Teaching Achaemenid Imperialism, from the 19th Century to the Present (20 min)


John Lee, University of California, Santa Barbara


This paper examines a topic that has so far received little scholarly attention: changing portrayals of Achaemenid imperialism in U.S. college and university textbooks from the 1880s into the 2000s. The paper shows how early textbook depictions of Persia that praised Cyrus as the liberator of the Jews gave way by the early twentieth century to a largely negative picture of an inept empire of despotism and sloth. This negative portrait persisted in various forms into the 2000s, before giving way in recent years to an idealized portrait of an empire of willing subjects for whom paying tribute was “an honor, not a burden.” Along the way, the paper examines the development of textbook comparisons between Neo-Assyrian (“bad”) and Achaemenid (“good”) imperialism. The paper closes by assessing the possibilities offered by placing Achaemenid imperialism into comparative global perspective, and by suggesting a wider range of classical texts (beyond the typical choice of Herodotus) and Achaemenid sources (including public inscriptions along with documents on clay, papyrus, and leather) that instructors may employ to foster a clearer understanding of diverse aspects of Achaemenid imperial rule and local reactions to that rule.