Book Review: Forgotten Empire

Forgotten Empire:  The World Of Ancient Persia, edited by John E. Curtis and Nigel Tallis

Whenever a museum seeks to look at a particular country as a “forgotten empire” one can tell that this museum is looking to secure a greater degree of popularity for its items.  And that is surely the case here.  The British museum acquired a large amount of material relating to the Persian Empire and wants people to spend money looking at it, and so despite the fact that Iran has a rather testy relationship with western nations, and despite the fact that the acquisition of its Persian artifacts may have been more a sign of imperialism than is comfortable in the modern world, this book offers a way for Western audiences to see at least some of the glory that was ancient Persia.  I don’t know if Persia can be considered a forgotten empire, for if it is not as well-known as ancient Greece or Rome, it is certainly better known than its successor kingdoms of Parthia or the Sassanids, both of which are truly far more obscure kingdoms than ancient Persia, which at least was famous enough to be recorded by Greek (Herodotus) as well as biblical historians (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther).

This book is more than 250 pages and is divided into twelve chapters.  The book begins with two forewords and a preface that demonstrate the alliance between the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran concerning the artifacts included here, as well as a further editor’s foreword and acknowledgments and a list of maps.  After that the book begins with a short history of the Persian Empire from 550-330BC (1) and then a discussion of Achaemenid languages and inscriptions (2).  This leads to a discussion of how the Achaemenid cuneiform was deciphered (3) as well as some discussion of the archaeology of the period (4).  After this there is a look at the palace at Persepolis (5) and the royal table (6) now in the British Museum.  Then there is a look at Persian jewelry (7) as well as some information about religious customs and burials (8).  The book includes some information about the administration of the Persian empire (9) and its surprising flexibility (9) as well as artifacts related to transportation and warfare (10).  Finally, the book includes a chapter about the troublesome relationship between Persia and Greece (11) as well as some discussion about the legacy of ancient Persia (12), after which the book closes with a king list and glossary as well as some illustration acknowledgments.

Is this a worthwhile book?  It certainly is interesting, even if I think I would have preferred a book that was focused more on history than on archaeology.  Yet since this book was published by the British Museum it makes sense that the focus would be on the artifacts, and that the history would be shaped around the artifacts that have survived.  Of course, those artifacts which have survived have been because of the accident of history, and have involved coin hordes and friezes and the like, and a decided lack of texts from the Persian perspective itself.  Whether or not this is a fatal problem for the reader depends on whether or not the reader is interested in the sort of material that the British museum has.  The perspective of the book, as might be expected, has a revisionist perspective that may be pleasing to some, but few readers are likely to be entirely unaware of the self-serving attitude of a museum seeking to promote a given subject based on the materials that they have.  Such self-interest is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly does add at least some worrisome aspects to a book like this one.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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