Darius in the Shadow of Alexander, by Pierre Briant, translated by Jane Marie Todd

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones on the Persian king who has always been sidelined by Alexander the Great

January 22, 2015

In Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander, Colin Farrell – in the role of history’s most famous Macedonian self-publicist – brings his forces face-to-face with the army of the Persian Great King, Darius III. Played by Israeli actor Raz Degan, Darius looks gorgeous, swathed in imperial purple robes, his eyes outlined with kohl. Yet Darius’ is a mute part. Alexander displays all the Orientalist notions about the inferiority and picturesqueness of Eastern societies, symbolised by the silently despotic – but curiously attractive – ruler.

This Darius (c.380-330BC), the last king of the Achaemenid dynasty, is the focus of Pierre Briant’s intrepid, imposing book, here translated from the French original. No fan of popular culture, Briant does not address Stone’s interpretation of Darius, despite Alexander being emblematic of the way Persian history has been marginalised in the West.

Few of the later Achaemenid rulers have attracted the interest of historians; but of them all, Darius III has fared the worst. Whenever his name appears, he is inevitably dwarfed by his nemesis, Alexander of Macedon; even in works about Darius, he is invariably placed in Alexander’s shadow. Briant assesses that phenomenon, although in no way is this book a biography of the last Achaemenid. It is a complex study, and the reader needs to be familiar with a large array of classical sources to fully engage with Briant’s overarching thesis.

The verdicts of classical historians on Darius, it emerges, are not uniform: Arrian of Nicomedia casts him in a negative light, while Diodorus’ portrait is more positive. Quintus Curtius Rufus uses Darius as an “exemplar” in the vacillations of fortune; Justin concentrates on the exceptional bravery he displayed as a warrior. For Plutarch, Darius’ reign was part of the inevitable slide into Oriental decadence. Such accounts give one abiding image of Alexander’s greatness, but multiple views of Darius – even from the same author: Justin’s Darius is virtuous in battle, but bloody at court.

Briant also turns his attention to Darius in the Persian traditions, especially the poet Ferdowsi’s great Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings” (c.977-1010), a rich amalgam of history, myth and legend that served to bolster and consolidate Persian identity in the centuries after Iran’s conquest by the Arab Muslims and the demise of Zoroastrianism. Ferdowsi makes Alexander (“Iskander”) the half-brother of Darius (“Dara”) and when they come into conflict, Darius has a heroic death.

This is a masterful book. But it is also dense, over-worked and slow. Large portions dwell on historiographic traditions in French thought, which become tiresome quickly. While there are many displays of erudition, even in translation, the result is over-wordy and baroque. Illustrations are poorly chosen, add little to argument, and are reproduced badly. The rich notes section, however, shows Briant to be a master of the longue durée of Iran’s history.

Readers approaching this volume should have a good background knowledge of Achaemenid history and Greek historiography. It is not for the beginner. But as a display of how to approach the reception history and image-building of any historical personage, it is unshakeable in its methodology.

Darius in the Shadow of Alexander

By Pierre Briant, translated by Jane Marie Todd
Harvard University Press, 608pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674493094
Published 29 January 2015

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