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Update your ancient sources
The importance of the Achaemenid empire has not been highlighted simply because they were not victorious in the war against Greece



Evangelos Veneti
September 23, 2005

In response to The Evil Empire by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:

Obviously, due to the numerous historical inaccuracies and the biased attitude of the author, Jonathan Jones, the article cannot be reviewed. There are, however, some thoughts that can be expressed about the spirit of this draft. Given that my research field is that of Graeco-Iranian Studies, I would like to analyze these thoughts below.

The author of the article is apparently not in favour of the Achaemenid empire and ancient Iranian civilization and he appears to be an admirer of ancient Greek civilization. He praises the Greeks for their achievements and he underestimates the Achaemenid empire as materialistic, faceless and so on.

The author apparently does not have a thorough knowledge of the ancient past and he simply reproduces a romantic approach of the ancient Graeco-Persian antagonism. His views are outdated, to say the least.

There is no question about the achievements and contribution of the ancient Greek civilization to the advancement of humankind. Ancient Greeks have been credited for this and their overwhelming contributions mark a turning point in human thought, the results of which are still visible.

But what about the importance of the ancient Iranian civilization? Things here are different. Undoubtedly, the Achaemenids and later on the Sasanians have not been credited with what they really deserve. The importance of the Achaemenid empire has not been highlighted simply because they were not victorious in the war against Greece. Moreover, available written sources are in favour of the victorious side and our knowledge about ancient Iran depends on these sources.

Herodotus wrote history and, as many of his Greek contemporaries and others after him, he devoted his work mainly to the knowledge of the Other, the superpower Achaemenid Iran. The Greeks were interested in learning about the Iranians because of the highly sophisticated cultural level of the Achaemenids. Moreover, Ancient Greeks, before the fifth century BC, were influenced by the ancient Iranian civilization in various fields, such as science, religion, literature and so on.

Apart from the political antagonism between the ancient Greek and Iranian worlds, someone must see the fact that both civilizations were in creative interaction and coexistence. Ionia was the centre of this interaction in almost every field. For example Richard Davis in his ''Panthea's Children'' has insightfully demonstrated mutual influences in the ancient Greek and Hellenistic literary traditions. The results of this coexistence were still obvious after the emergence of Islam.

Jonathan Jones' biased article is a result of ignorance and a non-objective approach of the ancient past. This is due to the influence of the Graeco-Roman tradition in the modern approach of the past. Jone's article is only a sign of this wider misinterpretation.

Hence it is necessary to change our view and acknowledge the importance and splendour of the Achaemenid (and in general ancient) Iran. In the future, the development of Graeco-Iranian Studies as a separate research field is necessary and will academically contribute to the advancement of our knowledge about the creative coexistence of both, Greek and Iranian civilizations.

The exhibition at the British Museum, sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation and other donors must be saluted as a remarkable development contributing to the promotion of the Achamenid Iranian past and its interaction with the rest of the world, including Greece.

* British Museum: Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia
* Video: Channel 4 report

Evangelos Venetis, Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh. Homepage.

For letters section
To: Evangelos Venetis


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