Sparta Was Part of the Persian Empire? Cartographic Exaggeration and Geographical Misconception in Modern Accounts of the Ancient World  

I have long been frustrated by the way that historical empires are conventionally mapped. It often seems that most maps of most empires exaggerate their size and solidity. This is typically done by portraying them when they reached their greatest territorial extent, even if their newly acquired gains were held for very short periods. Client kingdoms and vague zones of tribute exaction, moreover, are often depicted as intrinsic parts of the empire under consideration.

The Roman Empire is a prime example of such cartographic exaggeration. I recently tested this assertion by doing a Google image search for “Roman Empire map.” The results are posted below. As can be seen, 10 of the 14 top hits show central and southern Mesopotamia (which I have indicated with heavy black ovals) as having belonged to the Roman Empire. Most of these maps specify that they depict the Empire in 117 CE, the year of its greatest extent. What they do not indicate is that central and southern Mesopotamia had only been conquered by the emperor Trajan in 116 CE, that Roman control was never fully consolidated, and that the new emperor, Hadrian, abandoned the region almost as soon as he gained power in late 117 CE. As the Wikipedia article on Trajan correctly notes, “The Parthian [Mesopotamian] campaign had been an enormous setback to Trajan’s policy, proof that Rome had overstretched its capacity to sustain an ambitious program of conquest.” All told, the conventional mapping of central and southern Mesopotamia as belonging to the Roman Empire is misleading at best.

Mesopotamia is not the only area in which Roman power is often cartographically inflated. In some respects, the exaggeration of control in depictions of the Caucasus is more pronounced, as will be explored in a later post.

The control of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (558-330 BCE) over the Caucasus region is also exaggerated in conventional historical cartography. Yet in general terms, this empire is more faithfully mapped than that of Rome. A map in an important new book on the Achaemenid Empire, however, reverses this tendency, egregiously depicting most of Greece as falling under Persian control (see below). Although the map correctly notes that the Greek Kingdom of Macedon was conquered by Persia in 492 BCE, it fails to indicate that Persian control here came to an end roughly a dozen years later. More important, the map’s shading scheme clearly indicates that central and southern Greece, including Sparta, had at some unspecified time been incorporated into the Persian Empire. In actuality, the Persian army never even entered the Peloponnese Peninsula in its failed attempt to subdue defiant Greek city-states.

 The book in question is The Persians: The Age of Great Kings, by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Basic Books, 2022). Llwellyn-Jones is an accomplished and prolific scholar who certainly knows that the Persian Empire never conquered, let alone ruled, central and southern Greece. Could this absurd map merely be an oversight, a simple illustration given over to an anonymous cartographer that the author neglected to examine before publication? Or was it crafted intentionally, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek gesture designed to deflate the pretensions of the ancient Greeks? As Llwellyn-Jones makes clear, his central aim is to tell the story of the Achaemenid Empire based on Persian sources rather than on the standard Greek accounts, and a seeming desire to belittle the Greeks is encountered at various points throughout the book. Llewellyn-Jones tells us, for example, that “To visualize themselves as the Great King’s nerve-wracking nemesis gave the Athenians a sense of worth.”

Llewellyn-Jones’s goal, that of removing Greek bias from the story of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is worthy and generally well accomplished. But although he is a fine historian and an adept storyteller, Llewellyn-Jones is a poor geographer. This a significant problem, as the Persian Empire was a vast polity that encompassed a great diversity of places and peoples. As such, it must be grasped in its spatial and well as temporal dimensions.

Although many examples of geographical misunderstanding could be outlined, I will limit my case to just two. On page 7, Llewellyn-Jones tells us that, “The empire encompassed Ethiopia and Libya … .” Libya?  Greek Cyrenaica yes, but certainly not “Libya” as either we or the ancient Greeks conceptualize the term (to the Greeks, “Libya” essentially meant “Africa”). Ethiopia? Surely, I assumed when reading this passage, the author must be thinking of “Ethiopia” as did the ancient Greeks, who generally used this term to refer to Nubia, located in what is now the core area of Sudan. If so, the passage is still misleading, as the Persian Empire never extended beyond the northernmost part of this region. But on page 95, he tells us that the Persian emperor Cambyses was “determined to push into Nubia – modern Ethiopia …” Modern Ethiopia? The modern country of that name is, of course, far removed and utterly distinct from ancient Nubia (see the map below).

Llewellyn-Jones even makes some serious geographical errors in regard to the core region of the Persian Empire. On page 43, for example, he tells us that  “A particularly strong cultural bond between the Persian tribes and the Elamites emerged in an area of lowland Elam called Anshan …” Anshan is actually located in a valley in the Zagros Mountains in what can only be described as upland Elam; lowland Elam, the area west of Susa, is located instead on the greater Mesopotamian alluvial plain just to the east of Sumer. Llewellyn-Jones’s map of the Persian Empire also misconstrues geographical relations in this area. It depicts Anshan as separate from Elam even though it was part of Elam; it places Anshan east and slightly north of Susa, but it was situated much more to the south; and it places the label “Elam” in an area that was, at the time, probably under the waters of the Persian Gulf (compare the map below with the first map posted above).

Over the past several decades the much of the discipline of history has undergone a profound “spatial turn” that has resulted in far more nuanced understandings of the geographical patterns and relationships of earlier times. One can only hope that geographically informed scholarship on the ancient world will be increasingly embraced by younger scholars.