Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography

  Parmegianni, Giovanni. 2014. Between Thucydides and Polybius: The Golden Age of Greek Historiography. Hellenic Studies Series 64. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

9. Greek Monographs on the Persian World: The Fourth Century BCE and its innovations

Dominique Lenfant

While it is the best-known Greek monograph on the Persian world, Ctesias’ Persica is often cited today as an illustration of the supposed decadence of the historical genre in the fourth century BCE. One symptom of this ‘decay’ is Ctesias’ choice of subject matter: rather than a politico-military history focused on the contemporary Greek world, Ctesias’ history concerns conflicts that took place within the Persian Empire—court intrigues, for example, and local revolts. The apparent decline has also been observed in Ctesias’ historical method and is linked to his alleged motivation for writing history: the vain desire to supplant Herodotus, rather than the search for truth that is thought to lie behind the projects of Herodotus and Thucydides. [1] Ctesias has, moreover, been accused of ethnic prejudices, particularly in his malicious portrayal of the Persian court. [2] Similar charges have also been brought against Dinon, a later writer of a Persica, who tends to be seen in relation to Ctesias as Ctesias is to Herodotus, namely as a plagiarist who tweaks the text in order to conceal his plagiarism. [3]

1. Fourth-Century Persica: disparity and unity

Before defining the common features of the Persica, however, it is necessary to assess the state of our knowledge, which depends entirely on fragments.

What can we know about the Persica?

Some Clear Disparities

In fact, Heracleides’ work is generally thought to be distinctive in two regards: first, it contained more description than narration; and second, it was serious work and thus quite unlike Ctesias’ fanciful account. One might certainly have reservations about labelling an author as either serious or fanciful, [13] about the influence of Athenaeus’ method of selection, or about the qualities that modern scholars sometimes generously assign to works that are almost completely unknown. [14] But there are several arguments in favor of seeing Heracleides’ work, if not as completely divergent from the other Persica, still as markedly different. It is striking, first of all, to note the quality of Heracleides’ fragments, those that have been transmitted by Athenaeus at any rate, a quality that is due not only to Athenaeus’ faithful reproduction of the original text in the Deipnosophists, but also to the significant information preserved by Heracleides himself. [15] In several fragments, for example, court customs are described with a great deal of precision, in particular the long passage about the King’s dinner (FGH 689 F 2), which has no equivalent in Herodotus or in the other Persica. The phrases with which Athenaeus introduces this fragment, in fact, suggest that it comprises two verbatim quotations, [16] so that, even if it were not representative of the whole, pars pro toto, it is at least a piece from the whole, pars ex toto. {200|201} It should be once again emphasized that Heracleides’ work was relatively brief: five books certainly do not allow for a narrative as developed as that of Ctesias, [17] and this supports the idea of a mostly descriptive account. [18]

Common features

The third peculiarity of the Persica is their interest in explanation: not only are court practices described, but very often their meaning is expounded. For example, the kings of Persia store in their treasury water from the Nile and the Istros because, as Dinon points out, [25] they desire to “assert the greatness of their empire and their universal power.” [26] But the most striking illustration of this explanatory tendency is provided by Heracleides in reference to the presentation of food at the King’s dinner; the historian is not content merely to give a precise description of this meal but rather takes it upon himself to interpret its purpose and utility. The pieces of meat cut by the royal staff are distributed to the nobles who have been honored with an invitation to the royal table, who in turn redistribute at home what is left of their share. Food is also dispensed to the royal guards as payment, which Heracleides compares to the pay of mercenaries in the Greek world. He introduces his description of this process of distribution with the following judgment:

Τὸ δὲ δεῖπνον͵ φησί͵ τὸ βασιλέως καλούμενον ἀκούσαντι μὲν δόξει μεγαλοπρεπὲς εἶναι͵ ἐξεταζόμενον δὲ φανεῖται οἰκονομικῶς καὶ {202|203} ἀκριβῶς συντεταγμένον καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις Πέρσαις τοῖς ἐν δυναστείᾳ οὖσι κατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον.

The so-called King’s dinner will appear sumptuous (μεγαλοπρεπές) to one who hears about it (ἀκούσαντι), but when one examines it carefully (ἐξεταζόμενον), it will be found to have been set up with economy and parsimony (οἰκονομικῶς καὶ ἀκριβῶς συντεταγμένον), and the same is true among other Persians who exercise power. (Translation by C. B. Gulick, modified)

Heracleides F 2 (Athenaeus 4.145d)

It is noteworthy not only that Heracleides praises the good management involved in the setting up of the King’s dinner but also that he contrasts hearsay (ἀκούσαντι) with a precise examination (ἐξεταζόμενον), evidently both visual and intellectual. Two possible reactions are thus preempted here: first, a potential negative reaction to what could be interpreted as overindulgence at the King’s table. When Heracleides uses the word oikonomikos, he expresses the idea of measure and rational control, in the same way that he will emphasize that each guest gets only a moderate portion (Καὶ μέτρια μὲν αὐτῶν παρατίθεται ἑκάστῳ τῶν συνδείπνων τοῦ βασιλέως, “Of these [meats] only moderate portions are served to each of the King’s guests, and each of them may carry home whatever he leaves untouched at the meal”). The historian explicitly intends, then, to contradict an impression of ostentatious waste and useless outlay in order to avoid any misinterpretation and to contest the popular conception of the Great King’s tryphe, of a continuous meal, at which people abandon themselves to an easy and weakening life of pleasure. But in precluding this cliché of Persian luxury, Heracleides also rejects a second tendency: to record thaumasia and describe sensational practices in order merely to provoke astonishment. The prototype of this attitude may well be the famous passage where Herodotus (2.35-36) describes the customs of Egyptian people as being exactly opposite to those of the rest of mankind (women go to the market, whereas men stay at home; women urinate standing, men sitting, and so on). Along these same lines, another passage from Herodotus’ Histories provides an interesting point of comparison with Heracleides’ Persica: Herodotus says that on their birthdays rich Persian men “serve an ox, a horse, a camel, an ass, roasted whole in ovens, while the poor men serve the lesser kinds of cattle” (1.133). In this way, he leaves the reader to his amazement without adding any further details or exegesis. Heracleides might also have contented himself with such a tactic. But, rather than simply mention the extraordinary quantity and variety of meat that was daily carved at court, he preferred to add an explanation. {203|204}

One point remains doubtful, however: was this concern for such cliché-reversing explanations a distinctive feature of Heracleides alone? The fragmentary nature of the texts makes this a question quite impossible to answer, as is attested by a brief passage from the Deipnosophists that refers both to Ctesias and to Dinon and is thus considered a fragment of both historians: “The Persian king, as Ctesias and Dinon say in their Persica, used to dine in the company of 15,000 men, and four hundred talents were spent on the dinner.” [27] This reference lacks any form of explanation, which makes the information contained here seem all the more sensational. And modern scholars would probably have read it in just this way had they not been aware of Heracleides’ interpretation. The question, then, is whether the lack of an explanation here is due only to Athenaeus’ editorial practice. For several reasons, this seems probable. First, the process of excerption often entails the suppression of context and explanatory details. [28] Secondly, Athenaeus gives here only a brief paraphrase, [29] not a long literal reproduction, as he does in the case of Heracleides’ fragment on the King’s dinner (F 2). Athenaeus is in fact comparing the costs of Alexander’s meals with those of the King, so that any explanatory comments would be beside the point and might even interrupt the thread of his argument. Besides, just a few lines before, Athenaeus had cited the long passage from Heracleides, [30] and so he needs retain here only those numerical details that went unmentioned by Heracleides. It cannot be ruled out, then, that Dinon and Ctesias also explained the grounds and circumstances of these expenses. Ctesias’ account certainly does not lack sensational aspects, but we must keep in mind that we have no literal citation of his work that could be compared in length and textual quality to Heracleides F 2. Nor have any personal comments been preserved, so that some of his explanatory material might well have fallen out.

In any case, the fourth-century Persica lead the reader far from mere caricatures of the Great King abstractly depicted as a despot devoted to sensual pleasures and ruling over a populace of slaves: they give a far more vivid, rich, and balanced picture. At the same time, with regard to material items, they are not content merely to list exotic marvels; even food, exported from the ends of the Empire or distributed at court, is seen as a political tool. By stressing the common features of the three fourth-century Persica, then, one arrives at an understanding far different from what would have resulted from a comparison between Ctesias and Herodotus alone. {204|205}

2. The Relationship of Fourth-Century Persica to Fifth-Century Histories

Now that we have some idea of their common features, we are in a position to ask what distinguishes fourth-century Persica from histories written in the fifth century.


Fifth-Century Persica

The first is obvious: fifth-century Persica did not go beyond the fifth century, indeed not even beyond the first half of that century, and, as a consequence, the Persian Wars and the two kings who ruled the Empire at that time occupy a relatively large place in their narratives. In the fourth century, on the other hand, {205|206} the Persian Wars no longer seemed so central: they constituted at the very most only a part of the long history of the relations between Greeks and Persians and a marginal one in the history of the Persian Empire itself. This is true even for Ctesias, whose account of these wars, although contradicting Herodotus in many details, was nevertheless quite brief. [34] As a result, the fragments of the fourth-century Persica give the impression that the history of the Empire was seen more on its own terms. A second disparity is that the fifth-century Persica tended to be rather short: two books for Charon, at least two (maybe no more) for Hellanicus, compared with the 23 books of Ctesias and probably more by Dinon (Heracleides being, as we have seen, unique in this respect). Such an amplification is linked, first of all, to the time at which these works were written: several decades had passed, in some cases even a century, and this resulted in the accretion of much new material. But there are literary grounds, as well—the intervening publication of Herodotus’ account, for example, which is a third feature that separates fourth- from fifth-century Persica: while the latter are contemporary with Herodotus for the period that they cover and are, for this reason, probably independent from him, the fourth-century authors were well aware of Herodotus’ account, and this is not without consequence.


That being said, we should note that Herodotus’ shadow generally had more of an impact on Persica than did Thucydides’ on the Hellenica, for the simple reason that, unlike the Hellenica, which undertook to continue Thucydides’ project, Ctesias and Dinon obviously aimed at replacing Herodotus’ account with a modified, expanded, and updated version. This expansion is evident in two respects. First, because Persia was so different from the Greek world, Persica provide a description, indeed an explanation, of the Empire’s components and customs, with a predilection for practices and people of the royal court, all of which is lacking in Hellenica. Secondly, circumstances had changed since the period with which Herodotus ends his history: the Persian Wars were now long in the past, and Persian rule had again imposed itself on Greek cities of Asia Minor. How could a Greek’s view of Persia remain unchanged? {207|208}

3. Conclusions

The extended historical monograph devoted to a foreign people, namely the Persians, appears to be one of the new trends of Greek historiography in the fourth century BCE. By focusing on the Persian world, these works distinguish themselves not only from political historiography of the fifth century but also from the contemporary Hellenica, another sort of specialized history but one that was focused on the Greek world. At the same time, the Persica differ from the nascent universal histories, which encompass a larger geographical area, although both genres, Persica and universal history, have in common the fact that they go back to a far remote past and make a claim to supplant previous accounts. Thus, far from being merely a failed attempt to surpass fifth-century historiography, Persica of the fourth century paved a new way in a varied historiographical field.

This is not to say that these Persica should be seen outside of time and space as mere reactions to literary tradition, uninfluenced by their own time. It is important to keep in mind the geo-political, biographical, and chronological conditions in which the genre developed in the fourth century: these works were composed by Greeks from Asia who lived in contact with Persians at a time when the Persian Wars no longer accounted for the concrete reality of relations between Greeks and Persians, still less for the history of the Empire itself. These works, as we have seen, focus mainly on the sphere of central power in recounting its history and describing and explaining its administration.


Andrewes, A. 1961. “Thucydides and the Persians.” Historia 10:1–18.

Bichler, R. 2004. “Ktesias “korrigiert” Herodot. Zur literarischen Einschätzung der Persika.” In Ad fontes! : Festschrift für Gerhard Dobesch zum fünfundsechzigsten Geburtstag am 15. September 2004, ed. H. Heftner, and K. Tomaschitz, 105–116. Vienna.

Binder, C. 2008. Plutarchs Vita des Artaxerxes. Ein historischer Kommentar. Berlin.

Bleckmann, B. 2007. “Ktesias von Knidos und die Perserkriege: Historische Varianten zu Herodot.” In Herodot und die Epoche der Perserkriege. Realitäten und Fiktionen. Kolloquium zum 80. Geburtstag von Dietmar Kienast, ed. B. Bleckmann, 137-150. Cologne.

Drews, R. 1973. The Greek Accounts of Eastern History. Cambridge, MA.

Jacob, C. 1983. “De l’art de compiler à la fabrication du merveilleux. Sur la paradoxographie grecque.” Lalies 2:121-140.

Jacoby, F. 1922. “Ktesias (1).” RE XI 2:2032–2073.

Lenfant, D. 1996. “Ctésias et Hérodote, ou les réécritures de l’histoire dans la Perse achéménide.” Revue des Études Grecques 109:348–380.

———. 2004. Ctésias. La Perse. L’Inde. Autres fragments. Paris.

———. 2007a. “Greek Historians of Persia.” In Marincola 2007:200–209.

———. 2007b. “Les “fragments” d’Hérodote dans les Deipnosophistes.” In Athénée et les fragments d’historiens, ed. D. Lenfant, 43–72. Paris.

———. 2009a. Les Histoires perses de Dinon et d’Héraclide. Fragments édités, traduits et commentés. Paris.

———. 2009b. “Des Persica indépendants de l’empire perse? Enquête sur les usages d’un titre.” In Ingenia Asiatica. Fortuna e tradizione di storici d’Asia Minore, ed. F. Gazzano et al., 15–33. Rome.

———. 2011. “Ctésias de Cnide.” In Les Perses vus par les Grecs, ed. D. Lenfant, 96–107. Paris.

Lion, B. 2013. “Les banquets perses d’après le livre IV d’Athénée : points de vue grecs, points de vue orientaux. ” In À la table des rois . Luxe et pouvoir dans l’oeuvre d’Athénée, ed. C. Grandjean et al. Rennes and Tours, 107–125.

Llewellyn-Jones, L., and J. Robson, eds. 2010. Ctesias’ History of Persia. Tales of the Orient. London.

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[ back ] 1. E.g. Jacoby 1922, Bleckmann 2007.

[ back ] 2. E.g. Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1987.

[ back ] 3. E.g. Drews 1973:117, Binder 2008:65.

[ back ] 4. For a succinct presentation of Persica: Lenfant 2007a. For further developments: Lenfant 2009a. Edition, French translation, and commentary of Ctesias’ Persica: Lenfant 2004; of Dinon’s and Heracleides’ fragments: Lenfant 2009a. Two English translations of Ctesias’ Persica have been recently published: Llewellyn-Jones and Robson 2010; Stronk 2010 (Stronk is also preparing a detailed commentary). Summary and bibliography on Ctesias as a source on the Persian Empire: Lenfant 2011.

[ back ] 5. On other authors who are said in the extant tradition to have written Persica, see Lenfant 2009b.

[ back ] 6. Dinon: 10 fragments by Athenaeus, 7 by Plutarch; Heracleides: 4 fragments by Athenaeus, 2 by Plutarch.

[ back ] 7. Lenfant 2007b:63–67.

[ back ] 8. Dinon’s work had a chronological scope ranging from the Assyria of Semiramis to the Persian Empire of the 340s, and a chronological structure can neither be excluded nor proved by the (inconclusive) indications of book division in the citing sources. Once again, citations of Herodotus in the Deipnosophists are a good warning against reconstructing a work by relying on Athenaeus alone, despite the precision with which he cites his sources (Lenfant 2007b:67–68).

[ back ] 9. On Heracleides’ Paraskeuastika, either a work distinct from, or a part of, his Persica, but evidently treating the Persian Empire in the same way, cf. Lenfant 2009a:257–261.

[ back ] 10. This is why I have thought it better to speak of ‘monographs’ on the Persian world, rather than ethnographies or histories of Persia, terms that seem to suggest a descriptive or narrative tendency. An account of wars of conquest, local revolts, and crises of succession is well attested for Ctesias, thanks in particular to Photius. Although we are unable to rely on Photius for the work of Dinon or Heracleides, we can identify similar features in their work, especially for the period best covered by their fragments (the reign of Artaxerxes II).

[ back ] 11. Dinon continued the history of the Persian Empire at least until the 340s (Lenfant 2009a:51–53), whereas the terminus post quem for Heracleides cannot be defined very precisely: the 380–360s BCE (ibid. 257).

[ back ] 12. Although the scarce sources suggest at least 15 books, it seems more likely that there were about 30. Cf. Lenfant 2009a:64–66.

[ back ] 13. One may wonder how relevant it could be to consider, e.g., Herodotus as either a serious or fanciful historian.

[ back ] 14. Thus, Olmstead 1948:380 considers that Ctesias’ treatise On the Tributes in Asia was “a contribution to economic history whose loss is irreparable.”

[ back ] 15. On comparing Heracleides’ information with local sources, see Lenfant 2009a, part 3. For a comparison with earlier Mesopotamian sources, see Lion 2013.

[ back ] 16. At least this is to be deduced from Athenaeus’ citations of Herodotus. Cf. Lenfant 2007b:51–52.

[ back ] 17. Or that of Dinon in probably even more books. See above n12.

[ back ] 18. This is not to say that Heracleides’ Persica included only description. No fragment, it is true, alludes to the Assyrian or Median Empire, so his account may have been limited to the Persian Empire in the strict sense of the word. In addition, no fragment mentions the Persian Wars or what preceded them. The two narrative allusions, moreover, do not even prove that his Persica comprised a continuous story, since they might have been used only to illustrate some aspects of court life. On the other hand, we should not disregard the fragmentary nature of our information, nor the fact that even brief works are capable of containing concise narratives, as in the case of Charon of Lampsacus (on this, see Lenfant 2009a:14–16).

[ back ] 19. See Ctesias FGH 688 FF 11–12 on Dyrbaioi and Choramnaioi ; Dinon FGH 690 F 21, F 22, F 30 on Egypt, India, Ethiopia ; and Heracleides FGH 689 F 4 on “the country where frankincense is produced,” whose king is in fact said to be independent.

[ back ] 20. Heracleides FGH 689 FF 1–2.

[ back ] 21. Ctesias, Dinon, and Heracleides, passim.

[ back ] 22. Heracleides F 2.

[ back ] 23. Heracleides F 5.

[ back ] 24. Ctesias F 27.70, F 29b (19.4) and F 29c*, Dinon F 15b.

[ back ] 25. Dinon F 23b (= Plutarch Alexander 36.4).

[ back ] 26. See also e.g. Dinon F 26, Ctesias F 40, Heracleides F 1.

[ back ] 27. Ctesias F 39 = Dinon F 24 (Athenaeus 4.146c).

[ back ] 28. The process of excerption can be an art of fabricating the wondrous, as is shown by Jacob and Schepens (Jacob 1983 and Schepens 1996:390–394).

[ back ] 29. As the characteristic formula ὥς φησι shows. See Lenfant 2007b:48–51.

[ back ] 30. 4.145a–146a.

[ back ] 31. Andrewes 1961; Meiggs 1972:3; Wiesehöfer 2006.

[ back ] 32. Among the few common subjects attested by the fragments are the revolt of Inaros (Thucydides, Ctesias) and the meeting between the exiled Themistocles and the Great King (Thucydides, Dinon F 13, Heracleides F 6 [= Plutarch Themistocles 27.1–2]). Whereas Ctesias probably had not read Thucydides, this is less certain for Dinon and Heracleides.

[ back ] 33. Lenfant 2009a:9–24.

[ back ] 34. Books 12 and 13 of Ctesias included no less than the reigns of Cambyses, the Magus, Darius, and Xerxes (T 8 and F 13.9).

[ back ] 35. Ctesias F 16.62.

[ back ] 36. On this well-known topic, see Jacoby 1922:2050-2059; Lenfant 1996; 2004:xxviiif.; Bichler 2004; Bleckmann 2007; Lenfant 2009a:27–30.

[ back ] 37. Note that the Persian Wars only covered some 4% of Ctesias’ Persica, compared to 40% for Herodotus’ Histories (see Lenfant 2009a:315–316).

[ back ] 38. Athenaeus 2.45a–b = Ctesias FGH 688 F 37.

[ back ] 39. See Lenfant 2009a:238–242 on Dinon F 28.

[ back ] 40. That clearly emerges from the divergences between Dinon and Ctesias about the events surrounding Cyrus the Younger’s rebellion (Dinon F 15–17).

[ back ] 41. What Tuplin has said about the death of Hellenica (Tuplin 2007:168–169) applies all the more to Persica.