Friday, February 6, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Persians

The Persians
by J.M. Cook

Originally published in 1983 as The Persian Empire, this edition was republished by The Folio Society — meaning that the book is a nice package, with some fine maps, and some truly spectacular photographs of a Persian archaeological site. The text itself is informative, though very much focussed on the reigns of the Achaemenid kings; that is, it deals chronologically only with the era up to Alexander the Great, and sociologically with a very narrow slice of Persian society.

Which to some extent is understandable. The sources Cook was working from were primarily the Greek histories, which dealt with Persia mainly in terms of how the Persians affected Greece. A writer like Herodotus gives some description of the whole extent of the Persian Empire, but the viewpoint is still mainly Greek, mainly focussed on the western part of the Empire. Cook does a strong job of trying to reconstruct events and personalities from a Persian perspective, but the weight of his sources can’t help but pull him back to the Greeks.

I’m no expert in Persian history, but Cook’s own text seemed fine to me. He sedulously presents different interpretations and readings of sources; of course, it’s impossible to present all the evidence for and against an interpretation in a general history, but at least some note of other ideas is there. The writing is fine, if not gripping; structurally, the book reads well, though the next-to-last chapter, a geographical overview of the Persian lands, would probably have been better off at the start of the book. This is a solid book that tries its best to give a Persian focus to Persian history; I can’t help but wonder how much farther that aim has gone in the past quarter-century.

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