Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”

Written by
Categories: Ancient
An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance
A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.

So Dusinberre talks about the thousands of graves identified from Achaemenid Anatolia. These have very different forms, some of which are more popular in some regions than others: pits under mounds, chambers carved into rocks, or simple pots, clay coffins, or cists lined with fieldstones. But Dusinberre points out that when graves anywhere in Anatolia contain metal objects, these objects usually belong to a standardized ‘Achaemenid style.’ It seems that powerful families buried their dead in gold-studded clothing and with ‘Achaemenid style’ eating and drinking vessels whether they came from Lydia or Caria. Similarly, sealstones in Achaemenid Anatolia had very diverse forms and were made of a variety of materials. Some were in hard stones like rock crystal, others glass: some were worn on rings, others hung around the neck or pinned to clothing. Some had no writing, others Greek or Aramaic, others cuneiform. But these seals were much more common under Persian rule than they had been in previous centuries, and they usually had images in a ‘court style’ carved into their faces. It would appear that placing your seal on documents was more important under the Persians than it had been under the kings and councils which they replaced, and that the men and women who commissioned them liked designs which associated them with the Persian elite. (On page 268, she compares the seal- both a stylish accessory and a serious communications tool- to the smartphone, and I think that this simile is worth thinking about).

A shallow bowl of beaten copper with a floral motif engraved around the middle
An Achaemenid drinking bowl from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the upper Euphrates. If the satrap ever invites you to dinner, it is chic to balance these on three fingers rather than use two hands or hook a finger over the lip. British Museum, Museum Number 108672. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This book cites the 20th century sociologists and anthropologists who excite some schools of archaeologists, and spends time on trendy topics like identity, kingship, and feasting. But Dusinberre uses these theories to understand the things which people did, ate, and drank, rather than using the archaeological evidence as an excuse to talk about some beautiful abstract nouns. Many men and women in the Achaemenid empire received rations of food and drink (hundreds of litres and several sheep per day for the magnates, and a litre or two of flour for humble workers) and drank their wine from standardized bowls of silver, bronze, or glossy black pottery. The shape and glossy surface were the same, while the materials varied. And Dusinberre suggests that the regular trip to the storehouse to receive rations (next to others who received less or more) made relative status clear to everyone involved, and that learning to gracefully balance a shallow bowl of wine between your fingertips was a ritual which marked members of the elite, just like the 19th century Métis made a point of drinking tea out of delicate china cups despite (or because of) the difficulty of carrying china from settlement to hunting camp to trading post. Moreover, the glossy clay versions suggest that these practices were not limited to the families which could bury their dead with treasure in a tomb decorated with beautiful paintings.

There are some gaps in the archaeological record. Dusinberre does not have much to say about rural life and agriculture, or about the textiles which once draped the bodies in chamber tombs and covered the surfaces of vanished couches. Apparently, newfangled methods such as pollen analysis are not yet common in Turkish archaeology. Also, this is not a long book by a team of scholars, so it was not possible to cover every aspect in detail. As it is, the bibliography of this book is almost 50 pages long.

I don’t think that many readers will understand and agree with every point in this book. Answering these kinds of questions with the evidence which we have requires sitting with the sources until something speaks out of the darkness, and that Voice is hard for others to hear. But I think it is important that Dusinberre tried. People are always going to imagine what life was like in the past. Most people do not have the patience to sift through lists of pottery and stare at damaged inscriptions in a language whose last native speaker died 2000 years ago, or the time to learn to read scholarly French and German. If we are going to invest so much energy in excavating and publishing things, I think it is important to have archaeologists who try to answer what life was really like, even if they are never going to reach the same audience as the latest drama on HBO. Archaeological books which describe and catalogue things are important, but so are books which try to present an overview and describe how people lived and thought and not just what traces of those lives remain. It certainly helped me understand why some people are so interested in ritual dinners or the idea of kingship.

If your rations are enough for the occasional feast, but you usually drink out of clay not silver, paperback copies are available for 40 GBP from Oxbow.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I read this book only two or three weeks ago? Together with book of Stephen Ruzicka, Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire, 525-332 BC (excellent book which shows You, that empire wasn’t military weak and many new archeological finds came to light = fortifications). I can finally say, I understand Persian empire much better, not just by military side. And some of my ideas, theories have now better backing. But, I’m worried about conveying informations from these new books and research to general public and above all, to schools, universities. I think most people knowledge about Persians are distorted by things like 300 (comics, movies), or Herodotus in better case. But back again to Dusinberre book. It is very good analysis and attempt to show life in Anatolia, elite circles, military structures! I always thought, that scholars made little effort to understand, how was life under Persian rule. From what reasons is their empire flowering, why most of the people supported empire? It wasn’t just by military force, cooperation with local elites. Be part of an empire was advantageous, for people, elites. System of storages, better roads, building programs for better agriculture, commerce etc. If You remember for Polyainos (7.11.3), one of the most overlooked reasons, why were Persians popular. Dareius took some share from taxes and gave it back to people. Money and system of rations, it must be damn good feast and career opportunity for many… At least I think, we cannot forget that in ancient time famine is frequent,food and clothes weren’t obviousness. Persians guaranteed these things, who wouldn’t support them?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Yes, it seems like a lot of recent research is focused on how the Persians managed to build such a large empire in the first place (and while 220 years is not the longest empire in world history, it is very long for a single hegemon by Mesopotamian standards: usually one king won it, his son held it, and his grandson lost it or died under suspicious circumstances). Maybe that was behind some of the research into kingship, back to Margaret Cool Root in the 1970s, but often that slips into studying beautiful art or ideology for its own sake. There is room for bringing the archaeological evidence (say loom weights and traces of pigment) and the written evidence (say lists of garments from Mesopotamia) together, but you would have to know how to get access to all the unpublished or poorly-published finds.

  2. Aaron says:

    “But I think it is important that Dusinberre tried.”
    So do I, Sean.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I wonder what impact it will have: it might be that ordinary readers want a bit less jargon from the social science, and specialists want something less poetic (her earlier book on Sardis is frequently cited). But it is the kind of book that you can dip into and come away with some interesting ideas and images, and its also a salvo in that old battle “if the empire is not very visible in archaeology, does that mean it was weak?” Dusinberre has been studying these problems for a very long time, and that gives a kind of knowledge which is hard to lay out in formal logic.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.