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Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib.

Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. By Bruce Lincoln. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 176. $30.00.)

There is a long tradition of comparison between the modern west and ancient civilizations, but the resemblances have usually been sought in Athens, Sparta, or Rome. Rarely have scholars made the provocative equation suggested by the title of Bruce Lincoln's new book, linking an imperial United States with the Persia of Darius and Xerxes.

Lincoln reserves explicit modern polemic for the postscript and devotes most of his discussion to an ancient empire still unfamiliar to a nonspecialist audience. He offers an eloquent, fascinating meditation on Persian justifications of kingship, conquest, and atrocity in theological terms. Little space is given to political narrative or the Greeks, and readers will find much that is new and refreshing in the use of ancient Iranian evidence for Persian ideology.

In the first chapter, the author introduces Darius I, the usurper who seized the throne from the family of Cyrus in 522 BC, redesignating the royal house as "Achaemenian" after an obscure ancestor and commissioning a series of propagandistic texts to celebrate and legitimize his rule. In the five chapters that follow, Lincoln traces the evolution of religious thought in the written proclamations of Darius and his successors over the next two centuries. Although he refuses to give a verdict on the problematic question of whether the Achaemenian kings were strict Zoroastrians, Lincoln uses comparative material from the later Avestan scriptures to illuminate religious concepts in the royal inscriptions.

Key topics are the attribution of royal power to the favor of the "Wise Lord" Ahura Mazda and the significance of the creation narratives that open twenty-three of the inscriptions, similar in tone and vocabulary to Avestan accounts of the world's formation. Ancient Iranians believed that the Wise Lord constructed a perfect universe, only to see it battered by the onslaught of the Evil Spirit in a cosmic battle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Lincoln argues persuasively that the Achaemenian kings privileged creation narratives in their propaganda out of a desire to present themselves as restorers of the Wise Lord's creation, repairing the damage done to the universe by evil. The language of salvation and restoration was used in one case to describe a favorite royal building project, envisioned as a miniature replica of divine creation (75). On other occasions, though, the work of restoration was more sinister, involving the identification and destruction of the Evil Spirit's agents on earth through purges and show trials. Lincoln's study climaxes in an infamous Greek account of torture at the Persian court, contextualized through Avestan texts and inscriptions of Artaxerxes II (87-94).

The modern postscript, unfortunately, falls short of the title's promise. Although it notes references to dualistic conflict and divine approval in President George W. Bush's rhetoric and suggests some similarity between rationalizations of torture, ancient and modern, the brevity of analysis contrasts with the thorough treatment of ancient evidence. The flaws of the epilogue, though, should not overshadow Lincoln's valuable contribution to historians' understanding of Persia, and this should become a must-read book for students of the ancient world.

John Hyland

Christopher Newport University
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Author:Hyland, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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