In the fifth book of his Histories, Herodotus writes of a joint Athenian–Ionian raid on the Persian-controlled city of Sardis in western Asia Minor in the year 497 B.C. When the great Persian king Darius learned of the burning of Sardis, says the Greek historian, “he inquired who the Athenians were.” Upon hearing the response, the “king of kings” asked his courtiers for a bow and proceeded to shoot an arrow into the sky. As it flew, Darius declared: “Zeus, let it be granted to me to punish the Athenians.” He then appointed one of his attendants to repeat to him three times every night at dinner: “My lord, remember the Athenians.”

It’s a wonderfully vivid, if likely apocryphal, anecdote. How would Herodotus, a minor Greek aristocrat, have learned such intimate details of court intrigue? And why would a Persian king whose massive empire spanned from north Africa to India have become bizarrely obsessed with a small nation on the periphery of his kingdom? Nevertheless, whatever the tale lacks in plausibility it certainly makes up for in its dramatic foreshadowing of a century and a half of intense conflict between the Greeks and Persians, culminating in the ignoble demise of one of Darius’s descendants. Darius III, the (perhaps embellished) story goes, died in the company of his relentless pursuer Alexander the Great in the remote satrapy of Bactria (present-day northern Afghanistan).

Westerners’ knowledge of the Achaemenid Persian empire has been relayed to us primarily through Greek sources such as Herodotus, who interpreted the ancient kingdom through a lens of Hellenic cultural supremacy in which the Persians were exotic, brutal, hedonist, and, ultimately, weak. The Welsh historian Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, relying on Iranian art, literature, and archaeology, aims to change that popular narrative. “Far from being the barbarians of the Greek imagination, the Persians emerge here as culturally and socially sophisticated, economically strong, militarily powerful, and intellectually gifted,” he writes in Persians: The Age of the Great Kings.

Llewellyn-Jones describes what he calls a Pax Persica, a centuries-long kingdom spanning much of the ancient world, which “made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West.” It was also, he argues, impressively tolerant of the peoples it governed; Darius the Great used the Old Persian word vispazananam (“multicultural”) to define his regime. The Persians did not impose their language or architecture on conquered nations; they allowed and even honored local cults. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, his regime did not change Babylon’s bureaucratic system, and it permitted priests, administrators, tax officials, and bankers to retain their offices with little, if any, interruption.

Persian monarchs were happy to present themselves as supporters, and even representatives, of local deities of the peoples they subjugated. Cyrus played the part of a Babylonian king; his son Cambyses assumed the pageantry of an Egyptian pharaoh. The Achaemenids also borrowed extensively from Mesopotamian and Egyptian legal traditions. And they built an excellent, expansive transportation network: the Royal Road ran a remarkable 1,500 miles.

Those ancient highways were necessary, given that the Persian royal court at its peak was quite peripatetic, a traveling city of thousands of people moving across the empire. “Like a swarm of locusts, the court could easily strip bare the surrounding countryside of its produce,” Llewellyn-Jones writes. The Persian monarchs also commissioned magnificent building projects: “Persepolis was by far the largest and most spectacular of the Achaemenid palaces and today it is the most stunning of antiquity’s ruins. It is a magical place, an evocative ruin of unsurpassed beauty and grandeur, and ranks highly among the greatest archaeological sites of the world. It simply has no equivalent.”

Persians is an exhaustive political, military, cultural, and religious account of the ancient Achaemenids. It features lively prose and is sprinkled with arresting anecdotes. We learn that the Persians, like the later Huns, Magyars, Mongols, and Turks, came from the steppes of Eurasia. The phrase “parting shot” originates from the “Parthian shot,” by which a Persian horseman would fire a salvo of arrows at his enemy, then abruptly retreat, turning on his horse to offer one final shot. When the Medes invaded Persian lands in the mid-sixth century B.C., the Persians were at first overwhelmed by the numbers of their enemy. When the Persians began to retreat, their womenfolk opened their robes, flashed their genitals, and shouted at them: “Where are you off to, you quitters?! Do you want to crawl back in where you came from?” Ashamed, the Persians returned, and ultimately won the two-day Battle of Pasargadae.

We also learn that it was Iranian nomads who introduced trousers to the world. “Before they appeared in Iran, no society west of the Zagros Mountains had ever encountered leg coverings,” writes Llewellyn-Jones. I confess I’m a bit skeptical about that claim—the Romans described Germanic tribes they encountered in the first century B.C. as wearing pants, and it’s difficult to imagine those Germans would have spent the previous centuries of cold, northern European winters without something covering their limbs.

Speaking of cold winters, Darius (the same one who in 490 B.C. lost to the Greeks at Marathon) many years before that defeat crossed the Bosphorus, bridged the Danube, and marched his army into southern Russia in order to subjugate the tiresome nomadic Scythians, who had been raiding his kingdom. It was not the Scythians but the Russian winter that brought Darius’s campaign to a grinding halt. It’s possible that Darius’s men were the first invaders to experience that cruel Russian winter, many centuries before the invasions of Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies.

The book’s most controversial contention, of course, is that Persian civilization was comparable in its advances and complexity to that of the Greeks, something Llewellyn-Jones attempts to achieve by elevating the accomplishments of the former and downplaying those of the latter. He is dismissive of the British classicist H. D. F. Kitto, whose popular 1951 introduction to Hellenic history argues that the Greeks “had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for.” Llewellyn-Jones calls “perverse” the idea that cultures deprived of the Greeks are “lesser civilizations in terms of rational thought and governance, unity of purpose, intelligence, and ambition.”

He also questions the trustworthiness of the Hellenic historical sources, which in this case would primarily be Herodotus, whom he dismisses as “not pursuing forensic facts.” Elsewhere he writes: “We cannot believe much of what Herodotus said, and yet we cannot do without him.” Undoubtedly, it is appropriate to analyze an ancient writer such as Herodotus with a healthy sense of skepticism, given the likelihood of bias and the paucity of sources he had available to him in writing his Histories. One might argue, however, that it’s also anachronistic and a bit unfair to hold Herodotus to the same scholarly standard as that of historians today. But more to the point, many of Llewellyn-Jones’s anti-Herodotean arrows fail to hit the mark.

He is skeptical of Herodotus’s portrayal of the Spartan king Leonidas’s decision to remain and die at Thermopylae with his three hundred Spartans as courageous and honorable, calling the account incomplete because “the main reason he [Leonidas] stayed was more practical.” Without a rearguard action, he says, Persian archers and cavalry would have turned a Greek retreat into a rout. But how does that fact undermine the courage of those three hundred Spartans—because their decision was based on practical necessity, it wasn’t remarkably brave for them to face certain death? Since when are the cardinal virtues of courage and prudence antithetical?

Llewellyn-Jones terms as “bizarre” Herodotus’s depictions of Xerxes, who in the Greek’s telling vacillates between vicious brutality and virtuous pathos, exhibiting traits we might today describe as indicative of manic depression. Reviewing the splendid armada he has amassed to invade Greece, we read that Xerxes “suddenly burst into tears and wept.” The great king explains: “I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of all these people here will be alive one hundred years from now.” Even if the story is apocryphal, it’s not just Herodotus who portrays Xerxes this way: the Hebrew book of Esther also suggests the king was both powerful and volatile. As far as ancient history goes, two separate sources offering overlapping evidence presents a pretty strong case for credibility.

Llewellyn-Jones often contradicts himself in claiming that Greek sources are untrustworthy because of their biases and propagandist qualities but are nevertheless credible whenever they lavish praise on the Persians. The Persians’ impressive postal relay system connecting major cities elicited applause from Herodotus: “There is nothing mortal that is faster than the system that the Persians have devised for sending messages.” He also described Xerxes as incomparable “in terms of handsomeness and physical stature.” The Greek writer Aristotle of Stagira in turn lauded the efficiency of the Persian spy system.

Llewellyn-Jones also overreaches in his portrayal of the Persians as progenitors of “enlightened” multiculturalism. If they were so “tolerant,” why were there constant revolts from one side of the empire to another? Reading Persians, one gets the impression that satraps and other ambitious local leaders were endlessly calculating the prospects for either asserting their independence or deposing the current “king of kings.” The Romans, whom Llewellyn-Jones derides as brutal and aggressive in imposing their culture on conquered peoples, had far more success discouraging revolts, especially during the time of the “Five Good Emperors” (96–180 A.D.).

There’s another irony in Llewellyn-Jones’s attempt at comparing Persians and Greeks. He acknowledges that the Persians transmitted their history “through songs, poetry, fables, and legends” and that “a notable feature of the rich oral culture of the ancient Near East in general was a positive dislike for exact facts or specific dates.” Later he writes that “the Persians had no taste for written histories.” Yet Llewellyn-Jones is doing history, not mythmaking. That means he is following in the footsteps not of the Persians but of the Greeks, who played an integral, if not invaluable, role in the development of history as an academic discipline, performing (albeit imperfectly) an orderly investigation of facts. To put it bluntly, without Herodotus, there is no Llewellyn-Jones.

Herodotus is only one Greek to whom we moderns are indebted. The Greek mathematician and philosopher Archimedes is considered the father of mathematics; Pythagoras is known as the father of numbers. Hippocrates is considered the father of medicine—even Llewellyn-Jones admits the Persians relied on Greek physicians, who were considered the best in the ancient world. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle bequeathed to us the discipline of philosophy. Recent research in quantum mechanics has even validated Aristotelian physics. Are there Persian equivalents for any of these men? If there are, Llewellyn-Jones doesn’t cite them.

At some points, Llewellyn-Jones really strains in his attempts to push the pro-Persian narrative. He acknowledges the cruel tortures the Persians exacted on enemies and traitors: one particularly vivid (and possibly apocryphal) example involved force-feeding a bound man trapped within a boat until his body, covered by flies, wasps, and bees, began to decay and putrefy. Eventually maggots and worms consumed him from the inside—it took seventeen days for the man to die. Llewellyn-Jones writes: “The Persians can be seen as cruel despots concocting sublime, elaborate punishments to thrill and delight their tyrant kings. But the Persian Version of the punishment is far more complex and must relate to the Persian views of religious purity.” I suppose “complex” is one word to describe the Persians’ well-documented religiously sanctioned cruelty.

In the end, Persians does not present a convincing case for Llewellyn-Jones’s thesis. Yes, the Achaemenids have been an under-appreciated civilization in modern studies of ancient history. Those who study the ancients should be more familiar with the Persian empire and its several centuries in the sun. Yet the Greeks win the head-to-head contest. No other ancient civilization, with perhaps the exception of the Hebrews, has left such an indelible (and positive) imprint on human history. Yet even the Jews, like the Romans who conquered the Greeks, were eager to emulate Hellenic culture (just look at the deuterocanonical books of the Bible, such as the emulation of Greek philosophy in the Book of Sirach). W. H. Auden may not have been far off when he declared: “Had Greek civilization never existed . . . we would never have become fully conscious.”