mapping empires

Mismapping the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Caucasus

As noted in a recent post, maps of empires tend to exaggerate their territorial extents, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) is no exception. Most maps of this important empire depict it as covering all or almost all the South Caucasus region, with its border extending to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range (see the top maps from a Google image search posted below). Some show it as pushing even further to the north, encompassing the historically Circassian lands to the north and west of the Caucasus and sometimes even extending completely around the Black Sea (see below).

There is little if any good evidence, however, that the Achaemenid Persian Empire ever included the Kingdom of Colchis, located mainly in what is now the western half of the Republic of Georgia. The Wikipedia map of the early Georgian states posted below gives a much better depiction of the geopolitical situation of the time. The notion that this ancient Persian empire extended to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range derives essentially from a passage written by the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus. Although there is much to admire in the works of Herodotus, it has long been known that many of his assertions were far from accurate. It is for good reason that Lloyd Llewellyn Jones recently decided that it was necessary to write a book on the Achaemenid Empire based mostly on Persian sources, rather than on Herodotus and other Greek writers. But Jones, unfortunately, also maps western Georgia as having been under Persian control.

There is, however, some scholarly disagreement about which polity (or polities) had ultimate sovereignty over what is now western Georgia between 550 and 330 BCE. The Wikipedia article on the history of the Republic of Georgia provides an excellent summary:

Between 653 and 333 BC, both Colchis and Iberia survived successive invasions by the Iranian Median empire. The case is different for the Achaemenid Persians, however.  According to Herodotus (3.97), Achaemenid power extended as far as the Caucasus mountains, but the Colchians are not included in his list of the twenty Persian satrapies. Nor are they referred to in the lists of Achaemenid lands (dahyāva) given in the Old Persian inscriptions of Darius and his successors. In Xenophon’s Anabasis (7.8.25; probably an interpolation) the tribes of Colchis and East Pontus are referred to as independent (autónomoi). On the other hand, Herodotus mentioned both the Colchians and various Pontic tribes in his catalogue (7.78-79) of approximately fifty-seven peoples who participated in Xerxes’ expedition against Greece in 481-80 BC. As the Encyclopaedia Iranica states, it is thus probable that the Achaemenids never succeeded in asserting effective rule over Colchis, though local tribal leaders seem to have acknowledged some kind of Persian suzerainty. The Encyclopaedia Iranica further states, whereas the adjoining Pontic tribes of the nineteenth satrapy and the Armenians of the thirteenth are mentioned as having paid tribute to Persia, the Colchians and their Caucasian neighbors are not; they had, however, undertaken to send gifts (100 boys and 100 girls) every five years (Herodotus 3.97).

The giving of gifts and the supplying of troops by a polity to a much more powerful neighboring empire, however, does not in itself indicate inclusion in that empire. It must also be noted that careful historical cartographers, such as Thomas Lessman, do not map western Georgia as having been part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (see the map below).

The issue at stake here is not merely that of the inaccurate mapping of empires. What I am more concerned about is historical amnesia about the Caucasus, coupled with its pervasive historical misrepresentation. To put it simply, this key region of the world does not get its due in most historical and geographical accounts. All too often, it is simply appended to one or more empires based in other lands. Many such empires did covet the region, and in some periods they did control, directly or indirectly, large parts of it. But the Caucasus also had its own kingdoms and other polities, which deserve recognition.

I recently gave a keynote address about such issues at a conference on the Black Sea region held in Batumi in the Republic of Georgia. I hope to convert this talk to a video later this year; if I do so, I will post it on this website.

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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.

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