CJ Online Review: Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians

posted with permission:

M. Rahim Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xxx + 539. 9 b/w figs.; 7 maps; 15 tables. Hardcover, £65.00/$110.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76641-8.

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam

In this book, aimed at a specialized audience, Shayegan investigates the political ideology of the (early) Persian Sasanian empire. Shayegan envisages such a political ideology in the shape of an “Achaemenid revival,” that may have caused an (alleged) expansionist policy towards the Roman empire. The structure of the book appears conventional: an introduction (“Achaemenids and Sasanians”), four chapters (“Sasanian epigraphy”; “Classical sources: Dio, Herodian, Ammianus Marcellinus”; “Arsacids and Sasanians”; “Imitatio veternae Helladis and imitatio Alexandri in Rome”), followed by conclusion, epilogue, appendix, bibliography, and indices. However, the size of the chapters greatly diverges and so does their importance. Chapter one numbers 15 pages, Chapter two merely 9, and Chapter four 37; Chapter three, on the other hand, numbers some 292 pages and is divided in five subchapters, some of them split up into separate parts. The evident interrelation between the different chapters suggests that they might have been arranged in a more balanced way.

Much of the knowledge regarding the Achaemenid empire had vanished during the third century BC in the Near East. Nevertheless, the Arsacids (rulers of the Parthian empire) reinstated the Achaemenid title “King of Kings” (šar šarrāni in Babylonian cuneiform texts dating to the Arsacid period). After the Arsacids had conquered Mesopotamia in 141 BC, Greek and Roman authors suspected them of aiming for a reconstitution of the former frontiers of the Achaemenid empire. Up to now, mainstream conviction has held that the Arsacid “Achaemenid renascence” emanated from Iranian quarters, even though written tradition in Persia itself was very weak: in the medieval Šāhnāmeh, the Epic of Kings, no Achaemenid kings, apart from Darius III (and Alexander the Great, as some will assert) figure. To be honest, apart from some 20 lines, the Parthians (in Persian: the Aškāniān) are absent as well, underlining a firm Sasanian origin of this work.

In spite of the testimonies of some sources, Shayegan makes sufficiently clear that the Arsacid connection with the Achaemenids “owed its existence to the permanence of the Babylonian cuneiform tradition … which held records of Achaemenid history,” as he summarizes the situation (elaborated in Chapter three) on page xiii. This tradition linked both empires, creating a sense of historical continuity and notion of empire. The Arsacids got in touch with the Kingdom of Pontos as well and became thereby aware of how Pontos referred to the Achaemenids to sustain its political legitimacy. Pontos and Babylon thus formed the substratum on which both the “political ideology and cultural identity of the Arsacid empire was formed” (xiii). Shayegan moreover underlines that the Arsacid state was a highly centralized and ubiquitous state, an omnipresence to some extent served by Greek officials and reflected in the Babylonian documents as well. All these factors contributed to a successful state, in which similar values emerged as under the Achaemenids. Altogether, Shayegan adduces sufficient evidence to question the exclusive right of the traditional ascription of the “Achaemenid revival” under the early Arsacids.

Like the Arsacids before them, the Sasanians also were accused in Greek and Latin sources in the third and fourth centuries AD (namely Cassius Dio, Herodian, and Ammianus Marcellinus) of harboring ambitions to reconstitute the Achaemenid empire. Whether this was a mere topos for those authors or their allegation was based on their ability to value actual developments remains to be seen. Cassius Dio is outspoken, but the evidence is too scanty to allow firm conclusions; Herodian’s account is essentially based upon Dio’s. Though Ammianus’ scope is much wider, and may even have a Persian core, it is colored as well. Moreover, one might question how the Sasanians could have acquired any direct knowledge regarding the Achaemenids.

It seems unlikely that there was any (local) literary evidence on the Achaemenids in Sasanian times. Shayegan argues that the Sasanians became predominantly acquainted with the Achaemenids through Roman agency—largely as a consequence of the Romans’ policy (notably under the Severi) to assume Hellenistic ideals, the imitatio Alexandri referred to in Chapter four. Thereby the Romans essentially created their own enemy, presenting him with an almost ready-to-use ideology in the bargain. The literary evidence appears, however, too weak to prove decisively that early Sasanian territorial ambitions did go much further than Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia, in spite of those very literary sources. I believe, though, that Shayegan might well be right to assert that the idea expressed by Greek and Roman authors on Sasanian expansion should be regarded as a topos. If there ever was a coherent ideology in post-Hellenistic and late antique Persia, it has, so far at least, not yet unequivocally emerged from local sources.

I find Shayegan’s approach to the issue under scrutiny challenging, but am not yet completely convinced. His focus is predominantly on textual evidence, restrictedly on oral tradition, a very enduring phenomenon in largely illiterate societies. I would have welcomed an elaboration of his views in that field as well. The numismatic evidence is well used, as is art historical (Shayegan calls it archaeological) material. The Appendix (372–429: no page numbers present) is a welcome chronological table of published Arsacid cuneiform documents. The bibliography (430–502) is extensive, the indices (general, Greek terms, and locorum [with subdivisions]) are excellent.

Temple of Athena From Laodicea

Found another one from Hurriyet lurking in the depths of my mailbox (it’s a few weeks old):

During the excavations carried out in the ancient city of Laodicea in the Aegean province of Denizli, a temple dedicated to the weaver goddess Athena from the second century A.D. was found in the largest divine area.

The head of the excavations, Professor Celal Şimşek said the pieces found during excavations showed that the history of weaving dated back 4,000 years in Denizli, an area identified with the textile sector in modern Turkey.

“As far as we have learned from Laodicea, there are three temples in this 250-by-100 meter divine area. One was dedicated to Zeus and to Athena. There is a bust of Athena on a column in the temple. We are still searching for the god of the third temple.”

I’ll join Dorothy King in marvelling at the bust of Athena on the column of the temple from Laodicea. You can visit the original article for a small photo thereof, or check out this Turkish coverage, which includes a rather long video interview with Simsek and plenty of shots of the site (including an inscription/graffito I’m trying to wrap my head around). The video is in Turkish and I suspect he’s saying plenty of interesting things. On the ‘bust’, I suspect this would have been on the drum immediately under the capital, and so might almost be a Karyatid …

CJ Online Review Pitassi, Roman Warships

Posted with permission:

Michael Pitassi, Roman Warships. Rochester, New York: Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xii + 191. Hardcover, $90.00. ISBN 978-1-84383-610-0.

Reviewed by Georgia L. Irby, The College of William and Mary

Like Michael Pitassi’s first book on Roman maritime culture (The Navies of Rome, Rochester, 2009), Roman Warships offers more for the general reader than the specialist. This volume, useful for its generous and rich illustrations, technical in tone, affirms an understanding of ships and the underlying technology and engineering. Pitassi’s projected reconstructions of ship types are reasonable and logical, albeit speculative, as he himself frequently admits. His historical contextualizations are valid but generalizing. His work with visual sources is cautious, skeptical and informative: he asks, for example, how accurate are the 16th century drawings of the column of Arcadius, destroyed by earthquake in 1715 (p. 167). The treatment of written sources (primary and secondary) is less satisfactory. One wonders if Pitassi consulted the sources in the original languages. His bibliography includes only translations of primary sources (without supporting data, including place and date of publication), and he often refers to accounts as already filtered by other scholars: e.g., he cites Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Baltimore 1995) for Pliny on the use of cork floats used as mooring marker buoys and life preservers (pp. 175, 176 n. 4; see Casson, 257; Pliny, NH 16.34; Pausanias 8.12.1; Lucian, Toxaris 20). Citations are more frequently vague than helpful: for the spread of quadriremes, and Alexander’s use of them at Tyre, Pitassi (pp. 89, 113 n. 2) cites Casson (supra) without specifying a page number (Casson’s study comprises 370 pages of text, and 197 illustrations!). For Alexander at Tyre, see Casson, 97-98; Arr. Anab. 2.22.3-5. For the “sexteres” in the fleet of Sextus Pompeius off Sicily in 36 BCE, Pitassi (pp. 90, 113 n. 6) vaguely points the reader to Appian, Civil Wars (five books of over 100 chapters each; for which see App. BC 5.71, 73; Casson, supra, 99 n. 6). Finally, there are slips in historical and cultural comparanda and anecdotes. One example: Hadrian did not visit all of the provinces, contra Pitassi, (p. 134). Neither literary nor archaeological evidence attests Hadrian’s presence in Aquitania, Lusitania, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, Cyrene, or Cyprus.

Nine chapters divide into two parts: “Interpretation” (Part I) consisting of three general chapters on sources, terminology, and ship Technische; and “The Ships” (Part II) comprising five technical chapters devoted chronologically to ship types. In his “Introduction” (Ch. 1), Pitassi addresses problems with extant sources. Despite over 1,000 recorded wrecks, no actual ship, military or merchant, survives intact. Literary sources refer to, but fail to describe in detail, the ships (Caesar rightly assumed that his readers were sufficiently familiar with Roman warships: BG 4.24-25; BC 1.36, 2.23). Visual sources are interpretive, stylized, and selective by nature (coins show usually only the prow of a ship or a ram, but never the entire vessel). Pitassi treats the universal components of ancient ships in two chapters “Interpreting the Sources” (Ch. 2) and “Fittings” (Ch. 3). Pitassi’s accessible précis of the complex systems of oars developed by the Greeks, bolstered by clearly labeled and plentiful illustrations, including his own models, neither advances nor refutes earlier accounts (e.g., J. S. Morrison and R. T. Williams, Greek Oared Ships, 900–322 B.C. (Cambridge 1968)). The author addresses nautical mechanics (pp. 21–6), exploring technical considerations of mechanical efficiency, the vertical and horizontal challenges of propelling a vehicle by oar power, and the ideal maximum sizes of ships (including ratios of length to beam, and height to draft). Helpful also is Pitassi’s catalogue of ship fittings (Ch. 3) including components (figureheads, foredecks, etc.), rigging (sails and lines), and equipment (artillery, pumps, gangways), with references to literary sources and material remains.

In the second part, Pitassi turns his attentions specifically to Roman warships, cataloguing the types chronologically: Ch. 4, “The Earliest Types: Eighth to Fourth Centuries BC”; Ch. 5, “Naval Ascendancy: Third to Second Centuries BC”; Ch. 6, “Civil Wars and Imperial Fleets: First Centuries BC and AD” (when smaller river craft begin to evolve); Ch. 7, “Height of Empire: Second to Third Centuries AD” (a period of largely unchallenged maritime domination, when the fleet is neglected for the army in the field); Ch. 8, “The Late Empire: Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD” (although Roman sources are abysmally lacking, there survive useful comparanda with contemporary ships of northern Europe; at this time the fleets of the northern provinces were strengthened with the development of new ship types including the triaconter and lusoria); Ch. 9, “Terminus” (on the late empire). Each chapter begins with historical contextualization and then launches into descriptions of each type as prevalent during a given military era: monoreme, bireme, trireme, quinquereme, quadrireme, liburna, celox (a descriptor rather than a type), exploratoriae, lusoria, and others. The subsections detailing the types include discussion of the evolution of the type, its adaptation from other forms, tactical merits and disadvantages, and projected dimensions, including suggested crew strengths, length, beam, and draft. Interesting are Pitassi’s final remarks on the continuity of the Roman naval tradition (the technology was never rendered obsolete, and new types developed only in answer to specific purposes, such as riverine patrol), and its enduring legacy (the poop deck is the puppis; a skiff, small boat, a scapha).

Pitassi’s work concludes with four constructive appendices: App. 1, “Service Lives of Ship Types” (a quick and ready spreadsheet of the chronology of the types); App. 2, “Types of Roman Warships”; App. 3, “Gazetteer: Where to See Roman Boats and Ships”; App. 4, “Glossary of Nautical Terms Used”(sufficiently accurate, but inviting some quibbles, e.g., s.v. “LATEEN,” Pitassi omits that such sails are triangular; s.v. “RIG,” any self-respecting sailor would shudder at the use of “rope” for “line”).

The book does not pretend to be something that it is not and, for the most part, succeeds in accomplishing the author’s aims, quibbles aside. The novice will be well-served, and academics who focus on non-maritime aspects of Roman history will find here a handy précis of Roman warships, their capabilities, and their weaknesses.