W08 – Ancient Iran and the Heritage of the Ancient Near East

Organizer: M. Rahim Shayegan (University of California, Los Angeles)


  1. Maria Brosius (University of Toronto)
  2. Dan Beckman (Princeton University)
  3. Rolf Strootman (Universiteit Utrecht)
  4. Jake Nabel (The Getty, Getty Research Institute)
  5. M. Rahim Shayegan (University of California, Los Angeles)

General Abstract

This workshop focuses on the history of ancient Iran in a longue durée perspective. It takes Iranian history as being part of the larger framework of ancient Near Eastern history with still vibrant traditions and conceptions all through the upcoming of Islam and even beyond. The papers are structured according to the major epochs of this period of more than thousand years, i.a. Achaemenid, Hellenistic and Arsacid and Sasanian Iran.

General Contact: shayegan@humnet.ucla.edu

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

The Continuity of ANE Traditions in the Achaemenid Period
Maria Brosius (University of Toronto)

Recent scholarly contributions to the study of Achaemenid history have enabled us to identify significant political and cultural links between Achaemenid Persia and its ANE predecessors, Elam, Assyria and Babylonia in both the written and the archaeological evidence. This paper addresses the question how the results of this scholarship affect our understanding of the early Achaemenid empire, perhaps allowing us to imbed it more deeply into the ANE, and thereby continuing ANE aspects of kingship, ideology, and religion.

From Sennacherib to Xerxes: On a Possible Assyrian Source of Achaemenid Demand for "Earth and Water"
Dan Beckman (Princeton University)

Herodotus records a series of instances in which the Achaemenid Persian king, or his representative, makes a demand of earth and water from a potential future subject (Histories 4.126, 5.17, 5.73, 6.48-9, 7.32, 7.16). There is general agreement amongst scholars that giving earth and water was a symbolic gesture of submission to the King. However, there is not agreement about the precise meaning of these specific symbols, nor on the source of the ritual. An Iranian or Persian source has often been assumed (e.g., Orlin 1976, Balcer 1995, Herrenschmidt and Lincoln 2004), as has a Lydian source (Munn 2006). In this paper I will demonstrate that these explanations fail, as they do not fit all of the evidence. I then offer a new interpretation, namely, that the ritual has its roots in the Neo-Assyrian period, when it represented the violent conquest of a city. Rung 2015 and Rollinger 2013 have demonstrated Assyrian influence on the Achaemenid conception of empire and geography. Building on their work, I discuss Sennacherib’s claim to have presented the dust of a defeated Babylon as an offering to Aššur, and his use of water in the destruction of that city (RINAP 3/2 168:36b-47; 223:50b-54a). The Achaemenid demand for Earth and Water arose from a need for an ideologically sound method of claiming rule over the distant Aegean and Balkan regions, where outright military conquest was unlikely. During the preparations for his Scythian campaign (c. 513 BCE), Darius feared the type of defeat that had befallen Cyrus the Great in Central Asia, but also, as a usurper, he could not lose face by not confronting the enemies of the realm. The Mesopotamian scribal community was able to offer their Iranian rulers the unified pair of Earth-and-Water, the collection of which served as a venerable symbol of conquest. Adopted by the Achaemenids, this ritual “gift” no longer celebrated a military victory, but instead was intended to avoid violence altogether, and portrayed the subjects as voluntary. My argument offers an explanation for one of the more enduring images from Herodotus' Histories, while also emphasizing the impact of the cuneiform literary tradition on Achaemenid ideology and practice.

Memories of Persian Kingship in the Hellenistic World
Rolf Strootman (Universiteit Utrecht)

The Seleukid Empire is often seen as a successor state of the Achaemenid Empire. But there is in fact nothing in the Seleukids’ self-presentation to suggest that they themselves thought so, too. On the contrary, in the third century BCE, their attitude towards the Achaemenids (as well as Alexander, for that matter) was one of damnatio memoriae. Yet, because of repeated intermarriage with (non-Achaemenid) Iranian dynasties and the large-scale recruitment of Iranian troops for the imperial armies, the Seleukid Empire was to a large extent an Iranian polity. This was not lost on their enemies, the Ptolemies and later the Romans, who in their propaganda presented the Seleukids as the “New Persians.” Perhaps in reaction to this, the memory of Persian kingship attained a more positive slant in the context of the gradual “vassalization” of the Seleukid Near East. This is expressed for example by the Persianism of (former) vassal dynasties such as the Fratarakā of Persis and the Orontids of Kommagene.

Hatra and the Parthian West: Imperialism and Indigeneity
Jake Nabel (The Getty, Getty Research Institute)

The western territories of the Parthian empire are among its best attested regions, but their relationship to Parthian culture is far from clear. Some scholars emphasize the strength of local or indigenous traditions; others speak of a “Parthian commonwealth,” whose soft power has gone underappreciated. This paper will explore this debate in the local context of Hatra, a key city in the Parthian west. It will ask what Parthian imperial culture might look like at Hatra, and whether it is detectable in the extant evidence. 

On the Continuity of Ancient Near Eastern Practices in Late Antique Iran
M. Rahim Shayegan (University of California, Los Angeles)

A number of cases studies are offered on the continuity of Ancient Near Eastern traditions and practices well into post-Hellenistic and late antique Persia. Among themes investigates are: the king’s exalted, but not divine, nature; royal titulatures(s); and heterographic writing practices.

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