Ancient History & Civilisation


Greeks and Achaemenid Persia

The confrontation

A glance at a globe shows how Persia (modern Iran) lay at the crossroads of the Old World. It controlled the routes west–east, the only alternatives being north of the Caspian Sea in areas whose topography rather dictated that they were the territory of nomads rather than armies or city-businessmen, or by sea around Arabia, not to be much exploited by merchants or others until centuries AD. Between Persia and Anatolia lay Mesopotamia (Assyria/Babylonia) the home of the oldest sophisticated civilizations of western Asia; and southwest there was Egypt, but in relative decline by the 6th century BC.34

Prehistoric Persia had been the host to various important cultures, influential east and west, and most of them originally deriving from Central Asia rather than the west. The land is large, rugged and much is occupied by near-desert, but with areas of rich farmland and mineral resources. It has inevitably held a pivotal position in world politics (of whatever size the given ‘world’) from antiquity to the present day, when its culture (non-Arab, Islamic) and resources can still shake the confidence of self-styled ‘world leaders’.

The Persians had entered their new homeland from Central Asia on the heels of the Medes, whose distinctive dress and cavalry manners they copied. The Greeks could often refer to the Persians as Medes, and the ‘empire of the Medes and Persians’ is a common rubric. The Persians were gentlemen, but they could also be ruthless. Herodotus, the Greek historian whom we shall discuss more fully later, characterized them as truth-telling and disciplined, only taken by luxury after they had conquered Lydian Croesus and seen his court in the mid-6th century BC. They exhibited perhaps a little less of the sheer cruelty displayed by many ancient peoples, including the Greeks.35 Women knew their place; among the hundreds of sculptured figures decorating the palaces and buildings of Persepolis there is not one woman, but for a gift from Greece [PL. VI]. Women possibly enjoyed a better life (relatively) in Greece and Central Asia.36 Persian religion was straightforward. A major deity was Ahura-Mazda, a version of the eastern sun god, and characteristic religious buildings are fire-temples, many of them quite modest buildings, centred on an ever-burning flame. Zoroastrianism was also somehow incorporated; this was the cult of the Asian prophet (Zarathustra to us), whose heritage survives still in parts of Persia and in India (the Parsees).37

By the middle of the 6th century the Persian royal family, known as ‘Achaemenid’ from their ancestor Achaemenes, was strongly established as a major power in the Near East, and looked to express this in buildings suitable to empire, and in an expansion of territory which would make for increased wealth and enable them to exercise what seemed to be their genius at regulating the lives and fortunes of foreigners – eventually to as far away as the borders of Greece, the shores of the Black Sea, deep into Asia and through Egypt. Their empire was divided into ‘satrapies’ with Persian governors (satraps), and each paid annual tribute to the king in Persia. Within each satrapy the Persian officers lived in a style that they had grown to enjoy in their homeland, even imitating Persian royal architecture, but they readily absorbed and exploited local customs. Generally, they seem not to have been much resented, but any revolts, whether generated by ambitious satraps or the ruled, were crushed.

The Persians knew how to run an empire peacefully, although they were ruthless with dissent. Their new subject Greeks in Anatolia seemed not too dissatisfied. Cyrus had started the expansion west – first Babylonia, then much farther off subduing Croesus in Lydia, where he met the Greeks. The native kingdoms of Anatolia (Lydia, Phrygia, Caria, Lycia) succumbed and lost much of their identity as a result. Royal roads were built across continents to knit the empire, and administration from Persia meant a busy exchange of letters, together with the eastern practice of sealing them. The Greeks were literate and numerate, quite ready to serve such new masters, as we shall see.

But Persian expansion was halted short of the Greek mainland. In the early 5th century Darius sent an army to subdue Greece, and while there were several Greek states (indeed, a majority) ready enough to serve or exploit a new master, the Athenians were not. At Marathon (490 BC) the Persians learnt that they were up against a ‘free’ people whose way of life and techniques of warfare were not easily overwhelmed by mere numbers, and that their rugged love of freedom could even at times outdo their readiness to seek profit. In 480 BC Darius’ successor, Xerxes, sent another army, over two years, via north Greece. As the poet A.E. Housman put it, ‘Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air. And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning. The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair’. Although Xerxes swept past the Spartans at Thermopylae and took Athens, eventually his forces were sent back from the embattled waters of Salamis and the fields of Plataea, and the Persians decided that they might as well leave mainland Greece alone: a poor country anyway, troublesome, no real threat, not immediately accessible by land and easier to manage with Persian gold. So the Greeks reverted to fighting each other, inventing a fairly low-level democracy in Athens, where wealth could be flaunted readily only in the service of the state (financing the theatre or the navy), and flirting with Persian gold from the other side of the Aegean Sea when and as it suited them and the Persians. The Athenians kept up some pressure on Persia on the coast of Asia Minor, even defeating a Persian force at the battle of the Eurymedon (see below), but there was to be no further major confrontation and the Greeks came to contribute much to the culture of ‘Greco-Persian’ Asia Minor, with Lydia now out of the way, as we shall see. The archaeology and the art of the area (plus Herodotus) are a good corrective to the rather triumphalist attitudes of most Greek writers. The repulse of the Persians was indeed heroic, but rather a sideshow for world history until a non-Greek thought to avenge it.

Greeks in the Persian Empire

Herodotus, ‘the Father of History’, was born in Halicarnassus, towards the south of the west Anatolian coastline. He came from a family with literary pretensions, with names suggesting that he was of mixed Greek and Carian blood. He was born around the 480sBC, a vassal of the Persian Empire, although he seems to have stayed little at home, living for periods in Samos, Athens and south Italy, but also travelling extensively throughout the Persian Empire. He must have known Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, and when he says that all Persian names end in s, this applies only to Aramaic and Greek, not Old Persian (probably little spoken outside the homeland). He wrote his History so that ‘the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians should not lose their due meed of glory, and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud’. So he explores the background – largely mythical – to Greco-oriental relations, and significantly begins with Croesus, as have we, going on both to describe the ‘Persian Wars’ in Greece, and the Persians, their empire and its neighbours. While writing what was in its way a panegyric to Greek arms he was no less critical of much Greek behaviour, and he was equally able to recognize the merit of many Persian customs. Otherwise he was a vigorous collector of anecdotes, but critical of them (for his day, remarkably so), and with a deep curiosity about the way the non-Greek peoples behaved. There are those who believe that he invented too much. I think we might, with hindsight, conclude that he sometimes believed too readily, but his reporting has proved most accurate, wherever we have other sources to check, and these range over archaeology, other Greek writers, and even a Chinese historian.38 He often reports ‘what others say’ without admitting whether he believes them or not. Herodotus is not our only written source for Greeks in the east but he is a witness of inestimable value.

Another witness, Xenophon, actually served the Persians and gives us a fine insight on Persian manners. He was a young Athenian aristocrat born about 428/7 BC, and a familiar of Socrates. He left Athens in 401 and joined the army of the Persian prince, the younger Cyrus, who coveted the throne, and he gave an account (his Anabasis) of Cyrus’ unsuccessful expedition against his brother Artaxerxes in Asia Minor. But he greatly admired the Persians and wrote an account (Cyropaedia) of the education of Cyrus the Elder, founder of the empire, treating him as a model hero. It is quite fictional but it reveals what Xenophon admired in Persian royalty, the sense of honour and discipline which we once associated with the public schoolboy serving his family and country (‘Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton’). In a way they stood at odds with Greek behaviour.

We have had reason already to look at Greeks and Lydians, and there is much more to tell of Greek fortunes in Anatolia under the Persians. The area was to continue to be the site for battles which we might regard as aftermaths of the Persian invasion, and often (we are told by Greeks) with some Greek success, as at Eurymedon, on the south coast, where, in about 467 BC, the Athenian general Kimon beat the Persians first at sea, then on land. But we can hardly regard this as more than a gesture, or doubt that, on foreign soil, it would have been unlikely that a Greek army could have dealt with an imperial Persian one.

Persian satrapies in Asia Minor seem to have encouraged even more infiltration of Greeks and Greek ways than had the kings of Lydia. Art, archaeology and the economic record tell the story. One product is a form of sub-archaic art which was practised while the Greek homeland was busy developing new ‘Classical’ styles, but which suited both the old Anatolian traditions and the new imperial arts of Persia, themselves in Greek terms ‘sub-archaic’ as we shall see.39 Thus, metalwork closely reflects older Anatolian and Persian shapes and patterns, but it may be that the common use of figure and animal decoration as well as or instead of the traditional flutes, lobes and florals, had something to do with Greek preference for the figure-decorated. Animal-frieze decoration, often on small silver vessels and in a fine linear-incised style, lingers here longer than in the homeland and in a still broadly archaic style [8].40 Here and there an animal form is rendered in a relaxed Greek manner without the formal eastern patterning.41Certainly, even some Greek floral inventions, ultimately derived from the east, returned to decorate eastern objects.42

Seal engraving is a sensitive art in this area, since the Persians were great bureaucrats, and letters flew throughout the empire along the new roads, in the form of clay impressed tablets each sealed with the sender’s device – generally from a cylinder seal or, especially in the west, a stamp seal of Babylonian type (‘pyramidal’). The latter seems notably current in Anatolia and several have been found bearing Lydian or Phrygian inscriptions (not Greek but in scripts derived from the Greek). The figure devices are mainly of the expected Persian imperial type – kings, gods and monsters – but some are in a more Greek archaic style and probably thereby betray the hands of their makers; they carry more realistic animal forms or ‘Greek’ goddesses with animals [9]. Many feature small linear devices, presumably personal badges, closely related to those seen designating (we think) construction workmen or teams in the Persian palaces, and related to other eastern practices – such as horse-branding with ‘tamga’ symbols, and the like.43

8 Silver alabastron from Usak, with animals and fighting scenes.

9 Impression from a chalcedony seal showing a ‘Mistress of Animals’ in Greek style. (Bowdoin College 484. After GGFR. W. 20 mm)

The homeland Greek engravers, notably in Ionian areas, whether or not under the Persian yoke, had been turning towards a new seal shape – the ‘scaraboid’ – also derived from Babylonia, with a plain domed back, less archaic decorative detail (like borders), certainly without any scarab-beetle detailing of the back, and larger. They appear throughout the ‘Persian period’, and beyond, and accommodate some remarkable studies, even approaching portraiture for heads, but were especially concerned with animal subjects. A very large class of these seals has been identified as ‘Greco-Persian’ and their original home is likely to have been Anatolia and the artists mainly Greek or certainly Greek-trained.44 They were widely distributed, some found even in Italy but also, especially in later versions, into Central Asia and as far away as Ceylon, after the fall of the empire. Those of imperial Persian date carry some purely Persian subjects, but often with a Greek inspiration since they may depict the Persians and their women at play, even love-making, or relaxing in a family setting, scenes never encountered in the imperial arts of Persia but common in the Greek world [10]. A few have purely Greek subjects but, in details of their iconography, are ‘foreign’, so probably designed far from the Aegean [11]. Most have brilliant animal studies [12, 13]. While the Greek inspiration is clear for the most lifelike of them, on others, for both animal and human figures, the technique is generally less realistic than the Greek; and more use is made of the decorative properties of drill work, long a feature of eastern seal-engraving, but which the Greek artist regularly disguised. So we have here a marriage of styles and techniques, but producing a range of motifs that goes far beyond the usual eastern repertoires. There can be no doubt that it was the presence and influence of Greek artists in Anatolia that accounts for this wave of Hellenic taste in western Persian satrapies. Cognate is the art of the engraver of dies for coins, and coinage was yet another of the Anatolian Greek gifts to the east. The designs for coins progressed from the archaic to the full classical, including portraiture (and in the east possibly sooner than in the homeland), and the result is the production of Greek-style coinage for the Persian subjects. This may bear portraits of Persian satraps [14], or the king himself adopting the pose of an Apollo testing his arrow [15] – a subject with a long eastern history (cf. ill. 51). At home, more often, the Great King of Persia is rendered in traditional pose and style [16].45 On the great Nereid Monument from Xanthos in Lycia the local king is shown dressed as a Persian, seated under an umbrella, greeting two Greek-clad Greeks.46

10 Impression from a blue chalcedony scaraboid seal showing a Persian being served unguent by a woman. (Later inscription, from the Koran). (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum 1921.2. W. 24 mm)

11 Impression from a blue chalcedony scaraboid seal from the Punjab showing Herakles stepping over a dead lion to receive a jug from a nymph. 5th cent. BC. (London, British Museum, Walters no. 524. W. 35 mm)

12 Impression from a chalcedony scaraboid seal showing a Bactrian camel. (London, British Museum, Walters no. 547. W. 33 mm)

13 Blue chalcedony scaraboid seal showing a hyena. (Malibu, Getty Museum. H. 25 mm)

A genre poorly represented for the period either in Greece or Persia is painting. There are several painted chamber tombs in Anatolia, mainly in the northwest or southwest (Lycia), rendered in a style which blends sub-archaic Greek and oriental as effectively as do the seals. The wooden built-tomb types are in the traditional Lydian/Phrygian style and offer on their painted walls subjects ranging from Greek myth to scenes of Persians fighting ‘natives’. To this extent the figures and their dress are often Persian, and their behaviour a mixture of Greek (the reclining symposium), but also closer to Greek archaic (like the horseman and griffin [PL. IV]).47 By the same token there are stone grave reliefs, notably on four-sided monuments, including one where a king is saluted and Harpies carry souls [17],48 as well as many for the nobles of the native kingdoms, where the Persian is barely perceptible and the Greek is strangely translated into a rather indefinable native idiom, especially in Lycia. These have a distinguished Hellenistic succession.49 Otherwise, in architecture and sculpture, the Greek cities of the coast make no concessions to new rulers or neighbours, and new big classical temples were being built. At Halicarnassus, Herodotus’ birthplace, the Carian king Mausolos, a Persian vassal, had built for himself a tomb of oriental aspect with a pyramid atop, but decorated by the finest Greek sculptors of the day, even if not by the galaxy of names invented for the tradition [18].50 The ‘Hippodamian’ plan for cities with a regular grid of streets, typified at Miletus, would make more sense in the east for ‘new’ cities than in the Greece of earlier years, where the cities ‘grew’ from villages. At Daskyleion the satrapal palace seems to have been designed by Greek architects.51

14 Silver coin of Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap, inscribed BAS (‘of the king’?). About 400 BC. (London, British Museum)

15 Silver coin of Datames, Persian satrap of Tarsus, with the king testing an arrow. 378–372 BC. (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum)

16 Gold ‘Daric’ coin showing the king running. 4th cent. BC. (London, British Museum)

17 Relief from the ‘Harpy Tomb’ at Xanthos. The king receives a helmet, harpies at either side. (London, British Museum B287. H. 102 cm)

18 Reconstruction of the Tomb of Mausolos at Halicarnassus. (Drawn by Peter Jackson)

Before turning to Greek fortunes in other areas of the Persian Empire it is worth reflecting briefly on their status in Anatolia. In early days they had been simply shore-dwellers of relatively little concern to the mainland powers, whose interests were either landlocked or directed to the east. With Croesus the Lydians began to take a very active interest in their Greek neighbours. Their earlier sack of Greek Smyrna showed that they already in some way regarded them as vassals but sharing a culture which was by no means passive – and the interaction produced the first coinage (in the modern sense). Whatever allegiance these eastern Greeks still felt towards the western ‘homeland’, Olympia and Delphi (there was some measure of Greek religious unity to appeal to, none political), they were no less involved and indebted to their neighbours. It could be argued that Ionian fortunes in the second half of the 6th century BC were largely dependent on Lydian patronage or at least goodwill.52 Croesus helped pay for (or perhaps paid wholly for) the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, dedicated to a goddess who could very easily be regarded as eastern and was portrayed as such. When Persia takes over in Lydia the goddess remains the focus for the Anatolian population, and is mentioned as beneficiary in the Aramaic inscriptions on tomb monuments erected for ‘native Anatolian’ vassals of the Great King, and decorated in that quaint amalgam of Greek, Lydian and oriental styles which we have remarked already. However much Greek homelanders still regarded their Ionian kin as pure Greek (remember, there was never a united ‘Greek nation’ as such, but the bond of language and religion counted for a great deal), it is likely that the Greeks of Anatolia could easily take a more detached attitude, no little conditioned by the fact that many of them were paying taxes to Persian courts or being lucratively employed by them. These too were the folk who were being recruited to work in Persia, even to join a Persian army, and however consciously Greek they were, not least in language, they represent a powerful and influential orientalized Hellenic culture that would prove to be the principal guardian of the Greek heritage in arts, thought and administration, however much the cultural and religious appeal of Athens, Sparta, Olympia and Delphi was still acknowledged. Artemis of Ephesus and Apollo of Didyma were no lesser focuses for their Greekness. But, as we have seen, Artemis was already something of an easterner and both Artemis and Apollo had also served non-Greek religious needs. The Persians had destroyed the temple of Apollo at Didyma and carried off the cult statue (a time-honoured eastern demonstration of control). The Greeks had to guard and propagate their values in the east without Macedonian help, but these were very much the values of semi-orientalized Greeks of Anatolia.53

Elsewhere in the Persian Empire, to the south, in Phoenicia, we encounter one of the more remarkable phenomena of the Persians and their subjects and their relationship to Greek arts and artists. Coinage, inevitably, reflected Greece, and both Athenian ‘owl’ coins and Aeginetan ‘turtles’ were imitated.54 The Persians generally did not interfere with local dynasties or their leaders, so long as it was clear who was in charge and tribute was paid. At Sidon especially a type of marble anthropoid sarcophagus had been adopted, based on Egyptian forms as was so much in Phoenicia, over centuries, but with the heads modelled in a manner soon determined by Greek art rather than anything local.55 Another sarcophagus type, figure-decorated and of rectangular form, was a rarity in the Greek world, but there is a late archaic example in northwest Anatolia (the Troad), where a local Greek prince, but perhaps a Persian vassal, was possibly emulating the great Achilles whose tomb (really Lydian) was still shown there and was receiving attention.56 This sarcophagus type was adopted in Cyprus, and by the kings of Sidon in Phoenicia. Inspiration and workmanship are almost wholly Greek, except for the earliest (the ‘Satrap Sarcophagus’), which betrays something of eastern taste, rather reminiscent of the graecizing works of Cyprus. Soon pure classicism prevails, both for sarcophagi and cult reliefs. The culmination, coming just after the overthrow of the Persian Empire, is the ‘Alexander Sarcophagus’ [PL. III], a masterpiece of pure Greek style, but where the Greek artist has well reproduced a Persian royal audience scene in paint on the interior of the shield of one of the Persians shown fighting Greeks.57 This suggests some first-hand knowledge of monuments in Persia itself, to which we now turn.

From their western expeditions the Persians had brought back Greek hostages and prisoners, many of whom they settled in Bactria, south of the River Oxus, an area of which Greeks seemed to have had knowledge from an early date and where they placed the home of one of their gods, Dionysos. There is historical record of a Greek (Sicilian) doctor working at the Persian court, one of the record tablets at Persepolis was inscribed in Greek, and Greeks name themselves in graffiti in the quarries of Persepolis.58 More to the point, Greek-style figure graffiti appear on Persepolis monuments, not for display but as artists’ ‘doodles’ which would be covered by paint [19], and there is even a small stone panel decorated (for painting) with a Greek myth subject in Greek style [20].59This evidence for Greek artisans and artists in Persia is enhanced one-hundred fold when we look at the architecture and sculpture of the new empire. The sites are revealing. Ecbatana, an old capital, as yet yields little but for a stone lion, early Hellenistic Greek rather than Mesopotamian in style. Pasargadae was an early centre and was the site of the tomb of Cyrus himself, a gabled building on tall steps, with Greek architectural mouldings at the top of its walls [21], and with parallels in Greek Asia Minor and on Thasos in the north Aegean.60 At the same site are buildings whose columns, with their flutes and turned bases, would not have looked out of place in any Ionian Greek city [22] and are quite foreign to a country where decorative stone architecture was totally unknown.61 The relief sculpture is formal, owing much still to eastern practices (though not practices in Persia, which was innocent of such) but with disposition of dress folds in splaying patterns that copy Greek archaic art of after the mid-6th century, while here and there the body carving is so elegantly naturalistic as to be paralleled only in Greece [23]62 – totally unlike the heavier patterned forms of the Near East, as in Assyria. There must be Greek hands here. The styles are those which had been met by Cyrus and his court in the Greek cities of Anatolia, and we may imagine that he brought back with him artists and craftsmen in a deliberate attempt to create for his new empire an architectural tradition of its own. Darius completes the project

19 Fragment of a statue from Persepolis bearing a Greek graffito study of a head. (New York, Metropolitan Museum 45.11.17. L. 15.2 cm)

20 Fragment of a stone plaque figuring Herakles, Apollo and Artemis from Persepolis. (H. 13 cm. After PW)

21 The tomb of Cyrus (died 530 BC) at Pasargadae. (Photo, author) repeating the same graecized forms, at Susa and Persepolis.

22 Column bases of Palace P at Pasargadae. Late 6th cent. BC. (Photo, author)

23 Feet from a relief in Palace S at Pasargadae. Late 6th cent. BC. (Photo, author)

Darius’ ‘Foundation Charter’ for Susa lists the places in the empire from which he got materials and labour: ‘The men who wrought the stone, they were Ionians and Sardians. The men who wrought the gold, they were Medes and Egyptians. And the men who worked on the wood, they were Sardians and Egyptians. The men who worked on the baked brick, they were Babylonians. And the men who adorned the wall, they were Medes and Egyptians’. So this was a construction programme which recruited the styles and skills of the whole empire, and for what we see most of – the ‘stone’ – Ionians and Sardians (Lydians) are named.63

After Pasargadae the other major imperial cities are Susa and Persepolis, the latter built on a new site. The name Persepolis was only applied after it fell to Alexander; the Greeks knew it as Persai. Susa was at least as impressive, but on an old Elamite site and somewhat less completely known (but long studied by French archaeologists and with a large selection of its architectural and decorative arts visible in the Louvre).64 What appears to have happened in the early 5th century was that a team of artists, probably at the behest of Darius himself, devised architectural and sculptural plans, details and forms which were to dictate the appearance of monumental Persian art until the end of the empire. The sources were largely Greek but with much also from other areas of the empire, the architectural arts of Egypt (some capital forms, the cavetto moulding and glazed decoration – for which there was a more remote Elamite precedent), and Mesopotamia (not architecture or style but the physical forms of royal and divine male heads and some monsters). Building plans tended to the hypostyle – a sea of columns for broad buildings – for which a precedent might be found in the supports for ambitious nomad tentage in Central Asia but which, rendered in stone, resemble rather more Egypt and the deep colonnades of Greek temples, as at Ephesus. The use of carved stone for such architectural elements is a first for Persia. The columns are fluted in the Greek manner, their capitals with both Greek and Egyptian mouldings, as well as some borrowed from furniture, making for a more top-heavy appearance than that apparent in the Greek world, though not unlike Egypt. The bases present a medley of Greek and oriental decorative forms [24]. They were to support a flat ceiling of wooden beams, so the overall aspect of any Persian capital was quite unlike that of any Greek town or sanctuary.

There is plentiful use everywhere of the Greek carved ovolo (‘egg-and-dart’) and related mouldings (‘bead-and-reel’). The human figures adopt the late archaic Greek style of splaying dress, even when it sometimes contradicts the non-Greek all-over patterns of colour, as on the Susa soldiers [PL. V] where the overlying geometric pattern contradicts the realistic, graecizing carving beneath. We have remarked how the presence and use of foreign craftsmen is attested by Darius’ ‘Foundation Charter’ inscription found at Susa, which names the sources of materials and craftsmen from all over his empire. A nice example is a statue of Darius himself [25], of Egyptian stone and once set up in Egypt, but taken in antiquity to Susa, where he is shown in Greek-style dress, but four-square and with a back-pillar in the Egyptian manner, with Egyptian and cuneiform (Persian) texts and illustration of subject peoples in the Egyptian manner. His head, missing, was most probably more Mesopotamian in aspect.65 Similar graecizing folds appear in the dress of a fragmentary stone statue of a woman from Susa.66

24 Base from the Apadana at Persepolis. 5th cent. BC. (Photo, author)

What is remarkable, and totally at variance otherwise with the development of Greek art, which through the 5th century BC rapidly moved on to the full ‘classical’ style, is that in Persia the conventions agreed and invented in the early 5th century and most fully displayed at Persepolis remained virtually unchanged – presumably deliberately so – except in trivial detail, to the end of the empire, by which time Greek art was moving on from the pure classical into the Hellenistic. Thus, by around 460 BC, Greek artists were already abandoning the geometry of late archaic folded dress; a good example is the marble statue of ‘Penelope’ at Persepolis, presumably there as either loot or a gift [PL. VI].67 These developments, which depended on a radically different approach to representation and were abetted by new techniques, notably in bronzework, were studiously ignored in Persia, although not in their empire. In a way they mirror other manifestations of the Greek way of life, the importance of the individual, even democratic values, of little concern to imperial Persia. And there are other Greek and foreign objects in Persia, also acquired by conquest or as gifts from the vassal states whose servants are seen in procession on the Persepolis reliefs with their token gifts of tribute in their hands, or supporting the royal throne. Minor works in ivory also often bear a very Greek stamp and may have been made by Greeks, including part of an ivory rhyton with a siren and palmettes.68 The Persians were not much respecters of foreign persons but their artists were often open to influences from foreign arts. And Greeks – craftsmen, scribes, doctors, workmen, slaves – became a familiar presence alongside the permitted immigrants from other areas of the empire.

25 Statue of Darius from Susa (once in Egypt). (Teheran Museum)

The view from home

Greece had escaped physical domination by the Persians, except along the coast of Anatolia. However, their awareness of the arts and behaviour of the easterner, Persians included, was heightened. It is possible to overestimate this effect since it manifested itself most in attitudes, such as that towards and in favour of luxury products, which might easily have happened in other ways, and had partly already through contact with the Lydians. Moreover, Greek artists had long been accustomed to copying, even if only in details, eastern decorative forms and shapes. Thus, although there are several ‘Persian’ features adopted for Athenian pottery they represent a very tiny proportion of the production overall. The basic shapes of clay cups used in Athens were essentially eastern metal forms to which the Greeks had added feet and handles, a mode preferred in the west while the east used smaller handleless cups, as we have already observed. Certainly Persian wealth counted for no little and Greek states courted the Persians for this reason. Upper classes may have aped some Persian manners in the dining room and on the hunting field. But on the ground little changed. A few oriental items of dress had a short vogue – sleeved jackets (the kandys) and the like – and Persian decorative schemes are seen on some monuments where we may be sure that there was some direct connection with Persian influence or patronage. Thus, from north Greece are ivory relief plaques showing Persians as in a Greek court and at a Greek symposium.69 Of the Persian invasions of Greece no real trace remained beyond the ruined buildings and walls that had to be rebuilt. There were no great Persian cemeteries – after the battle of Marathon the bodies of the Persian dead were thrown into a pit.70

There are more unusual monuments to Greek and Persian relations revealed in the commonest preserved medium for figure representations in the Greek world of this period – vase painting. There are several 5th-century scenes of Greeks fighting Persians, and some of Persians alone where they are regularly depicted as almost comic figures, even the butt of obscenity [PL. IX].71 This is no more than we might expect in a popular art practised for a population whose main experience of the Persians was as repelled invaders and which probably exaggerated the scope of their success. But there are also some special products and painters with unusual interests.

One Athenian vase painter, Xenophantos, made an elaborate relief vase in about 400 BC, apparently aimed at the Greco-Persian market in the Black Sea area. It was found in the Crimea and was just possibly even made there. It shows Persian princes hunting monsters in a totally Greek manner, but for the costumes, some weapons and the monsters themselves. This would have made sense only in a very persianized Greek environment and we have no reason to think that Persians were much taken by Athenian red-figure vases. The protagonists are named, some Greek, others historical Persians, princes and satraps, so the whole is an idealized statement of aristocratic Persian and Greek behaviour in a near-supernatural setting [26].72

26 Relief/red-figure jug by the Athenian Xenophantos showing Persians attacking griffins, from Kerch, Crimea. (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, St 1790. H. 38 cm)

27 Drawing of the decoration on a (Greek) South Italian crater showing the court of the Persian King Darius. (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, St 1790)

Farther off, in southern Italy, Greek vase painters had established an important school in Apulia, and in the mid- and later 4th century there were in it artists displaying a peculiar interest in and knowledge of the affairs of Greeks and Persians in the east. It is not easy to find an explanation for the phenomenon, presumably personal, a product of informed travel and observation. From one of them we have our only plausible ‘portrait’ of the Persian imperial court and Greco-Persian relations, and one very different from the formal Persian presentation of such occasions, since these had a special message. There are several that seem to reflect, even in details of iconography, battles of Alexander’s Greeks and Persians, but the Darius Painter’s name vase [27] becomes yet more explicit. In its upper register we have a purely Greek scene in which the history of the period is depicted in a form of divine allegory. A personification of Greece is being led into the presence of Zeus and Athena, while a personification of Asia is being enticed from sanctuary by a demon. Below is the Persian court at Persepolis (‘Persai’), as never shown so realistically in this or other guise in Greek or Persian art. A messenger in mixed Greco-oriental garb is haranguing Darius, perhaps warning him of impending threats from the west, and the courtiers are dressed, some as Persians, some partly as Greeks, and so presumably from the western satrapies. Worried Persian subjects appeal to the King from below right, and below left is a view of tribute being brought into the royal treasury and accounted by a Greek clerk.73

The view from Homeric heritage

Whatever of historicity is deemed to be contained in the Homeric poems about the Trojan War and its aftermath depends no little on the interpretation of Hittite texts which might reveal conflict and that certainly attest what we know from archaeology, that Greek cities were established on the Asia Minor coast in the Bronze Age. When we come to the confrontation with the Persians the real history, and more importantly the mythological tradition, combine to provide antecedents for the conflict that were probably of considerable importance to Greeks and their attitudes to this threat from the east. Herodotus gives a good account of these attitudes, but we must allow for the fact that, being an Asiatic Greek himself (of Caria), he may have taken a more sensitive view of the issues. ‘According to the Persians best informed in history’, he writes at the start of his History (I.1–5), ‘the Phoenicians began the quarrel.’ They were busy traders in Greece – a fact barely true of the late Bronze Age when the Trojan War was set. The Trojans had kidnapped Io, daughter of Inachos, king of Argos (the prime Mycenaean capital, with Mycenae), and took her to Egypt. Later some Greeks (Herodotus thinks Cretans, who were in fact much exposed to eastern influences in the 9th/8th centuries BC but not, it seems, themselves great travellers) retaliated by carrying off the daughter of the king of Tyre, Europe. Moreover, they went to Aea (Colchis) and carried off the king’s daughter thence as well – she was Medea (of the Jason legend). In the next generation the son of King Priam of Troy, named Alexander (Homer’s Paris), sought revenge by kidnapping Helen, daughter of the king of Sparta, whence the Greek expedition and the siege at Troy. ‘Such is the account which the Persians give of these matters…. Whether the account is true, or whether the matter happened otherwise, I shall not discuss further.’

We may doubt whether this was truly a Persian account rather than, more probably, an Asiatic Greek one. At any rate it provided Greeks with a ready parallel for the Persian Wars and their artists were not slow to equate Trojans of myth history with their new and real eastern enemies, and to depict Trojans as Persians. In the Homeric version the actors are heroic mortals, worked upon by gods and goddesses. In later years mythological reflections of history belong wholly to heroes and gods, as we shall see intermittently in the following chapters, to be brought together as an exceptional and entertaining semi-historical parable discussed in the Epilogue.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!