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Ctesias / Ktesias - History of Persia

Until the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions, modern knowledge of Babylonian and Assyrian history was at once meager and uncertain. With the exception of Herodotos, whose notices are scanty and of doubtful value, it was neccessary to depend almost entirely on the copyists and excerptists of Ctesias / Ktesias and Berosos. Ktesias seems to have been devoid of critical power. Ktesias was a contemporary of Xenophon, and was born of the family of the Asclepiadae at Cnidus. He wandered thence in BC 416 to the court of Persia and became body physician to King Artaxerxes Muemon, whom he cured of a severe wound received in the battle of Cunaxa, BC 401. In 399 he returned to his native city, and in the ease thus achieved proceeded to work up into historical form the materials he had collected.

He wrote in twenty-three books a history of Persia in the Ionic dialect. The first six books treated the history of Assyria, and the rest the history of Persia down to his own time, in which he claims to have used the royal annals of the Persian kings. Portions of the annals compiled by Persian writers were translated for him, and with the help of these he endeavored to destroy the credit of Herodotos as a historian. The annals, however, consisted for the most part of mere legendary tales and rationalized myths; readers have, therefore, to seek in them not the history but the mythology of the Babylonians. Semiramis was the goddess Ishtar, Ninos the city of Nineveh, Ninyas or Zames the Sun-god. With these legends Ktesias mingled the Greek romance of Sardanapallos, and eked out his list of Assyrian kings with names partly imaginary, partly geographical. Some of these were doubtless due to the translators on whom he depended. In the later Persian period, however, Ktesias becomes more trustworthy.

His work was extensively used in the ancient world, and wherever quoted became at once the object of sharp controversy. He was accused of being untrustworthy and indifferent to truth, and the charges and the controversy continue until to-day. The severity of the judgments' against him probably arise partly out of a specimen of a sharp modern judgment upon him, both personally and as an author, one may refer to Marcus v. Niebuhr, Geschichte Assur's the acrimonious manner in which he attacked Herodotus, and partly out of the fact that he used Persian sources for his history. It is certain that Ktesias was justified in claiming for his history the authority of Persian documents, and that many of the charges of falsehood brought against him must be laid not upon him, but upon his Eastern friends. His history of Assyria is much like the Egyptian history of mediaeval Arab writers, clothed only in a Greek dress.

In the years of his Persian residence he bad so completely absorbed the Persian point of view as to seem hardly just to the Greek conception of their history in its relations to the Persians. If the fragments of his history that remain are subjected to modern criticism, the judgment must be that the first six books, relating to the early history of Assyria, are valueless. Whether this was due to the fact that he was unable himself to read the sources which he used, and was therefore obliged to rely upon the word of others to tell him the story found in them, or that he must be accused of actually inventing and setting forth as history an entertaining mass of empty fables, will probably never be decisively determined. The books themselves have perished. Only fragments of them survive in the quotations by Diodorus and Eusebius and others, and in an epitome by Photius.

In spite of the meagre and often contradictory excerpts which survive of his works, it is becoming more and more clear that he honestly copied those Persian parchments to which he claimed to have had access. His authorities, it is true, were not more trustworthy than the official histories of modern Persia would be, and some of them resembled the epical Shah-nameh of Firdusi; but they were at least more valuable than Greek legends or the tales of ignorant dragomen.

A duplication of names has long been noted in the case of the Median monarchs of Ktesias; it is also the case with the names of his Assyrian sovereigns. Thus Ninos and Ninyas, Arios and Aralios, Baleus and Balaios, Mamythos (or Mamitos) and Mamylos, Sphairos and Sparthaios, Lamprides and Lampares, Tautanes (or Tautamos) and Teuteos, Ophrateos ("the Euphrates") and Ophratenes. The duplicate names are always placed close together, sometimes with one other name only intervening between them, and the example Mamitos and Mamythos, where Mamitos is evidently Mamit the goddess of fate, shows the manner in which the differentiation was effected. Similarly, Teutamos and Teuteos seem mere variants of the Assyrian tavtim "the sea".

Now one of the cases of reduplication is that of Sösares and Sosarmos who are separated by only two other names. In Sosarmos it is not difficult to recognise the Assyrian Samas-Ramman, when we remember that Samas is represented in Hesykhios as oawg. What makes the identity of Sosarmos and Samas-Ramman the more certain is the fact that Sosarmos appears among the Median kings of Ktesias. The chronology of Ktesias would place the Median Sosarmos (circa BC 790) about the time when Samas-Ramman (B. C. 823 - 810) was leading his armies into the mountains of Kurdistan and making the Assyrians acquainted with the name of the Matai of Matiene. As was first noticed by Volney, the Median kings of Ktesias are duplicated alternately, as if two lists of contemporary monarchs had been united together. Ktesias the Greek historian consulted the "parchment" archives of the Persian kingdom which, from whence he asserted that he derived his accounts of Assyrian and Persian history. These accounts, so far as they have been preserved, are little more than historical romances ; the proper names are exact, though they may not always belong to the same age as the scene of the story in which they occur, but the narrative itself resembles the Haggadah of the Jews rather than sober history.

Now it is impossible to read these stories of Ktesias side by side with the Book of Esther without being struck by their startling resemblance, at all events in general character. The scenery in both is Persian with a Babylonian background ; the proper names are partly Persian, partly Babylonian ; and just as the name of the Babylonian goddess Istar becomes the personal name Esther, so the Babylonian Moon-god Nannar appears in the fragments of Ktesias as the satrap Nannaros.

The curious exaggerations and improbabilities of the narrative of Esther find their counterpart in the semihistorical legends of Ktesias. Thus Ahasuerus or Xerxes is said to have ruled over 127 provinces, the stake on which Haman was impaled was fifty cubits or seventy-five feet high, and the number of Persians slain by the Jews amounted to 75,000. In fact, the story of the massacre of the Persians sounds like an echo of the massacre of the Magians after the revolution which gave Darius his throne ; it seems almost incredible that a Persian king could have issued an edict to Haman for the massacre of the Jews, and then, instead of rescinding it, have arranged a civil war among his own subjects. It is equally difficult to believe that Haman could have given the Jews so long a notice as from nine to eleven months (iii. 12) of his intention to destroy them without their quitting the kingdom, or that he could have been ignorant of the Jewish parentage of Esther. The long interval of time that elapsed between the divorce of Vashti and the marriage of Esther is similarly improbable; while the cause of the divorce would have aroused the strongest feelings in Persia against Xerxes, his summons to his wife that she should leave the harem and show herself publicly at a carouse being a violation of all Persian modes of thought.

The reputation of Ktesias has undergone remarkable fluctuations. The ancients almost unanimously preferred his romantic narrative to the less gorgeous descriptions and more sober chronology of Herodotus and Berosus, and this opinion generally prevailed till the progress of Assyrian research revealed the baselessness of the royal lists derived from his work, and attested the superior accuracy of his rivals. Ktesias' authority was therefore rejected with contempt till the late 19th Century, when a slight reaction in his favor set in. His vindicators, such as Sayce in the introduction to his 'Herodotus' and Duncker in the Assyrian and MedoPersian portions of his 'History of Antiquity,' defend his veracity in so far as they assume that he really related what he was told, but at the same time they attach little or no historical value to his assertions as to earlier times. Duncker regards every statement of Ktesias, at all events down to the time of Darius I, as representing what he styles the 'Medo-Persian epos.'

The chronology of the Assyrian kingdom long exercised, and divided, the judgments of the learned. On the one hand, Ctesias and his numerous followers - including, among the ancients, Cephalion, Castor, Diodorus Siculus, Nicolas of Damascus, Trogus Pompeius, Velleius Paterculus, Josephus, Eusebius, and Moses of Chorine'; among the moderns, Freret, Rollin, and Clinton - gave the kingdom a duration of between thirteen and fourteen hundred years, and carried back its antiquity to a time almost coeval with the founding of Babylon; on the other, Herodotus, Volney, Heeren, B.G. Niebuhr, Brandis, and many others, preferred a chronology which limited the duration of the kingdom to about six centuries and a half, and places the commencement in the thirteenth century BC, when a flourishing Empire had already existed in Chaldaea, or Babylonia, for a thousand years, or more. The duration of a single unbroken empire continuously for 1306 (or 1360) years, which is the time assigned to the Assyrian Monarchy by Ctesias, must be admitted to be a thing hard of belief, if not actually incredible.

Sayce ('Herodotus,' introduction, p. xxxiii) says : ' The greater part of his Assyrian history consists of Assyro-Babylonian myths rationalised and transformed in the manner peculiar to the Persians.' This position appears to be only partially sound, for it is contrary to experience that a nation like the Persians should construct an elaborate mythology glorifying not their own but another and hostile race.' Ktesias could scarcely have included Assyrian annals, and he had to supply their place for that portion of his work from other sources. These probably included the popular Medo-Persian traditions in verse or prose, but these cannot have been practically the only source. During the frequent residences of the Persian court at Babylon, Ktesias must have had abundant opportunities of conversing with prominent Babylonians acquainted with Persian, of which it seems incredible that the king's physician could have been ignorant. The duration assigned by Ktesias to the Assyrian empire (1,860 years, Diod. ii. 21) was probably derived from some tradition as to the date of the foundation of Nineveh, but the list of kings from Semiramis to Saxdanapalus seems to be purely his own invention. Had he drawn from Persian sources, we should expect to find that each king, as in the ' Shahnameh ' of Firdusi, reigned not tens, but hundreds, of years ; the length actually assigned to each reign in the list is beyond ordinary probability, but at the same time is not impossible, so as to suggest that, having to invent names to cover a certain period, he saved himself trouble by giving as few as possible. The names themselves are of the most heterogeneous character: a few, e.g. Baleus, Belochus, and Balatores (Tiglath-pileser), are those of Babylonian or Assyrian deities or kings of whom he had chanced to hear ; others are ordinary Persian names ; others, e.g. Amyntes, are Greek.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:48:30 ZULU