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Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia

July 2014 (118.3)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia

By Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre. Pp. 397, figs. 131, tables 3, maps 20. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013. $84. ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (cloth).

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More than 20 years ago, when scholars of the “new Achaemenid history” started to turn their attention to the provinces in order to better understand the mechanisms of the Persian empire, Amélie Kuhrt and Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, editors of the fourth Achaemenid History Workshop proceedings, wrote in their introduction that “the reflection of the political structure [of the empire] in the local evidence was very often virtually invisible” (Centre and Periphery [Leiden 1990] xv). Since then, a number of volumes have continued to test the nature of Persian impact, but overall the archaeological imprint of the Achaemenids in Anatolia has been considered remarkably light compared with, for instance, the more visible cultural changes that followed the conquests of Alexander and the Romans. Recently, though, new opinions are surfacing (see, e.g., L. Khatchadourian, “Empire in the Everyday: A Preliminary Report on the 2008–2011 Excavations at Tsaghkahovit, Armenia,” AJA 118 [2014] 137–69). In the first place, it is becoming clearer that low archaeological visibility does not necessarily correspond to a light touch; if Persian authority did not much impact material culture, or certain other aspects of culture (e.g., religion), this does not mean it was not heavy-handed in other areas. Secondly, some scholars are starting to point out that the Achaemenid empire might have had a rather more profound effect on Anatolian life than has been thought. Surveys are highlighting settlement patterns and rural agricultural economic production as an area of major political/social impact. Of monumental buildings and palaces, it is possible that, as someone reminded me recently, many may simply not yet have been found (there are rumors of Achaemenid remains from various sites awaiting publication; this is a fluid area). But it is in the less-monumental aspects of life, such as drinking and dress, that one might also see deep changes—changes that arguably go beyond superficial uses of newly available visual vocabularies in peer competition and betray a more systematic incorporation of elites into an Achaemenid cultural identity, ultimately underpinning the social stability of the empire: what can be termed “soft power.”

Dusinberre contributes to this trend in her latest book. Following her previous examination of Achaemenid developments at their western headquarters of Sardis, this book extends to cover the whole of Achaemenid Anatolia, surveying relevant materials from the Aegean coast to the eastern end of the Anatolian Plateau, as far as Armenia. This is a daunting task; the literature is enormous, allowing Dusinberre to alight only briefly on certain areas (e.g., Lycia). It is nevertheless a welcome synthesis; as Dusinberre notes, most publications on Achaemenid Anatolia have been collections of papers, and most scholars concentrate on particular materials or regions. Beyond providing a synthetic survey, however, Dusinberre’s aim is also to shift the discourse on imperialism and cultural transfer in Achaemenid studies from a geographically oriented core-periphery model to an alternative approach that she calls an “authority-autonomy model” (3–8). While relinquishing the need to refer to an “imperial center” has been a desideratum in this field, the articulation of the approach could be more explicit. “Center/core-periphery” is more mentioned than described, and the definition of “authority” and “autonomy” (political, corresponding to “political structure” as phrased by Kuhrt and Sancisi-Weerdenburg? economic? cultural?) and how this model fundamentally differs is not spelled out. This may leave many students who are unfamiliar with the scholarship and concepts in the dark. Center/core-periphery approach as articulated in world-systems theory, in contrast to “diffusion,” is not only geographically oriented but also frames cultural transfer as a consequence of economic relations, a powerful core consuming the raw materials of a less-developed, dependent periphery, a corollary being economic stratification in the peripheries and consumption of manufactured goods from the core as competition among emerging “peripheral elites.” To be clear, although Dusinberre does see local elites autonomously using new rhetorical tools to advance their own positions, economy is addressed only indirectly (e.g., 35); overall, this book primarily considers Achaemenid political authority, both direct and less direct, and its establishment through cultural authority on varying levels in varying life spheres. Although it could be expressed more clearly, this is an important takeaway.

Chapter 1 being the introduction, chapters 2–7 consider six main “behavioral categories”: governing (ch. 2); controlling (i.e., military) (ch. 3); drinking and eating (ch. 4); dealing with the dead (ch. 5); worshiping (ch. 6); and education (ch. 7). A concluding chapter (ch. 8) considers identities. This structure has the advantage of integrating multiple sources and avoiding traditional division according to material categories, which can obscure human action and history. The chapters cover a great deal of material, especially chapter 5. There are some gaps; for instance, the nature of satrapies is represented as relatively unproblematic, and some discussion of the debate about whether provincial Achaemenid society can be described as “feudal” on a medieval model would be useful in the chapter on governing. The structure also necessitates some repetition. Seals are treated in multiple chapters, sometimes with similar points being raised. A chapter on sealing as a specific behavior might have been a good addition, especially as it seems to have been one of distinctive importance in the Achaemenid period. The relationship between education and imperialism has received much attention in scholarship, and Dusinberre rightly acknowledges its importance. Unfortunately, however, scarcity of evidence limits discussion unless such a broad definition is adopted that the efficacy of the idea is tested.

Dusinberre is on the optimistic end of the scale when it comes to seeing evidence for the Achaemenid period in general and for Achaemenid authority within this. Within the chapters, readers will find a number of challenging proposals. I single out just two: Dusinberre suggests that fourth-century B.C.E. tiarate head coins, usually associated with local rulers and satraps, were instead central issues designed to replace the Persian “archer” coins with something in a more local guise. This is a thought-provoking idea. It needs to be balanced with consideration of weights, distributions, and uses, and as with seals, a separate chapter on coining as behavior might have allowed this. The Lycian “heroa” from the Xanthian acropolis are treated as evidence of hero worship in chapter 6 (222–25), separately from other monumental tombs such as the Nereid monument, which is treated in chapter 5 (199–201) on burials. While I would agree with Dusinberre that these “heroa” are linked to autonomous local authority building, it is not clear that they are distinct from tombs, and the discussion is hazy on whether and how they “heroize” contemporary rulers or Homeric heroes. The wide scope of the book has the disadvantage of not allowing a lot of in-depth analysis, and overall, Dusinberre’s model comes across as a bit too binary, with materials being seen as evidence for either authority or autonomy, most often the former. She shies away from the buzzword “identity,” but it is her concluding chapter on identity that really starts to effervesce with the more complex interactions of top-down authority and local autonomy.

Having said that, a success of this book is its general review of the weight of Persian authority—even if some might disagree with the degree—and most importantly its attention to the incorporation or “soft power” aspect of this authority. Chapter 4, on eating and drinking, is best here, and behaviors covered in other chapters chime in (education, obviously, and also sealing practices). Concerning drinking, Dusinberre extends the work of other scholars such as Eric Kistler and Margaret Miller to convey how specifically Achaemenid-styled commensality bound subjects in a social web that ensured their identification with the Persian authority. Her expertise in pottery also allows her to add insights on how changes in pottery technology may relate to new authority in a way that intersects with discussions of pottery production and empire in Assyrian and Hittite studies.

Readers familiar with the material will find aspects of this book contentious. On the one hand, Dusinberre’s model could be more clearly articulated, and more selective case studies could enable more penetrating discussion of the ins and outs of authority, autonomy, and acculturation. On the other hand, its account of a rich range of widespread archaeological remains will make it useful for students and scholars, and its provocative ideas will stimulate discussion. The more subtle incorporation of provincial populations into empire is what will make this book a reference point for further studies of power and people in the Persian world.

Catherine M. Draycott
British Institute at Ankara/University of Liverpool
06700 Kavaklidere, Ankara

Book Review of Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia, by Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre

Reviewed by Catherine M. Draycott

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 3 (July 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1183.Draycott

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