The absolute absence of chronicle sources from the pre-Islamic Persian Empire is one of the great historiographical lacunae that frustrates our attempt to grasp a complete picture of Near Eastern antiquity. Famous archaeological finds such as the Cyrus Cylinder and the rock inscriptions at Behistun may be exceptions; however, these are necessarily limited in their scope to early events in the Persian story, and unmistakably propagandistic in nature. Most of the historical writings about the Persian Empire and Persian society in our possession, then, come from the pens of outsiders and foreigners: Greeks such as Herodotus, and the authors of later books of the Jewish scriptures such as Daniel and Isaiah, for example. Of course, these are all biased and propagandistic as well (Herodotus perhaps doubly so), and because of this our attempts to understand the Persians on their own terms—to see them as they saw themselves—can seem doomed. The requisite sources do not exist, or at least await discovery.
It is into this area of exploration that Robert Hoyland's The “History of the Kings of the Persians” in Three Arabic Chronicles seeks to make its contribution. Regrettably, Professor Hoyland, a deservedly well-regarded scholar of medieval Middle Eastern History at New York University, has not stumbled upon some hitherto-undiscovered dusty trove of rock-inscribed Achaemenid chronicles northeast of Shiraz. Instead, Hoyland seeks to discover the lost Persian sources in another way: by comparing the sections of the Arabic accounts of Aḥmad ibn Wādih al-Yaʿqūbī (d. ca. 910), ʿAlī ibn Ḥusayn al-Masʿūdī (d. ca. 960), and Hamza al-Isfahānī (d. ca. 960s) that treat the history of the Persians. These authors might have had access, the reasoning goes, to those Persian sources that we, today, are lacking. To be clear, this approach is not a novel one: Hoyland notes that other Arabic chronicles, such as those of al-Dīnawarī (d. ca. 895) and the famous al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) “have already been translated and mined for clues about their sources” (2). Hoyland makes specific reference to the work of Theodor Nöldeke (1879), who, in his work on al-Ṭabarī, noted the similarities in the Arabic sources of the Persian past and concluded that there was “a uniform underlying source (einheitliches Grundwerk)” and concluded that it was the “Book of Lords” (Khudāy-nāmah), a conclusion Hoyland disputes (2). Instead, he offers an alternative: that rather than a single, official Sasanid-era source that gets similarly, but not identically, deployed by the three historians he translates (as well as al-Dīnawarī, al-Ṭabarī, and the Roman historian Agathias, who merits a brief discussion), Hoyland asserts a tentative theory that “knowledge about Persians in our extant sources” derives from “a more diverse picture for Persian historiography.” This diverse picture includes a blending of Christian and Persian traditions (23).
With the justification for the project and the introductory remarks thus complete, Hoyland proceeds with his translations: first of Hamza, then of al-Masʿūdī, and finally al-Yaʿqūbī. The translations, by design, do not cover the entirety of these men's works of history, but rather excerpt only the material related to Persia—a useful endeavor, if the narrative of Persian history, rather than the work or opinions of these historians themselves, is the target of the reader's inquiry. Hoyland also includes appendices that briefly treat the account of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, the Chronicle of Siirt, and an astrological work of Ibn Maʿshar, in each case to refute an argument that any one of these may be the hypothesized underlying source for all Arab knowledge of the Persian past.
This is a difficult work of scholarship to assess. At the outset, it should be noted that Hoyland sets out, and achieves, a relatively modest goal: to translate into English, compare, and assess the similarities of three heretofore known, but perhaps under-utilized, Arabic sources of Persian history. The translations are readable and, predictably, free of noticeable errors. Hoyland's footnotes are comprehensive, and offer insights into his translation choices when choices had to be made. Finally, his argument is convincing: comparing Hamza, al-Masʿūdī, and al-Yaʿqūbī as he does, with reference to other scholarship that has been completed on the same problem, the reader puts down the book in agreement with Hoyland that the comforting simplicity of Nöldeke's einheitliches Grundwerk is nothing but historiographical pyrite. So, in that regard, The “History of the Kings of the Persians” in Three Arabic Chronicles is a complete success.
However, one walks away vaguely dissatisfied for two reasons, although none of that dissatisfaction should be laid at Hoyland's feet. First, the organization of the book, giving the full translation of each author, one after the other, could almost not be otherwise. As an English translation of these sources—which is undoubtedly the use most readers will make of this book—this is appropriate. However, if one wishes to follow Hoyland's scholarly argument about the nature of Persian sources in these Arabic chronicles, there is a lot of flipping back and forth among three sections of the book to compare analogous sections from each. This is obviously disruptive. Hoyland's notes do a decent job of cross-referencing within the volume, which is helpful, but this is still an approach that demands much from a reader. For as long as books are printed on paper and then printed between two covers, I do not see an alternative that would keep the scholarship confined within one volume. It may be that this is one of the rare occasions that a digital medium, which would allow viewing different sections in multiple panes at once, would be preferable to a hardcopy.
Second, despite the success of Hoyland's translations and his argument, we historians are still right where we were when it comes to understanding Persian history from the Persian perspective. While this volume does much to correct the oversimplified view of the Persian sources that predominated in the past, it does not offer a fully satisfying historiographical argument of its own. This is, again, not to be blamed on Hoyland; the sources do not bear out a conclusive unifying historiographical theory of Persian historiography, even a complex one, and if Hoyland were to allege one it would be overzealous and irresponsible; it is to his credit that he does not. But while this volume expands upon the sources treating Persia available to an Anglophone readership and clarifies some of the historiographical misconceptions of previous decades, what it ultimately offers is more of the same: the history of Persia through biased, propagandized, uncertainly-sourced, and foreign chronicles whose overriding intent is never the explication of Persian history on its own terms.
Robert Hoyland's The ‘History of the Kings of the Persians’ in Three Arabic Chronicles is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Arabic historiography, narrative, and mnemohistory, and as a pedagogical tool for instructors of the same. However, for those with an interest in Persian history—not Greek Persian history or Jewish Persian history or Arab Persian history, but a Persian Persian history, reflecting the concerns and predispositions of Persians—we must, alas, continue to await unlikely miracles of archaeology.