Of incredible and bizarre tales

Matthew Waters

I should start by noting that my post title refers to Ctesias’ work (at least in Plutarch’s estimation, Artaxerxes 1.4), not what I’m about to write. I’m only a “two-weeker” (and not until March) with regard to physical presence at the CHS. I note with great interest the variety of projects underway at the Center. I myself am working on two main projects this year: a textbook history of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (for Cambridge U Press) and a monograph on Ctesias’ Persica in its Near Eastern context. The latter is my CHS focus.

Some background: Ctesias served as a doctor to the Persian king Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BC). Most writers supply the appellative “historian” after Ctesias’ name, though even a cursory read of his work – or, rather, what we have of his work – makes one hesitant to use the term. Plutarch’s assessment comes from one who, presumably,
had access to all of the twenty-three books of Ctesias’ Persica, an influential work in antiquity that chronicled the Assyrian, Median, and Persian Empires to Ctesias’ time, circa 400 BC. We have little of it extant, and almost nothing directly from Ctesias himself. Only
fragments of this work survive, scattered in various ancient authors (e.g., Nicholas of Damascus, Diodorus Siculus) and in a severely-truncated epitome by the Byzantine patriarch and scholar Photius (9th century).

Mainly thanks to Felix Jacoby’s withering assessment (1922), Ctesias’ reputation has not fared well. Most modern scholars find Ctesias’ work unreliable, and there is ample justification for this. Yet, he is frequently cited, often haphazardly, in scholarship on ancient Persia and its predecessors. Ctesias provides an important but often frustrating counter to Herodotus and other, narrative, Greek sources on the Assyrians, Medes, and Persians: Ctesias’ account diverges from others in sometimes significant ways. One glaring (galling?) example involves Ctesias’ apparent failure to place the main battles of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (480-479) in correct sequence. Some believe that his Persica served as an initial draft of Zach Snyder’s screenplay for The 300. (OK, I did make that last part up – but it’s not a stretch.)

My ongoing project aims to focalize the Persica within its Near Eastern context, but by no means denying or neglecting it for what it is: a Greek work, written in the Greek world (Ionia), for Greeks. As the cliché runs, Greek writings about the Near East often tell us more about the former than they do about the latter. Ctesias’ impact on the Greek historiographic tradition was enormous, especially with regard to the motifs of the effeminate and easily-manipulated monarch, the licentious queen, and the conniving eunuch.

A main thrust of the study moves beyond Ctesias’ historical reliability (or lack thereof), not only in his treatment of the Persians but the Assyrians and Medes as well. Mesopotamian (and Persian) literary motifs and folktale elements reveal themselves in the Persica. Ctesias’ story of the rise of Cyrus the Great offers several case studies in itself. As a methodological starting-point, Ctesias’ variant versions of Achaemenid Persian history will be considered first not simply as preposterous fantasies but rather as adaptations preserved within (and indebted to) Mesopotamian and Persian oral traditions. These alternate versions – regardless of their underlying historicity – are important in their own right for an understanding of the Persian dynastic tradition and its legacy.

Work Cited

Jacoby, F., (1922), “Ktesias,” Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft XI, 2032-73.

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