Author: everydayorientalism

On Darius and the many Alexanders, on Polybius and Montesquieu, on Iran and India: An interview with Pierre Briant, Part 2 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

On Darius and the many Alexanders, on Polybius and Montesquieu, on Iran and India: An interview with Pierre Briant, Part 2 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Voir ci-dessous pour version française

فارسی / Persian: Interview PBriant Part2 Persian ; Türkçe: Interview_Briant_Turkçe

Part one of the interview is accessible here

Pierre Briant is Honorary Professor at the Collège de France, where he held the Chair of History and civilization of the Achaemenid world and of Alexander’s empire from 1999 to 2012. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, including the Persian Empire, the relationships between Darius and Alexander, and the historiography of Alexander the Great. He is also the founder of Achemenet. His latest monograph, Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs, came out in 2016. This 2-part interview is the result of a long conversation between Pierre Briant and myself, which took place via facetime in May 2017. The many topics we discussed allowed us to look back at over half a century of scholarship in the fields of Classics, ancient history, archaeology, reception and postcolonial studies. 

The English translation is mine. We owe the Persian one to Sara Mashayekh. We are very grateful to her, as well as to Prof. Touraj Daryaee, Director of the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at University of California, Irvine, for their generous help. The Turkish translation was done by Nilda Taşköprü, Executive Secretary of the Institut d’études anatoliennes d’Istanbul‘s Director, Dr Jean-François Pérouse. We wish to thank them both warmly for their kind support.

Katherine Blouin

Katherine Blouin : What is the situation with Achaemenid studies in the countries that were formerly part of the Achaemenid world?

Pierre Briant : Achaemenid history belongs to Iran’s ‘national narrative’. It is part of their memory, of their history, of their immaterial heritage. This interest for the Achaemenids is mythified, since the Achaemenids were, just like Alexander, integrated in the Book of the Kings. Despite what has been said, the 1979 Revolution has not erased the pre-Islamic past. When Rafsanjani was president, he went to Persepolis and said « Iran has two pillars: Islam and the Achaemenids ». So, this is something important, as also show the recent demonstrations of the opposition around the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargades[1].

As for historical research, we should start by saying that there has been a strong interest in the past and in archaeological work since the time of the Qajar kings. Such initiatives did not, therefore, solely stem from a European impulse. Yet, no Iranian university currently offers a historical curriculum that is as strong and conceptualized as what we can find in EU countries or in North America. There are however many Iranian archaeological missions, of restoration, of rescue, with well-built programs, which can be led by mixed teams made of Iranian and European archaeologists, for instance in Pasargades or Persepolis, and several excavations are starting here and there. There are also unique documentary resources in Iranian museums – for instance in Tehran, where part of the Persepolis tablets is kept (the rest being ‘transitorily’ in Chicago since the 1930s).

In the other countries located on the territory covered by the Achaemenid Empire, research is mainly archaeological in nature. Many fieldwork projects were started in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, and for a time in Iraq as well. There were many discoveries, especially in western Turkey, but also in the Caucasus. For instance, excavations in Azerbaijan have led to the unearthing of an Achaemenid palace with its paradise (garden), which is something absolutely extraordinary.

KB: When did you go to Iran for the first time and what memories do you keep from that journey?

PB: I first went to Iran quite late. Since I’m not an archaeologist, I did not travel from dig to dig. I was invited there after the publication of the History of the Persian Empire. It was, I think, in 1996 or 1997. I was invited by the l’Institut Français de Recherche en Iran (French Institute of Research in Iran), which was directed at the time by an archaeologist, who is also a friend, Rémy Boucharlat. From there I took a plane and went to Shiraz, and from Shiraz I reached Persepolis by taxi. I spent the whole day there. The taxi driver wondered what had happened to me because usually, travelers would not remain on the site for so long. It was very moving to be there. I was stunned by Persepolis, Pasargades, Susa also. It was very important to go to these sites, which I had talked about but didn’t know. I went back several times, especially to archaeological sites, including in other countries, in Egypt, in Turkey. It was also important for me to meet many Iranian colleagues, on fieldwork as well as in universities. I kept in touch with many of them, and I plan to go back, probably next year. The History of the Persian Empire was translated twice in Iran and others of my publications were also translated. Once on my way back from Iran, as we landed in Paris early in the morning, a young woman came to me and said: “Are you Pierre Briant?”. I said: “Yes”. She started crying. Not because she had just met me (!), but because her father, who had just passed away, was the translator of the History of the Persian Empire.

KB: I suppose it was also striking to see the country’s topography and environment for the first time?

PB: Yes, for sure. The variety of landscapes is incredible when we travel by air, and by car. I did a wonderful trip in 1997 or 1998. We were four: Rémy Boucharlat, George Rougemont, who was working on the corpus of Greek inscriptions from Iran, Paul Bernard, and myself. We travelled through a great portion of Western Iran by car, we drove through the Zagros, where I found my ‘brigand peoples’. It was also very important to see the sites. When you read publications on Persepolis, Pasargades, Susa, and you see the pictures, it’s good. But when you have all of this in front of your eyes…it’s like a young scholar who studies Greek history and visits the Acropolis for the first time. One of my geography teachers used to say: “Geography ought to be done with one’s feet”. I would say that the same applies to archaeology. You need to work there, to walk through the sites, to go back.

I owe my interest in archaeology to Jean-Claude Gardin, who worked on large irrigation networks that had been discovered northern Afghanistan. He had read my article on the brigands and had asked me (around 1978) to become part of his research team. He wanted me to bring together all the written sources on pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenid Bactria so as to feed the project (a task which led to a book in 1984). After that, I did field surveys in Turkey for 6 years with colleagues from Bordeaux, and I also prospected in Iran with Boucharlat. Archaeology has therefore contributed substantially to my research, and it is very present in History of the Persian Empire. More generally, archaeological and iconographical sources have always been a source of enrichment, of reflection and of new hypotheses for me.

KB: You are among the pioneers in the field of environmental history. I have in mind your two volumes of 1982 (Rois, tributs et paysans. Études sur les formations tributaires du Moyen-Orient ancien et Etat et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien), as well as the collective volume on qanats (Irrigation et drainage dans l’Antiquité. Qanats et canalisations souterraines au Moyen-Orient, en Égypte et en Grèce, 2000). To what extent have these works been influenced by anthropological approaches?

PB: Rois, tribus et paysans gathers articles that were written between 1973 and 1980. Pierre Lévêque offered me the opportunity to bring them together in one volume. If one wants to know how I worked in the 1970s, I think that the answer can easily be found in this book. It notably contains an assessment of the issues of continuities/ruptures between the Achaemenid Empire and the Hellenistic kingdoms, which I wrote in 1979[2]. I published État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien that same year (1982). The genesis of this book is interesting. I published a very big study, which should have been a book in the 1976 issue of Dialogues d’Histoire ancienne (« Brigandage, dissidence et conquête en Asie achéménide et hellénistique » = “Robbery, dissidence, and conquest in Achaemenid and Hellenistic Asia”), and that led me to collaborate with an ethnologist specializing on Iran named Jean-Pierre Digard. He had himself worked on the nomad peoples of today’s Zagros and had published an article on these issues in 1975 in Studia Iranica. At the end of his article, he made a call for collaborations. He was very surprised to receive a response from an ancient historian. I met him and asked him whether he would be one of the two respondents included at the end of my article. After that, I kept on working with ethnologists in the context of Paris’ Centre d’études et de recherches marxistes (Marxist study and research centre). It included a group that focused on nomadic, pastoral societies, whose members had created a mixed, EHESS/Cambridge University Press series called Sociétés pastorales. They asked me if I wanted to turn my article into a book. It is in this context that État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien was born. I both condensed the original article and enlarged its scope so as to include pre-islamic Arab societies as well as the Scythians of Central Asia. This book truly fascinated me, because I started working on topics I was not familiar with, especially the pre-Islamic Arab world. I approached it by combining data from neo-Assyrian sources (inscriptions and reliefs) with Classical sources as well as the few relevant Achaemenid sources. Jean-Pierre Digard also invited me to contribute to an ethnozoology conference that took place at Maisons-Alfort in 1977. I gave a paper on ovine breeding in the Achaemenid Empire; for the first time, I made extensive use of the documentary resources available in the Elamite tablets from Persepolis. The progress I’ve made over all these years are due not only to new data, but also to the fact that I had the opportunity to meet colleagues who made me discover fields I did not know. I talked earlier about archaeology. I could also say the same of numismatics, ethnology, anthropology. I was very sensitive to all these currents, as well as to the Marxist one. I took part in the Centre d’études et de recherches marxiste (Paris) in the early 1970s. There, in the “Ancient History” section, I worked with (for instance) Pierre Lévêque, Claude Mossé, Yvon Garlan and Maurice Godelier. The latter, an ethnologist, took part in our debates sometimes. Such discussions considerably opened my mind. It is also during this period that I discovered the « Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) », which we can come back to.

KB : And what about the volume on the qanats?

PB : I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by questions related to irrigation. I had discovered this text from Polybius (10.28) a very long time ago, and I had talked about it for the first time in 1980 in an article that came out in an Paris-based, Iranian journal (which has since then disappeared) called Zâman[3]. I talked about it again several times until I organized this conference in Paris. In the meantime, in 1992, while I was at the Institut français d’archéologie orientale in Cairo (IFAO), I learned that the archaeologists who worked at Ayn Manawir had discovered Demotic texts that included the name of Darius. Not only were the local archives of a village (written in Demotic on ostraca) discovered in this western desert site, but the fields of the said village – of which a study was recently published by Damien Agut-Labordère and Claire Newton in ARTA[4] – were also discovered. The site also includes underground drains, which were somewhat comparable to qanats.  I knew that Polybius’ vocabulary was also found in Greek inscriptions from Europe. This is therefore how I conceived this volume. It answers a long-lasting question I had on Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism, which had been translated in French with a foreword by Pierre Vidal-Naquet[5]. According to Wittfogel, the Achaemenid Empire belonged to the so-called hydraulic empires. He did not know Polybius’ text, which shows, on the contrary, that the work was decentralized at the level of the villages, and that these villages were requested by the Achaemenid administration to dig underground canals, in return for which they were granted fiscal immunity for five generations. This project that part of a reflexion on archaeology and the use of Greek texts to understand the Achaemenid realia. The conference perfectly met the aim I had tried to achieve: bring together specialists from different horizons (Greece, Egypt, Middle East) and working on different sets of data (Greek epigraphy, Greek literary texts, Demotic texts, archaeological prospection, etc.). I’m all the more proud of it that it was the first scientific colloquium I organized at the Collège de France, for it took place a few days after my Leçon inaugurale, in March 2000. I’m happy to see that the book gathered and still gathers a wide audience[6].

My interest was articulated around more conceptual reflexions on the structure and nature of the Achaemenid Empire. Can we talk of a tributary empire? Is the concept of AMP a usable one? One can consider that this phase of reflexion is now outdated, as an article published in 1991 by Maurice Godelier shows[7]. Even though we consider that the AMP is not an operative concept anymore, all I’ve done during those years has taught me a lot. I’m not a theoretician, I’ve progressed a lot through Marxism, my reflections on the AMP and the relationships between irrigation work and State structures. I don’t regret my work within this particular research group in the 70s and 80s. When we undertake studies of this type, there are always two types of results: the immediate result and the long term one. The immediate result might be relatively invisible, if not negligible 20 years later[8]. But all the reflections I’ve had, all the contacts I’ve made with people in all sorts of fields, in all countries, from the USSR and USA to Europe, East Europe, including the GDR at a certain time, Canada, all this built me intellectually speaking. No research is negligible in the long run. Never. Sometimes we realize after 2 years of research that our efforts will not lead to a book or an article. Already the fact of knowing this and having the courage to tell ourselves that we won’t write a book on this topic, it means that we’ve progressed a lot in the meantime.

KB : Of all the Alexanders you analyze in your latest book (Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs), is there one you prefer?

PB : Yes. It’s the Alexander on which I’ve worked for 8 years of my life, who led to a book that came out in 2012, and without which my latest one would not have been possible. It is the Alexandre des Lumières (Enlightenment Alexander[9]). When I arrived at the Collège de France, I kept on working on the Achaemenid Empire through Achemenet, the conferences I organized and those to which I participated, seminars, articles. At the same time, I dedicated my courses to the historiography of Alexander, what I call the history of the elaboration of interpretative processes. Why does Alexander still trigger today the images that we see circulate? Traditionally, we used to say – and I said it myself not too long ago – that there was no historiography of Alexander before Droysen and his Geschichte Alexanders der Großen[10]. I started an in-depth work on the question in 2003-2004, and while teaching my course at the Collège de France in 2004, I realized all of a sudden that there was an alexandrology before Droysen, and this is when I discovered the Alexander of Montesquieu. I realized that in reality, Droysen’s image had been preceded and prepared by Montesquieu and many other European philosophers-historians, especially in Scotland and in England in the second half of the 18th century, but also in Germany during the first third of the 19th century. That’s why, when I was invited to give a lecture in Toronto in 2005, I chose as my theme a 18th century Scottish writer, William Robertson, who had developed, in the footsteps of Montesquieu, an image of Alexander that was also close to Plutarch’s[11]. By the way, I must say that Montesquieu brought me back to the qanats. While reading L’esprit des lois’s table of content, I all of a sudden came across a chapter entitled « Des pays créés par l’industrie des hommes » (XVIII.6). I told myself : « Who knows, maybe Montesquieu quotes Polybius? ». That was the case! I thus wrote an article on qanats and irrigation according to Montesquieu : the author of L’esprit des lois was the first (in 1748) to present a historical commentary on Polybius’ qanats.

After that I kept on all these studies, I travelled a lot through European literatures. I went through all of French, English, German, and through part of Italian and Spanish literature from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 19th c. And thereby I unveiled what I called the Enlightenment Alexander, showing that in fact, when Droysen starts to work on his Alexander in 1830, a great deal of work had been done, published and that therefore, at least in essence, his image is the one from Montesquieu and many French, English and German philosophers from the 18th c.[12] It is very interesting to discover a completely new research field. I dedicated all of my courses at the Collège de France to the 18th c.; the title was “History of Alexander and history of European expansion”. Apart from a passage from Momigliano’s inaugural lecture at UCL [1953] and a very short passage in Bickerman, nobody had anticipated the existence of the Enlightenment Alexander. The 2016 books owes therefore a lot to the 2012 one, because the latter allowed me to fill in an important and even decisive gap. And, in turn, filling this gap made the trajectory that followed understandable, from Antiquity until today.

KB: What about cinema? Is there a movie on Alexander or the Persian Empire that you are particularly fond of?

PB: I have a favourite one. It is not Robert Rossen’s, and it is not Oliver Stone’s either[13]. It is Sikandar, a movie that was shot in India in 1941 by an Indian director, who also happens to be an actor, Sohrab Mohdi, whose name indicates that his background is a Parsi one from Bombay. The movie is a proto-Bollywood one style-wise. It is interesting to see how the first scenes take place in Persepolis: To my knowledge, it is the only, even modest, studio reconstitution of Persepolis in any movie whatsoever. Neither Rossen nor Stone is interested in landscapes, in peoples, as if the Achaemenid Empire did not exist! When Sikandar starts, we see a bearded man arrive on a chariot. He sits on a throne. We think that a bearded Alexander is a little surprising a thing, but it is not Alexander, it is Aristotle. He warns Alexander and says: “Beware of women, you cannot be both conqueror and in love”. That’s why Alexander sends Roxana away, who precedes him in India. The movie thus adopts the Indian vision. We are in 1940-1941, at a time when there were two historiographical schools in India: The British – therefore imperialist – historiography, according to which Alexander was both a very important man for India and a precedent to the British conquerors, and on the other hand, Indian historiography, which promoted a completely different narrative, namely that Alexander led at most a raid that lasted a few months and that did not have any civilizational impact on India, all the more so since Poros won. At the end of the movie, we see Alexander and Roxana, who are lovers again, leave India and go back, most probably to Persepolis. Mohdi, the director, has obviously adopted the narrative of Indian historiography. It is interesting to see how the Times of India, in a quote that has been reproduced in Phiroze Vasunia’s work, considers Poros to be the example of an Indian leader who behaves nobly, since he considers that it is best to die a free man than to live as a subject. The political message of the movie was therefore adopted by the press of the time[14].

KB: Do you have any travel suggestions in Iran?

PB: My first suggestion would be not to go in a group. Tourism has always been widely open in Iran, except for Americans, all the more so now because of Trump. Avoid summer because temperatures are very high, even though altitude makes it more bearable in the area of Shiraz and Persepolis.

There are things one cannot avoid: Tehran, a megalopolis that is sometimes difficult because of pollution, and its Archaeological Museum, but I would leave the capital quite quickly and head to Isfahan, an exceptional city, which is an hour away by plane. You can then go to Shiraz, a city that deserves to be walked through and visited. From there you are very close by car to Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargades. You can easily spend at least 3-4 days exploring the area. Should you be interested in the Achaemenids, I recommend Susa, where the humid heat is dreadful. Southern Iran is less known but there are interesting places. There is also the Caspian Sea. Going west from Tehran, you can go to Hamadan (the ancient Ecbatana) and also to Behistun, where there is a great relief of Darius I, and to the very beautiful Sassanian site of Taq e-Bostan, and to so many other places…

KB: Finally, a word on Edward Said and Orientalism?

PB: I discovered Edward Said late. When Orientalism came out (1978), I had already mulled over these questions by myself, but in a purely empirical fashion, through an analysis of the Greek vision of the Achaemenid Empire. I was very much influenced by another author, Samir Amin, who had worked on eastern, precapitalist formations. I worked a lot on those issues, especially using the Classical texts that dealt with Alexander’s conquests. I had been struck by the proto-Orientalist vision of the Greeks at the time I wrote the Que sais-je on Alexander (1974). I worked on that because it was the only way for me to deconstruct Greek texts while stripping them from the inside, and revealing what I call the ‘informative Achaemenid kernel’. As I keep repeating, it doesn’t mean we have to reject all use of Classical texts, of course not. Many Greek texts contain information that need to be extracted from the interpretation they are embedded in. It’s always been my aim and my method. I was thus in favour of a decolonization of Achaemenid history, which was for the longest time dominated by a Eurocentric vision. The idea of the decolonization of Alexander is itself very present in my 2016 book (ch.2-3), simply because Alexander was completely integrated into the colonial vision of the 18th to 20th c. In an article that came out in 1979, I show how the specialists of the Orient were Orientalists in both meanings of the term: the scientific one, and the Saidian one, would we now say.

Reading Said made me both – how should I say – enthusiastic and disappointed, because his reflection only really starts with Bonaparte in Egypt, if we exclude a brief and rather poor reference to Aeschylus’ Persians. I would thus say that I was marked by Said especially when in worked on the 18th, 19th, 20th c., but it was not for me an absolute discovery. Of course, Said brings many things in his field, but what he talks about concerns our studies in an only indirect way, except through the methodological extension of his analysis to Antiquity.

The preceding remarks explain why I keep saying (including in the last chapter of my 2016 book) that we ought to stop writing books entitled Alexander the Great. I’m not the first one to say it, but what should we propose instead? If you look at the historiography on Alexander at the moment, we can only be surprise, because, like Rossen’s or Stone’s movies, many books aimed at the general public are built following a narrative thread that goes back to Antiquity, and they completely ignore the Achaemenid Empire. To use one of my favourite comparisons, it’s as if a French historian who studies the 1870 war doesn’t introduce Bismarck or Prussia.

If you take Stone’s movie, you have a projector that does a close-up on Alexander, and the viewer follows this close-up all the way to the Indus, Babylon, his death. Beyond the projector, you don’t see anything. You don’t know who is who, you don’t know there was an empire (even though Darius is staged but according to traditional topoi). This explains why we keep on saying that Alexander was the first one to have conquered a global empire, which is nonsense, because, from a geopolitical point of view, he only acquired for his own profit Darius III’s empire on Achaemenid borders. I feel like many historians disembark in Asia Minor in the wagons of Alexander’s army. In a cheeky way, I like to compare them to the embedded journalists in today’s armies. They seem to be describing an Alexander who conquers an empire that doesn’t exist.

I think, on the contrary, that the scientific rehabilitation of Achaemenid history must impact the historiography of Alexander: what lacks is not yet another Alexandre le Grand, but a history of Darius and Alexander. More broadly still, the vision needs to open itself up to a wider and more meaningful period than the conquests of 334-323.

What I propose is not to be stopped by boundaries that don’t have scientific legitimacy anymore. We must recognize the existence of a historical field that goes from the Balkans to the Indus, from 350 to 300 BCE. It is therefore a field that includes the reigns of Philip II, Artaxerxes II to IV, Darius III and the Diadochi. This makes up a coherent ensemble: Philip II’s Macedon, the Achaemenid Empire, the conquest, then the transformation the transformation into the Hellenistic kingdoms. This corresponds to chronologically wide geopolitical vision, which allows us to understand something. Because at the end of the day, only one question matters, at least as far as I’m concerned: What has Alexander’s conquest changed, and how did this change come about?

To reintroduce the Achaemenid Empire in the longue durée is, therefore, an absolute necessity, and it is a task I keep on considering a priority – therefore my current and upcoming research, which keeps on taking into account all at once the Achaemenid world, Alexander’s empire, and the period of his first successors: This is the research field of which, relentlessly, I claim the scientific legitimacy.


[1] See for instance e.g.

[2] Many of these articles, as well as more recent ones, are now available in English in Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies in Achaemenid History (Stuttgart 2017, Amélie Kuhrt transl.).

[3] The article in question is reproduced in Rois, tributs et paysans, pp.406-430.


[5] voir


[7] « Le concept de mode de production asiatique : un concept stimulant mais qui est d’une portée limitée », Actuel Marx 10 [1991] : 181-199.

[8] See Annales HSS, mai-juin 2002, pp. 515-663 : Politique et contrôle de l’eau dans le Moyen-Orient ancien.

[9] Now translated into English as The First European. A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, at Harvard U.P. (2017).

[10] It was published in 1883, then made the volume I of his Geschichte des Hellenismus in 1877


[12] See “Alexander and the History of European expansion: The Views of the Enlightenment”,


[14] See « Alexandre le Grand au rythme des présents successifs »,


Darius et les Alexandres, Polybe et Montesquieu, Iran et Inde: une entrevue avec Pierre Briant, partie 2

Katherine Blouin : Où en sont les études achéménides dans les pays de l’ancien monde achéménide?

Pierre Briant : En Iran, l’histoire achéménide fait partie du « roman national ». C’est une partie de leur mémoire, de leur histoire, de leur patrimoine immatériel. Cet intérêt certain pour les Achéménides est mythifié, puisque les Achéménides ont été, comme Alexandre, intégrés dans le Livre des Rois. Malgré ce qui a été dit ici et là, la Révolution de 1979 n’a pas effacé le passé pré-islamique. Quand Rafsanjani était président, il est allé à Persépolis en disant « L’Iran a deux piliers : l’islam et les Achéménides », donc c’est quelque chose d’important, comme le montrent également les manifestations récentes de l’opposition autour du tombeau de Cyrus à Pasargades[15].

Du point de vue des recherches historiques proprement dites, il faut commencer par dire que, dès l’époque des rois Qajars, il y a eu un intérêt marqué pour le passé et pour les recherches archéologiques. Celles-ci ne sont donc pas nées seulement sur une impulsion venue d’Europe. En revanche, il n’y a pas actuellement dans les universités iraniennes  un cursus historique qui soit aussi solide ni aussi conceptualisé qu’il l’est dans les pays de l’Union Européenne ou en Amérique du Nord. En revanche, il y a de très nombreuses missions archéologiques iraniennes, de restauration, de sauvetage, avec de programmes bien constitués, qui peuvent être menés par des missions mixtes composées d’Iraniens et d’archéologues venus d’Europe, par exemple à à Pasargades ou à Persépolis, et de très nombreux chantiers s’ouvrent ici ou là. Et il y a aussi des ressources documentaires uniques dans les musées iraniens – par exemple à Téhéran, où se trouve une partie des tablettes de Persépolis (l’autre partie étant « transitoirement » à Chicago depuis les années 1930).

Dans les autres pays situés sur le territoire de l’empire achéménide, les recherches sont surtout archéologiques. Beaucoup de chantiers ont été ouverts en Égypte, en Turquie, en Syrie, en Afghanistan, pour un temps en Irak aussi. Les découvertes ont été très nombreuses, en particulier en Turquie occidentale, mais également dans le Caucase. Par exemple, des fouilles en Azerbaïjan ont mis au jour un palais achéménide avec son paradis (jardin), ce qui est quelque chose d’absolument extraordinaire.

KB : Quand êtes-vous allé en Iran pour la première fois et quels souvenirs en gardez-vous?

PB : Je suis allé en Iran pour la première fois très tardivement. N’étant pas archéologue, je ne voyageais pas de chantier en chantier. J’y suis allé après la publication de L’histoire de l’Empire perse. C’était, je pense, en 1996 ou 1997. J’étais invité par l’Institut français de Recherche en Iran, qui était dirigé à cette époque par un archéologue qui est aussi un ami, Rémy Boucharlat. De là j’ai pris un avion et suis allé à Shiraz, et de Shiraz je me suis rendu à Persépolis en taxi. J’y ai passé une journée entière. Le chauffeur de taxi se demandait ce que j’étais devenu parce qu’en général, les voyageurs ne restent pas là aussi longtemps. C’était vraiment très émouvant. J’ai été ébloui par Persépolis, Pasargades, Suse également. C’était très important d’aller sur des sites dont j’avais parlé mais que je ne connaissais pas. J’y suis retourné plusieurs fois, sur les sites archéologiques en particulier, dans d’autres pays aussi, en Égypte, en Turquie. Ça a aussi été une chose importante que de rencontrer de nombreux collègues iraniens, sur les chantiers comme dans les universités. J’ai gardé des contacts nombreux, et je compte d’ailleurs y retourner, probablement l’année prochaine. Histoire de l’Empire perse a été traduit à deux reprises en Iran et d’autres de mes publications ont aussi été traduites. Au retour d’Iran une fois, au petit matin en arrivant à Paris, une jeune femme me dit : « Vous êtes Pierre Briant ? ». Je dis : « Oui ». Elle s’est mise à pleurer. Pas parce qu’elle venait de me rencontrer (!), mais parce que son père, qui venait de mourir, était le traducteur de Histoire de l’Empire perse.

KB : Je suppose que ça a dû aussi être frappant pour vous de voir la topographie et l’environnement du pays pour la première fois?

PB : Oui, tout-à-fait. La variété des paysages est extraordinaire quand on voyage en avion ou en voiture. En 1997 ou 1998, j’ai fait un voyage formidable. On était quatre : Rémy Boucharlat, George Rougemont, qui travaillait sur le corpus des inscriptions grecques d’Iran, Paul Bernard, et moi-même. On a fait en voiture une bonne partie de l’Iran, on a traversé le Zagros, où j’ai retrouvé mes ‘peuples brigands’. Ce fut aussi très important de voir les sites. Quand vous lisez des publications sur Persépolis, Pasargades et Suse et que vous voyez des photos, c’est bien. Mais quand vous avez ça sous les yeux…C’est comme un jeune chercheur travaillant sur l’histoire grecque qui visite pour la première fois l’Acropole. Un de mes professeurs de géographie avait coutume de dire : « La géographie, ça se fait avec les pieds ». Je dirais qu’il en va de même de l’archéologie. Il faut travailler sur place, traverser les sites, y revenir.

Je dois mon intérêt pour l’archéologie à Jean-Claude Gardin, qui travaillait en Afghanistan sur les grands réseaux d’irrigation découverts au nord du pays. Il avait lu mon article sur les brigands et m’avait demandé (vers 1978) de participer à son équipe de recherche. Il voulait que je réunisse toutes les sources écrites sur la Bactriane achéménide et pré-achéménide pour nourrir le dossier (ce qui a donné naissance à un livre en 1984). Par la suite j’ai fait des prospections en Turquie pendant six ans, avec les collègues de Bordeaux, et j’ai fait des prospections en Iran avec Boucharlat. L’archéologie a donc été un apport important qui est très présent dans l’Histoire de l’Empire perse. Plus généralement, les sources archéologiques et iconographiques ont toujours été pour moi une source d’enrichissement, de réflexion et de nouvelles hypothèses.

KB : Vous faites partie des pionniers dans le domaine de l’histoire environnementale. Je pense à vos deux volumes publiés en 1982 (Rois, tributs et paysans. Études sur les formations tributaires du Moyen-Orient ancien et Etat et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien), ainsi qu’à l’ouvrage collectif sur les qanats (Irrigation et drainage dans l’Antiquité. Qanats et canalisations souterraines au Moyen-Orient, en Égypte et en Grèce, 2000). Dans quelle mesure ces travaux se sont-ils aussi nourris d’approches anthropologiques?

PB : Rois, tribus et paysans est un recueil d’articles écrits entre 1973 et 1980. J’ai eu la chance que Pierre Lévêque me propose de les rassembler en un volume. Si quelqu’un veut savoir comment j’ai travaillé au cours des années 1970, je pense qu’il peut y arriver assez aisément en lisant ce recueil. On y trouvera en particulier le bilan que j’ai dressé en 1979 sur les problèmes des continuités/ruptures entre l’empire achéménide et les royaumes hellénistiques[16]. J’ai publié État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien la même année (1982). La genèse de ce livre est intéressante. J’avais publié une très grosse étude, qui aurait dû être un livre, « Brigandage, dissidence et conquête en Asie achéménide et hellénistique » dans les Dialogues d’Histoire ancienne 1976, et j’ai été ainsi amené à collaborer avec un ethnologue, spécialiste de l’Iran, Jean-Pierre Digard. Il avait travaillé lui-même sur des peuples nomades du Zagros à l’époque contemporaine. Il avait publié un article sur ces problèmes en 1975 dans la revue Studia Iranica. À la fin de l’article, il avait lancé un appel à collaboration. Il avait été très surpris d’avoir une réponse venant d’un historien de l’Antiquité. Je l’ai rencontré et lui ai demandé s’il voulait être l’un des deux intervenants à la fin de mon article. J’ai continué à travailler avec les ethnologues au sein du Centre d’études et de recherches marxistes à Paris. Il y avait un groupe spécialisé sur les sociétés de pasteurs nomades, dont les membres ont créé une collection mixte entre l’EHESS et Cambridge University Press qu’ils ont appelée Sociétés pastorales. Ils m’ont demandé si je voulais écrire un livre à partir de mon article, et c’est dans ces conditions qu’État et pasteurs au Moyen-Orient ancien est né. J’ai à la fois concentré l’article d’origine et je l’ai élargi aux sociétés arabes préislamiques et aux Scythes d’Asie Centrale. Ce livre m’a absolument passionné, parce que je me suis mis à travailler sur des sujets avec lesquels je n’étais pas familier, en particulier le monde arabe préislamique. Je l’ai abordé en combinant les données tirées des sources néo-assyriennes (inscriptions et reliefs) et celles qui venaient des sources classiques et des rares sources proprement achéménides. C’est aussi Jean-Pierre Digard qui m’a invité à participer à un congrès d’ethnozoologie qui a eu lieu à la Maisons-Alfort en 1977. J’y ai présenté un travail sur l’élevage ovin dans l’Empire achéménide, où, pour la première fois, j’ai utilisé abondamment les  ressources documentaires des tablettes élamites de Persépolis.

Les progrès que j’ai pu faire tout au long de ces années s’expliquent non seulement par l’utilisation de documentations nouvelles, mais aussi par la chance que j’ai eue de rencontrer des collègues qui m’ont fait découvrir des domaines que je ne connaissais pas. Je parlais tout à l’heure de l’archéologie. Je pourrais aussi parler de la numismatique, de l’ethnologie, de l’anthropologie. J’ai été très sensible à tous ces courants, le courant marxiste aussi. J’ai été actif au sein du Centre d’études et de recherches marxiste au début des années 70. Dans la section « Histoire Ancienne », j’ai travaillé auprès (e.g.) de Pierre Lévêque, de Claude Mossé, d’Yvon Garlan de Maurice Godelier, qui, en ethnologue, participait parfois à nos débats. Ces discussions m’ont beaucoup ouvert l’esprit. C’est aussi dans ces années que j’ai découvert le « mode de production asiatique », dont on peut reparler.

KB : Et qu’en est-il de l’ouvrage sur les qanats?

PB : Je ne sais pas pourquoi, les questions d’irrigation m’ont toujours fasciné. J’avais découvert ce texte de Polybe (10.28) il y a très longtemps, et j’en avais parlé pour la première fois en 1980 dans un article paru dans une revue publiée par des Iraniens à Paris (disparue depuis lors), du nom de Zâman[17]. J’en ai reparlé à plusieurs reprises jusqu’au moment où j’ai organisé ce colloque à Paris. Entre temps, en 1992, alors que j’étais de passage au Caire à l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale, j’ai appris que les archéologues qui travaillaient à Ayn Manawir avait découvert des textes démotiques contenant le nom de Darius. Ce site du désert occidental a offert en effet non seulement les archives locales d’un village, écrites sur ostraca en démotique. On a aussi découvert les champs du village, sur lesquels une étude récente a été présentée par Damien Agut-Labordère et Claire Newton, et publiée dans ARTA[18]. On y a retrouvé également des galeries drainantes souterraines, qui étaient un peu comparables aux qanats. Je savais que le vocabulaire de Polybe se retrouvait aussi dans des inscriptions grecques d’Europe. C’est donc ainsi que j’ai conçu ce volume. Il répond aussi à une interrogation de longue date sur le volume de Wittfogel Le despotisme oriental, qui avait été traduit en français, avec un avant-propos de Pierre Vidal-Naquet[19]. Wittfogel prétendait que l’empire achéménide faisait partie des empires hydrauliques. Il ne connaissait pas le texte de Polybe, qui montre au contraire que le travail était décentralisé au niveau des communautés villageoises, qui était chargées par l’administration achéménide de creuser ces canaux souterrains, en contrepartie de quoi le roi leur donnait une immunité fiscale pendant cinq générations. Ce projet faisait partie d’une réflexion sur l’archéologie et sur l’utilisation des textes grecs pour comprendre les realia achéménides. Le colloque représentait parfaitement ce que j’ai cherché à impulser : réunir des spécialistes venus d’horizons divers (Grèce, Égypte, Moyen-Orient) et travaillant sur des données d’origines diverses (épigraphie grecque; textes littéraires grecs; textes démotiques; prospections archéologiques, etc.). J’en suis d’autant plus fier que ce fut la première manifestation que j’ai organisée au Collège de France, puisque le Colloque a eu lieu quelques jours après ma Leçon Inaugurale, en mars 2000. Je constate avec plaisir que le livre a eu et a toujours une grande audience[20].

Mon intérêt pour la question était articulé avec des réflexions plus conceptuelles sur la structure et la nature de l’empire achéménide. Peut-on parler d’un empire tributaire? Est-ce que le concept de mode de production asiatique est utilisable? On peut considérer que cette phase de réflexion est devenue en partie obsolète, comme le suggère un article publié en 1991 par Maurice Godelier[21].  Néanmoins,  même si on considère que le mode de production asiatique n’est plus un concept opératoire, tout ce que j’ai fait pendant ce temps-là m’a beaucoup appris. Je ne suis pas un théoricien, j’ai beaucoup progressé à travers le marxisme, mes réflexions sur le mode de production asiatique et sur les rapports entre travaux d’irrigation et les structures étatiques[22]. Je ne regrette rien de mon activité dans ces groupes de recherche en particulier au cours des années 70’ et 80’.  Lorsque l’on fait des études de ce genre, il y a toujours deux types de résultats : le résultat immédiat, et à long terme. Le résultat immédiat peut être relativement invisible, voire négligeable, 20 ans après. Mais toutes les réflexions que j’ai entreprises, tous les contacts que j’ai eus avec des gens dans plein de domaines différents,  dans tous les pays, depuis l’URSS et les États-Unis en passant par l’Europe, l’Europe de l’Est, y compris la RDA à une certaine époque, le Canada, tout cela m’a construit intellectuellement parlant. Il n’y a jamais de recherche qui soit négligeable à long terme. Jamais. Parfois on s’aperçoit après deux ans de recherche que vos efforts n’aboutiront pas à un livre ou un article. Déjà le fait de savoir et d’avoir le courage de se dire qu’on ne va pas écrire de livre sur ce sujet-là, ça veut dire qu’on a beaucoup progressé entre temps.

KB : Parmi tous les Alexandres que vous analysez dans votre dernier livre (Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs), y en a-t-il un que vous préférez?

PB : Oui. C’est l’Alexandre sur lequel j’ai passé 8 ans de ma vie, qui a donné lieu à un livre paru en 2012, sans lequel mon dernier livre n’aurait pas été possible. Il s’agit de l’Alexandre des Lumières. Lorsque je suis arrivé au Collège de France, j’ai continué à travailler sur l’empire achéménide à travers Achemenet, les colloques que j’ai organisés et ceux auxquels j’ai participé, les séminaires, et des articles. En même temps, j’ai consacré mes cours proprement dits à  l’historiographie d’Alexandre, ce que j’appelle l’histoire de l’élaboration des processus interprétatifs. Pourquoi Alexandre évoque-t-il encore aujourd’hui les images que l’on voit circuler?  Traditionnellement, on disait – et je le disais moi-même aussi il n’y a pas très longtemps – que l’historiographie d’Alexandre n’existait pas avant Droysen et sa Geschichte Alexanders der Großen, publiée en 1833, puis intégrée en 1877 à titre de volume I de sa Geschichte des Hellenismus. J’ai commencé à travailler en profondeur sur la question  en 2003-2004, et dans le cours que j’ai donné au Collège de France en 2004, j’ai réalisé tout d’un coup qu’il y avait une alexandrologie avant Droysen, et c’est alors que j’ai découvert l’Alexandre de Montesquieu. Je me suis aperçu qu’en réalité, l’image d’Alexandre de Droysen avait été précédée et préparée par Montesquieu et par bien d’autres des philosophes-historiens européens, tout particulièrement en Écosse et en Angleterre dans la second partie du XVIIIe siècle, mais aussi en Allemagne dans le premier tiers du XIXe siècle. C’est la raison pour laquelle, lorsque j’ai été invité en 2005 à donner une conférence à Toronto, j’ai choisi comme thème un auteur écossais du 18e siècle, nommé William Robertson, qui avait lui-même développé, dans les traces de Montesquieu, une image d’Alexandre, proche également de celle de Plutarque (

En passant, je dois aussi dire que Montesquieu m’a ramené aux qanats. En dépouillant les chapitres de L’esprit des lois, j’ai considéré  tout à coup un chapitre intitulé « Des pays créés par l’industrie des hommes » (XVIII.6). Je me suis dit : « On ne sait jamais, peut-être que Montesquieu cite le passage de Polybe ». C’était le cas!  J’ai donc écrit un article sur les qanats et l’irrigation d’après Montesquieu : l’auteur de l’Esprit des lois a été le premier (en 1748) à présenter des commentaires historiques sur les qanats de Polybe.

J’ai par la suite continué toutes ces études, et voyagé beaucoup dans les littératures européennes. J’ai dépouillé toute la littérature française, anglaise, allemande, un peu italienne et espagnole d’entre la fin du 17e et le début du 19e siècle. Et donc j’ai mis au jour ce que j’ai appelé l’Alexandre des Lumières, où j’ai montré qu’en fait, quand Droysen commence à travailler en 1830 sur son Alexandre, énormément de travail avait déjà été fait, publié, et donc que, au moins dans son essence,  l’image qu’il en donne est celle qu’en donnaient Montesquieu et un grand nombre de philosophes français, anglais et allemands du 18e siècle[23]. C’est très intéressant de découvrir un champ de recherche complètement nouveau. J’ai fait tous mes cours pendant ces années au Collège sur le 18e siècle, sous le titre « Histoire d’Alexandre et histoire de l’expansion européenne ». À part un passage de la leçon inaugurale de Momigliano en 1953 à UCL et un très court passage dans un article de Bickerman, personne n’avait pressenti l’existence de l’Alexandre des Lumières. Le livre de 2016 doit donc beaucoup à celui de 2012, car celui-ci m’a permis de combler une lacune importante et même décisive, et, à son tour, combler cette lacune a rendu intelligible le parcours que j’ai fait ultérieurement, depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’à nos jours.

KB : Et côté cinéma, y a-t-il un film portant sur Alexandre ou l’Empire perse que vous aimez particulièrement?

PB : Il y en a un que je préfère. Ce n’est pas celui de Robert Rossen, ce n’est pas celui d’Oliver Stone non plus[24]. C’est un film qui a été tourné en Inde en 1941, Sikandar, par un réalisateur indien, qui est aussi un acteur, Sohrab Mohdi, dont le nom indique qu’il est d’origine Parsi de Bombay. Le style de ce film est proto-bollywoodien. Il est intéressant de noter que les premières scènes se passent à Persépolis : c’est à ma connaissance  la seule reconstitution en studio, même modeste, de Persépolis dans quelque film que ce soit. Ni Rossen ni Stone ne se sont intéressés aux paysages, aux gens, aux peuples, comme si l’empire achéménide n’existait pas!  Lorsque Sikandar commence, on voit un homme barbu arriver sur un char. Il s’assied sur un trône. On se dit qu’un Alexandre barbu c’est un peu surprenant, mais ce n’est pas Alexandre, c’est Aristote. Il prévient Alexandre et lui dit : « Méfie-toi des femmes, tu ne peux pas être à la fois conquérant et amoureux ». C’est pourquoi Alexandre renvoie Roxane, qui le précède elle-même en Inde. Le film prend donc le parti de la vision indienne. Nous sommes en 1940-1941, à une date où il y a deux écoles historiographiques en Inde : l’historiographie britannique, donc impérialiste, qui considère qu’Alexandre était à la fois un homme très important pour l’Inde et un précédent des conquérants britanniques du pays, et, d’autre part, l’historiographie indienne, qui tient un tout autre discours: à savoir qu’Alexandre a mené tout au plus un raid qui a duré quelques mois, et qui n’a eu aucun impact civilisationnel sur l’Inde, et d’ailleurs Poros a finalement gagné. À la fin du film, on voit Alexandre et Roxane, qui sont redevenus amoureux, quitter l’Inde et retourner sans doute vers Persépolis. Mohdi, le réalisateur, a visiblement pris le parti de l’historiographie indienne. Il est intéressant de voir comment le Times of India, dans une citation reprise dans les travaux de Phiroze Vasunia, considère Poros comme l’exemple d’un dirigeant indien qui se comporte noblement, puisqu’il considère que mieux vaut mourir en homme libre qu’être vivant en étant sujet. Le message politique du film a donc été repris par la presse de l’époque[25].

KB : Avez-vous des suggestions voyage en Iran?

PB : Ma première suggestion est de ne pas y aller en groupe organisé. Le tourisme a toujours été largement ouvert en Iran, sauf pour les Américains, à plus forte raison en ce moment à cause de Trump. Évitez le sommet de l’été, parce que les températures sont très élevées, même si du côté de Shiraz et de Persépolis l’altitude la rend plus supportable.

Il y a des choses que vous ne pouvez pas éviter : Téhéran, qui est une mégapole parfois difficile à cause de la pollution, et son Musée archéologique,  mais je quitterais assez vite la capitale pour aller à Ispahan, une ville exceptionnelle, qui est à une heure d’avion. Vous pouvez ensuite aller à Shiraz, qui est une ville qui mérite d’être parcourue et visitée. De là, vous avez tout près en voiture Persépolis, Naqsh-e Rustam et Pasargades. Vous pouvez facilement passer 3-4 jours au moins à explorer ce secteur. Si les Achéménides vous intéressent je vous recommande d’aller à Suse, où il fait toutefois une chaleur humide épouvantable. L’Iran méridional est moins connu mais vous y trouvez des choses intéressantes. Il y a aussi la Caspienne. En allant vers l’ouest à partir de Téhéran, vous pouvez aller vers Hamadan (l’ancienne Ecbatane) mais aussi à  Behistun, où se trouve un grand relief de Darius I, et vers le très beau site sassanide de Taq e-Bostan, et tant d’autres choses encore…

KB : Un mot en terminant sur Edward Said et l’orientalisme?

PB : Edward Said, je l’ai découvert tard. A la date de la parution d’Orientalism (1978), j’avais moi-même beaucoup réfléchi sur ces questions, mais de manière purement empirique, à travers une analyse de la vision que les Grecs avaient de l’empire achéménide. J’ai été beaucoup influencé aussi par un auteur, Samir Amin, qui avait étudié les formations précapitalistes du Moyen-Orient. J’ai travaillé beaucoup sur cette question en particulier à partir des textes classiques qui portent sur la conquête d’Alexandre. J’avais été très frappé par la vision proto-orientaliste des Grecs, dès l’époque où je préparais le Que sais-je sur Alexandre (1974). J’ai travaillé là-dessus parce que c’était la seule façon pour moi de déconstruire les textes grecs tout en les décapant de l’intérieur, et de mettre à nu ce que j’appelle le ‘noyau informatif achéménide’. Comme je ne cesse de le répéter, cela ne signifie pas que l’on doive rejeter le recours aux textes classiques, bien entendu. Beaucoup de textes grecs contiennent des informations qu’il faut dégager de l’interprétation dans laquelle ils sont immergés, embedded comme on dit en anglais. Ça a toujours été mon objectif et ma méthode. J’étais donc partisan d’une décolonisation de l’histoire achéménide, qui a été longtemps dominée par une vision européocentrique. L’idée de la décolonisation de l’histoire d’Alexandre est elle-même très présente dans mon livre de 2016, tout simplement parce qu’Alexandre est complètement intégré dans la vision coloniale du 18e au 20e siècles. Dans un article paru en 1979, je montre que les spécialistes de l’Orient étaient orientalistes dans les deux sens du terme : au sens scientifique, et au sens saidien du terme, dirions-nous maintenant. J’ai développé ce point dans mon dernier livre (2016; chapitres 2-3).

En lisant Said, j’ai été (comment dire?) à la fois enthousiasmé, et un peu « déçu », parce que sa réflexion commence réellement avec Bonaparte en Égypte, si l’on met de côté une brève et assez pauvre référence aux Perses d’Eschyle. Je dirais donc que j’ai été marqué par Said, surtout quand j’ai travaillé sur les 18e, 19e et 20e siècles, mais que ça n’a pas été pour moi une découverte absolue. Said apporte évidemment beaucoup de choses dans son domaine, mais ce dont il parle ne concerne qu’assez indirectement nos études, sauf par extension méthodologique de ses analyses à l’antiquité.

Les remarques qui précèdent expliquent pourquoi je ne cesse d’affirmer (y compris dans le dernier chapitre de mon livre de 2016) qu’il convient de cesser d’écrire des livres intitulés Alexandre le Grand.  Je ne suis pas le premier à le dire, mais que proposer à la place? Si vous regardez l’historiographie d’Alexandre à l’heure actuelle, on ne peut qu’être surpris, car, comme les films de Rossen et Stone,   beaucoup des livres destinés au grand public sont bâtis sur une trame narrative que l’on connaît depuis l’Antiquité, et ils ne prennent nullement en compte l’Empire achéménide. Pour utiliser une de mes comparaisons favorites, c’est comme si un historien français qui étudierait la guerre de 1870 n’introduisait ni Bismarck ni la Prusse.

Si vous prenez le film de Stone, vous avez un projecteur qui fait un close-up sur Alexandre, et ce close-up le spectateur le suit jusqu’à l’Indus, Babylone et sa mort. En dehors du trajet du projecteur, vous ne voyez rien. Vous ne savez pas qui est qui, vous ne savez pas qu’il y avait un empire (même si le personnage de Darius est mis en scène mais selon des références traditionnelles). C’est ce qui explique qu’on continue à dire qu’Alexandre est le premier à avoir conquis un empire mondial, ce qui est une folie, puisque, du point de vue géopolitique, il  n’a fait que reconstituer à son profit l’empire de Darius III sur les frontières achéménides. J’ai l’impression que beaucoup d’historiens débarquent en Asie Mineure dans les fourgons de l’armée d’Alexandre. D’une manière peut-être impertinente, j’ai tendance à les comparer aux journalistes embedded dans les armées d’aujourd’hui. Ils semblent présenter un Alexandre qui conquiert un empire qui n’existe pas.

Je pense au contraire que la réhabilitation scientifique de l’histoire achéménide doit avoir des conséquences dans l’historiographie d’Alexandre : ce qui manque, ce n’est pas un enième Alexandre le Grand, mais  une histoire de Darius et d’Alexandre. Plus largement encore, la vision doit s’ouvrir à une période plus large et plus signifiante que celle des conquêtes 334-323.

Ce que je propose, c’est de ne pas se laisser arrêter par des frontières qui n’ont plus de légitimité scientifique. Il faut reconnaître l’existence d’un champ historique qui va des Balkans à l’Indus, d’environ 350 à 300 avant notre ère. C’est donc un champ qui inclut le règne de Philippe II, d’Artaxerxès II à IV, Darius III et les diadoques. On arrive là à un ensemble cohérent : la Macédoine de Philippe II, l’empire achéménide, la conquête, et puis la transformation et la disparition dans les royaumes hellénistiques. Cela correspond à une vision géopolitique assez large chronologiquement, qui nous permet de comprendre quelque chose. Parce qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une question qui vaille, du moins de mon point de vue : Qu’est-ce que la conquête d’Alexandre a changé, et comment ce changement est-il intervenu?

Réintroduire l’empire achéménide sur la longue durée est donc une nécessité absolue, et c’est cette tâche que je continue pour ma part de considérer comme prioritaire — d’où mes recherches récentes et à venir, qui continuent de prendre en compte aussi bien le monde achéménide que l’empire d’Alexandre et la période  de ses premiers successeurs : tel est le champ de recherches dont, sans relâche, j’affirme la légitimité scientifique.


[15] Écouter par exemple « L’Empire perse: les usages d’une mémoire », et .

[16] Plusieurs de ces articles ainsi que des articles plus récents sont aujourd’hui disponibles en anglais (Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies in Achaemenid History, Stuttgart, 2017, Amélie Kuhrt transl.).

[17] L’article en question est reproduit dans Rois, tributs et paysans, pp.406-430.


[19] Voir


[21] « Le concept de mode de production asiatique : un concept stimulant mais qui est d’une portée limitée », Actuel Marx 10 [1991] : 181-199.

[22] Voir le dossier que j’ai dirigé dans les Annales HSS, mai-juin 2002, pp. 515-663 : Politique et contrôle de l’eau dans le Moyen-Orient ancien.

[23] voir “Alexander and the History of European expansion: The Views of the Enlightenment”,


[25] Voir « Alexandre le Grand au rythme des présents successifs »,

Well beyond Alexander: An interview with Pierre Briant, part 1 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Well beyond Alexander: An interview with Pierre Briant, part 1 (Français, English, فارسي, Türkçe)

Voir ci-dessous pour version française 

فارسی : PB interview Persian ; Türkçe: Interview_Briant_Turkçe

Pierre Briant is Honorary Professor at the Collège de France, where he held the Chair of History and civilization of the Achaemenid world and of Alexander’s empire from 1999 to 2012. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, including the Persian Empire, the relationships between Darius and Alexander, and the historiography of Alexander the Great. He is also the founder of Achemenet. His latest monograph, Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs, came out in 2016. This 2-part interview is the result of a long conversation between Pierre Briant and myself, which took place via facetime in May 2017. The many topics we discussed allowed us to look back at over half a century of scholarship in the fields of Classics, ancient history, archaeology, reception and postcolonial studies.

The English translation is mine. We owe the Persian one to Sara Mashayekh. We are very grateful to her, as well as to Prof. Touraj Daryaee, Director of the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at University of California, Irvine, for their generous help. The Turkish translation was done by Nilda Taşköprü, Executive Secretary of the Institut d’études anatoliennes d’Istanbul‘s Director, Dr Jean-François Pérouse. We wish to thank them both warmly for their kind support.

Katherine Blouin


Katherine Blouin : Where does your interest for Classical Studies and Achaemenid history come from?

Pierre Briant : I did my graduate studies at the University of Poitiers in the early 1960s. I was very quickly interested by Greek history (I liked ancient Greek, which I had learned when I was very young). When I prepared my agrégation [a competitive postgraduate examination aimed at the top-level members of the teaching profession] in 1964-1965, the question for the ancient history program was on the Hellenistic world. That’s when my passion for this period started to develop. I read for instance Rostovtzeff (Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 1941), and I’ve remained deeply influenced by his approach, which highlighted continuities between the Achaemenid and Hellenistic worlds. In 1965, after having received the agrégation, I started working on a Ph.D. that focused on Antigonus I Monophthalmus, one of Alexander’s successors, under the supervision of Pierre Lévêque. At the time, I was a high school teacher in Montpellier, where I remained until 1967. That year, I was hired as an Assistant in ancient history at the University of Tours. From that moment on, I had more time to work on my thesis, which I defended in Besançon in 1972.

After my thesis, Pierre Lévêque asked me what I was planning on doing. I told him I had projects on the diadochi, it was a bit vague. He then told me : “I’ve been asked to update the Que sais-je on Alexander by Paul Cloché, but I don’t have the time, I have too much work. Would you want to do it?” I said yes. I read Paul Cloché’s Que sais-je and it was so far away from what I wanted to do, so narrative, that I wrote to the Presses Universitaires de France to tell them that what I could do was to completely rewrite the book. They accepted, so this Que sais-je came out in 1974. It is while I was preparing this volume and working on Asia Minor and Phrygia under Antigonus that I started being attracted to the Achaemenids. My Ph.D. work had led me to work on the issues related to the transition between the Achaemenids and the diadochi. This is when I got confronted for the first time to the problem of continuities vs ruptures, as I studied more closely a passage from Plutarch (Eum. 8; see Antigone le Borgne, 1973, p.80-89); for the first time, I was in a situation that allowed me to discuss Rostovtzeff’s theses. I came back to it afterwards, in an article that discusses this specific problem (see Rois, tributs et paysans, 1982, pp. 95-135).

More generally, to come back on the general context of the early 70s, I was reading everywhere that everything had changed after Alexander’s conquest, that there was a sudden passage from a phase A to a phase B. Yet no one was explaining what the phase A was, neither the specialists of Achaemenid history (despite the interesting Olmstead’s History of the Persian empire [1948]), nor the authors of the so numerous books on Alexander. Since I couldn’t find the answer anywhere, I started to work by myself on this phase A. That’s how I gradually entered Achaemenid history, via the history of Alexander.

Starting from 1974-1975, I kept on working on these topics while preparing a study (published in 1976 in Dialogues d’histoire ancienne) on what Greek authors called the mountain brigands of the Persian Empire, and more specifically those of the Achaemenid Zagros. The idea was that these brigands were threatening even royal residences, including Persepolis. By going back to the textual evidence, I showed that this was a very partial, and false, vision of the relationships between the Great King and the peoples of the Zagros in Achaemenid times, which relied, rather, on gifts and counter-gifts. This is when I started going beyond the Classical sources (without abandoning them, of course), and working on the Persepolis tablets (a corpus which was then almost unknown by Classical scholars). I remember that in 1970, I had asked the University of Tours’ library to buy Richard Hallock’s 1969 volume (Persepolis Fortification Tablets): the librarian was quite surprised to see me interested in those matters. From then on, the history of the Achaemenids, of Alexander, and of the diadochi was a united one. This is why in 1999, when I entered the Collège de France, I named my chair « History and civilization of the Achaemenid world and of Alexander’s empire ».

KB: Speaking of which, I was struck by the name of your chair inasmuch as my impression was that it encapsulates your conception of the Achaemenid world. Was it for you a way to challenge the traditional disciplinary boundaries in the field of ancient history?

PB: Yes, for sure. I like to see myself as a “passeur”, because to study the transition between the Achaemenid and Hellenistic world requires one to combine all at once sources and questions that, until then, belonged to different, mostly separate fields. Things have now changed, especially among those who work on Babylonia or Hellenistic Egypt; they are aware of the necessity to take into account what has traditionally been called the ‘pre-Hellenistic period’ (a questionable expression with a teleological twist). But a lot still needs to be done, especially when we look at Hellenistic history textbooks. They start either with Alexander or with his death. All of a sudden, a world appears, and students have no idea of what existed before.

KB: Indeed. One of the things I find particularly frustrating when I teach introductory courses of ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ history is the delay between the rhythm at which scholarship evolves, and that at which textbooks are being updated. Do you have any thoughts on how this issue could be better addressed?

PB: Publishers are partly to blame because they like to ceaselessly reuse the same categories. For them, there is Classical Greece and the Hellenistic world, but the Achaemenid world is often absent. Teachers are also partly to blame since in universities, ancient history is generally – although there are exceptions – reduced to ancient Greece and Rome. It would be necessary, I think, even though I’m aware that this is not an easy task, for whoever is contacted by a publisher to impose his/her scholarly vision. In the case of a Hellenistic history textbook, the Achaemenid world ought to be present, not so much to stress continuities in all domains, but also to show students the nature and rhythm of the changes brought about by the Hellenistic kingdoms. To be perfectly honest, I must say that I felt a strong resistance from my colleagues when I was at the University of Toulouse (1974-1999). I taught Achaemenid history there and in 1996, I think, I created an introductory module dedicated to ancient Near Eastern history. Many students enrolled, but some colleagues were telling me that it was preferable to focus on Greece and Rome, instead of dedicating time to fields that did not concern “us”. As you can see, it is very hard to change things. But I am not completely without hope, even though my reasoned optimism sometimes hits itself on the wall of reality. It is now up to your generation to change things.

KB: To come back to the question of the relationship between academics and editors. I think that those of us who have permanent, secure positions are less vulnerable than junior or unemployed scholars. That being said, do you think that more senior scholars have more of a responsibility?

PB: Yes, for sure. But senior scholars ought to have understood what the issue is, and this is not always the case. As I’ve said, things change (as shows, for instance, the recent French textbook Les mondes hellénistiques published in 2017 by Clancier, Coloru and Gorre), but too slowly for my taste . There is still this break between the Aegean and Near Eastern world. When we created the Rencontres d’histoire économique de Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, we (Jean Andreau, Raymond Descat and myself) in the early 1990s, we made it a point to invite specialists of Rome, Greece and the Near East. People benefitted greatly from the discussions, so much so that the formula was replicated by others, in other fields (for example the conference on the qanāts that I organized in 2000 with specialists of Greek History, Egyptian and Near Eastern History, geographers, archeologists). When I look back at my trajectory, I am particularly proud to have contributed to building bridges between different fields that until then ignored each other (or communicated through very narrow and intermittent channels).

KB: In what way do you think that new technologies, social media and the digital Humanities can help better transcend these barriers? I’m of course thinking of the website Achemenet, which you founded.

PB: The idea came to me when I came to Paris in 1999. I was at the time working on the Bulletin d’histoire achéménide, where I was updating all the available bibliography on the Achaemenid Empire. As I was going from year to year, I could see new documents coming from all the countries of the empire, from Samarkand to Sardis, and the idea came to me as an obvious fact: internet was the only way to gather and make accessible to all such data. I had become acquainted with internet during my numerous trips to the USA in the late 1980s. I remember a friend from Chicago telling me: “You want to order foie gras on the internet? I go on Yahoo”. I had no idea what that meant. When I came back to France, I told myself that I needed to have an email address. Luckily, I was then in Toulouse, and the Sciences faculty had a server. My first email address ( dates from 1990.

KB: And Achemenet?

PB: When I arrived at the Collège de France in 1999, I found someone who could provide me with technological assistance, as well as a colleague, Francis Joannès, who works on Achaemenid-Babylonian tablets and was enthusiastically ready to collaborate with me. The first demo of the Achemenet website took place in July 2000, during the International Assyriological Conference, which was taking place at the Collège de France. After that, we involved more collaborators, updated our techniques, etc. Achemenet is now 17 years old.

KB: It’s a teenager!

PB: There you go! The initial idea was to put online all the primary sources that had to do with imperial Achaemenid history, all the texts in all languages (Aramaic, Elamite, Babylonian, Greek, etc.), iconographic documents, coins, etc. That’s what we started doing and that’s what we’ll keep on doing thanks to new collaborations. I was able to create this program thanks to the Collège de France and the CNRS. I must add that the complete revamping of the site (2010-2012) also benefitted from private and public foundations such as the Fondation du Collège de France, the Fondation Bettencourt- Schueller, The Iran Heritage Foundation, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. But, of course, the gathering and interpretation of the documents was done with the help of colleagues from several countries. I am now passing on the torch to Damien Agut (CNRS/UMR ARSCAN, Nanterre[1]), a young colleague who specializes on 1st millennium BCE Egypt and who, together with Michel Chauveau, made available on Achemenet the Demotic ostraca of Ayn-Manawir. I am particularly happy to see that this editio princeps is open-access! The site will be hosted very soon on a CNRS-server[2].

We need to keep in mind that the chair I occupied between 1999 and 2012 at the Collège de France was the only one in the world that was specifically dedicated to the Achaemenid Empire. The only comparable position is currently at the EPHE (Paris). For the past 6 years, a gifted Dutch colleague (Wouter Henkelman) teaches seminars on the Elamite world, and works on the publication of a portion of the Persepolis tablets (some of which he made available on Achemenet.

But we should not be too pessimistic either. It is also because of the compartmentalized nature of scholarship, which leads so and so to specialize on Aramaic, Demotic, or Babylonian texts, or on archaeology, iconography or numismatics, that Achaemenid history is not being taught regularly at the moment.  Each colleague introduces students to a different part of Achaemenid history. This is why, in my view, a site like Achemenet is so vital: it contributes in a powerful way to the development of Achaemenid history across the world. A good indicator of this is the online journal ARTA, which we created in 2002. Since then, more than 50 articles were published. These are often very long and with many pictures, something which online publication allows; they are almost in all cases dedicated to the publication and historical analysis of new or recently discovered sources, be they written, iconographical or archaeological ones. This journal, the only one exclusively dedicated to Achaemenid history, filled a lacuna, and it is open-access. In sum, for a field like this one, the ability to express oneself on the internet is really the only way to disseminate knowledge and generate vocations and partnerships.

KB: According to you, what causes this quasi-absence of University positions on Achaemenid history worldwide?

PB: Many reasons explain this phenomenon. First, Achaemenid history is trapped between three jaws: the ‘eternal’ Greece, the ‘millennial’ Egypt, and the ‘mysterious’ Orient. What I mean by that is that there are three individualized and well-defined research fields: ancient Greek history, Egyptology and the history of the 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE Near East. Thus at the Collège de France, there is regularly a chair in Egyptology, another one in Assyriology, and there are always one or more specialist(s) of the Greek and Roman world. Traditionally – I’m not saying that all scholars still think like this – the history of the ‘Orient’ stopped with the conquest [the fall!] of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BCE, which is actually the start of Achaemenid history (even though the Elamite pre-history of the Achaemenid empire is currently deeply studied as well). Egyptologists traditionally focus their attention on more ancient periods. As for Hellenists, they would have to deal with the Achaemenids only when discussing the Persian wars and Alexander’s conquests. There was no field specifically dedicated to the Achaemenid Empire per se. That’s what I tried to do, as much as I could, by trying to familiarize myself with each of these fields, so that I could conceive the book I wrote in 1992-1993 and published in 1996 (Histoire de l’Empire perse = From Cyrus to Alexander, 2002).

Another factor that comes into play is a linguistic one. Let’s take Pharaonic Egypt: You must learn hieroglyphics. It is not that easy, yet fundamentally, it is not beyond the humanly possible. As for Assyriology: you need to learn the cuneiform script and the languages that used this script (there are several linguistic subdivisions within this field). Greece: you learn ancient Greek (and Latin). If you wish to work on the Achaemenid Empire, all the more so on several of its regions at a time, you must be able to use not only Greek (epigraphic, literary) sources, but also Achaemenid evidence, that is royal inscriptions (but there are not that many), and texts in Aramaic, Lycian, Phrygian, Egyptian (in hieroglyphics or Demotic), Elamite, Babylonian, etc. Compared to what I faced in the early 1970s, things are easier now for students, especially if they work in Paris, London, Chicago, or Leiden. There, they can learn ancient Greek, the cuneiform script, Elamite, Aramaic, etc. Problems come later: Few supervisors will encourage their students, even the motivated ones, to prepare a thesis in Achaemenid history, simply because he/she won’t be able to find an academic position that fits his/her scholarly credentials. This is obviously the fundamental obstacle to the development of Achaemenid studies, not only in France, but in all countries.

KB: So would you say that the multilingual nature of Achaemenid sources is a central factor?

PB: That’s not what is central. We need at some point to have senior and junior people believe that Achaemenid history is fundamental, that it is not a peripheral field, but one that has its own scientific legitimacy. I will always remember a textbook on the history of the ancient Near-East written by someone remarkable – Paul Garelli – in the 1960s for the Nouvelle Clio series. Achaemenid history appeared in the section dedicated to the ‘peripheral worlds’. On the other hand, if you are aware from the start of the fundamental nature of Achaemenid history, things are easier. Even though they don’t master the empire’s 15 languages, students can embark on the journey. I did it in an empirical manner. I worked using the translations of Elamite texts, then directly on the texts themselves. And then at the same time, I was working using the translations of Babylonian and Aramaic texts, and was looking in parallel at the original text and read all the philological articles. So it’s not easy, but one can manage, as long as one allows oneself the means to do so. However, without any institutional support from universities, it is a very hard. You need to accept to work by yourself, which I did until 1982-1983, that is until the year when I started building bridges with scholars from other countries who were facing similar challenges. Seen in this light, my appointment at the Collège de France is a important moment, not only for me, but for the discipline, which could thenceforth count on this platform to, if I can say so, become more attractive thanks to conferences, seminars (published in a new series called Persika) and, of course, Achemenet.

KB: What about the next generation? Are you optimistic?

PB: Yes and no. I’ll start with the no. No, because Achaemenid history is fashionable these days, but among people who are mostly trained as Classicists, and who do not work systematically with Achaemenid sources. An opposing trend developed in the UK with the Achaemenid Workshops. These workshops were created in Gröningen (Netherlands) in 1980 by Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, then internationalized in 1983 under the joined direction of Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and Amélie Kuhrt. They wanted to launch a new conception of Achaemenid history, one that I had been defending independently from them for a decade or so at the time. I have been a regular participant to the workshops, and I have regularly worked with Heleen (until her death in 2000) and Amélie[3]. We were basically saying: Greek sources, yes, but we ought to use them with much critical thinking, and in order to do Achaemenid history, we need to use, first and foremost, sources that come from that very empire (obviously with the same critical mind). It was an obviousness. However, contrary to the claims of an absurd and sterile polemic, no one ever suggested that we discard Classical sources (cf. e.g. From Cyrus to Alexander [2002: 693-5: Another “Achaemenid” source, The Alexandrian historians], or Darius in the shadow of Alexander [2015: x-xv]).

As for the ‘yes’ part of my answer, I say “yes” because changes are happening in different areas. First in the field of Achaemenid Babylonia, which has grown in a fantastic way these past 15 years, thanks to the ability to access the documents housed in the British Museum. The same goes for Hellenistic Babylonia, which is studied not only using Greek Hellenistic sources anymore, but mostly starting from Babylonian and cuneiform documents. This field developed considerably in all European countries as well as in the USA. These scholars are aware of the need to study 1st millennium BCE Babylonia in order to properly link the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods, all the way until the Parthian period. We could say the same, or almost, regarding Saite and Hellenistic Egypt, or regarding Anatolia, not to speak of Bactria.

Part 2 of the interview is accessible here

Notes, English text



[3] She has recently translated into English 28 of P.Briant’s articles. These are now gathered in Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies on Achaemenid History (Oriens et Occidens 26), Stuttgart, 2017.


Bien au-delà d’Alexandre : Une interview avec Pierre Briant, 1ère partie

Katherine Blouin : D’où vient votre intérêt pour les études classiques et l’histoire achéménide?

Pierre Briant : J’ai fait mes études supérieures à l’Université de Poitiers au début des années 60. J’ai été très vite intéressé par l’histoire grecque. (J’aimais bien le grec, que j’avais appris très jeune). Lorsque j’ai préparé l’agrégation en 1964-65, la question au programme en histoire ancienne portait sur le monde hellénistique. C’est alors que je me suis pris de passion pour cette période. J’ai lu par exemple la somme de Rostovtzeff (Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 1941), et je suis resté profondément influencé par son approche, qui mettait en relief les continuités entre le monde achéménide et le monde hellénistique. En 1965, après l’agrégation, je me suis lancé dans une thèse d’État sur un successeur d’Alexandre le Grand, à savoir Antigone le Borgne, sous la direction de Pierre Lévêque. J’étais alors Professeur au Lycée de Montpellier, où je suis resté pendant 2 ans, entre 1965 et 1967. En 1967 j’ai été nommé Assistant d’histoire ancienne à l’Université de Tours. À partir de ce moment-là j’ai eu plus de temps pour travailler sur ma thèse, que j’ai soutenue à Besançon en 1972.

Après ma thèse, Pierre Lévêque m’a demandé ce que je comptais faire. Je lui ai dit que j’avais des projets sur les diadoques, c’était un peu vague. Il m’a dit : « On m’a demandé de refaire le Que sais-je? sur Alexandre de Paul Cloché, mais je n’ai pas le temps, j’ai trop de travail. Est-ce que vous voulez le faire? ». J’ai dit oui. J’ai lu le Que sais-je de Paul Cloché et c’était tellement loin de ce que je voulais faire, tellement narratif. J’ai donc écrit aux Presses Universitaires de France en disant que ce que je pouvais faire, c’était de le réécrire complètement. Ils m’ont dit oui, donc j’ai publié ce Que sais-je en 1974. C’est en préparant ce livre et en travaillant sur l’Asie Mineure et la Phrygie à l’époque d’Antigone que j’ai été attiré vers les Achéménides. Ce travail de thèse m’avait en effet amené à étudier les problèmes liés à la transition entre les Achéménides et les diadoques : c’est là que je me suis confronté pour la première fois à la question des continuités/ruptures, en étudiant de près un passage de Plutarque (Eum. 8; voir Antigone le Borgne, 1973, p.80-89); pour la première fois, je fus placé dans la situation de discuter des thèses de Rostovtzeff. J’y suis revenu ultérieurement dans un article spécifique (voir Rois, tributs et paysans, 1982, pp. 95-135).

Plus généralement, si je reviens au contexte de la première partie des années 70’, je voyais écrit partout que tout avait changé avec Alexandre, donc on passait d’une phase A à une phase B, mais personne n’expliquait ce qu’était la phase A, ni du côté des livres sur les Achéménides (malgré tout l’intérêt de l’History of the Persian empire [1948] de Olmstead), ni du côté des si nombreux livres sur Alexandre. Comme je ne voyais nulle part la réponse, j’ai commencé à travailler moi-même sur cette phase A. C’est ainsi que je suis peu à peu entré dans l’histoire achéménide, à travers l’histoire d’Alexandre.

À partir de 1974-1975, j’ai continué à travailler sur ces sujets-là et j’ai préparé une étude qui est parue en 1976 dans les Dialogues d’histoire ancienne sur ce que les auteurs grecs appelaient les brigands des montagnes dans l’Empire perse, en particulier dans le Zagros achéménide. On parlait de brigands qui menaçaient jusqu’à l’existence des résidences royales, y compris Persépolis. En reprenant tous les textes j’ai démontré que c’était une vision très partielle et très fausse des rapports entre le Grand Roi et les peuples du Zagros à l’époque achéménide, qui étaient fondés, en réalité, sur le don et le contre-don. C’est à ce moment-là aussi que j’ai commencé à découvrir toute la documentation proprement achéménide, et que j’ai appris à sortir des sources classiques (sans les abandonner, bien au contraire), et à travailler sur les tablettes de Persépolis (une documentation alors à peu près inconnue des historiens classiques). Je me souviens que j’avais fait acheter dès 1970 le gros volume publié en 1969 par Richard Hallock (Persepolis Fortification Tablets) par la bibliothèque de l’Université de Tours : la bibliothécaire s’était montrée très étonnée que je m’intéresse à ces choses. À partir de ce moment-là, le champ de recherches sur l’empire achéménide, Alexandre, et les diadoques ne faisait qu’un. Pour cette raison, lorsque je suis entré au Collège de France en 1999, j’ai nommé ma Chaire « Histoire et civilisation du monde achéménide et de l’empire d’Alexandre ».

KB : Le nom de votre Chaire m’avait d’ailleurs marquée dans la mesure où il me semble qu’il illustre parfaitement votre conception de la complexité du monde achéménide. Était-ce une façon de remettre en question les frontières disciplinaires traditionnelles dans le domaine de l’histoire ancienne?

PB : Oui, sans aucun doute, j’aime me voir comme un passeur, dans la mesure où étudier la transition entre le monde achéménide et le monde hellénistique, c’est tenter d’allier dans un même champ des documentations et des interrogations qui relevaient alors communément de champs différents et largement fermés l’un à l’autre. Aujourd’hui les choses ont évolué, surtout chez ceux-celles qui travaillent sur la Babylonie ou l’Egypte hellénistiques, qui considèrent qu’ils doivent prendre en compte ce qui a été souvent appelé la « période pré-hellénistique » (une formulation contestable d’inspiration téléologique). Mais il y a encore beaucoup de chemin à faire, particulièrement lorsque l’on regarde les manuels d’histoire hellénistique. On commence en général soit avec Alexandre, soit à la mort d’Alexandre. Tout à coup, un monde apparaît, les étudiants n’ont aucune idée de ce qu’il y avait auparavant.

KB : Effectivement. Une des choses que je trouve particulièrement frustrantes en tant qu’enseignante de cours généraux d’histoire « grecque » ou « romaine » est le délai entre le rythme auquel la recherche évolue, et celui auquel le contenu des manuels est mis à jour. Avez-vous des pistes de solution à proposer?

PB : Les éditeurs portent une part de responsabilité, car ils aiment à reprendre sans cesse les mêmes catégories. Pour eux, il y a la Grèce classique et le monde hellénistique, mais le monde achéménide est le plus souvent absent.  Les enseignants ont aussi leur part de responsabilité, car dans les universités, l’histoire ancienne reste, sauf exception, réduite à la Grèce et à Rome, particulièrement en France en raison des programmes immuables des concours de recrutement (CAPES et Agrégation), où l’histoire ancienne est réduite à la Grèce et à Rome.  Il conviendrait, me semble-t-il, même si je sais que ce n’est pas toujours facile à faire, que les collègues approchés par un éditeur imposent leur vision de chercheurs; dans le cas d’un manuel sur le monde hellénistique, il convient que le monde achéménide soit présent, non pas nécessairement pour postuler des continuités dans tous les domaines, mais aussi pour pouvoir montrer aux étudiants la nature et le rythme des transformations apportées par les royaumes hellénistiques. Je dois dire aussi, pour être tout à fait franc, que j’ai senti une grande résistance de la part de collègues lorsque j’étais à l’Université de Toulouse de 1974 à 1999. J’y ai enseigné l’histoire achéménide et en 1996, je crois, j’ai créé un module d’introduction à l’histoire du Proche-Orient ancien. Beaucoup d’étudiants venaient, mais des collègues me disaient qu’il valait mieux se concentrer sur la Grèce et Rome, au lieu de prendre du temps pour des domaines qui n’étaient pas de notre ressort. Comme vous voyez, c’est très difficile de faire changer les choses, mais bon, je ne suis pas complètement désespéré, mais mon optimisme raisonné se heurte parfois à la réalité. C’est votre génération maintenant qui doit faire changer les choses.

KB : Pour revenir à la question du rapport entre chercheurs et éditeurs : Je pense aussi que ceux d’entre nous qui avons des positions permanentes sommes aussi moins vulnérables que les jeunes chercheurs sans emploi ou à contrat. Ceci étant, croyez-vous que les chercheurs seniors ont une responsabilité supplémentaire à cet égard?

PB : Oui, certainement. Mais il faut que les chercheurs seniors aient compris de quoi il s’agissait, ce qui n’est pas toujours le cas. Comme je le disais, les choses changent (en témoigne par exemple en France le récent manuel Les mondes hellénistiques paru en 2017 sous les signatures de Clancier, Coloru et Gorre), mais trop lentement à mon goût. Il y a encore cette coupure entre le monde égéen et le monde proche-oriental. Lorsque nous (Jean Andreau, Raymond Descat et moi-même) avons créé les rencontres d’histoire économique de Saint-Bertrand de Comminges au début des années 1990, nous avons décidé d’inviter des spécialistes de Rome, de la Grèce et du Proche-Orient. Les gens ont tiré beaucoup profit des discussions, si bien que la formule a été reprise par d’autres, dans d’autres champs (par exemple le colloque sur les qanāts que j’ai organisé en 2000 en faisant appel à des spécialistes d’histoire grecque, d’histoire de l’Egypte et du Moyen-Orient, des géographes et des archéologues). Lorsque je fais un retour sur mon parcours, je suis particulièrement fier d’avoir contribué à créer des ponts entre différents champs qui s’ignoraient (ou qui communiquaient à travers des contacts personnels et intermittents).

KB : De quelle façon pensez-vous que les nouvelles technologies, les médias sociaux, et les digital humanities peuvent aider à transcender davantage ces barrières? Je pense évidemment au site Achemenet, dont vous êtes le fondateur.

PB : L’idée s’est imposée à moi lorsque je suis arrivé à Paris en 1999. Je travaillais à ce moment-là sur les Bulletin d’histoire achéménide, où je mettais à jour toute la bibliographie sur l’empire achéménide. Au fur et à mesure des années, je voyais apparaître des documentations nouvelles dans tous les pays de l’empire, de Samarkand à Sardes, et l’idée m’est venue comme une évidence : la seule façon de les rassembler et de les mettre à disposition de tout le monde, c’était d’utiliser internet. J’avais été sensibilisé à internet après mes nombreux voyages aux États-Unis, à la fin des années 80. Je me souviens qu’alors, un collègue et ami à Chicago me dit : « Veux-tu commander du foie gras sur internet? Je vais sur Yahoo ». Je ne savais pas ce que ça voulait dire. Quand je suis revenu en France, je me suis dit qu’il fallait que j’aie le courrier électronique. Fort heureusement, j’étais à Toulouse et à la fac des sciences, il y avait un serveur dédié. Mon premier courrier électronique date donc de 1990 (

KB : Et Achemenet?

PB : Lorsque je suis arrivé au Collège de France en 1999, j’ai trouvé quelqu’un qui pouvait m’aider techniquement, et un collègue, Francis Joannès, qui travaille sur les tablettes babyloniennes d’époque achéménide, prêt à collaborer avec enthousiasme. La première démonstration du site d’Achemenet a eu lieu en juillet 2000, lors de la Rencontre assyriologique internationale, qui a eu lieu au Collège de France. Après, nous avons élargi le champ de collaborations, changé des techniques, etc. Achemenet a maintenant 17 ans.

KB : C’est un adolescent!

PB : Voilà! L’idée de départ était de pouvoir mettre en ligne toutes les documentations primaires qui sont relatives à l’histoire impériale achéménide, tous les textes dans toutes les langues (araméen, élamite, babylonien, grec, etc.), les documentations iconographiques, les monnaies, etc. Ce qu’on a commencé à faire et ce qu’on va continuer à faire en établissant d’autres collaborations. J’ai pu mener à bien la création de ce programme grâce à l’aide du Collège de France et à l’aide du CNRS. Je dois ajouter que, dans la phase de rénovation totale du site (2010-2012), nous avons bénéficié également de l’aide de Fondations privées et publiques, telles que la Fondation du Collège de France, la Fondation Bettencourt-Schueller, The Iran Heritage Foundation, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation et the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. Mais, bien sûr, le travail de rassemblement et d’interprétation des documents fut mené grâce à la collaboration de collègues de nombreux pays.

Je vais maintenant transmettre le flambeau à un jeune collègue qui est au CNRS, Damien Agut (CNRS/UMR ARSCAN, Nanterre[4]), un spécialiste de l’Egypte du premier millénaire, qui, avec Michel Chauveau, a mis en ligne sur Achemenet les ostraka démotiques d’Ayn-Manawîr. Je suis particulièrement heureux de ce qui est une editio princeps en ligne! Le site sera très bientôt hébergé sur un serveur du CNRS[5].

Il faut considérer qu’à l’heure actuelle, la chaire que j’ai occupée au Collège de France de 1999-2012 était la seule dans le monde qui était dédiée spécifiquement à l’empire achéménide. La seule comparable est à l’EPHE. Depuis 6 ans, un jeune collègue hollandais (Wouter Henkelman) y enseigne le monde élamite, et plus particulièrement est chargé de la publication d’une partie importante des tablettes de Persépolis, dont il a mis une centaine en ligne sur Achemenet.

Mais il convient de ne pas être trop pessimiste non plus. Si l’histoire achéménide n’est pas actuellement enseignée régulièrement, c’est aussi en raison de la division du travail érudit, qui amène tel-le ou tel-le à se spécialiser sur les textes araméens, sur les textes démotiques, sur les textes babyloniens, ou bien encore sur l’archéologie, l’iconographie ou la numismatique. Chacun de ces collègues introduit une facette de l’histoire achéménide à ses étudiants. C’est ce qui rend encore plus décisive (à mes yeux) l’existence d’un site et d’un programme comme Achemenet, qui contribue puissamment au développement des connaissances sur l’histoire achéménide dans le monde. Le montre très clairement la revue en ligne que nous avons créée en 2002 sous le nom ARTA : depuis lors, plus de cinquante articles ont été publiés; ce sont souvent des articles très longs et très illustrés, car la publication sur internet le permet; par ailleurs, ces articles sont presque uniquement consacrés à la publication et à l’analyse historique de documents nouveaux ou/et récents, aussi bien des documents écrits que des documents iconographiques et archéologiques. Cette revue est venue combler une lacune, puisque c’est la seule revue exclusivement dédiée aux études achéménides. Qui plus est l’accès est aisé et libre : chacun-e peut télécharger les articles comme bon lui semble. Bref, pour un champ comme celui-ci, avoir la possibilité de s’exprimer sur internet est vraiment la seule façon de diffuser les connaissances, de susciter des vocations et des collaborations.

KB : Qu’est-ce qui selon vous explique cette quasi absence de chaire universitaire d’histoire achéménide dans le monde?

PB : Plusieurs raisons expliquent ce phénomène. D’abord, l’histoire achéménide est prise en étau, entre trois mâchoires : La Grèce ‘éternelle’, l’Égypte ‘millénaire’, et l’Orient ‘mystérieux’. Je veux dire par là qu’il y a trois champs de recherche qui sont très bien individualisés et repérés : l’histoire grecque, l’égyptologie, et l’histoire du Proche-Orient aux 3e et 2er millénaires avant notre ère. Ainsi au Collège de France, il y a régulièrement une chaire d’égyptologie, une autre d’assyriologie, et il y a toujours un ou plusieurs spécialiste(s) du monde grec et romain. Traditionnellement – je ne dis pas que tous les chercheurs pensent encore ainsi – l’histoire de l’ « Orient » s’arrêtait avec la prise [la chute!] de Babylone par Cyrus en 539, ce qui est le début de l’histoire achéménide (même si la préhistoire élamite de l’empire donne lieu actuellement à des études très importantes). Les égyptologues concentraient traditionnellement leur attention sur les hautes périodes. Pour les hellénistes, les Achéménides apparaissaient lors des guerres médiques et de la conquête d’Alexandre. Il n’y avait pas un champ dédié à l’empire achéménide en tant que tel. C’est ce que j’ai essayé de faire à ma mesure en essayant de me rendre familier de chacun de ces secteurs, de manière à concevoir le livre que j’ai écrit en 1992-1993 et qui est paru en 1996 (Histoire de l’Empire perse).

Un autre facteur est linguistique. Prenons l’Égypte pharaonique : Vous devez apprendre les hiéroglyphes. Ce n’est pas si simple que ça, mais fondamentalement, ce n’est pas une tâche surhumaine. L’assyriologie : vous apprenez le cunéiforme et les langues que véhicule cette écriture (il y a de nombreuses subdivisions linguistiques à l’intérieur de ce champ). La Grèce : vous apprenez le grec (et le latin). Si vous voulez travailler sur l’Empire achéménide, à plus forte raison sur plusieurs régions à la fois, vous devez être capable d’utiliser les sources grecques (épigraphiques ou littéraires), mais aussi et surtout les sources proprement achéménides, c’est-à-dire les inscriptions royales (mais elles ne sont pas nombreuses), les textes araméens, lyciens, phrygiens, égyptiens (en hiéroglyphique ou en démotique), élamites, babyloniens etc. Aujourd’hui la situation pour les étudiants est plus aisée que ce que j’ai connu au début des années 70’ du siècle dernier. En particulier s’ils travaillent à Paris, Londres, Chicago, ou Leiden,  ils ont accès à des cours de grec, de cunéiforme, d’élamite, d’araméen, etc. Le problème vient plus tard : peu de directeurs conseilleront à un étudiant même motivé de faire une thèse en histoire achéménide, tout simplement parce qu’il-elle ne trouvera pas à l’université de poste qui corresponde à sa formation de chercheur. C’est là évidemment l’obstacle fondamental au développement des études achéménides, non seulement en France mais dans tous les pays du monde.

KB : Vous pensez donc que la question du multilinguisme des sources achéménides est un facteur central?

PB : Ce n’est pas ça qui est central. Il faut qu’il y ait à un moment donné des gens seniors et juniors qui pensent que faire de l’histoire achéménide est fondamental, que ce n’est pas seulement un champ périphérique, mais un champ qui a sa propre légitimité scientifique. Je me souviendrai toujours d’un manuel sur l’histoire du Proche-Orient ancien fait par quelqu’un de tout à fait remarquable, Paul Garelli, qui était paru dans les années 60’ dans la collection Nouvelle Clio. L’histoire achéménide y était traitée dans la section des « mondes périphériques ».  En revanche, si vous avez cette conscience première du caractère fondamental de l’histoire achéménide, les choses sont plus claires. Même sans maîtriser les quinze langues de l’empire, les étudiants peuvent se lancer dans l’aventure. Je l’ai fait de façon empirique. J’ai travaillé sur les traductions de textes élamites, ensuite directement sur les textes eux-mêmes. Et puis en même temps je travaillais sur les traductions des textes babyloniens et araméens, et je regardais en parallèle le texte original et lisais tous les articles de philologues. Donc ce n’est pas facile, mais on peut y arriver, à condition de s’en donner les moyens. Par contre, sans base institutionnelle dans les universités, c’est très difficile. Il faut accepter de travailler en franc-tireur, ce que j’ai fait jusqu’en 1982-1983, date à laquelle j’ai noué des liens étroits avec des chercheurs, qui, dans différents pays, se trouvaient confrontés aux mêmes difficultés. De ce point de vue, mon élection au Collège de France est à marquer d’une pierre blanche, non seulement pour moi-même, mais pour la discipline, qui a eu dès lors une vitrine, rendue plus attirante encore (si je puis dire) grâce à l’organisation de colloques, de séminaires, publiés dans une collection créée alors (Persika), grâce aussi bien sûr à Achemenet.

KB : Qu’en est-il de la relève? Êtes-vous optimiste?

PB : Oui et non. Je vais commencer par le non. Non, parce que l’histoire achéménide est à la mode, mais auprès de gens qui sont essentiellement de formation classique, et qui ne travaillent pas systématiquement sur les sources achéménides. Un courant s’est même créé en Grande-Bretagne qui veut se poser en opposition aux Achaemenid workshops. Ces Workshops ont été créés en 1980 à Gröningen aux Pays-Bas par Helen Sancisi-Weerdenburg puis internationalisés à partir de 1983 sous la direction commune d’Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg et d’Amélie Kuhrt : elles voulaient lancer une nouvelle conception de l’histoire achéménide, que j’avais moi-même déjà proposée indépendamment depuis une dizaine d’années. J’y ai d’ailleurs participé régulièrement, et j’ai régulièrement collaboré avec Helen (jusqu’à sa disparition en 2000) et avec Amélie[7]. On disait grosso modo : les sources grecques, oui, mais il faut les utiliser avec beaucoup d’esprit critique, et pour faire de l’histoire achéménide, il faut recourir, d’abord, aux sources qui proviennent directement de cet empire (évidemment avec le même esprit critique). C’était d’une rare évidence. Mais, contrairement à ce que prétend une polémique absurde et stérile, personne n’a jamais proposé de ne plus recourir aux sources classiques (Cf. e.g. Histoire de l’empire perse [1996: 713-715] : Une autre source « achéménide », les historiens d’Alexandre, ou Darius in the shadow of Alexander [2015: x-xv]).

Pour ce qui est de la part positive de la question précédente, je dis aussi « oui » parce que des changements s’opèrent dans plusieurs secteurs. D’abord le domaine de la Babylonie achéménide a connu un développement absolument fantastique ces 15 dernières années, en raison de la mise à disposition de ressources documentaires du British Museum. Il en va de même de la Babylonie hellénistique, non plus uniquement à partir des sources hellénistiques grecques, mais surtout à partir de la documentation babylonienne en cunéiforme. Ce champ s’est développé dans des proportions considérables dans tous les pays européens et aux États-Unis. Ces chercheurs sont conscients de la nécessité d’étudier la Babylonie du 1er millénaire avant notre ère, soit de faire le lien entre la période achéménide et la période hellénistique, jusqu’à la période parthe. On pourrait faire la même remarque, ou presque, à propos de l’Égypte entre l’époque saïte et l’époque hellénistique, ou encore à propos de l’Anatolie, sans parler de la Bactriane.

La seconde partie de l’entrevue est disponible ici

Notes, texte français




[7] Elle vient de traduire en anglais 28 des articles de P.Briant. Ceux-ci sont désormais réunis dans Kings, Countries and Peoples. Selected studies on Achaemenid History (Oriens et Occidens 26), Stuttgart, 2017.


Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

Decolonizing CanLit Prize Culture

by Karina Vernon

One by one the prominent players in Canada’s news and culture industries who so brazenly broadcast their support of a fictional “Appropriation Prize” last week are issuing apologies and stepping away from their high-profile positions. But the struggle for justice in Canada’s culture industries is far from over.

Hal Niedzviecki, the writer who penned the editorial “Winning the Appropriation Prize” has resigned his position as editor of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s quarterly journal after writing, “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation. In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so—the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” Jonathan Kay, who called on Twitter for the establishment of an actual Appropriation Prize last week has now stepped down as editor of The Walrus; on Wednesday the CBC announced that Steve Ladurantaye, who pledged on Twitter $100 to found the Appropriation Prize, has been removed from his position as managing editor of The National.

That these three have stepped away from their high-power positions as culture brokers is a necessary thing. Their public support for an Appropriation Prize is a brazen affront to Indigenous people across Turtle Island, to Indigenous writers, to writers of colour, and to their own colleagues in the media. As Indigenous critic Jesse Wente pointed out during his soul-shaking interview with Matt Galloway on CBC Metro Morning, to not “believe” in cultural appropriation, as Hal Niedzviecki so bluntly put it, is to be willfully blind to the material and social conditions that underpin our everyday existence as people in this country. “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on,” Wente said. “And not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of all things Indigenous: our lives, our lands. This is what this nation was founded on. It was the policy of the government to do this. To ignore, to pretend now, that we somehow have moved on beyond this and that somehow we’re all on equal footing and thus we can all share equitably is to fail in your responsibility as a storyteller.”

While these three elites of Canada’s culture industries have stepped down, they leave in place and intact, all the institutions and cultural structures that put them there in the first place. What we need is a deep rethinking of CanLit’s deeply-embedded neocolonial structures along the lines outlined by TWUC’s Equity Task Force. As Joshua Whitehead puts it in his powerful “Notes on Indiginegativity: An Addendum” “CanLit is burning and has been for quite some time […] Here’s what I found in the aftermath: I am not CanLit, my words don’t recognize canonic or tectonic borders, I have all of Turtle Island to nourish and energy with my story. I am not CanLit. I am an Indigenous storyteller writing for Turtle Island, I am Indigenous Lit.”

Despite decades of work and struggle, CanLit’s institutional structures and cultures remain, as have been revealed again and again this year, deeply colonial. This also includes CanLit’s prize culture. It is telling to me that Niedzviecki writes in his editorial, “My writing advice is in opposition to [the] traditional axiom. I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you, who you didn’t grow up with, who don’t share your background, bank balance and expectations. Set your sights on the big goal: Win the Appropriation Prize.” To Niedzvieki, the “big goal” of writing is not writing itself nor the personal and social transformations that brilliant writing enacts; the goal of writing is the winning of a prize. No doubt awards such as the Scotiabank Giller, the CBC Canada Reads contest and the Governor General’s Literary Awards, to name only a few, help to shed light on and make stars of Canadian authors, and as such, are crucially important to the publishing industry. It is wonderful when prizes serve to elevate marginalized voices; when they help bring important issues and histories to prominence, and when prize money goes to help support writers who need it. But the sense that these prizes perpetuate is that writing is an individual—not a collective—achievement. Prize culture is rooted in the western political philosophy of individualism: prizes serve to exalt an individual writer and their achievement rather than acknowledging the ways words and stories are always tied to larger contexts. This is, after all, how the phenomenon of Joseph Boyden was created.

But there are other models. In The Land We Are: Writers and Artists Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation, editors Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill and Sophie McCall speak about Rebecca Belmore’s work Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, a work produced in 1990 in the wake of the Mohawk uprising at Kanesatake. In Balmore’s land instillation, larger-than-life wooden megaphones are tilted toward the land, inviting Indigenous people to speak to the land they wish to protect (1). Such artistic practices acknowledge the ways that art draws on collective resources, including land water and air, and is tied to collective communities, past, present and future.

What if instead of prizes for individual authors we think for a time about literature prizes going to the communities that help support them? Can we think about literary prize money going to land and water defenders, and to the communities that help support them? Can we begin to think of literary prizes being awarded to collectivities, to community groups, organizations and presses that help bring writers and their words to light? How can we transform CanLit in these and other ways to build a revitalized and truly equitable literary culture?

Karina Vernon is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toronto

A “global message of unity, peace and understanding”? Pepsi’s white, privileged gaze on protesting bodies

A “global message of unity, peace and understanding”? Pepsi’s white, privileged gaze on protesting bodies

Pepsi made the buzz for all the wrong reasons this week with its “Join the conversation” ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a top model-turned-social healer. In face of the massive backlash it faced on social media, the American multinational finally pulled out the controversial ad and released this statement:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

That no one at Pepsi thought for a moment that there was something insensitive and utterly inappropriate in the scenario of this ad, in its use of Black Lives Matter references, and in the starring of Kendall Jenner – a young woman whose private and public life couldn’t be more disconnected from the plight of millions of young, impoverished and marginalized Americans – is simply baffling, all the more so in the context of the current, Trumpian administration. There is of course nothing new in companies trying to capitalize on social movements for mercantile aims (one can remember how, as early as last Fall, Toronto store Serpentine appropriated Black Lives Matter to promote Black Friday sales). Yet this particular ad is particularly interesting in that the supposedly “global message of unity, peace and understanding” it stages is all but that. Instead, it promotes a white privileged, Americanocentric vision of diversity that is altogether sweetened, edulcorated, trivialised, and ultimately totalitarian. This is visible not only in what it shows – and this is certainly what has attracted the most attention by viewers – but also in what it doesn’t show.

First, this is not a protest! The march featured in the ad is a staged street-party and the police are simply safeguarding and protecting citizens, so-called equal participants of a shared conversation. The policemen are, well, men. They are young, they are good looking, and the Pepsi-drinking one seems somewhat happy to have an opportunity to flirt with a member of the Kar-Jenner clan. All references to the real militarization of police forces, a phenomenon that is on the rise in the USA and elsewhere in the world, are absent: No massive number of officers, only one helmet in sight, no combat unit, no arm in hands, no tear gas tanks, no water hoses, no horses, no tanks. As for the marchers, they are all young, happy, and seemingly free. In short, they seem to be en route for Coachella more than participants in a politically-charged march. One almost feels like casually quoting Voltaire’s “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.

In the light of the rise of social movements in and outside the USA that followed the 2009 economic crisis, and in the light of the massive protests that have been staged recently against police violence and Trump’s regime, how much more out of touch can an advertisement be and how much more naive can the Pepsi commercial-makers be in assuming that people would embrace this supposedly feel-good ad? If anything, it has served to alienate young citizens (visibly its target audience) of today who actually consider themselves political and who may have participated in a protest. The thing is, protests are becoming a more common feature of our life – whether we watch them online and on tv, participate in them, or know someone who does – and as such become good material for advertising campaigns, whose main aim is profit and not social justice (references to Mad Men’s Don Draper by some of the ad’s critics are right on point in that regard). Another recent example that comes to mind is Chanel’s Spring 2015 Protest runway, which took place in 2014. Presented as a feminist act, the show, created by Chanel’s designer Karl Lagerfeld, did also face some backlash, but not to the extent Pepsi’s ad did. Importantly, apart from street fences, it did not feature references to police or coercive forces.


The Pepsi ad does also a good job at exploiting racial stereotypes: Easy clichés include the hard-working, sweaty Asian cello player, who is both passionate about music and persuaded by activism; the dancing black men, who portray the stereotype of hip-hop and street dance linked to blackness; Kendall’s black assistant, whom she throws her blonde wig at before joining the march; and the black and brown Muslim bodies that replace and simultaneously make conspicuously absent the Arab Muslim (this absence acts as a telling Freudian slip on the part of Pepsi). A particularly troubling character is the South-Asian looking, hijab-wearing photographer, whose main purpose in the ad is to convey the idea that Muslim young women are not defined by their veil. The current strength of this fetishizing trope in American culture, media, and advertisement has already been commented upon. Yet Pepsi also reinforces and invalidates this simplistic message in other ways: The photographer is the only individual in the whole ad whose religious affiliation is made clear (unless we assume that the black young man wearing a beige tunic and hat is a Muslim, in which case we’d have two identifiable Muslims vs no other identifiable member of religious communities), and she is also the only one with a ring on her marriage finger. Her character does not participate in the march. Rather, as she seems upset not to have any worthy picture in her studio, she hears the street rumour and runs outside in search of good photo opportunities. Her female, Muslim, married identities therefore both define her and strip her of complexity. As a photographer, she is able to exist and thrive as a witness – not an actor – of the protest.


What about the fact that the peace-making role is given to a white, wealthy, ultrafamous reality tv star-turned-supermodel who joins the walk towards its end, after she has been winked at by the Asian cello player? The ad, as well as the many hilarious memes it has generated, speak for themselves.

We’d like to draw a parallel between Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi performance and the famous 2004 Super Bowl’s Pepsi ad, which, contrary to the 2016 one, was – and still is – a hit. Set in a Roman amphitheater, it features Beyoncé, Pink, and Britney Spears. The three women play sexy-looking yet fiesty gladiators who, through a passionate rendition of Queen’s “We will rock you”, unite instead of fighting each other, thereby succeeding in turning the audience against the despotic emperor, who is played by Enrique Iglesias. The ad ends with the women throwing Pepsi cans at the cheering, toga-wearing crowd, while a lion pops up behind the fallen – and soon-to-be-devoured – despotic emperor.


Like the Chanel fashion show mentioned above, this ad aims at promoting a feminist message. While Karl Lagerfeld’s protest walk directly echoed French protest culture, the 2004 Pepsi ad layered feminism in historical (the Roman games; the despotic Roman emperor) and Orientalist (the sexy, exotic, female warrior) tropes. Both the 2004 and the 2016 ads share common narrative features: sexualized female heroin(s) played by world-known American stars; an instrumentalized crowd; a face-to-face with authority of which the heroin(s) comes out victorious; an uplifting tune from music legends (Queen/the Marley family). Why, then, did the 2004 ad become so successful why the 2016 one had to be pulled out? The answer may lie in the focus of the ad: In the 2004 one, the supreme heroins are the three gladiators. They lead the narrative from start to end. They are fierce, empowered, active. They, as their song, rock. They sing at the crowd, not at the emperor, who is relegated to a comic, disempowered role. In the 2016 one, the narrative revolves around the marchers. The photographer, the cello player, and Kendall Jenner join a movement that is already in full motion. The supermodel doesn’t share Beyoncé, Pink and Britney’s fierceness. Her role is a mute one. She does not say, scream, nor sing a single word. She does not contest nor resist authority. She does not fight for her life. And although she joins the march, the emphasis is put on her peaceful, almost flirtatious encounter with the policeman. Kendall’s character is not an empowered feminist, social, nor political activist (if she would have been, she wouldn’t have thrown her wig at her black, female assistant!). Rather, she represents white privilege, in all its obliviousness, naïveté, and patronizing glory.

What to make of all this? By reproduction these stereotypes and silencing these bodies, Pepsi alienated the true subject (the ‘protestor’) to a lifeless identity that is unrecognizable to itself. Also present is a level of exploitation and ontological impoverishment, as well as the denial of the realities of risk and violence usually involved in protests, where the police are armed to the teeth and ready to respond aggressively. The paradox of the advertisement is that in presenting protests as fun-loving and peaceful events where the police are open to sharing a can of Pepsi with the protestors, Pepsi presents the viewers with an appearance of recognition. However it is a false recognition, of co-operation, peace and hope, that denies the dehumanizing practices that commonly lead people to protest in the first place – where racism, sexism and subjugation are realities and not simply packaged as opportunities for getting together. The protesting bodies become capitalistic objects of marketing, as well as merchandise and tools in a logic of neoliberalism. That might be where the “global” in Pepsi’s ad lies.

Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

Katherine Blouin is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Toronto

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto

Everyday Orientalism Quiz: Egypt in Tourist Guidebooks, 1847-2017


Image credit: Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-17903.

Can you guess when these guidebook descriptions of Egypt were written? All come from travel guidebooks, newspaper articles and other promotional materials designed to help western tourists plan a trip to Egypt. They date from 1847-2017. Note how the language used (‘the mysterious Orient’, ‘touts like flies’) remains remarkably constant. Answers at the foot of the article.

  1. “Papyrus sellers and would-be guides hound you at every turn.”
  1. “There is no better way to conjure the Orientalist mood than by taking a felucca ride on the Nile.”
  1. “A desert nation veiled in millenia of cultural mystery and architectural enigmas, Egypt summons images of towering pyramids, riddling sphinxes, and archaeological adventures.”
  1. Tourists “do not find it easy to resist the fascination of the picturesque oriental life in the native quarters, where it is still possible, when once the Mooski is crossed, for the imaginative traveller to realise the dreams of the Arabian Nights of his childhood.”
  1. “Touts like locusts.”
  1. “Negotiations are hedged round with and amount of ceremony that recalls the stately fashion in the Arabian Nights, when the purchase of a brass tray or an embroidered saddle-cloth was a solemn treaty.”
  1. “Egyptian peddlers have been pestering, cajoling and ‘refusing to take no for an answer’ for far longer than anyone can remember. Elaborate con tricks handed down through the generations will have you parting with your pounds without even realising how it was done. Online forums are filled with tales of bitter screaming matches and accounts of tourists being physically abused by touts if they don’t agree to a camel ride. It makes you almost nostalgic for the good old days, when all they did was overcharge people.”
  1. “A yelling crowd of donkey-boys, guides, porters, interpreters, dragomans, itinerant dealers in sham antiques, and all the rabble that live on the [tourist].”
  1. “Mena House dazzles with intricate gold decoration and air that perpetually smells of jasmine … whitewashed Moorish-style buildings with dark wood balconies, grand arcades and terraces are the European vision of the ‘Orient’ set in stone.”
  1. “Aggressive peddlers can ruin the shopping experience in Cairo.”
  1. “For millennia the iconic sights of Egypt have held visitors in their sway, from the pyramids of Giza to the dazzling colours of the Pharaoh’s tombs.”
  1. “The true Cairene’s ideas, ether good or bad, like his dress, his religion, his social customs and habits, his oddities of speech, his calm, impenetrable reserve, and his disinclination to worry – all date from the Middle Ages.”
  1. Islamic monuments are “curious specimens of the peculiarities of Oriental taste, abounding in great luxuriance of ornament.”


  1. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  2. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  3. Luxury travel operator Absolute Travel:, accessed 4 February 2017.
  4. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  5. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  6. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  7. South China Morning Post, 24 September 2016.
  8. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  9. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  10. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  11. Luxury travel operator Abercrombie and Kent:, accessed 4 February 2017.
  12. New York Times, 22 November 1902.
  13. Wilkinson, Sir Gardner (1847) Hand-Book for Travellers in Egypt. London: John Murray.

Rachel Mairs

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Since Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA, several articles have appeared in mainstream media in which journalists try to make parallels between Trump’s autocratic ruling style and the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. On January 25, the Guardian published an article of Jonathan Jones entitled « To understand Trump, we should look to the tyrants of ancient Rome ». Should this article have been a school paper, Mr Jones’ uncritical, floppy use of primary evidence would no doubt have deserved him the same as what Donald Trump would have gotten if his Black History month speech had been submitted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 7-th grade classroom. The conclusion is a gem in itself :

The Romans did not see tyranny as a single fixed set of symptoms. Tiberiua [sic], Caligula, Nero, Commodus and the many freakish rulers thrown up by later Roman history are all different, all singular. When we look at Trump, when we try to get the measure of the world’s most powerful man, we could compare him with these odd and extremely dangerous characters. You don’t have to be a Hitler to threaten democracy and peace, a look at Roman art and history reveals: a Caligula or Commodus is equally scary.[2]

How could the Guardian publish such a mediocre, incoherent article? My colleague Roberta Mazza has already written what she thought of it, and showed that such sensationalist, elitist and, therefore, utterly simplistic uses of ancient history stem from imperialist, essentially male and white gazes and that, accordingly, they cannot be deemed historically viable anymore. I completely agree with her. As Phiroze Vasunia has recently highlighted in this blog, postcolonial and social approaches to Roman (and ancient) history are becoming increasingly normalized within our fields. Yet for some reason, and despite the efforts of Mary Beard, this academic shift has still not been properly integrated in “popular” representations of the ancient world. Thus, perhaps, the current journalistic trend.

I’m not trying to sugar coat what the ancient Roman world was about. Of course, the vast majority of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants remained non-citizens until Caracalla’s universal grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 CE (a measure that most probably stemmed from financial rather than humanist reasons). Of course the ancient world was one where slavery was a normalized fact of social life[1]. Of course episodes of religious scapegoating, racist stereotyping and misogyny abound in the written sources. Of course wars of conquest led to horrible acts of violence against non-Roman peoples that, in the case of Caesar’s Gallic wars for instance, have been qualified as genocide by some scholars. Of course we should not simply copy and paste ancient data into our current world in order to understand what’s going on and where we are heading. Of course, in sum, the Roman world was very different from ours. But provided that they are properly contextualized, these ancient « stories made of true events », to paraphrase Paul Veyne, can contribute to broader reflections on human nature, societies, and the ways in which certain sociological and geopolitical patterns tend to (re)appear. It is, I believe, in such ways that ancient history can and must contribute to current debates and actions against the rise of xenophobic, racist rhetorics of the sort that are now promoted by the ruling powers in the USA and UK, as well as by many parties and groups elsewhere in the world.

In order to lead by example, here is a short reflection that starts from the currently widespread populist discourse according to which the « greatness » of a « nation » comes from a supposed state of original demographic purity. According to this reasoning, the economic challenges encountered by this « great nation » are caused by the infiltration within the nation’s territory of « others » who, attracted by the greatness of the nation in question, are trying to move in and get their share of the cake. This trope is now being used in the USA, UK, and many other countries in order to justifiy the scapegoatings of immigrants, especially (but not exclusively) non white and muslim ones, whose containment, exclusion, or elimination is seen as the best way for the nation to find prosperity and, therefore, be « great » again. Easy peasy. Except that it couldn’t be more disconnected from human reality. And history.

In his first-century monumental work dedicated to the history of Rome, the Latin writer Livy narrates how Romulus, the founder of Rome and descendant of Trojan warrior-turned-refugee Aeneas, managed to find a male population for his new city :

In order that the enlarged city might not be empty or weak, he resorted to the time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’. He therefore selected a sight for an asylum […]. A motley mob from the neighbouring peoples flocked to the spot, with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life. These men were the beginning of the real strength of the city. (Livy, The Early History of Rome 1.8, Luce 1998 transl.).

The story has it that contrary to Rome’s first male settlers, women did not migrate there voluntarily. For Livy also explains how, to the peoples living in the vicinity of the newly founded Rome, and notably the Sabines, whose presence in the region was more rooted in time, Romulus’ « asylum » and its heterogeneous set of newcomers were cause for distrust and concern. Confronted by disdainful neighbours who were not willing to marry their daughters to his settlers, who were from mostly low and varied backgrounds, Romulus had no choice but to use cunning in order to abduct women from the nearby Sabines. This violent episode came to be known as the « Rape of the Sabines » (Livy Hist. 1.9-13).

Livy’s testimony, which was written at the time of Augustus, obviously contains its share of distortions, mythical elements, and historical retrojections. The last category is precisely what interests me here, for these retrojections offer us some clues as to how Livy, his sources, and his contemporaries viewed what, or rather who, Rome and its Empire were about. Beyond the violence-infused nature of Romulus’ story, which no doubt echoes the atrocities of the late Republican civil war, what is striking here is the idea that Rome was an asylum made of newcomers « with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life ». This way of peopling one’s city with refugees, poor, and vulnerable peoples of different origins corresponded, specifies Livy, to a « time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’ ». By saying so, he shows himself aware that the notion of autochtony is nothing but a convenient foundation myth, aimed at producing a sense of shared belonging to a group of originally disparate and all-but-glamourous settlers. Given the Imperial might Rome enjoyed in Livy’s lifetime, Rome’s diverse origins appear not only as a fundamental characteristics of the city’s history itself, but also as the root for its exceptional success.

In fact, later Romans were very proud of how open the society of archaic Rome was. After all, they had been ruled by kings who were not only of Latin origin, but also Sabines, Etruscans, and even slave-born. A great testimony of this enduring pride, and of its direct impact on Roman imperial policies, can be found in the Lyon Tablet (CIL 13 1668). As its name indicates, this bronze tablet was found in emperor Claudius’ native city, Lyon (Roman Lugdunum). It contains part of the transcript of a speech given by Claudius to the Roman senate in 48 CE. During that speech, the emperor tried to convince the reluctant crowd of senators that allowing wealthy and deserving Gauls into the Senate was the good and, considering Rome’s early, multicultural history and the more recent initiatives by Augustus and Tiberius, the logical thing to do. A longer and different version of the speech is also provided by Tacitus, who has Claudius use his own family ancestry to make his point:

Of my own ancestors, the most ancient, Clausus, was of Sabine origin, but he was accepted at the same time both for Roman citizenship and for membership in the patrician families of the city. Those ancestors therefore urge me to follow the same procedure in the administration of state policy, bringing here all that is excellent anywhere else. (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

These words echo recent speeches by the Mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, and the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, both of whom strongly condemned Trump’s seven-nation and refugee ban by highlighting how they themselves, like most Bostoners, New Yorkers, and Americans, come from families of migrants. In both cases, the message is the same : Diversity is strength, and integration rather than exclusion is the key to prosperity and success.

Livy’s account and Claudius’ speech also highlight one of the fundamental characteristics of the Roman State : By essence, and contrary to the Greek conception of citizenship, Roman citizenship was not a blood-based status that was, apart from a few exceptional cases, enjoyed by a close community of individuals. It was rather an inclusive mechanism, which was granted to communities, families, individuals, and eventually all free inhabitants of the Empire, for a variety of reasons, without any consideration for the gods they worshipped, the languages they spoke, the colour of their skin or the place they came from. This openness permeated the highest levels of the political and military sphere, as is testified to by the fact that Roman emperors and their families included Roman citizens from Spain, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans for whom, in some cases, Latin was not their first language, and whose dearest gods were not the members of the Capitoline triad. And if we recognize the use of the title Augusta by Palmyra’s queen Zenobia as evidence of her wish to rule the territory under her control within the Roman imperial structure of her time, Rome also had a female empress.

The Roman use of citizenship as an integration tool is also, according to Claudius, what set Rome well above Athens and Sparta:

What else was it that spelled destruction for the Spartans and the Athenians, militarily powerful though they were, if not their segregation of conquered peoples as foreigners? By contrast, our founder Romulus showed such wisdom that he regarded numerous peoples as his enemies and then as his fellow-citizens on the very same day! (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

In many ways, the founding myth of the USA is rooted, like that of ancient Rome, in the idea of a population made of « numerous peoples » that had become « fellow-citizens », and historical evidence amply show that these representations reflect the very early multicultural nature of both these societies. Seen in this light, the populist, exclusivist, and racist rhetoric currently promoted by Trump, May, Le Pen and many other politicians and public figures represents a denial not only of history, but also of what humanity is fundamentally about: movement and cultural diversity.

Non-elitist and decolonized approaches to ancient history contribute way, way more to our reflections on the roots and significance of what is happening in the world these days than the Gibonnian, elitist fetichising of « good » over « bad » emperors or the simplistic reflections on the « rise » and « fall » of the Roman Empire[2]. We need more nuanced and inclusive scholarly voices to speak beyond academia. It is not only critical to current, public debates ; it is also essential to the very survival of our discipline(s)[3]. If you are one of these voices and feel like speaking up in Faces and Voices or Everyday Orientalism, feel free to send your contribution to Roberta or to me.

Katherine Blouin

I wish to thank my colleague Seth Bernard for having read through a draft of this post and provided me with much useful feedbacks.

[1] Although the grant of citizenship to descendants of freed slaves was already commented on as a strange institution by Philip II of Macedon (see IG 9.517 (SIG3 543; ILS 8763)).

[2] See for instance

[3] See for instance Edith Hall’s June 2015 article published in The Guardian, which focuses on the case of Greek history and language:

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

By Chiara Graf

Phiroze Vasunia is a professor in the Department of Greek and Latin and in the Programme for Comparative Literature at University College London. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1996, he has written extensively on colonialism and cross-cultural contact in Antiquity, as well as on the relationship between empire and the study of Classics. He is the author of such works as The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander and The Classics and Colonial India, and he has co-edited numerous volumes, including Classics and National Cultures (co-edited with Susan A. Stephens). In this interview, he discusses postcolonial studies, reception studies, and the future of the study of Classics.

On Postcolonial Studies and the Classics

Chiara Graf: I thought I would start by asking you a little bit about yourself. What brought you to postcolonial studies?

Phiroze Vasunia: There are both academic and personal dimensions to your question.  In academic terms, I would say that, when I was a graduate student, I was frustrated by what I took to be the lack of sophistication in scholarship about such important, standard topics as the barbarian in Greek culture, and it seemed to me that classical scholars, with a few exceptions—Edith Hall, for example—had not really attempted to think through questions of method and approach, nor had they quite taken the trouble to look at developments in areas outside of Classical Studies. It seemed to me that there was both a need and an opening there for a scholarship that was informed by postcolonial studies and that was at the same time attuned to the particular specificities of the ancient world. It wasn’t just a question of reading Edward Said’s books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism but also of engaging with a wider current of thought in postcolonial studies, of looking at scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, who admittedly were only just starting to be accepted into the mainstream when I was in graduate school during the first half of the 1990s.  One wouldn’t want necessarily to criticize classical scholars for not engaging with that work, because that work was just beginning to take off and grab people’s attention. With Said, of course, Orientalism came out in 1978, so it had been there, in the academy, already for some time, and people were beginning to absorb its implications and its claims—and these scholars were working within the context of decolonization and other movements, which went back to the 40’s and 50’s. To me it seemed that there were opportunities to incorporate some of these works, to think about them, to improve upon them, and that Classical scholars, with a few notable exceptions, were not quite doing so.

I guess the personal dimension of this would be that perhaps I was a little more sensitive to these questions because I was a foreign student in America. I came from India, and I was aware, as all foreign students are, of my own foreignness to the culture, but also to what I felt was a lack of scholarly attention to developments outside of Classical Studies. I wouldn’t dwell too much on the personal side of this: I think that one need not only be an Indian, or a Kenyan, or a Malaysian, or a Cuban to work on questions of postcolonialism. There is a whole range of scholars from a whole variety of backgrounds who write on postcolonial studies. Yet, perhaps because of the education I received when I was growing up and the people I read in school, I had a slightly different upbringing than the majority of Classical scholars who were my peers. There might be a personal side to this, which is perhaps worth acknowledging at least, even if I may not quite be doing justice to it and even if I wouldn’t want to place too much stress on it.

It also seemed to me when I was a graduate student that there was a kind of aura about the history of classical scholarship. There was not just a charm to it, but there was something almost theological that Classical scholars felt about their own history.  They looked back at the giants of the discipline with a reverence that seemed excessive in proportion to what one might see in other disciplines: to figures such as Wilamowitz, or Fraenkel, or Dodds, or, going back further, to Bentley, to Porson, to the great Renaissance scholars of Antiquity as well, Isaac Casaubon, Lorenzo Valla, and going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. So it seemed to me that that this was a subject that needed to be discussed, and was not receiving sufficient attention, at least not in the early 1990’s.

I also think that, in a way, Martin Bernal with Black Athena, for all the sensationalism of his account, put the politics of scholarship on the map, and, as anyone will tell you, the better parts of his work are the ones that deal with the history of scholarship rather than with ancient material. The first volume of Black Athena gave scholars a renewed impetus to look at developments within the field in the last two to three hundred years, but an important part that was missing from Bernal’s Black Athena was in fact the question of empire.  I thought this was missing as well from important studies such as Chris Stray’s book, Classics Transformed (which came out towards the end of the 90’s), and it seemed to me that the last 200 to 300 years of the history of the discipline could not be told without thinking or talking about empire. Bernal does mention it in passing, as does Stray, but it didn’t seem to me quite thought through as it ought to have been.

CG: Why do you think Classics had been so slow to adopt the work of Said and other postcolonial scholars? What does this say about us and our anxieties as a discipline?

PV: I would say that it was a slow process of acceptance. Postcolonial scholars are themselves very presentist in their orientation: they look to the last 50 or 100 years, but many of them haven’t looked further back, beyond the period of modern imperialism and colonialism. Postcolonial studies itself did not show an interest in long histories.  On the other hand, as I say, there was an opening here for classical scholars, because Classics as a discipline emerged about 200 years ago, and it in some ways accompanied the rise of the modern empires.  This disciplinary history could have been explored from a postcolonial perspective, but wasn’t, at least initially. But since the 90’s there has been an increase in work done by classical scholars, historians, and archaeologists who take their inspiration from postcolonial studies.  We could mention, from a longer list, and in no particular order, Edith Hall, Richard Hingley, Pierre Briant, Tom Harrison, Lorna Hardwick, Barbara Goff, Carol Dougherty, Irad Malkin, Mark Bradley, David Mattingly, and Chris Hagerman.  These are scholars who, in my view, draw on postcolonial studies in their writings even if they may not themselves identify as postcolonial scholars.  The people who run the blog [Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs] are themselves people who have contributed to the way in which Classics might benefit from postcolonial studies.

CG: I’m interested in reactions to your work, and whether there have been different sorts of reactions to work on empire and “othering” within Antiquity, as opposed to your work on the reception of Classics and its appropriation by the British Empire. Does the scholarly community take to these iterations of postcolonial studies in different ways?

PV: In terms of the work that I’ve done looking at questions of empire and colonialism, I don’t think it’s been all that controversial. Generally, perhaps because of all the recent work that I was talking about, people don’t seem all that surprised now to know that there has been a connection between Classics on the one hand and colonialism on the other. There seems to be some kind of willingness to acknowledge the sorts of questions that I, and other scholars, have been raising.

There’ve been a few instances when I’ve given papers at conferences or seminars and have been criticized pretty sharply by people, but criticism arose in those cases when I suggested that the history of Classics and colonialism has a genealogy that continues to the present moment. Classical scholars seem to be unprepared to accept that claim, but I would in many ways stand by that claim still today: there is a residue–more than a residue– of empire in our scholarship, and Classics could still do with a healthy dose of decolonization, even in 2017.

As for ancient Orientalism, I’ve written mainly about Egypt and Iran, and worked also with the ideas and writings that classical scholars have themselves put forward, and used these in conjunction with work outside of Classics in postcolonial studies. I think there are some people who think that what I say about Orientalism and imperialism may be more applicable to the modern period rather than the ancient period. So perhaps you’re right; perhaps the implication of your question might be, “Are people more reluctant to accept charges of Orientalism and of colonialism in antiquity than in the present?” There might be something to that suggestion.

If I could add one related point, I think that reception studies itself has not been slow to take up questions of empire, of colonialism, of Orientalism. Far from resisting these types of questions, scholars of classical reception have actually taken up these topics and explored them with quite a heavy degree of intensity and scholarship and detail and rigor.

CG: In your work, you reject a stark binary of self and other. What do we lose when we simplify things to that binary?

PV: Clearly, we’re all complicated human beings, and things have been complicated for thousands of years, so binaries are not going to tell us a lot about the state of culture, civilization, human interaction, artistic endeavor, et cetera. Human beings tend to have multiple allegiances, and we might be partly rational, partly irrational, partly prejudiced by one thing in one part of life and quite unprejudiced in other parts of life: there might be some colonialists who were sympathetic to the people they ruled over, in however complicated a fashion, and there might have been colonial subjects who may have aspired to become as oppressive and violent as some of their colonial overlords. I’d also say that introducing issues of sympathy, for example, in these discussions is not necessarily always a sound scholarly procedure. So, if you are already sympathetic to someone who is colonized, as at least I would be instinctively drawn to be, you are in a way prejudicing your own thought in advance. And Gayatri Spivak has written about this quite extensively, that one needs to understand what one is doing and what one’s own emotional investment is in these sorts of questions, for example, when one divides up the world into colonizer and colonized and says, “I sympathize with the colonized! I think the colonizer is a brute!”– if you approach Antiquity with that attitude you are going to blind yourself to a whole range of cultural, historical, and intellectual complexities. But this is a big subject, and this does not mean that one can justify colonialism, or slavery—that’s clearly not the argument here. The argument is more about arriving at a position that’s thoughtful and self-aware and rigorous.


On Reception Studies

CG: How did you become interested in reception studies?

PV: In some ways, I think I’ve touched on that question: partly, I was of the view that the history of classical scholarship, which in some ways can be seen as a branch of reception studies, had not sufficiently dealt with imperialism and colonialism. But secondly, it also seemed to me that the practitioners of the subject, today, 50 years ago, and maybe even 100 years ago, had a sense of this specialness that ancient Greece and Rome seemed to be imbued with. And it was attempting to understand this charisma coming from classical Greek and Roman Antiquity, trying to understand why Greek and Roman Antiquity still had this powerful hold, within especially elite but also non-elite cultures in Western Europe and North America, that seemed to me a subject worth studying. And also trying to understand my own reaction to this force, this attraction that I felt emanating from Antiquity. And it seemed to me that it wasn’t just true of the present but it was true of Edwardian England, it was true of Victorian England, it was true of 19th century Germany, France, Spain, Italy, modern Greece, the cultures of Eastern Europe. There was this powerful hold that Greek and Roman Antiquity had on thinkers, writers, intellectuals, critics, artists, scholars, and even though I was a student at a time when a disenchantment with Antiquity seemed to be taking root, it seemed to me that there were still traces of this powerful valuation. And so, I think I wanted to understand that better.

CG: Yeah, I’m really interested in that attraction, too, and I wonder, do scholars feel drawn to Antiquity solely out of identification, or do you think there’s any Orientalizing of Antiquity itself that brings some fascination with it?

PV: Yes, it would seem that there are both of those things going on in some ways. We tend to put Antiquity up on a pedestal, we tend to exoticize it, we tend to treat it as if it’s “desperately foreign,” to use that expression, and as a result of that kind of exoticism we feel drawn to whatever construction we are ourselves putting on the ancient world. And part of that invention is clearly a projection of our own fantasies and desires and psychological urges. But I wouldn’t say it’s just that; I think that that’s part of it, and there are many ways in which that fetishizing happens. The fetishism could be connected with nationalism, or with questions of class, questions of civility, questions of gender, education, elitism, as well as personal psychology. So, the Orientalism, to use that word very broadly now, would be very complicated, it wouldn’t just be a simple phenomenon. But I think thanks to the work of the last 20 to 25 years we’ve begun to understand that kind of mystification a little bit better, in our own work and in the writings of earlier scholars. That can be a healthy thing, in two ways: one is that it’s a spur to further thought and scholarly activity, and secondly, it’s also good to say that Antiquity is different from modernity. We wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who say there is no difference between the ancients and moderns; that would be a very troubling position. So in some ways I think the exoticism is even necessary.


On the Present and Future of Classics

CG: What do you think we can do to ensure that Classics doesn’t continue to either reinforce imperial aims or be appropriated for those aims?

PV: I think any scholar who is self-aware and brings a degree of methodological self-consciousness to his or her work is already doing what he or she can do to avoid being called colonialist, or presentist, or Eurocentric, or elitist. So, a critical engagement with Antiquity, one that is self-aware, one that is rigorous, one that is methodologically scrupulous, is the best that we can hope for. But it’s what a lot of the best practitioners already offer.  Also, being a little more aware of the history of the discipline over the last 200 to 300 years would not be a bad thing for classical scholars. Whatever they’re dealing with– questions about the Roman Empire, or Romanization, or questions of minority cultures, or the Greek-Barbarian issue, or whether they’re dealing with other questions, archaeological, anthropological– I think understanding the circumstances in which these questions have arisen and taken hold and then been pursued can only be a good thing.

CG: Lastly, I’m curious about your prognosis of the field. It sounds like you think we’re moving in the right direction. Do you think we have to continue moving in that direction in order to stay relevant? Do you think there will always be a holdout of people who are resistant to these ideas?

PV: Yes, there probably will always be people who are resistant to questions of colonialism and empire. And I don’t expect everyone in the field necessarily to be writing about these questions either all the time; that would be silly. But yes, I think that as a variety of people come into the discipline from a variety of different backgrounds, and as the subject itself is studied more and more outside of North America and Europe, in countries such as China, or in South and Central America– the more that happens, the healthier will the field be. I also think that if we accept that there is a range of classicisms in the world, not just Greek and Roman but also Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, and if we attempt to understand how these classicisms are similar and different, and not just see Greco-Roman as somehow unique, then I think we’ll arrive at a deeper understanding of the particular classical culture that we at least spend our time studying. So yes, I think, as you say, that things are moving in the right direction, and, with any luck, will continue to move in that direction, and I also think that some of the scholarship from the 80s and 90s and the early part of the 21st century has actually trickled down and been assimilated and absorbed by teachers and students. And it’s practiced by scholars and others without their having to justify the entire scholarly apparatus or scholarly history that others might have had to explain in earlier times. It’s already more a part of the discipline than it was.

Chiara Graf is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Toronto