Persia and Babylonia: Creating a New Context for Understanding the Emergence of the First World Empire
ERC project at Leiden University
The Persian Empire (539-330 BCE) was the first world empire in history. At its height, it united a territory stretching from present-day India to Libya – and it would take 2,000 years before significantly larger empires emerged in early modern Eurasia. This territorial sweep is both a source of fascination as well as an obstacle to scholars: how did the Persians keep their empire together? And how does one study such a super-size state?
The Persians conquered a vast territory in Eurasia in the 6th century BC; they united lands and peoples that had never been united before under the rule of one king. This size and variety was a source of pride for the Persians, but it can be a nuisance for the modern-day scholar: how does one study such complexity? How does one tackle such a large variety of languages and scripts, an enormous diversity in cultural practices, and great organisational differences per territory? Historians of the Persian Empire have often ended up with a ‘mosaic’ approach: bits and pieces are taken from all over the region to produce a unified and homogenised vision of the Persian state. But this approach has led to generalisations at the expense of local differences, and to a continuing dominance of Greek histories at the expense of provincial sources. To counter this, the PERSIA AND BABYLONIA project will introduce a new appreciation of the empire’s original variety and will focus on the empire’s most important periphery in doing so: Babylonia.
Babylonia is the best documented region of the Persian Empire: thousands of cuneiform texts have been preserved, from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC, that allow for an informed evaluation of Persia’s achievements within the long history of the region. Both the great density of information and the long temporal sweep are ideal for an appreciation of the Persian Empire’s local impact and how the Persians changed the fabric of Babylonian society. The PERSIA AND BABYLONIA project will bring these texts together for the very first time and make them available to a wider community of scholars through an online database. On top of that, the project will incorporate recent insights from historical sociology and approach empire as a complex process of negotiation involving a wide field of actors – local as well as central. With an interdisciplinary team of ancient historians and Assyriologists, the PERSIA AND BABYLONIA project will make a significant step in tackling the complexity of Ancient Persia, as well as develop a much-needed research tool for historians of empire and society in the ancient world.