patronage still held and remained fit for purpose. What was wrong—or could safely be said to be wrong for the purpose of calming the reader’s prejudices—lay in the moral health of the rulers, not in the system within which they were trying to rule. Since Cyrus had been an effective general and Xenophon had a particular interest in military matters, it is the military consequences of moral corruption that are highlighted—including the repeated observation that enemies can wander around imperial territory unimpeded. That is an incontestable failure in a basic function of government, but it does not prove that the type of government involved is wrong.
Finally, luxury. The story here is not uniform. Xenophon makes recent truphê comparatively important among the causes of military inadequacy. Plato and Isocrates register it merely as one aspect, already present far in the past. The philosopher Clearchus is represented as highlighting it as a component of imperial failure. In one passage he says that Darius “gave prizes to those who catered to his pleasures, but brought his kingdom to defeat through all these indulgences, and did not perceive that he was defeating himself until others had seized his sceptre and were proclaimed rulers.” In another we read that the untimely and senseless (παράκαιρος καὶ μάταιος) luxury of the Median lance-bearers had led to the fall of the Medes (and turned the Medes into something like ἀγύρται [‘mendicant priests’]) and that the Persians adopted the practice of having (gold or silver) apples on their spear butts to remind the Medes of their former power and its loss. Does that imply that the Persians also succumbed to untimely truphê—and an untimely truphê that had always been there? [46] The claim has sometimes been advanced that a contrary view was developed of truphê as a beneficial aspect of Persian power. This is based particularly on a passage of Heraclides Ponticus:
Tyrants and kings, masters of all the good things in life, of which they have experience, put their pleasures in first place, because pleasure renders human nature more noble. In any case, all those who devote themselves to pleasure and choose a life of luxury are noble and generous: this is true of the Persians and the Medes since, more than any other people in the world, they devote themselves to pleasure and luxury and yet at the same time are the most noble and most courageous of the barbarians. In fact, to enjoy pleasure and luxury is the mark of free men: doing so frees and elevates the spirit, whereas to live a life of work is the mark of slaves and men of low birth. (Translation by C. B. Gulick)
Heraclides Ponticus fr. 55 Wehrli (Athenaeus 12.512a–d)
This is a remarkable text—so remarkable that it should be treated with considerable caution. What we know otherwise of Heraclides does not encourage the idea that he would have praised truphê in his own voice and, as Dominique Lenfant has recently argued, there must be a strong suspicion that Athenaeus has quoted out of context an argument that it was Heraclides’ purpose to refute. [47] There must be a similar worry about a passage of Aristoxenus’ Life of Archytas in which an envoy of Dionysius of Syracuse is represented as suggesting that hedonism empowered the imperial conquests of the Medes and Persians [48] —and there is perhaps a general danger that Athenaeus’ own agenda imposes a moral color on his treatment of this general area that was less pronounced or absent in the sources he is excerpting. Still the fact (if it is one) that Heraclides or Aristoxenus saw fit to invite their readers’ scepticism may count as evidence that the views in question were sometimes articulated, perhaps as a provocatively extreme version of the more general point that the Persian King was extremely rich and therefore, in principle, extremely, and enviably, powerful. [49] The frequency with which Persian truphê is, in fact, royal truphê is, as Lenfant has observed, a sign of its association with power.
Another text to note in this connection is Plutarch Artaxerxes 24. During the withdrawal from a disastrous expedition against the Cadusians, Artaxerxes made a sterling show of qualities of leadership amidst scenes of extreme deprivation and death. This showed (Plutarch says) that cowardice and weakness are not always the result of truphê and extravagance, as most think, but of a nature that is evil, base, and controlled by evil opinions. The effect of this apparent, if indirect, praise of the King is qualified, of course, by Artaxerxes’ execution of certain leading men after the safe return home—in which context Plutarch attributes to him the cowardice that drives tyrants to kill. Perhaps tyranny can create cowardice irrespective of character. But it is still not cowardice produced by truphê, and there really is a hint here that the luxury of the Persian environment is not in itself a systemic cause of weakness. [50] Was this derived from Dinon or is it entirely due to Plutarch’s moral assessment of the facts? We cannot tell, but the former option is not to be ruled out. In any event, we may compare, on the one hand, Ctesias’ treatment of the Assyrian empire and, on the other hand, two fragments of the other Heraclides, the historian from Cyme. These are the famous long piece about the King’s Dinner (FGH 689 F 2) and a shorter one about the independent king of incense-bearing Arabia (FGH 689 F 4). The latter displays excessive truphê and idleness, and spends 15 talents per day on himself, his women, and his friends. One could conjecture a telling contrast between him and the Achaemenid monarch, whose great daily expenditure on his Dinner is not μεγαλοπρεπής [‘magnificent’] but οἰκονομικῶς καὶ ἀκριβῶς συντεταγμένον [‘arranged economically and carefully’]. Heraclides seems to be arguing against denunciation of Persian luxury and consciously articulating the view that the system of which it is part is well-designed and robust: moreover, those supported by the King’s table include the King’s doruphoroi and peltastai; like Greek mercenaries getting silver, they receive food from the king εἰς ὑπόλογον. The precise significance of that unusual phrase is elusive, but it is not inconceivable that Heraclides was inter alia questioning claims about Persian military weakness—and indeed specifically criticizing views that linked such weakness with the consequences of truphê. We do not know when Heraclides wrote this, but the fragment is in the present tense and may predate the fall of the empire. Here, at least, is a Persian historian who cannot be said to have seen what was coming.
That the Achaemenid dispensation could eventually succumb to invasion by a grotesquely outnumbered adversary certainly suggests that something was amiss. It was not a system that most subject peoples were going to do much to defend on their own cognisance, so the invader had some freedom of movement except when a satrapal or royal army was on the scene, and when Xenophon said Persia’s enemies were able to move armies around within imperial territory, he was touching on what turned out to be a relevant point. On the other hand his theory about quick attack finds no close reflection in the events of 334–331 and was, perhaps, more appropriate to usurper than external conqueror. Still, in the end, nothing definitive could be achieved by either usurper or conqueror except at the moments of major confrontation between the two sides and it is on the devilish details of strategy, tactics, and the battle-field success and failure of men as individuals and groups that much depended. If no one predicted an appropriate scenario we can hardly be surprised. Fourth-century criticism of Persian morality, and celebration of Persian use of Greek mercenaries are expressions of frustration at Persian power, not confidence in its weakness. If pressed, many would have said the empire’s fall required a miracle; so if Demetrius, even in retrospect, chose to put the whole thing under the aegis of unpredictable Fortune, we can hardly blame him. [51]


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Sancisi-Weerdenburg, H. 1987. “Decadence in the Empire or Decadence in the Sources? From Source to Synthesis: Ctesias.” In Achaemenid History I, 33–46. Leiden.
Saunders, T. J. 1970. Plato: The Laws. Harmondsworth.
Stevenson, R. B. 1997. Persica. Edinburgh.
Tsitsiridis, S. 2008. “Die Schrift Peri Biôn des Klearchos von Soloi.” Philologus 152:65–76.
Tuplin, C. J. 1996. Achaemenid Studies. Stuttgart.
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———. 2004b. “The Persian Empire.” In Lane Fox 2004:154–183.
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Wiesehöfer, J. 1996. “Dekadenz, Krise oder überrachendes Ende? Überlegungen zum Zusammenbruch der Perserherrschaft.” In Das Ende von Grossreichen, ed. H. Altichter and H. Neuhaus, 39–78. Erlangen.
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[ back ] 1. The fifth-century authors of the so-called Persica, Charon, Dionysius, and Hellanicus, fall outside this investigation—although I do not know that we can prove that Hellanicus might not belong at the start of the long fourth century (cf. below at n4). But it makes little odds, because we know nothing that would illuminate their attitude to Persia’s exposure to collapse.
[ back ] 2. Duris (who covered 370–281) and Diyllus (who covered 357/6–297) exemplify a much later generation of historians, who had occasion to write of events in the later history of the empire but who would be of no relevance here, even if we knew anything about what they said.
[ back ] 3. I do not include Sophaenetus, whose existential status is decidedly dubious.
[ back ] 4. Plutarch Agesilaus 14 has people quote Timotheus (“Ares is Lord; Greece has no fear of gold”) in the context of Agesilaus’ defeat of Persians, who are figured as διαρρέοντες ὑπὸ πλούτου καὶ τρυφῆς. But that does not get us far. We have no reason to suppose the intellectual context of his Persians extended beyond Salamis to some larger proposition about the empire. What succeeds the narrative at the end of the poem is actually what seems to be a coded attack on Sparta for encouraging Persia back into Greek politics.
[ back ] 5. It is odd against such a background that the Anabasis is so totally lacking in hostility to Artaxerxes. Among other papers on decadence are Briant 1989 (which suggested inter alia that perceptions of Persian decadence were not simply a fourth-century phenomenon) and Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1987.
[ back ] 6. Cf. Tuplin 2004b, 181–182; Rood 2004.
[ back ] 7. Hyland 2007: 15–16 writes that “for Thucydides Achaemenid Persia was a dangerous neighbor, trusted too much by the gullible population of Athens, a natural enemy to any Greek polis with ambitions for empire. It was not . . . a strange ‘Other’ . . . but a great power that used its might in ways quite familiar to fifth-century Athenians . . . Above all, for Thucydides and his contemporaries, the Achaemenid empire was not a power in decline.” He adds that there is no sign of Persian decadence and no suggestion that Persia relied upon gold because of military weakness. This seems a fair summary to me.
[ back ] 8. Revealed in Agesilaus 3.3 to be a plan to have his daughter as a concubine.
[ back ] 9. Xenophon Hellenica 7.1.38. Compare Plutarch De Alexandri Magni fortuna aut virtute 342b: Alexander asked about armies, the position of the King in battle, and roads, not about hanging gardens, the golden vine, or the King’s cosmos.
[ back ] 10. Dinon FGH 690 F 2 relates to Heracles being defeated when fighting two opponents, which evokes the story of Pulydamas confronting three opponents.
[ back ] 11. That is especially true if, as seems to be the case, the story was told out of chronological context.
[ back ] 12. The term is used in Marmor Parium 109 (FGH 239 B 8) of the end of Alexander’s rule (“from the metallagê of Alexander and Ptolemy’s seizure of Egypt . . . ”).
[ back ] 13. Jerome adversus Jovinianum 1.45. The date was 351 according to most recent calculations in Elayi 2006.
[ back ] 14. Diodorus 14.81.4–6. Note also Tiribazus going to the King to get 2000 talents in Diodorus 15.4.2.
[ back ] 15. It is different from the claim that commanders treated subordinates and subjects badly.
[ back ] 16. In 15.11 Demosthenes argues that, since the King is apparently doing badly in Egypt, Artemisia will fear that he might want to use Rhodes against a move on her part and so will not mind Athens having it, and will not take it herself (which would put it in the King’s hands). This convoluted reasoning takes for granted that a failure in Egypt might prompt satrapal dissidence—though (again) in a Carian satrap.
[ back ] 17. Xenophon Hellenica 4.1.35.
[ back ] 18. FGH 688 F 14.40–42, 15.53, 15.55–56.
[ back ] 19. Trogus Prologue 10; Polyaenus 7.14.2–4, 21.3, 6, 7, 26.1, 29.2; Diodorus 15.90–92.
[ back ] 20. Weiskopf 1989, Debord 1999:302–366.
[ back ] 21. Ctesias FGH 688 F 15.47–51; Plutarch Artaxerxes 26–30.
[ back ] 22. Actually I am not sure we can really prove that Persica-writers did so either.
[ back ] 23. 11.57. In Plutarch Themistocles 29, hostility to Themistocles is simply ascribed to οἱ ἐπὶ θύραις.
[ back ] 24. Diodorus 15.8–9. Crucially, it was bad morale among the Persian troops caused by the accusation of Tiribazus that rendered Orontes’ pursuit of the siege of Salamis difficult.
[ back ] 25. They certainly do not all appear in Diodorus. Stevenson 1997 notes on more than one occasion that Dinon did not provide a proper description of all the Egyptian attacks. (She thinks, for example, that 385–383 and 373 were somehow run together and dealt with before the Cadusian War and end of Evagoras’ rebellion—hence the foreshortening in Diodorus, consuming Dinon via Ephorus, around the withdrawal of Chabrias and arrival of Iphicrates.) She stops short (142) of attributing this to Dinon’s absorption of royal propaganda, preferring to think that it is simply that Dinon’s history was too court-oriented to be interested.
[ back ] 26. Plutarch Artaxerxes 20 says that the escape of 10,000 proved τὰ Περσῶν καὶ βασιλέως πράγματα χρυσὸν ὄντα πολὺν καὶ τρυφὴν καὶ γυναῖκας but otherwise τῦφον καὶ ἀλαζονείαν which is neat, but probably Plutarch, rather than a fourth-century source. Polybius’ analysis of the enabling cause of the Macedonian attack as Philip’s perception from the 10,000 and Agesilaus that the Persians were cowardly and indolent by comparison with the military εὐεξία of the Macedonians (3.6.12) is not necessarily directly drawn from a fourth-century historian’s analysis (and certainly not a pre-conquest historian).
[ back ] 27. Agesilaus 1.33–35. Agesilaus 8–9 draws what is essentially a moral contrast between Agesilaus and the Persian King and, while it is said at the end of 9 that Agesilaus’ aim was have as many cities and people as possible friendly to himself, his motive turns out to be outdoing others in benefiting his own state, getting his own back on his ‘rivals’ (ἀντίπαλοι), and becoming greatly celebrated in life and death. There is no actual claim that the Persian King’s behaviour has actually made him weak or that Agesilaus’ behavior has made him strong.
[ back ] 28. FGH 688 F 1 (Diodorus 2.27.1), F 20 (Plutarch Artaxerxes 12). See Tuplin 2011.
[ back ] 29. FGH 688 F1b 23–27, 1oβ,1pα,1pε, 1q.
[ back ] 30. FGH 688 F1b 21.
[ back ] 31. FGH 688 F 8d 1–46.
[ back ] 32. FGH 688 F 8d 14–15.
[ back ] 33. It is perhaps worth saying explicitly that the idea of succession-of-empires (whether it be attributed to Herodotus or the Achaemenids) does not appear to bear particular significance in this context. See Wiesehöfer 2003, 2005.
[ back ] 34. Aristotle Rhetoric 2.20.1393b (Darius and Xerxes attacked Greece after securing Egypt) illustrates a possible line of argument in the context. Compare the idea in Isocrates Panathenaicus 159 that Argos and Thebes helped the Egyptian expedition in order that he could win great power and plot against Greece.
[ back ] 35. I.e. 8.8.2–7, 8–12, 13–14, 15–19.
[ back ] 36. Tuplin 1997:103–105.
[ back ] 37. Plato expressed a different view about Persian royal education in the Alcibiades, a work of the early 350s, so written before Laws. That calls the seriousness of the historical analysis into some question (though perhaps it is Alcibiades where he is being consciously playful and paradoxical). But we can still legitimately analyse the argument laid out here. The Alcibiades passage assumes Sparta and Persia to be the major adversaries with which Alcibiades would have to deal; so far as Sparta goes that was out-of-date in the early 350s and Plato is consciously assuming a fifth century setting, as indeed the explicit reference to Artaxerxes (I) shows. (Since Artaxerxes was already king before Alcibiades was born, the specific comparison is not terribly à propos either.) So nothing emerges usefully about views of fourth century Persia.
[ back ] 38. A passage in the discussion of the Dorian League says that the reason that it broke down was that kings in that era fell prey to aggressive and illegal greed because their life of truphê had made them arrogant (3.691a). I do not know if Plato thought the truphê of early Dorians (a rather wonderfully paradoxical idea) comparable with that of Artaxerxes, and I am wary of supposing that he would have thought of applying the model to the Persians.
[ back ] 39. The possibility of influence from, or intertexting with, Xenophon might be considered too. But the whole issue of Plato’s supposed reaction to, even attack on, Cyropaedia is rather tricky: after all, Plato’s attack on Persian royal education is not an attack on the actual education of Xenophon’s Cyrus.
[ back ] 40. Ammianus Marcellinus 30.8: Artaxerxes I’s invention of gentle modification of punishments (cutting off hats or bits of hats, rather than heads or ears), won his subjects’ support and he was enabled to perform wonderful deeds chronicled by Greek writers. Plutarch Artaxerxes 1.4: Artaxerxes I was gentle and μεγαλόψυχος. Diodorus 11.71: Artaxerxes I governed the empire ἐπιεικῶς; 15.93: he ruled well, and was εἰρηνικός and ἐπιτυχής. Nepos Reges 1.5 credits him with virtus belli. I am inclined to think that Athenaeus 12.548e really applies to Artaxerxes I, not to Artaxerxes III Ochus.
[ back ] 41. On Herodotus I agree with Lenfant 2001:423; cf. also Bichler 2010. Menexenus (239df.) stresses that Athens brought an end to the conquest era, but is not interested in articulating any idea that this set Persia on a road to decline. In the course of arguing against Philip exposing himself to personal danger, Isocrates (Epistle 2.7) is even prepared to remark that Xerxes, despite a calamitous defeat, kept his throne, handed it over to his children, and administered Asia so it was no less fearful to Greeks than before. The Persian Wars are adduced by fourth-century orators not as a proof of Persian weakness (for that other arguments are required) but as a means of raising contemporary Greek consciousness, of proving that in the right circumstances Greeks can beat Persians, or of claiming that one’s own state’s contribution to that great event was better than that of some other state.
[ back ] 42. Cf. Mildenberg 1999 for a modern appreciation of the King’s qualities.
[ back ] 43. According to Critias, the Thessalians invited a Persian invasion of Greece because they admired Persian τρυφή and πολυτέλεια (88 B 31 D.K. = Athenaeus 14.662f–663a).
[ back ] 44. Callisthenes’ choice of 386 as the start for his Hellenica must reflect its perceived status as an epochal moment. Book 1 also spoke of the Atheno-Spartan treaty of 369 and may have offered remarks about the Peace of Callias (FGH 124 F 8): perhaps, having picked the King’s Peace as a starting point, Callisthenes looked backwards and forwards to other significant diplomatic moments. That would be consistent with the panhellenist angle with which some have credited Callisthenes, but it hardly demands it. The bulk of the work concentrated on 378–357 and cannot be demonstrated to have had a substantial Persian element. The account of Mausolus’ synoecism of Halicarnassus (FGH 124 F 25) need not be from Hellenica and, if the 373 Persian invasion of Egypt figured in Book 4, all we have is a digression on Etesian winds and Nile-flooding (FGH 124 F 12) and, perhaps, one on the relationship between Athens and the Saite kings (FGH 124 F 51). Mausolus’ emergence as a regional power and the 373 invasion are topics that could have allowed the historian to question the health of the Achaemenid Empire. But it seems a bit of a long shot that Callisthenes did so.
[ back ] 45. Charidemus (Diodorus 17.30, Curtius 3.2.17–19); Iphicrates and Pharnabazus (Diodorus 15.43).
[ back ] 46. Clearchus fr. 49–50 Wehrli. For a recent brief account of Clearchus’ peri Biôn, see Tsitsiridis 2008.
[ back ] 47. Lenfant 2007.
[ back ] 48. Aristoxenus fr. 50 Wehrli = Athenaeus 12.545a–546c. This may well have been penned in the post-conquest era, though it attributes the observation to a pre-conquest observer. The problem is that Aristoxenus’ intention may be to expose the incorrectness of Polyarchus’ general defence of hedonism.
[ back ] 49. cf. Tuplin 1996:162.
[ back ] 50. The historical tradition behind Strabo 15.3.22 contrasts generally moderate (σωφρονικά) customs with a tendency for wealth to induce truphê. (The sign of this is that the Kings bring wheat from Assus, Chalydonian wine from Syria, and water from the Eulaeus. The articulation of this with the previous paragraph from Polyclitus about Persians keeping metal for equipment or as gifts or deposits rather than turning it into coinage is not entirely clear.) There may be a model implicit here of decline from an earlier age of greater innocence but no particular consequences are articulated.
[ back ] 51. This paper was written during tenure of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship. I gladly take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the Leverhulme Trust for its support.