The Splendor of Ancient Persia

The artistic and cultural exchanges between Iran, Greece and Rome are demonstrated in the artworks they produced.

By Henry Adams

The artistic riches of the Persian Empire, which dominated western Asia for over a thousand years, form the subject of the exhibition “Persia: Ancient Iran and theClassical World” that just opened at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu. It is the second in a series of exhibitions focusing on the different cultures of the classical world.

Relief with a Lion and Bull in Combat, Achaemenid, 359–338 BC. Limestone
Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Photo: Michael Tropea.

If one had to sum up the qualities of ancient Persia in a single word, surely that word would be “splendor,” as is apparent from many of the masterworks on display. Perhaps the major theme of Persian art is the unquestionable authority and divine power of the king—exemplified for example in a polychrome panel that once adorned the Palace of Darius I at Susa, showing two sphinxes with bearded human heads standing beneath a winged disc. The sphinxes are clearly guards and guardians of the ruler, with magical powers that no human should challenge, and the disc above them symbolizes the deity Ahura Mazda—the supreme deity and special protector of the Persian ruler. When confronted with such guardians, it’s clear that it would be unwise to challenge the king’s will.

Notably, the king’s power was not merely spiritual. If we had any doubt of the king’s authority, we would be persuaded to set them aside when we stepped into a Persian palace and were confronted with a long frieze of warriors with feathered headdresses and quivers filled with arrows. The Persian army was the largest and best equipped military force the world had yet seen, and sculpture of his soldiers powerfully reminds us of that fact.

Testifying also to the power of the king are the long line of supplicants that adorned the palace of Xerxes at Persepolis, including one in this exhibition which portrays two gift bearers, one holding a silver bowl, the other a lamb.

Drinking Horn (Rhyton) with the Head of a Gazelle, Sasanian, AD 300–400. Silver with gilding.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.33.

Not least, the overwhelming splendor of the ceremonies of the Persian court can be guessed at from the extraordinary jewelry that survives, several stunning examples of which are in the exhibition. Among my favorites: a golden bracelet with two fierce griffins, who surely protected the wearer; a large, winged lion fashioned from gold that evidently served as a chest ornament; and a glittering gold sword, ornamented with dozens of lions and griffins, which was clearly not used as an actual weapon, but that served as a badge of royal status. Let’s not forget, as well, earrings in gold, inset with precious stones, with finely detailed renderings of the deity Ahura Mazda.

And there are many splendid silver vessels: a drinking horn with a stag; an ewer for pouring wine; and several plates, notably one with a scene of a king hunting rams.

Who were the Persians? Essentially Persian civilization developed from the city-states of the Middle East such as Ur, Babylon and Nineveh—the so-called “Fertile Crescent” that witnessed the earliest development of agriculture. The first great Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, conquered this powerful region, as well as modern Iran and the very prosperous Greek city-states of Caria and Lydia in modern Turkey. Although shortly afterwards, Cyrus himself was killed in a battle in Central Asia, his son Cambyses went on to conquer Egypt, and his grandson Darius expanded the empire further and established a magnificent Capital in Persepolis, in modern-day Iran, which was later completed by his son, Xerxes.

Ewer decorated with female figures, Sasanian, AD 500–650. Silver with gilding.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.118 a-b.

Today it’s common to equate the term “Persia” with the modern nation of Iran, but that’s a bit misleading. Yes, during its first major phase, the Achaemenid period, the capital of the Persian Empire, Persepolis, was in Iran, about 40 miles from modern-day Shiraz, although it moved around a good deal over the next thousand years. But the empire itself was vast, and stretched from India to Greece, and from Afghanistan to Egypt, taking in what are 14 or 15 different countries today, and an expanse from east to west that stretched more than 6,000 miles. When Alexander the Great conquered “the world,” he essentially was conquering the Persian Empire. No empire this large had ever been created before.

As a consequence of holding such as vast territory, the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus, was probably the first potentate who claimed a divine right to rule not just one place but the entire world. But the sheer size of his expanse made this an extremely challenging task. In practice his empire seems to have been a patchwork of outright conquests and of treaties and truces with subordinate states who paid tribute. While different sources give a slightly different count, at its height the Persian Empire comprised between about 24 and 29 different kingdoms, with different cultures and customs and often with different languages. Indeed, for purely practical reasons, the Achaemenid Empire was the first in the Middle East that found it necessary to issue its announcements in more than one tongue.

Art played an important role in the process of maintaining peaceful domination over this enormous landmass with its medley of diverse subject people. The royal palace of Persepolis, in a fashion not unlike the later Palace of Louis XIV at Versailles, was clearly designed to intimidate vassals of the king with its magnificence and splendor and to persuade them to fall into line. Who would dare take up arms against someone with such overwhelming power and wealth?

In fact, the Persians seem to have ruled as much through negotiation and ceremony as actual military force. As opposed to Assyrian leaders, one of whom had himself pictured breakfasting in his garden, with the head of an enemy hanging from a tree, the Persian kings prided themselves not so much for being bloodthirsty as for being fair.

Short Sword (Akinakes), Achaemenid, 465–424 BC. Gold, iron, and wood.
The Wyvern Collection, United Kingdom, 2063.

To be sure, what we know about the Persians from sources aside from their own inscriptions is not always flattering. Much of what we know about the Persians and their history comes from the writings of the Greeks, who were often at war with them, and who often had hostile feelings. The two were culturally at odds. Essentially the Greeks were disorderly, argumentative and democratic, whereas the Persians were more rigidly organized and more hierarchical. The art of the Greek was naturalistic and expressive, that of the Persians somewhat stiffer but also more colorful.

In fact, a central part of the history of Persia is its military and cultural collision with Greece—a collision which was a strange mix of conflict and cooperation. Early in the creation of the Persian Empire, Cyrus conquered the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, and while Persia was unsuccessful in capturing Greek itself, Greek speaking leaders, many of them born in Greece, often served the Persian King. Thus, oddly enough, many of the greatest masterpieces of Greek art were produced within the Persian Empire.

Door Lintel with Lion-Griffins, Parthian, AD 105–115. Limestone.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1932, 32.145 a,b. Image:, CC0.

For example, the monumental tomb of Mausolus, who ruled a province of the Persian empire, contained stone carvings by several of the most famous and innovative Greek sculptors of the day, including Scopas of Paros. A remarkable frieze from this tomb showing a lively contest between Greek soldier and Amazons, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. The agitated movement of the composition, and its intense naturalism, make a dramatic contrast with the solemn, hierarchical character of the procession at Persepolis—and as is typical of Greek art, a culture where athletes exercised stark naked, the male figures are represented naked rather than clothed. So famous did this tomb become, that we still pay a form of tribute to it today when we used the word “mausoleum.”

In addition, along with creating purely Greek forms of art, Greek artists often worked for Persian patrons within distinctly Persian guidelines. For example, an amphora handle in the form of an Ibex in the exhibition, which conforms to the artistic formulas of a Persian rhyton, also has a distinct naturalism and grace of movement that’s clearly Greek, and make it likely that it came from a Greek workshop somewhere on the shores of the Black Sea.

Initially Persia was a greater military power than Greece, but the balance of power shifted around 324 BC when Alexander the Great succeeded his father Philip as ruler of Macedon and began a 10-year series of conquests by which he gained control first of mainland Greece, and shortly afterward, of the entire Persian Empire. His campaigns extended as far as Afghanistan and India, and along the way he founded dozens of Greek cities and colonies over the territories that once had been ruled by Persia, including more than twenty cities named Alexandria after himself.

Earring with Inlays, Achaemenid, late 400s-early 300s BC. Gold with turquoise, lapis lazuli, and cornelian.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Edward J. and Mary S. Holmes Fund, 1971.256. Photograph © 2022 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Alexander died at the early age of 33, and Greek dominance over the Persian Empire was relatively brief, but interestingly, at this point Greek language, culture and art seems to have become a badge of power and prestige, which were carried forward not only by native Greeks but by subject peoples as far east as Afghanistan and India.

In short, along with creating distinctive art forms of its own, the Persian Empire encouraged a sort of cultural exchange that transformed the art and culture of both east and west. Those fearsome Persian griffins that guard the doorways of medieval Italian cathedrals clearly made the long walk from Persepolis before sitting down to rest. Conversely, the statues of Buddha from the kingdom of Gandhara in Pakistan, surely show Greek and Roman influence, and might even be in good part the creations of stone carvers from the Greek colonies in Afghanistan, who migrated a few hundred miles to the southeast. Even the ceramics of Tang China show Persian influence. By ruling over such a large territory, and tying it together into a single political and economic network, the Persians’ initiated a new process of exchange. The multicultural world we live in today is in many ways the product of the Persian Empire, which brought together diverse regions, languages and cultures into a sort of international dialogue that had not existed before.




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