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Ctesias at the Crossroads: Integrating Greek and Near Eastern Traditions in the Persica

Matt Waters

The Greek historian Ctesias (Ktesias) served as a doctor to the Persian king Artaxerxes II, who reigned 404-358 BCE. Fragments of his Persica survive scattered in various ancient authors and in a severely-truncated epitome by the Byzantine patriarch and scholar Photius of the 9th century CE (main text editions Lenfant 2004 and Stronk 2010). Ctesias provides an important, but often frustrating, counter to Herodotus and other narrative Greek sources on the Persians. Nevertheless, his impact on the Greek literary tradition was enormous, especially with regard to the motifs of the effeminate and easily-manipulated monarch, the licentious queen, and the conniving eunuch.

The Persica is a hybrid work. Ctesias’ thoroughly Greek fascination with opposites and inversion was refracted through his adoption and adaptation of Near Eastern material. The historicity of several elements of the Persica has been subjected to thorough analysis, and Ctesias cannot help but be found wanting. Ctesias the historian has thus given way to Ctesias the poet (Stronk 2011) or perhaps even Ctesias the novelist (see the remarks of Holzberg 2003). The distinctions will be explored here with reference to specific examples, such as Ctesias’ claim to have used royal records (basilikai diphtheria and basilikai anagraphai), a claim generally dismissed (see already Jacoby 1922, 2050f.) though defenders remain. An assessment of Near Eastern archival records reiterates the doubts, and such considerations also demonstrate other paths of influence via Near Eastern literary and oral traditions. One example involves Ctesias’ treatment of the Assyrian queen Semiramis, as preserved by Diodorus Siculus, the fullest version extant. While the obvious literary qualities of the Semiramis story have been noted, most discussions focus on her historicity, e.g., with which Neo-Assyrian queens she may be best identified (see Dalley 2005, Rollinger 2010 for convenient summary of the literature). However, Semiramis’ life and career find many parallels with those of Sargon of Akkad of the 23rd century BCE (texts in Westenholz 1997), whose example inspired subsequent Mesopotamian rulers for centuries and whose legacy persisted into Achaemenid times to influence Ctesias. One particular intersection of the Persica and the Sargonic epic “King of Battle” places the nexus of tradition in Anatolia, Ctesias’ homeland and a metaphor for the crossroads of the western Persian Empire.

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Greeks and Achaemenids: War, Diplomacy, Trade, and Culture

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