Locals vs Persia? Interpreting Achaemenid Imperialism from the local perspective & space

“It is not right for a sensible man to reject [Persian] benefaction, but to hold it most close” (Demaratus to Xerxes, Hdt. 7.104)

James Hua
37 min readApr 3, 2020


Figure 0: Apadana at Persepolis, https://www.britannica.com/place/Apadana-of-Darius. All images cited in bibliography

This short piece hopes to feed into and encourage discussion on Durham Classics & Ancient History Department’s current research theme and seminar series on space and especially local space, organised by Dr Amy Russell (since so many were cancelled by UCU industrial strikes and Covid-19). Inspired partly by a lecture given by Prof Polly Low in Newcastle on Greek Imperialism and Space, and another by Dr Cathy Draycott on Lycian funerary monuments for the Classics Society, this piece aims to interpret Persian Imperialism through two case studies in Lycia and Egypt that foreground the responses of local dynasts, individuals, and priests to Achaemenid imperialism. The piece asks whether Persian Imperialism was oppressive and, by zooming into evidence highlighting the more political uses of culture and space, it argues that in certain goldilocks regions locals did retain a significant degree of political agency by manipulating the new networks, both in trade and identity, created by the Persian invasions to their own ends and in their own spaces. Rather than passive subjugation to oppressive imperialism, we begin to see a more cooperative negotiation between Persia and local lands (as suggested in the piece’s opening quotation by Herodotus) which is more complex than the oft-stressed “balance-sheet” exploitation of Persian Imperialism. This study therefore approaches the beneficial results of these new networks as tangible economic trade, as more conceptual political power, and finally as more intangible identity construction and collective memory, an area that Prof Low has recently written on for Classical Athenian epigraphy. The piece focuses on the spatial features of either community.

What does this mean for local space and the spatial turn, the theme of the seminar series? Arguably, we can use monuments and the memories embodied in them, and landscapes that are carefully crafted by local contingents, to reinterpret the power dynamics between great empires and local powers, at least in the case of Persia with Asia Minor and Egypt. As Hans Beck promoted in his research seminar at Durham on 27 February 2020 on “What is local space in Classical Greece”, we often forget about the persistence and use of local space in the current scholarly pull towards networks and connectedness, as Irad Malkin has recently brilliantly promoted in his monograph “A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean” (2011). Following many of Beck’s methodological points, I argue that this local space, alongside new monuments, and reorientations, combinations, and rebuildings of them, allows us to revalue local politics in a different light, precisely because this local space enabled local constituents to stake a claim to power in the local and sometimes international political arena. In other words, space and politics come together at the intersection between local and empire to enable the local to equally express itself. This space demonstrates a balance between empire and local — what crafts it, I argue, is the agency and adaption of these local powers.

The content relating to each culture in here are not new. What is different, however, or at least what has been explored less, is the approach of Persian imperialism through this lens that focuses on the local. Rather than coming up with novel information, I will draw out other, often sidelined, details to reconsider our picture of Persian Imperialism from the other side, the reciprocal point of view of the negotiation.

The effects of Persian imperialism have often been evaluated from evidence predominantly output by and from the perspective of Persia. This is not necessarily a bad fact, given that much of our evidence of Achaemenid Persia derives from (in different ways) skewed Greek sources. One phenomenon this results in are narratives of imperial, top-down oppression. For example, Herodotus’ account of Darius’ systematised tribute-extortion (3.89) and [Aristotle]’s account of Persia’s six income extractions (Oik. 2.1) are corroborated by Persia’s heavy taxation as in the material record of Egyptian papyri and Babylonian tax receipts.[1] This has compelled scholars like Cook and Tuplin to stress the overwhelming and uniform extent of Persia’s economic exploitation and political oppression on local powers.[2] However, this perspective largely marginalises and over-simplifies certain epichoric perspectives within those local regions Persia interacted with. Equally, the perspective encounters problems when studied alongside similar evidence from other facets of Persian evidence. Both Persian tomb inscriptions and local evidence highlight the Kings’ responsibilities in defending his subjects: Darius I’s tomb inscription, which explicitly equates his personal “desire” to his protection of “the weak” (DNb§2a), draws from previous Kings’ rhetoric like Cyrus’ to stress his “service to the Babylonians” and protection from those intending evil (BIN 2§26).[3]

Extending recent scholarship by Provencal and Lincoln stressing this more cooperative view, the fields of cultural monuments and religion of local populations would provide other perspectives and interpretations for these interactions. [4] This evidence is significant because, coming from a well-established local tradition output by local dynastic powers, it represents the locals’ agency more actively in constructing this ideology and perspectives to Persian imperialism. Given the abundance of local evidence in Achaemenid Lycia, I will first explore the funerary architecture at Xanthos to highlight how Lycian dynasts voluntarily co-opted the economic and iconographic structures enabled Persia’s invasion to improve their local political agendas and trade. Second, expanding to Persia’s most recalcitrant region, Egypt, I will focus on Persian Kings’ benefactions to local cults and priests’ relations with them to argue that the Kings’ benevolence enabled priests to gain more agency than before. Rather than contributing to unwilling political and economic exploitation, foregrounding this emic perspective in local space highlights that Persia’s imperial frameworks provided opportunities for certain locals to comparatively ameliorate their political situations. In terms of methodology, beyond the usual “balance-sheet” approach for analysing empires’ effects, this piece instead argues that a comparative approach that analyses the degrees of profit that local powers can make within the inherent oppressiveness of all imperialism is more insightful.

Part 1: Interdynastic power play on the local level, Persian trade networks, and Commemorative Tomb Monuments in Achaemenid Lycia

Location of the Harpy Tomb in Xanthos; https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Lykian-tombs-at-Acropolis-of-Xanthos-the-Harpy-tomb-and-the-pillared-sarcophagus-photo_fig2_330875525

Drawing on the silence of Herodotus and Thucydides, scholars have often assumed the political passivity and cultural homogeneity of Lycia in the face of Persian imperialism in the 5th century.[5] However, recent work into Lycian inscriptions (especially the Xanthos stele) has highlighted the importance of centres like Kaunos for the Persians and their own degrees of autonomy beyond these Hellenocentric historians.[6] Extending this emic view to the visual culture of Xanthos’ funerary monuments further brings out this usage of Persian networks by locals to advance their regional political situations. By approaching two conspicuous pillar tombs, namely the sixth-century Lion and fifth-century Harpy tombs, through their iconographic styles and economic factors, I will highlight that the Persian empire enabled a resurgence of local Lycian identities in these political monuments, rather than imposing Persian-dictated cultural homogeneity as Tuplin argues.[7] Second, the economic networks resulting from Persian imperial expansion into Lycia created unprecedented benefits on the local arena, reflected partly in their hiring of new craftsmen, styles, and products.[8]

Plan of Xanthos; https://followinghadrian.com/2013/08/13/exploring-xanthos-images-from-the-biggest-city-in-lycia/

The Lion Tomb of Xanthos, east of Xanthos’ acropolis, epitomises the positive benefits of Persian Imperialism by revealing the patriotic resurgence of Lycia’s c.7th Daedalic style, partly as the product of the new trade networks Persia brought in. Constructed around the end of the c.6th, this tomb coincides with Cyrus the Great’s invasion and the various networks it brought to Lycia.[9] On the one hand, however, the Pillar’s iconography appears to imitate predominantly Persian imperial iconography, thereby highlighting Persia’s imposition of an imperial cultural homogeneity onto its subjects. These elements of Persian style rest on the presence of the lions on three of the four faces of the monument; the lions’ style prima facie resembles the common Assyrian prototypes that the Persians adopted early on. In particular, the west-face scene of the man killing lion (Fig. 1) taps into the Persian royal model of the King killing a “rampant” lion, found monumentally on Persepolis’ palace doors and privately on appliques.[10] The alleged “inaccuracies” from this Persian model, such as the lion-killer’s wig, and the lower stylistic quality of these sculptures compared to Persian prototypes have made scholars like Zahle argue that this highlights the Lycians’ deficiency in adopting Persian iconography due to their links to Greece.[11] Overall, therefore, the artists’ “intention” was to imitate Persian styles, given its new influence over them.

Figure 1: Man Killing Rampant Lion, South face of Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31)

However, this narrow prioritisation of Persian iconography skews the emphasis of the overall iconography and ignores the other local elements and context that subtly but pervasively modify this monument and the Persian iconography, thereby suggesting that the “inaccuracies” were more of a deliberate choice (for reasons we will see soon) than failure. Rather than seeing this as an imposition of Persian imperial culture from the top-down, other elements suggest local Lycian dynasts willingly adopted certain Persian iconographic elements as a more beneficial political opportunity. In other words, on the one hand, the more Persian elements and royal iconography could be read as being used in Lycia’s commemorative monuments to legitimise their local rule in this local sphere and space, imbuing it with the same majestic power of the Great King. His iconography gave new options. On the other, beyond passive adoption, the Lycians add pointedly local Lycian elements to deviate and highlight their own power.

First, the most imposing scene of a lion on the monument, the south-face lion specifically killing a bull (“beuteschlagenden Löwen”; although to me it looks more like a deer), belongs not so much to Persian iconography as pre-Persian Lycian and Lydian iconography of that region. Among other evidence, comparanda can be found on certain Lydian Croesids (Fig. 2).[12] Likewise, the unusual patterns (perhaps wreaths) on the lion’s mane find parallels with pre-Persian sculptures from Ephesus, while the lion’s innovative frontal face turn and crouching position echoes Milesian examples rather than Persian full-on standing ones.[13] Most importantly, Zahle’s argument that the wig is a deficient failure rather suggests the opposite when compared to local examples of that wig. The lion-killer’s unique hairstyle echoes earlier Daedalic coiffures from Lydian funerary reliefs of the seventh century BCE.[14] These artistic elements might be linked to suggest the resurgence of past local art was combined with the locally-oriented present agenda with Persia, implying the Persian invasion enabled a revival in patriotic local identities. That this combination was aimed for a local dynastic agenda becomes clearer when interpreted with the broader surroundings of the monument. The use of poor-quality, local limestone for the monument, rather than channelling the resources they used for foreign artists into expensive marble, highlights a particularly local aim. Likewise, Draycott and de Courtils argue the Lion Tomb spatially complemented the forest of other 6th-century tomb monuments on Xanthos’ Acropolis to construct a new, unified, and common dynastic image.[15] In a way, Lycia was reborn from these Persian resources and ideas. Therefore, Persia’s invasion enabled Lycians to strengthen their local identities by providing wealth and a culture to push back against rather than defining it.[16] (Albeit, one perhaps should not push this too far since pushing back against a culture might suggest some form of initial oppression; or it might equally highlight the successful repulsion later; that is a point of perspective).

Figure 2: Lion Killing Prey, Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31)

Most strongly supporting this view of the prioritisation of local Lycian identity, as Childs argues, the monument also displays some international influences, including Greek ones.[17] This attests to both the broader economic contacts Persia’s imperialism created for Lycia to rebuild its identity. Another interpretation for the wig is that it mimics the wigs of Egyptian pharaonic styles, thereby reflecting increasing trade links with Egypt in goods and ideas.[18] While this operates as cultural sharing that Childs argues, it also highlights the notable economic benefit with regions other than Persia created by Persia’s empire, since this increased trade provided wealth for the sudden proliferation of these tombs and the broader wealth in Lycia. In a research seminar to Durham’s Archaeology Department last year, Draycott also discussed the trade links between Egypt and Lycia that flourished around that time.

Second, the often-ignored and perplexing final side of the Lion Tomb also attests to Greek styles mixed with Lycian ones (Fig. 3). The figure with plumed helmet and shield, furthest to the left, closely resembles a Greek hoplite from contemporary evidence. Likewise, the horse-rider’s garb resembles the Greek chlamys. The helmet’s similarities with those on Corinthian pots might suggest some form of (albeit perhaps indirect) trading with Corinth.[19] However, the unusual shield raised above the first warrior’s head suggests more active Lycian manipulation of this Greek imagery. Although some have read this as a general symbol of triumph, Sare’s observation that this raised shield only occurs on Lycian funerary art (as in the Heroön of Perikle in Limyra) suggests a local Lycian identity.[20] Therefore, in this amalgamation of Greek and Persian aspects, what flourishes is a local Xanthian identity enabled by Persia’s imperial networks: both through increased contact with Persia itself but also with Egypt, Greece. Perhaps to a stronger extent, this economic boost enabled artists to become employed, gave aristocrats more resources, and facilitated the revival of past Lycian iconography. Based on revived older structures, Lycia co-opts the imagery of Persia’s political enemies to enhance its own present dynastic agenda as expressed in funerary monuments, showing the importance of economic benefit and identity over political affiliations. The popularity of this trade with Greece and Egypt and its use to form Lycian identity is paralleled by the tombs of nearby Melius like the Kizilbel tomb (530s), where notably Greek mythic motifs like Troilus and Perseus, and new scenes like the unusual “blue” Kraken and Andromeda, proliferate in the absence of Persian iconography (Draycott (2019), 16:00).

Figure 3: Man-holding up shield, East face of Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31)

Luckily, the evidence at Xanthos allows us to establish that this usage of Achaemenid and Greek networks by Lycian dynasts for dynastic politics continued (not necessarily without interruption) in the Classical period with the Harpy Tomb. Constructed in 480, it coincides with Xerxes’ march through Asia Minor on his way to Greece and reflects more acutely the tangible economic benefits created for local Lycians by Persia’s imperialism. First, on the one hand, the Harpy stele pointedly taps into Persian imagery, especially with the East face’s enthronement-tribute scene, since it mimics the tribute type scene famously on Persepolis’s Apadana stairway. The kings’ footstool, beard, throne, lotus, and sceptre conform to those conventions (Fig. 4, 5). Likewise, the local women in Fig. 4, identified by their frilled dresses, seem to have been moulded to resemble the noble Persian men with long caps and tassels behind the King in the Apadana. Human anatomy is altered to fit into political similarities with Persia. This supports Tritsch’s argument of the degree of cultural homogenisation of Lycia around the time, with Persia imposing its (imagery of) court culture on locals.[21] This use of the tribute-bearing scene is paralleled by the later Nereid monument’s pediment (BM), which Shahbazi argues was sculpted by Persian artists based on the Apadana.[22]

Figure 4: East Face, Harpy Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.1; Sculpture B287)
Figure 5: Persepolis Apadana with Great King, Persepolis (Livius)

However, although there may be Persianising elements within the East face, it may be more difficult to assert agency and find clear links of Persia actively imposing its culture here. Instead, when taking this Persian “enthronement” imagery alongside the other Lycian imagery in the scene highlights that the scene functioned more directly to benefit Lycia’s dynasts. Rather than focusing on the East face in isolation and attributing the cultural framework of a Persian king and subservient subjects found there to the entire monument, viewing the various members on each face holistically brings out the imagery of a dynastic family with members of different ages and genders. This iconography fits closer to similar Lycian examples like the Salas Monument, whose members are individually named. In this interpretation, beyond simply strengthening the leading dynast in the Persian King’s seat, it instead legitimises his entire family and future generations. This explains the unusual prominence of women in the monument: the visibility of the korai may act as symbolic capital to advertise the family’s marriage potential and longevity. But rather than being mutually exclusive, the Persian and Lycian iconographies arguably gain their meaning and assert that families’ power by working together.[23] Therefore, Persia’s imperial iconography brought symbolic capital that enabled Lycian dynasts to enhance their political commemoration.

Figure 6: North Face, Harpy Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.1; Sculpture B287)

Finally, this interpretation of a family also highlights the more positive economic aspects that Persia’s networks enabled. On the one hand, the notably Corinthian helmets likely attest to cultural and material trade with Greece. But more broadly, that such stock familial scenes are absent in Persian art and appear frequently in Greek vase painting supports the increasing trade of pots and their imagery between Greece and Lycia.[24] This Greek link likewise strengthens the interpretation of the familial and dynastic function of this tomb (Fig. 5): rather than giving the helmet to the King as a sign of tribute like at Persepolis, the way the seated man holds the helmet from the lower back matches the way women give the helmet to departing soldiers on Greek vases.[25] Therefore, this suggests the King-dynast is passing on the helmet to the younger soldier, potentially symbolising a transfer of power to the next ruler given its funerary context.[26] This motif is paralleled in the opposite image of a child offering a bird to the seated figure (Fig. 4), which signified familial affection or departing souls on Greek examples.[27] Most strongly demonstrating the dynastic aspects through Greek conception, the unusual choice of Harpies on the monument may be an allusion to the famous Harpies in Homer who carry away the daughters of the Lycian King Pandareos (Odyssey 20.66), thereby enhancing the presence and longevity of Lycia’s political power by retrospectively mythologising it into the heroic past.[28] Therefore, the Persian invasion established beneficial economic links for Lycia with other nations, including Persia’s own enemy Greece. This also extends to more tangible “economic” factors per se. The use of imported marble (no longer local like the Lion Tomb’s) and the monument’s size attest to the wealth from Persia’s new economic networks; while the potential use of Greek artists in the iconography highlights that Lycia actively tapped into these systems to mould its political identities.

Therefore, rather than defining Persian imperial power as an imposition of Persian culture, the economic networks created by Persia and the adoption of Persian iconography play a more formative role in defining Persia’s imperialism on certain cities in Asia Minor. Elsewhere in Asia Minor, this aid is regionally best mirrored by the revival of Ilion around 428, following its decline after 480, which Rose directly tied to the Persian invasion (albeit also partly Athenian in 428).[29] Persia helped Lycia’s economy both tangibly, with increased import, and culturally, given the spreading of ideas through those media. What is interesting is that Lycia’s economic revival appears to be a symptom of broader economic ameliorations with the Persian system. Rather than cultural or economic oppression, Persia’s imperialism aided Lycia economically with new trade, culturally with identity, and politically with dynastic capital.

Although this does not create a blanket cover for all effects of Persia’s influence in Lycia or elsewhere, it provides one lens where positive cooperation did occur with enduring results. Nevertheless, this positive view also extends to other regions, perhaps even the most recalcitrant, and in other fields, such as religion. This local perspective, and its rootedness in space, thereby provides valuable insights into local history and the more cooperative dynamic of Persia’s administrative system with local powers on the border between Persia and Greece.

Part 2: Did Cambyses really kill the Apis bull? Approaching royal Persian and Egyptian priestly religious construction in Achaemenid Egypt from local evidence

This flourishing on the local level and space, resulting from the networks Persia’s imperialism created, also extends to religion, especially in Persia’s most recalcitrant region. Moving geographically, approaching Persia’s interactions with local cults in Egypt through Egyptian evidence is particularly illuminating for the uses of local space and local groups, given that the evidence appears to reveal an unusual degree of tolerance and cooperation by Persia that Greek evidence often entirely excludes. While the case of Egypt might highlight the rigidity and strictness of Persia’s imperialism, given the three notorious revolts by Egypt during Achaemenid rule and Greeks’ negative views of that relation, local Egyptian evidence rather suggests more cooperation, with Persian Kings not just tolerating and continuing local religions more as “chameleon kings”, but also enabling local priests to evince new power.[30] This system therefore enabled local Egyptian priests to continue and gain a degree of agency in their cities, cults, and spaces.

First, approaching the top-down relationship between Persian Kings and Egyptian religion from the Egyptian evidence highlights Persia’s (projected) tolerance rather than oppression. This is perhaps best exemplified by comparing the local evidence about Cambyses’ relationship with the Apis Bull to the stereotyped image of cultural violence that Herodotus presents. While Herodotus stresses the irrationality and extreme violence of Cambyses’ actions against Egyptian religion by placing the Apis bull as the culmination of his previous misdeeds, details within this scene betray that Herodotus’ purposes lie beyond historical reality and more in “Othering” the Persians to define the Greeks, stressing the Persian kings’ divinity, characterising Cambyses’ defining flaw of cultural insensitivity, and foreshadowing the Persian Kings’ increasing flaws over time. The passage’s importance, both in representing initial Perso-Egyptian relations and more importantly Greek perceptions of it, justifies citing it in full:

3.27: When Cambyses was back at Memphis, there appeared in Egypt that Apis whom the Greeks call Epaphus; at whose epiphany the Egyptians put on their best clothing and held a festival. [2] Seeing the Egyptians so doing, Cambyses was fully persuaded that these signs of joy were for his misfortunes, and summoned the rulers of Memphis; when they came before him, he asked them why the Egyptians behaved so at the moment he returned with so many of his army lost, though they had done nothing like it when he was before at Memphis. [3] The rulers told him that a god, wont to appear after long intervals of time, had now appeared to them; and that all Egypt rejoiced and made holiday whenever he so appeared. At this Cambyses said that they lied, and he punished them with death for their lie.

3.29: When the priests led Apis in, Cambyses — for he was all but mad — drew his dagger and, meaning to stab the calf in the belly, stuck the thigh; then laughing he said to the priests: [2] “Simpletons, are these your gods, creatures of flesh and blood that can feel weapons of iron? That is a god worthy of the Egyptians. But for you, you shall suffer for making me your laughing-stock.” So saying he bade those, whose business it was, to scourge the priests well, and to kill any other Egyptian whom they found holiday-making. [3] So the Egyptian festival ended, and the priests were punished, and Apis lay in the temple and died of the wound in the thigh. When he was dead of the wound, the priests buried him without Cambyses’ knowledge.

Translated by Godley, A. D.; Loeb.

Although often held up as the epitome of Persia’s cruel domination over Egypt, various details and comparanda suggest that Herodotus’ account plays more into broader Greek characterisation of Persian kingship at the expense of accurately representing historical events. This can be read in many details and constructions within the paragraph — I will focus on one: Cambyses’ act of whipping the priests (ἀπομαστιγῶσαι). First, in the broader narrative, Herodotus’ detail about Cambyses hubristically whipping the priests (3.29) serves to culminate Cambyses’ defining madness, following his sacrilegious burning of the mummy of the pharaoh Amasis (3.16). This thereby consolidates Greek (and to a lesser extent perhaps the Egyptian) identity by characterising Cambyses as transgressing and performing the opposite of their cultural and religious values.[31] Yet this detail goes further and contributes to Herodotus’ theme about the broader pretensions to divinity of Persian Kings: the equation between whipping and slavery in the Greek mindset would imply that Cambyses, when whipping the Egyptian priests as their master, was becoming their god (their real master); this equation becomes consumed when Cambyses explicitly kills the god-incarnate Apis.[32] Finally, beyond Herodotus’ aim to characterise Cambyses’ individual flaw of cultural (nomos) disregard, the act of whipping also foreshadows the more general and cumulative decline of Persian Kings in Herodotus’ narrative, since the word to describe Cambyses’ whipping, ἀπομαστιγῶσαι, is used only elsewhere in Herodotus to characterise Xerxes’ whipping of the sea (8.109), an even more excessive action that aims to dominate nature (phusis) beyond human customs. I have argued elsewhere that the focalisation, motivation, and other Herodotean literary tropes (laughing, ate, thigh wounds) ascribed in this passage likewise signal Herodotus’ usage of stock literary tropes, developed throughout his work, to rewrite the historical material — but the above is sufficient to highlight the artificial and historiographical aims of the passage beyond the purely historical.

Nevertheless, some scholars have recently tried to redeem the authenticity of Herodotus’ account. Depuydt’s argument that Herodotus reflects reality from a close analysis of the consecutive Apis-Bull steles, which appear to be disrupted chronologically by a potential incursion by Cambyses, has gained some traction. However, his argument is weakened by its dependence on Herodotus’ silence in the transfer of Apis bulls and that of the ancient evidence; an omission does not necessarily equate destructive removal.[33] Others have looked elsewhere for evidence closer to the Egyptian perspective. The other main piece of evidence attesting to Cambyses’ cruelty and the resulting dissension that the Egyptians felt is recorded in the Petition Letter by the Jews of Elephantine. However, beyond using it as Asheri does to shed light on the period of Cambyses, the Petition is later (407BCE; Cambyses invasion was almost a century earlier) and is driven by a strong agenda to denigrate the Egyptians, since the Jews want to distinguish the prestige of their temple by highlighting that Cambyses destroyed the Egyptians’ temples without concern, but protected their own because he valued it. This increases the prestige of their temple, ultimately in order to convince Judaea’s governor Bagoas to aid them.[34]

Figure 7: Cambyses’ stele for the Apis Bull; taken from Livius.org.

Turning to the Egyptian evidence, however, suggests an overwhelmingly (ostensible) positive relationship. While there appears to be no disruption between consecutive Apis Bulls during Cambyses reign, Cambyses’ etic inscription on Apis Bull LXII’s sarcophagus explicitly praises his expensive and altruistic “personal gift” of burial and sarcophagus to Apis. Likewise, the focus on Cambyses’ filial piety in dedicating this “to his father Apis” and his wish for Apis’ longevity foregrounds his respect for local cults by adopting the local pharaonic status as divine son of Apis and using the traditional rhetoric to promote it (Fig.7).[35] More interestingly, the Egyptian priests’ emic account likewise reflects this respect in the Epitaph of the Apis Bull, whose iconography they seem to choose more directly. Here, they depict Cambyses reverently kneeling before the Apis Bull, echo Cambyses’ wish for Apis’ longevity, and most importantly, stress that the bull died “peacefully”.[36]

This appears to suggest a network of reciprocal benefit between even the worst king to the Egyptians, Cambyses, and the Egyptian priests in religion; underlying each authors’ respective agendas seems to lie a real positive relation. This religious tolerance of local cults by Persian Kings in Egypt is mirrored (not necessarily continuously) over time, since Darius I continues to sacrifice to Apis and Edfu, and adopts pharaonic divine sonship in his hieroglyphic stele for the Red Sea canal.[37] This trend likewise extends (not necessarily uniformly) to other geographical regions and at different times: arguably, both Darius and Cambyses are influenced to some degree by Cyrus’ earlier relationship and treatment of priests in Babylonia, where he takes on the role of a traditional Babylonian king by continuing to care for Marduk’s ziggurat. Moreover, Cyrus alleges that his status in helping Babylonian priests started from the very beginning of his relations with Babylon and frames it through the traditional Babylonian (and Assyrian) ritual of kingship: in his namesake Cylinder, Cyrus stresses that Marduk willingly brought him in as the new king to replace the old corrupt one (BIN 2§23).[37] On the emic side, this local benefactional role of Cyrus and his positive relationship with Marduk is reflected by an Akkadian poem of praise for Cyrus and blame for the Babylonian king before him: the “Verse Account of Nabonidus” (Kuhrt (2007), 143).

Figure 8: Xerxes’ Daiva Inscription (XPh); from Cameron (1959), Tafel 13

Moving beyond this top-down focus on Persians King’s actions to a more bottom-up perspective, Egyptian priests also gained a continued degree of political and religious agency by manipulating their negotiations with Persia’s Empire. On the one hand, however, inscriptions like Xerxes’ daiva inscription prima facie destroy any opportunity for elite Egyptian priests to operate at all (Fig. 8): while Xerxes’ vow to destroy the rebellious land where “demons were worshipped” attests to his religious intolerance (§5), the counterfactual force in the description of these lands as “not previously with Ahuramazda” suggests he actively forced his religion upon those nations in a more “oppressive” fashion.[38] However, when considering the context and language behind this inscription, the threats of this inscription might not be as real or effective as stated. As Brosius notes, the absence of specific places or “nations” mentioned might reflect that this inscription represented a general “truth” or threat that was not actually being practised, but served to consolidate kingship ideology in a more indirect way through propaganda.[39] Likewise, given the text frames Xerxes’ punishments specifically against lands that rebelled against him(§4), i.e. not all lands, and focuses on Ahuramazda’s help in that, the threat might be more directed to future rebellions to garner loyalty rather than alluding to a specific historical campaign.

One might in opposition argue that a threat is still a threat that can be made in the future; in other words, the very fact that Xerxes makes this threat shifts the status quo so that the act of having religious tolerance now becomes a privilege or gift that can easily be taken away by Xerxes. In other words, such tolerance is now granted by another, not simply automatically assumed. On the other hand, we may also be thinking about this text in the wrong way. Sancisi-Weerdenburg has argued that religious tolerance was less important in a polytheistic culture like Persia’s, or at least not the appropriate lens and terms through which to conceive of that relationship.[39] In this light, I would argue that this further diminishes the nature and degree of the religious imposition implied in this text.

Figure 9: Temple of Hibis, Egypt (not necessarily the “Darian” parts pictured here). From The Arab Weekly.

Instead, turning directly to other local Egyptian evidence, their accounts of Persia’s imperial presence in Egypt signal that it gave Egyptian priests a political opportunity to enhance their agendas; it was used in a more utilitarian manner in the local spaces of Egypt. Opposite to Xerxes’ ideological threats, on the ground Egyptian priests actively engaged with Persian kings to improve their political situations. At Teuzoi in Upper Egypt, while recounting the history of a priest’s family, the Petition of Petiese records the restoration of its temple by Darius the Persian. Although potentially being hyperbolic rhetoric, the text proudly frames both the temple’s physical “restoration” and provision of “staff” as service for it exclusively as the priest Petiese’s initiative and completion.[40] That the agency lies with Petiese here (he made the proposal) highlights that such Egyptian priests could still employ their traditional prerogatives and procedures in restoring temples, and tap into the new wealth provided by Persia’s presence.[40] Reciprocally, Darius is presented as supporting this local initiative by providing royal assistance and establishing future relations with an “endowment”. Returning to space, the location of this temple significantly points to the extent of Darius’ care for this temple: Teuzoi’s location far into Upper (South) Egypt highlights that locals could still extract benefactions from Darius far away in a symbiotic fashion and could continue to build with their own agency.

Closer to Persia, local priests were equally involved in Darius’ construction of Hibis’ temple (Fig. 9). While scholars interpret the presence of the royal cartouche of Darius as indicating that Darius continued traditional and assertive pharaonic benefactions in the temple’s construction, Lloyd has argued the cartouche may simply signal a dating marker rather than direct royal agency.[41] Darius’ influence here might have been more limited initially visible. More positively, the inscription on the North Reveal of the Temple attributes the actual physical construction of the “walls” to the local Seshat and decoration to Resyninebef, and omits any reference to Darius’ actions there.[42] Therefore, these local examples suggest that the agency of the actual process of constructing temples fell (or was depicted as falling) more to the priestly elite rather than Persian kings, who provided economic resources in a laissez-faire attitude. As with Cambyses’ respect for the Apis Bull, this local cooperation with the priestly continued over time. This is especially visible with the priest Udjahorresnet’s aid to Cambyses in (among other benefits) appropriating pharaonic titlature and being appointed to Chief Physician and Palace Controller (Fig. 10).[43]

This mutual cooperation thereby suggests that Persian imperialism and the framework with which to communicate with the Persian King, now styled as an Egyptian pharaoh, allowed local priests to not just continue their functions, but actively improve their own situations and their local spaces. Although the evidence might be skewed, ostensible intentions not line up with reality, and this solely focuses on the priestly elite at the exclusion of people further down in the social scale, the picture painted from the sources nevertheless attest to a more cooperative interaction between local priestly elites and Persian Kings than our Greek sources and indeed previous scholarship has argued for.

Figure 10: The Inscription of Udjahorresnet (Vatican Collections №196). From Dr Rob Cromarty, Twitter (!)


Perhaps the question with which we started off, whether imperialism is oppressive, isn’t the right sort of question even to begin with when analysing Persian Imperialism. What lies at the heart of this is that all Imperialism, in one way or another, is oppressive by definition. Asking instead the degree to which it was, and the ways through which this can be measured, produces a more useful perspective and avenue of research. In this light, I have argued that the measure of space and monuments within it, ranging from funerary burial chambers to inscriptions and actual temples, gives us that valuable perspective into the degree of imperialism specifically from the local point of view. What we find, in keeping with the assumption of imperialism’s inherent oppression, is that Persia’s Empire enabled certain local powers to profit from it more in comparison to their previous circumstance. The “balance-sheet” approach into this, as Prof Low has pointed out to me, yields limited results; this approach has the benefit of highlighting a wide range of benefits ranging from economic, political, and identity-based. Turning from the absolute to the relative, Persia’s empire still allowed some powers to profit from its impositions, and at least for Lycia to a remarkably large and self-conscious decree.

Thereby, approaching the effects of Persian Imperialism from local evidence and space across geographical regions in certain circumstances highlights a more cooperative and dynamic that is beneficial to local powers. Studying Lycia’s monumental tombs highlights the networks created by Persia’s invasion both allowed local dynasts to appropriate Persian imagery and increase economic contacts with Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere to create a proud identity and enhance their rule locally. This benevolence by Persian kings becomes more explicit in the religious institutions of Persia’s most recalcitrant region as viewed from local (and less Greek) evidence, both by allowing Egypt’s priestly elite to continue urging Persian Kings to respect their cults and temples, while enabling themselves to continue and expand their initiatives in temple construction. Throughout, this negotiation is operated through the spaces and buildings in notably local spaces at home, which are often overlooked by the more dominant Persian evidence and ideology output by Persia’s Kings. It is the networks the Persians created, beyond the extortion that the Persian Empire brought in elsewhere, that provided for these local communities a new opportunity to develop a degree of agency otherwise more difficult to achieve. Space, I argue, and especially local space, was a crucial means through which those local powers could express this and through which we today can glimpse this often-overlooked perspective.


[1] Local evidence suggesting coercive Persian taxation extended to Judaea (Neh. 5.14–18) and Babylonia (Kuhrt PE 14.9; BE X 97); for extreme view highlighting the “misery” it brings to locals, cf. the communal dinners that Xerxes demands from Thasos and that drives them out of food and house (Hdt. 7.118).

[2] Cook (1983), 132; Tuplin’s (1987), 109 two methods of administration, extraction of profit and maintenance of control, preclude any benefit for locals. Provencal (2015), 202, mapping the reality onto Herodotus’ polarity between nomos and physis, argues the Persian monarchy is crafted as polar opposite tyranny to Greek freedom.

[3] Kuhrt (1983), 85; likewise, Provencal (2015), 153 argues the figures on Persepolis’ Apadana are depicted as more egalitarian with the kiss rather than distant salutation from Assyrian prototypes. On Greek view of the “generous” king, Plut., Moralia 172; satraps at times seemed also to be responsible for defending people.

[4] Lincoln (2012) stresses the reciprocal benefit and closeness of the king with subjects; Provencal (2015), 148.

[5] Eddy (1973), 244.

[6] Kuhrt PE 17.33, Thonemann (2009), 180, reinterpreting Kaunos as the main military centre for the Persians from the Xanthos Stele; complemented by valuable Persian coins found and use of Europe and Asia imagery in inscriptions.

[7] Tuplin (1987), 112 on Persia using Lycia’s pre-existing institutions “for their own ends”.

[8] More in Dusinberre’s (2013), 259 model of enhancing international economic benefit.

[9] Keen (1992), 61; Hdt. 1.176.

[10] Persepolis west harem door: Kuhrt PE Figure 11.36; appliques: Winter (2000), 54–60.

[11] Zahle (1991), 151.

[12] E.g. RPK,p146B.1.Sam (Croesid, British Museum); Rudolph (2003), 36.

[13] Sculptures in Ephesus and Miletus: Rudolph (2003), 35.

[14] Which had since disappeared; Draycott (2019), 34:00.

[15] de Courtils and Cavalier (2001), 153; Draycott (2015), 99; Keen (1992).

[16] Allen (2005), 95.

[17] Childs (1981), 69.

[18] Draycott (2007), 109.

[19] British Museum (2019), “Burial Chest Lion Tomb Xanthos, Image 10”.

[20] Şare (2013), 63–4; e.g. as the figures do in the Heroon of Perikle at Limyra.

[21] Tritsch (1942), 48.

[22] Shahbazi (1975), 20, 37, Plate VI; originally assigned by the British thief Charles Fellows.

[23] Draycott (2019), 41:30.

[24] This reflects the spike in Lycia’s import of Attic vases at Xerxes’ invasion in the archaeology; Draycott (2015), 129.

[25] Shahbazi (2001), 20; cf. the Calyx with departure scene, Altamura painter (The Walters Art Museum 48.262).

[26] This reading is supported by Draycott’s (2015) reading that the Harpies snatching the souls highlights the emotion behind the sudden loss of life and transfer of power.

[27] Draycott (2008), 147.

[28] Odyssey 20.66; Shahbazi (2001), 32; such Harpies are rare to non-existent in Persian depictions.

[29] Rose (2013), 146.

[30] Cambyses’ cruel cultural incompatibility dominates Herodotus’ Egyptian logos; Lloyd (2011), 85. Cf. Statue of Darius I at Susa uses contradictory rhetoric in bilingual inscription, with hieroglyphics stating he peacefully takes on the traditional titlature of pharaohs, but Aramaic harshly emphasising his Persian “rule over” Egypt; Ma (2003), 178.

[31] At the expense of historical reality; Hdt might be stressing Cambyses particular flaw among all flawed Kings, based on his programmatic designation of Cambyses as “master” and specific flaws for others (3.89). Hartog (2009).

[32] Divinity of kings in Greek perception: Sperthias and Boulis refusing to prostrate to Xerxes as god (7.136).

[33] Depuydt (1995), 124; Klasen (1948), 347.

[34] “When Cambyses came to Egypt…the Persians knocked down all the temples of the Egyptian gods; but no one damaged this one” (r.13–14); Asheri et al. (2007), 428; Mélèze-Modrzejewski (1997).

[35] Kuhrt PE 3.13.

[36] Louvre IM.4133; cf. Posener (1936), 38; Kuhrt PE 3.12.

[37] Apis: Polyaenus, 7.11.7; Lloyd (2007), 106–7 moreover argues the rarity of such Persian construction decrees like the Red Sea canal stele attests to Darius’ rare concession for the Egyptians and benevolence to them.

[37] See Stevens (2014), 74 (Table 1) for a comparison of previous Babylonian and Assyrian Cylinders.

[38] Kuhrt PE 7.88.

[39] Brosius (2000), 90.

[39] Sancisi-Weerdhberg (1982), 274.

[40] “He caused a temple to be built…”, Papyrus Rylands IX, §7.6; further, Darius tells him to consult the Shipmaster, yet he gives no instructions on reconstructing the temple, reinforcing that it is Petiese’s decision; Jay (2015), 233.

[40] Contrary to other Persian evidence like Darius’ cuneiform Red Sea stele, which views the construction as a direct facilitation of trade pouring out of Egypt and into Persia, i.e. a deprivation and exploitation of Egypt’s wealth back into the heartland of Persia over the Sea; see Haubold (2012) and Lloyd (2007) for more on this.

[41] Lloyd (2007), 108–9; that it is painted rather than sculpted suggests it may have been added later hurriedly.

[42] Cruz-Uribe (1986), 162.

[43] Line 13, Vatican 158; Lloyd (1982), 167.


Primary Sources: Epigraphy & Papyri

BE X 97. Babylon Tax paid in silver and kind. In Kuhrt, Amelie. The Persian Empire: a corpus of sources from the Achaemenid period. London: Routledge, 2010. 14.9. 680–681.

Weisbach 1991 + BIN 2 = Kuhrt PE 3.21. The Cyrus Cylinder. In Kuhrt, Amelie. The Persian Empire: a corpus of sources from the Achaemenid period. London: Routledge, 2010. 3.21. 70–74.

Davies 1953 Plate 72. Darius’ Construction of Hibis Temple: North Reveal of Gateway to Hypostyle B. In Cruz-Uribe, Eugene. Hibis Temple Project. Volume I. Translations, commentary, discussions and sign list. San Antonio, Texas: Van Siclen Books, 1988. 144.

DNb = Kuhrt PE 11.17. Darius’ Tomb Inscription. In Kuhrt, Amelie. The Persian Empire: a corpus of sources from the Achaemenid period. London: Routledge, 2010. 11.17. 503–505.

Kuhrt PE 4.14. Demotic Chronicle. In Kuhrt, Amelie. The Persian Empire: a corpus of sources from the Achaemenid period. London: Routledge, 2010. 4.14. 124–127.

P13495 = Cowley 30. Elephantine Petition Letter. In Brosius, Maria. The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I. London: London Association of Classical Teachers, 2000. https://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/westsem/templeauth.html.

Brosius 197. Funerary Inscription on a stele from Saqqara. In Brosius, Maria. The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I. London: The London Association of Classical Teachers, 200. 91–93.

Vatican 158 [113] = Kuhrt PE 4.11 (Fig. 4.2). Inscription of Udjahorresnet, Collaborator’s Testament. In Lloyd, Alan. “The Inscription of Udjahorresnet, a Collaborator’s Testament”. JEA 68 (1982): 166–180.

Papyrus Rylands IX. Petition of Peteese. In Griffith, Francis Llewellyn. Catalogue of the Demotic Papyri in the John Rylands Library Manchester I-III. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1909.

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TL 44 = Kuhrt PE 17.33. Xanthos Stele. In Kuhrt, Amelie. The Persian Empire: a corpus of sources from the Achaemenid period. London: Routledge, 2010. 17.33. 859–863.

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BM 1848,1020.1 = Sculpture B287 = Harpy Tomb, Xanthos. In Tritsch, F. J. “The Harpy Tomb at Xanthus”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 62 (1942): 39–50. doi:10.2307/626712. Figure 2.

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Figure 0: Apadana of Darius at Persepolis. From Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020. https://www.britannica.com/place/Apadana-of-Darius.

Figure 1: Man Killing Rampant Lion, South face of Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31). From The British Museum. “Burial Chest: The Lion Tomb, Xanthos: Side Image 3”. 2019. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=101048001&objectid=459584.

Figure 2: Lion Killing Prey, Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31). From The British Museum. “Burial Chest: The Lion Tomb, Xanthos: Full Front Image 1”. 2019. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=34541001&objectid=459584.

Figure 3: Man-holding up shield, East face of Lion Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.31). From The British Museum. “Burial Chest: The Lion Tomb, Xanthos: Full Front Image 10”. 2019. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=1574657001&objectid=459584.

Figure 4: East Face with seated “Harpagus the Elder” and procession with gifts, Harpy Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.1; Sculpture B287). From The British Museum. “Tomb: The Harpy Tomb,Xanthos: East Side Image 7”. 2019. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020.

Figure 5: Persepolis Apadana with Great King, Persepolis (Livius). From Lendering, Jona. “Persepolis, Apadana, North Stairs, Central Relief” Livius.org. October 2018. Web. Accessed 19 February 2020. https://www.livius.org/articles/place/persepolis/persepolis-photos/persepolis-apadana-north-stairs-central-relief/.

Figure 6: North Face, Harpy Tomb, Xanthos (BM 1848,1020.1; Sculpture B287). From The British Museum. “Tomb: The Harpy Tomb, Xanthos: North Side Image 5”. 2019. Web. Accessed 1 March 2020. https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=905636001&objectid=461915.

Figure 7: Cambyses venerating the Apis Bull. From Lendering, Jona. “Apis stela: Cambyses venerating the Apis”. Livius.org, 2018. Originally from Posener, G. La première domination Perse en Egypte, 1936. https://www.livius.org/pictures/egypt/saqqara/saqqara-serapeum/apis-stela/.

Figure 8: Xerxes’ Daiva Inscription (XPh). From Cameron, George G. “The “Daiva” Inscription of Xerxes: In Elamite.” Die Welt Des Orients 2.6 (1959): 470–76. www.jstor.org/stable/25682551. Tafel 13.

Figure 9: Temple at Hibis. From Megahid, Ahmed. “Hibis Temple: A monument to artistic mastery in Egyptian desert”. The Arab Weekly, 2 December 2018. Web. Accessed 21 March 2020. https://thearabweekly.com/hibis-temple-monument-artistic-mastery-egyptian-desert.

Figure 10: The Inscription of Udjahorresnet (Vatican Collections №196). From Cromarty, Rob. The Inscription of Udjahorresnet (Vatican Collections №196). Posted on Twitter, 11 July 2019. Web. Accessed 21 March 2020. https://twitter.com/DocCrom/status/1149294914896838656.

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James Hua
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MPhil in Greek History (Oxford); past Undergraduate at Durham Classics and once Ostraka editor. Greekophile. Contact: james.hua@merton.ox.ac.uk