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date: 27 November 2022



  • Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Near East

Updated in this version

Text expanded to include full discussion of Ctesias' life. Bibliography updated to reflect current research.

Ctesias of Cnidus was a doctor at the court of Artaxerxes II and the author of a history of Persia and other works. He seems to have studied, and possibly practised, medicine at Cnidus. The exact time and reason for Ctesias’ arrival in Persia (maybe as a prisoner of war) is unknown. He is attested at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 bce, when the armies of two royal brothers, King Artaxerxes II and Prince Cyrus, clashed over the right to the throne. There is every possibility that Ctesias was Artaxerxes’ physician before the revolt of Cyrus, and certainly after the battle Ctesias received numerous honours from the king (T3, 6b). He was resident in Persia for seventeen years (c. 413–397 bce) as the king’s physician (T5). It appears that he also cared for Artaxerxes’ wife, Stateira, and his revered mother, Parysatis (T11d). In 399–397 bce he left the Persian heartland for Cyprus and served as a go-between for Artaxerxes in his negotiations with Conon, who at the time commanded a Persian fleet in the Aegean under the orders of the Cypriot king Evagoras I of Salamis. It is not clear exactly what role Ctesias had in these negotiations, but he seems to have passed letters between the main protagonists and may even have penned (or translated) some himself.

Ctesias must have served Artaxerxes’ interests well, because in 397 bce he was sent (via Cyprus and Cnidus) to negotiate with Sparta. He seems to have been captured by the locals in Rhodes, where he was tried for serving the interests of Persia; he was acquitted, however, and returned home to Cnidus later in the same year. It is unknown if he had ever intended to return to Persia.

In August of 394 bce, the Spartans were decisively defeated off the coast at Cnidus, and Ctesias may have witnessed Conon’s victory. It is around this time that his career as a writer began. His Persica was perhaps created soon after his return to his hometown. A book of a geographical nature is known, variously called Periodoi, Periploi, or Perigēsis. We know of a one-volume ethnographic study of India, the Indica, which, despite its far-fetched tales, does contain some important information about India before Alexander the Great’s invasion. A final work called the Peri tōn kata tēn Asian phorōn (On the Tributes of Asia) supposedly contained lists of all the tribute paid to the Great King from the various parts of the Achaemenid empire. The existence of two further works on mountains and rivers (of the Persian empire, perhaps) is disputed. No further details of Ctesias’ life are known, and unfortunately even the date of his death remains a blank.

Ctesias’ Persica, or History of Persia, is one of the most enticing yet most baffling of all literary works from Greek antiquity. When compared with the “greats” of Greek history, Ctesias is often regarded as a historian of little consequence. And yet the Persica was twenty-three books long and was one of antiquity’s undisputed best-sellers, being mentioned by over fifty ancient authors. It is of considerable sadness that only scattered fragments of the text survive, while others are preserved in part in epitomies (summaries of passages which probably retain little of the text’s original flavour) in the works of Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus, Nicolaus of Damascus, and Photius. Less than a quarter of a page (in modern print) of the Persica has survived (in the form of Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2330.

Perhaps because of its fragmentary condition, Ctesias’ Persica has suffered a poor reputation among modern historians of both Greece and Persia. Felix Jacoby belittled Ctesias’ work as second-rate, untrustworthy, and valueless— gleich Null, as he put it—especially when compared with texts he esteemed for their historical accuracy, like Xenophon’s Anabasis and Hellenica or Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. For Jacoby, everything Ctesias put into writing was an exaggeration or an outright lie, Skandelgeschichte (“scandal history”).

Jacoby’s unforgiving criticism of Ctesias was reiterated in later scholarship, especially that of the latter decades of the 20th century. In 1973 Robert Drews’s The Greek Accounts of Eastern History activated a vigorous anti-Ctesian movement which has influenced scholarship to the present day. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg in particular was at the forefront of an uncompromisingly anti-Ctesian school of thought during the Achaemenid History Workshops of the 1980s (established to rethink the nature of our sources for Persia and to assess the state of play in Achaemenid studies), describing the Persica as poor historical material and a major contributor to the birth of European Orientalism. The effect that the Achaemenid History Workshop has had on Ctesias was to make his work anathema among contemporary historians.

More recent years, however, have seen a scholarly drive towards the rehabilitation of Ctesias. It is now thought that Ctesias’ work is of considerable value in tracing indigenous Persian responses to history. Ctesias drew on a variety of written and oral sources in the composition of his Persian history. What is important is that these sources came from inside Persia and probably represented a considered response of the Persian aristocracy to their society and their history, in which they reinforced the centrality of the court and its hierarchical structure. The Persica is truly a Persian history—an account of the Persian past as the Persian aristocracy saw it, and therefore a valid expression of Persian traditions about the past. This, it now becomes apparent, is the real value of Ctesias’ most influential work.

It is probable that during his years at the Persian court Ctesias learned to understand and then speak Persian with some fluency. This idea is advanced by Plutarch (F23 § 6), who suggests that Ctesias acted as a translator between the Great King and the Greeks. Ctesias claims even to have received information from Queen Parysatis herself, speaking to her directly in Persian, it is imagined. Persian words evidently found their way into the Persica, too. The Persian vocabulary found in Photius’s epitome of the Persica is no doubt lifted directly from Ctesias’ text and thus affords us a rare insight into the use of language in the original work. Persian words would presumably have played a role in creating an air of exoticism for Ctesias’ Greek readers.

Ctesias’ work has, moreover, recently been regarded as a romanticised Persian history, a kind of historical novella. Ostensibly, Ctesias’ Persica is made up of a string of short (and longer) chronologically arranged novellas interspersed with descriptions of lands, customs, and battles and placed into a historical framework to form a continuous narrative. The novella was a growing hallmark of literature during Ctesias’ lifetime. Xenophon was certainly familiar with the genre, and in fact much of the history of the time was composed in this way (Herodotus and Thucydides certainly contain characteristics of the novella). The novella is found in Hebrew writing of the era too: the biblical book of Esther has all the hallmarks of a novella. The Persica is also connected to a historiographic tradition that was blossoming in the Near East in the period between the mid-7th and late 5th centuries bce. This genre of history writing is now called “court history.” The best-known example of the genre is the Israelite work called the “Davidic court history” of the Hebrew Bible, the novellas of I Samuel, II Samuel, and I and II Kings.

In the Persica Ctesias created a work of historical fact which was mixed with, amongst other things, fables and fantasy tales, gossip and prejudice, stereotypes and speculation. But the mix is so dense that any boundary between history and fiction is impossible to see. The result is a work of great novelty and ingenuity, which clearly exercised great appeal in antiquity.

Ctesias should not be simply thought of as a historian (and certainly not as a second-rate historian). After decades of mistreatment, today he is regarded as an important figure in the development of Greek literature: a poet-cum-novelist working within the framework of history. History is certainly present in the Persica, but not in the form we have come to expect history to be narrated. His observations of events at the royal court, especially during the period of his residence in Persia, have a ring of truth to them. The account of the reign of Artaxerxes II is not a sensationalist tragic history but a court history. The Persica is a work of history, but a history composed mainly from a Persian tradition. Ctesias’ chief objective was not to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the Near East modelled on a Western concept of how history must be narrated, but to allow his Greek-speaking readers into another mindset. The Persica can be used as a history because it records the way in which the Persians remembered or imagined their past.

With this in mind, it is doubtful whether Ctesias can really be guilty of constructing a negative “Orient,” as has been contended. Representation of any culture, especially by somebody writing in another language or from an outsider’s perspective, is never going to be an exact duplication of the core culture itself, but in his work Ctesias attempted to understand Persian history by recording and preserving bona-fide Persian ideas of the past. He was not concerned with creating a generic caricature of “the Oriental,” but a nuanced picture of the culturally and historically significant Persians.


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