The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There are many, and I find it very difficult to narrow down a choice, but I’m going to draw on a piece of epigraphy that constantly draws me back to it. I choose this piece because it also takes us away from Greco-Roman antiquity and into the Persian empire, which is an area of study which appeals to me the most. So, the text I have chosen is an extract from the tomb-inscription of Darius the Great from Naqsh-i Rustam, the burial place of the Achaemenid Great Kings, near to Persepolis in south western Iran.
Most Persian texts are formulaic (lists of royal titles and imperial acquisitions) and a-historical, but the text carved into the façade of Darius’ tomb, c. 490 BCE, is the most erudite and thoughtful Old Persian inscription we have. It’s a long text, but I’m drawn to one part of it:
“Darius the king proclaims: By the favour of Ahuramazda I am of such a kind that I am a friend to what is right, I am no friend to what is wrong. (It is) not my wish that to the weak is done wrong because of the mighty, it is not my wish that the mighty is hurt because of the weak. What is right, that is my wish. I am no friend of the man who is a follower of the Lie. I am not hot-tempered. When I feel anger rising, I keep that under control by my thinking power. I control firmly my impulses. The man who cooperates, him do I reward according to his cooperation. He who does harm, him I punish according to the damage. It is not my wish that a man does harm, it is certainly not my wish that a man if he causes harm be not punished. What a man says against a man, that does not convince me, until I have heard testimony from both parties. What a man does or performs according to his powers, satisfies me, therewith I am satisfied; it gives me great pleasure and I give much to faithful men. Of such a kind (are) my intelligence and command; when you shall see or hear what has been done by me, both in the house and in battle – that (is) my ability in addition to thinking and intelligence.”
When did you first come across this source?
Over 20 years ago, as a fledgling in Persian history.
Can you tell me a bit about this inscription and its context?
Darius I was a man of great ambition and his desire for personal power sometimes took him to dark places. His drive was relentless and his efficiency was startling. Darius was a man who knew what he wanted. Much can be learned of him from his own personal credo which he had carved into his tomb façade at Naqsh-i Rustam in which he asks its readers to ‘make known what kind [of man] you are’, and goes to some length to articulate his own conception of self. Darius depicted himself as a rational and considered monarch who never acted in haste or in panic, and it was his sheer force of personality that guaranteed that his subjects received the benefit of his considered and learned judgements. Being a judge of the people was a quality expected of all Near Eastern rulers and Darius expertly portrays himself in that role because Ahuramazda, the chief royal deity, had equipped him with the insight and ability to distinguish right from wrong. It was a Persian king’s duty, under the auspices of Ahuramazda, to maintain the status quo, to act as shepherd and judge, and to bring order out of potential chaos. It was his obligation to uphold Truth and dispel the Lie which was best represented by the chaos of rebellion and insurgence against the throne. In purely visual terms, it is expressed many times in wall reliefs which depict the king in the guise of a ‘Persian Hero’ slaughtering a lion or a hybrid monster which represents the essence of that chaos.
However, the inscription on the façade of his tomb goes on to confirm that his empire was won by military prowess: ‘the spear of a Persian man has gone far; then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia’. This is followed by an interesting statement which focuses on the strength of the king’s body and his ability as a warrior-king:
“Moreover this is my ability, that my body is strong. As a fighter I am a good fighter. At once my intelligence stands in its place, whether I see a rebel or not. Both by intelligence and by command at that time I regard myself as superior to panic, when I see a rebel just as when I do not see one. I am furious in the strength of my revenge with both hands and both feet. As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. As a spearman I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback.”
So, central to the ideology of the tomb inscription was brute force. Darius stressed that he was strong enough to endure the hardships of campaigning on horseback and on the march, and his arms had the strength to draw the bow and wield the lance; these talents, he emphasized, came directly from Ahuramazda: ‘These are the skills which Ahuramazda has bestowed upon me and I have had the strength to bear them.’ Near Eastern monarchs frequently suggested there was a special connection between their weapons and the deities they served, for after all, it was the gods who made powerful the royal weapons and imbued the royal body with strength enough to wield them, and at Darius’ insistence, in his inscription Ahuramazda is portrayed as the god who empowers the king with martial valour.
What is it about this source that appeals to you most?
Those of us who study ancient Persia do not have the luxury of working with rich and diverse texts that Classicists enjoy. We have next to nothing when it comes to narratives in Persian written sources; no poetry, no lyrics. That is not to sat that they were not there, far from it. We know that the oral tradition was strong in the Persian world and that ‘histories’, legends and mythology (often mixed together) were transmitted through storytelling, songs, and poems. But Darius’ tomb inscription provides us with one brief glimpse of the workings of the Persian mind; it gives us a bit of a reflection of Persian philosophy, and that is exciting.
There is, I think, expressed in the tomb texts a message: take responsibility for your actions; you and only you are accountable (in the eyes of God) for what you do. Strength of body comes from God (if he should bless you that way), but you have to work on yourself to make sure you are the best you can be. Remain calm, be open minded, be fair, be genuine.
There is something very modern about this. I read in Darius’ text a philosophy that developed in classic Zoroastrianism, a kind of creed through which life can be lived to its best advantage:
Good Thoughts – Good Words – Good Deeds.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I have three dogs (spaniels) and a cat, so my fur-children happily occupy a lot of leisure time. I’m lucky to have plenty of riverside and mountain walks in my area, just on the border of Cardiff and the Rhondda Valley. Besides that, I love opera (the baroque era especially), cinema, comedy, and reading – almost always history; I enjoy Tudor & Stuart history and German history 1900-1945.
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is Professor of Ancient History at Cardiff University. He specialises in the history and culture of Ancient Iran, east-west relations in antiquity, gender and dress, and the reception of antiquity in film. He is the author of many books and articles, including Aphrodite’s Tortoise: the veiled woman of ancient Greece; Designs on the Past: How Hollywood Created the Ancient World; King and Court in Ancient Persia, and Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient. He is currently writing The Persians for Wildfire Books, and is working on a commentary of the biblical Book of Esther.
His popular vlog, Persika: Persian Things, can be found here.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.