- Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib
In the opening sentences of the postscript to his new book, Bruce Lincoln, a Professor of Divinity at the University of Chicago, writes of his "belief that the painstaking study of a single, well-chosen example can reveal more than a wide-ranging, but superficial, comparative survey" (97). To borrow the words of George W. Bush, whose Iraqi war rhetoric Lincoln examines as part of his study, "mission accomplished." Lincoln has written a timely, interdisciplinary book significant to scholars interested in exploring the influence of religion on empire in current global conflicts. By examining the conquering rulership of ancient Achaemenian Persia, Lincoln provides a case study of the confluence of religious belief and aspirations of empire. The case study is ultimately intended to illuminate a similar case of empire and belief, namely, the United States in Iraq in the twenty-first century under evangelical Christian President George W. Bush. Lincoln is particularly interested in comparing Bush's articulated motives with those of the Achaemenian kings. He is also interested in showing, through his case study, how religious fervor and imperial ambitions can provide the rationalization for national violence, including inhuman acts of torture.
In selecting Achaemenian Persia as his case study, Lincoln has made a unique and somewhat ironic choice. With this ancient civilization providing the ancestral roots for Islamic Middle Eastern nations, this study suggests that the goal of imperial domination knows no nationality and is deeply embedded in the history of human civilization. Also, as Lincoln notes, his goal was to provide an example "that has received surprisingly little attention, given that it is of foundational importance, reasonably familiar, and extraordinarily revealing" (xii). [End Page 132]
Lincoln introduces the Achaemenians as the conquerors of the Greeks and as establishers of a vast and expanding empire. Flush with numerous military victories, the Achaemenian kings, as exemplified by Darius, represented themselves "as God's chosen" and depicted their enemies "as liars and malefactors" (9). The Manichean frame will no doubt be familiar to readers and scholars of contemporary political rhetoric. Having achieved a great level of power, the Achaemenian kings were also in control of the historical record. Lincoln's analysis of extant writings suggests they used much creative license in portraying the hand of God at work in their victories. He demonstrates the ways in which the divinity of the kings was rhetorically constructed, and how the wealth of conquered nations was established as belonging to the Achaemenians by divine right.
Lincoln also performs an admirable analysis of Achaemenian reliefs that tell an orchestrated visual story of the kings' conquests in which the king is depicted as larger than life, and the conquered are portrayed as debased and literally small in stature. The visual artifacts, together with the written, suggest a worldview in which Persia sat at the center and was of central importance. Wealth from conquered nations was imported into Persia and violence was exported. It was also a world in which little value was shown for the Greek ideal of the agora. As Lincoln notes, "Rather than recognizing the agora as an institution of civil society, one where contentiousness in the form of political debate and economic negotiation was turned into productive purpose, [the king] treats it as a space of fraud and deception" (28). The agora was seen as a contradiction to the truth found in the person of the king, who was the representative of "morality, God, and creation" (29). The religious grounding of the Achaemenians positioned the truth, as defined by the king, as issuing from God, and lies as demonic. Any effort to obtain truth was acceptable, including gruesome torture—which Lincoln describes in some detail. For torture was not meant merely to inflict pain; rather, its goal was "[i]nterrogatory, pain being only the means to another end: that of obtaining information" (88). Although no direct comparison is made, political scholars may recognize...