Shadows In The Desert: Ancient Persia At War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
One thing that can be said about this author without any question is that he is a patriotic pro-Persian military historian, who leaves no stone unturned in his goal of presenting the strongest possible case for the greatness of the Persian military during the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanid Empires. Whether or not this obvious bias is a praiseworthy thing or not, it is sufficiently obvious that the fair-minded reader can discount the claims of the author while still appreciating the book as presenting a funhouse mirror picture of ancient history, one where the Persians are at the center of the world and the goings on of the Greeks and Romans are peripheral, which is in stark contrast to much of the way that ancient history is written . The perspective of this book is not one that should be repeated very often, lest it become as tiresome as other biases, but the fact that this book can be written as a compelling history ought to be a corrective to future historians who write about ancient Middle Eastern history to do so without more sensitivity to the broader sources available.
The book, at about 290 pages of core material, is organized in a straightforward and chronological way. It begins at the very beginning of Persian history, in the mists of antiquity before the Achaemenid dynasty brought Persia to glory, and spends a fair bit of time talking about the importance of the Median empire. The book then covers the three main dynasties of Persian rule as well as the brief periods of Persia under foreign domination, as under the Greeks. The author covers matters of military technology, the problem of cohesion and political legitimacy, the tension between the desire of many rulers to appeal to a broad and diverse set of cultures within the various Persian empires and the desire of the magi to enforce a rigid Zoroastrian orthodoxy, as well as tensions between different family members, who commonly slaughtered relatives as rivals to the throne, and between the monarchy and aristocracy. The author discusses battles on both of Persia’s fronts, showing Persia’s demographic weaknesses and the division of its attention between Western forces with strong heavy infantry traditions and Central Asian tribal confederations with their cavalry hordes, giving the reader both sympathy and understanding with the strategic dilemmas of the Persian empires during their history before Muslim rule, and even closing with a laudatory praise of the continuing importance of Iranian thinkers to the cultural flowering of the early Arab empires.
In light of the book’s contents, it appears as if the title is a reference to the fact that among many Westerners, the Persian military is made up of shadows in the desert, something barely and vaguely and only partially known. The author is deserving of credit for having gone the extra mile to find portrayals and evidence of what the Persian military looked like at various parts of its history, even looking at the historical reenactment of the 2500th anniversary of the construction of Persepolis. It is unclear exactly what Dr. Farrokh was attempting to accomplish with this work: if he wanted to provide a counteracting bias that is as pro-Persian as many existing sources marginalize or neglect Persia, he succeeded at his task, but if he was seeking to provide a balanced perspective that can be taken at face value, he overcorrected and the bias is easy to spot and fairly consistent throughout the book as a whole. In a way, this book is a missed opportunity in that those who are inclined to neglect Persian history are likely to see this book’s exaggerations as an easy target to pillory, but fair-minded readers will find much in this book to appreciate and enlighten and increase their knowledge about the perspective and point of view of the Persians throughout more than a millennium of glorious and successful military history, and that is worth reading.
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