Persians: The Age of the Great Kings by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones - review by Antony Spawforth

Antony Spawforth

The House that Cyrus Built

Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Wildfire 448pp £25

Xerxes, the king of Persia who vanquished the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 BC, is arguably best known today from his colourful portrayal in the Warner Bros film 300 as a ‘menacing despot’ and ‘an eastern malevolence’. As Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones shows in his lively and highly readable revisionist history
of the rule of the Persian ‘Great Kings’ (c 590–330 BC), our image of Xerxes ultimately reflects the distortions of Herodotus. This ancient Greek historian in turn helped sow the seeds of what Edward Said would define as ‘Orientalism’ – a Western reflex of cultural condescension towards the peoples and societies of the East.

Herodotean misrepresentations include Xerxes the tree-hugger, a dotty autocrat who falls in love with a roadside plane tree during his march to Greece (the episode is further sent up in Handel’s comic opera Serse). The author’s familiarity with the non-classical, Near Eastern sources – a great strength of this account – permits a corrective: like the Assyrians and Sumerians, the Persians had a ‘deep, religious reverence for trees’. Unsurprisingly, the author maintains his distance from Herodotus, although he makes heavy use of the work of Ctesias, a Greek doctor at the Persian court, whose fragmentary history of Persia he helped to translate into English in 2010.

The book takes the Great Kings in chronological order, starting with the empire’s founder, Cyrus II (died 530 BC). Cyrus was succeeded by two of his sons, but in 522 BC the throne was usurped. The interloper, Darius I, sought to graft his ancestry onto that of Cyrus

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