The Steppe Frontiers of Pārsa

Ferrario, Marco. 2023. The steppe frontiers of Pārsa: Negotiating the Northeastern borderlands of the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire. Journal of Ancient Civilizations 38(2). 129-189.

The present paper seeks to offer a new interpretative scenario against the background of which to assess the dynamics underlying the interactions between the Achaemenid Empire (starting with Cyrus’ conquest of Central Asia) and the peoples of the steppes, which presided over the formation of what it is usually referred to as the frontier of the Empire itself in Baktria, Sogdiana, and Chorasmia.

To this end, a set of literary sources comes under critical scrutiny, beginning with Herodotus and Strabo. The reason for this is that, despite the increase of the available evidentiary record, their interpretation in strongly oppositional terms (steppes versus sown) of the above-sketched process has been, and continues to be, very influential. In a second step, archaeological data and comparative evidence of a historical-ethnographic nature will be added, with the overarching aim of framing the narrative of the classical sources into a broader and, as it shall be argued, more proper social, economic, and ecological context.

The outcome of such a study will hopefully be a more nuanced and complex picture of a crucial phase of Achaemenid history in Central Asia. In the light of the framework presented in the following pages, while on the one hand the driving force and organizational capacity of the newly formed Empire will emerge as decisive elements in the establishment of a new, distinctive, “imperial space” north of Bactr(i)a, on the other hand, the role of local communities in negotiating the modalities of their integration within the networks resulting from the birth and expansion of Achaemenid rule in the area will appear as having been of no less paramount importance.