Ancient History of Iran- Ancient Iran and the Classical World

Ancient History of Iran- Ancient Iran and the Classical World

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Ancient History of Iran- A Glimpse into the Influential Persian Dynasties and Their Connections with Greece and Rome

Ancient Iran, historically recognized as Persia, stood as the predominant force in Western Asia for over twelve centuries. This dominance was orchestrated by three successive native dynasties—the Achaemenid, the Parthian, and the Sasanian—each controlling an empire of remarkable size and intricacy. The latest exhibition in the Getty Museum’s program, The Classical World in Context, delves into the extensive exchanges between ancient Iran Greece, and Rome.

The showcased works provide vibrant insights into political and cultural identities, highlighting the reciprocal influence of these superpowers. The exhibition illustrates how Persia, Greece, and Rome meticulously crafted their self-images, profoundly shaping not only their own identities but also influencing those of their rivals.

Greeks and Achaemenid Persians (547 BC – Early 5th Century BC):

The initial encounter between the Greeks and Achaemenid Persians occurred in 547 BC when Cyrus the Great seized control of western Asia Minor, present-day Turkey, subjecting the Greek cities in the region. Although mainland Greece resisted Achaemenid expansion, it eventually triumphed over a series of invasions in the early fifth century BC.

Alexander the Great and Greek Dominance (334–330 BC):

Responding to years of hostilities and the persistent Persian control of Greek cities in Asia Minor, Alexander the Great led his forces into Asia between 334 and 330 BC. The outcome was the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire, marking more than two centuries of Greek dominance in the region.

Parthian Reclamation and Roman Ascendancy (2nd Century BC – 1st Century BC):

In the second century BC, the Parthians reclaimed territories lost to the Greeks. As the first century BC began, the Romans emerged as the new major force in the Mediterranean, supplanting the Greeks and becoming Persia’s new rival.

Sasanians, Roman Conflicts, and Arab Conquest (AD 224 – AD 651):

In AD 224, the Parthians were overthrown by the Sasanians, another Iranian dynasty. The Sasanians inflicted numerous defeats on the Romans, restoring a balance of power that endured until the Arab conquest in AD 651. This marked a significant chapter in the complex and dynamic interactions between Persia, Greece, and Rome throughout ancient history.

The Achaemenid Empire and its Encounter with the Greeks (550-330 BC)

Cyrus the Great and the Birth of the Achaemenid Empire (559–530 BC): The Persian king Cyrus II, widely hailed by both ancient Greeks and Iranians as a remarkable conqueror and skilled ruler, laid the foundation for the Achaemenid Empire, the largest and most formidable empire of antiquity. Swiftly, he conquered Media, the dominant kingdom in Iran, followed by Lydia, which held sway over Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). His conquests culminated in the acquisition of Babylon, bestowing authority over the majority of the Near East.

Ancient History of Iran- Ancient Iran and the Classical World

Expansion Under Cambyses II and Darius I (530–486 BC): Cyrus’s successor, Cambyses II (ruled 530–522 BC), expanded Persian territory further by adding Egypt to the empire. The zenith of Achaemenid power, however, was reached under Darius I, also known as “the Great” (ruled 522–486 BC). The empire, named after his ancestor Achaemenes, extended its dominion over more than twenty nations, stretching from northern Greece to the borders of India.

Administration and Cultural Synthesis:

Under Darius I, the Achaemenid Empire embraced a unique administrative approach. The conquered lands were organized as semi-autonomous provinces, allowing for the preservation of individual religions and traditions, as long as tribute was paid to the central authority—the king. This multicultural amalgamation played a crucial role in shaping the distinctive court style evident in the art and architecture of grand capitals such as Susa and Persepolis. Darius skillfully drew upon the rich tapestry of diverse cultures within the empire to craft a unique and influential court style that left an indelible mark on the Achaemenid legacy.

Greek Cities and Persian Resistance (499–494 BC): The ancient Greek cities firmly established along the western coast of Asia Minor staunchly resisted Persian demands for submission. In 499–494 BC, a revolt erupted in this region, setting the stage for a series of Persian invasions on the Greek mainland.

Persian Invasions and Greek Triumphs (492, 490, and 480–479 BC): The Persian attempts to assert control led to invasions of the Greek mainland in 492, 490, and a major conflict in 480–479 BC. Despite facing significant odds, the combined forces of Athens, Sparta, and their allies achieved remarkable victories against the much larger Persian armies. These triumphs not only defied expectations but also became a cornerstone of Greek self-identity, fostering a deep sense of pride among the Greeks.

Enduring Hostilities and Greek Contributions to Persia: While hostilities between Greeks and Persians persisted in Asia Minor throughout much of the fifth century BC, an intriguing aspect emerged. Greeks, admired for their skills, were highly valued in the service of the Persian king and his satraps. Whether as soldiers, doctors, or artists, Greeks found a respected place within the Persian realm, showcasing the complex interplay of conflict and collaboration between these two ancient civilizations.

Susa: Darius I’s Achaemenid Palace Complex

Historical Background: During the reign of Achaemenid king Darius I (ruled 522–486 BC), a grand palace complex was constructed at Susa, situated in southwestern Iran. Susa held significance as the ancient capital of the Elamites, who had inhabited the region for over two millennia before becoming vassals of the Persians.

Susa: Darius I's Achaemenid Palace Complex

Architectural Marvel: Similar to Darius’s imperial capital of Persepolis, the palace at Susa became a testament to the synthesis of traditions and techniques from across the vast Achaemenid Empire. This architectural marvel reflected the expansive reach and cultural diversity of the empire. Despite the current state of poor preservation, remnants of the palace’s colorful glazed-brick wall panels have endured.

Trilingual Inscription: A notable discovery at Susa is a trilingual inscription that provides insight into the creation of the complex. The inscription lists rare materials and specialist craftsmen brought from various subject nations to contribute to the construction. This exemplifies the collaborative effort and the utilization of diverse skills from different parts of the empire.

Artistic Flourish: The surviving artifacts from Susa include vibrant glazed-brick wall panels adorned with depictions of lion griffins, royal sphinxes, and rows of palace guards. Skilled artisans from Babylonia, present-day Iraq, where a rich history of working in this medium existed, crafted these images. Despite the Babylonian influence, the artistic elements are distinctly in the new Achaemenid court style, showcasing a fusion of cultural influences in the Achaemenid artistic legacy.

Persepolis: The Majestic Capital of the Achaemenid Empire

Founding and Purpose (518 BC): In 518 BC, Darius I initiated the construction of a new capital, Persepolis, also known as Takht-e Jamshid, located in southwestern Iran. This city was destined to become the ceremonial and courtly nucleus of the Achaemenid Empire, symbolizing the opulence and grandeur of the Persian rulers.

Persepolis: The Majestic Capital of the Achaemenid Empire

Architectural Marvels: Darius and his successors embarked on an ambitious project, creating a monumental city adorned with magnificent palaces, treasuries, and a colossal audience hall known as the Apadana. These structures were strategically placed on an expansive terraced platform, designed to evoke a sense of awe and splendor.

Architectural Marvels

Cultural Diversity in Art: Persepolis became a canvas for brightly painted relief sculptures that depicted the Persian monarch, surrounded by his guards and courtiers. These artistic masterpieces captured moments of the king receiving delegations from various subject peoples, including Medes, Elamites, Babylonians, Lydians, Egyptians, and Greeks, among others. This deliberate composition showcased the diversity of the vast multiethnic empire under the rule of the king, emphasizing unity and submission to the central authority.

Symbolism and Divine Patronage: The meticulously planned artistic representations at Persepolis served to glorify the king as the ruler of this expansive empire, portraying him under the protection of his patron deity, Ahura Mazda. The city’s architectural marvels and artistic embellishments stood as a testament to the Achaemenid rulers’ authority, reflecting both the cultural richness of the empire and its divine connections. Persepolis remains a remarkable archaeological site, providing insights into the political, cultural, and religious dimensions of the Achaemenid Empire.

Achaemenid Luxury Metalwork: Elegance and Symbolism

Regal Banquets and Symbolic Vessels: In the opulent courts of Achaemenid Persia, kings partook in banquets drinking from lavish gold and silver vessels. These exquisite objects went beyond mere utility, doubling as potent symbols of power and prestige. They played a dual role, arriving as tribute from various regions and, in turn, being bestowed as gifts by the king to his esteemed courtiers.

Distinctive Court Style under Darius I: During the reign of Darius I, a distinctive court style emerged in Achaemenid luxury metalwork. Vessels took on characteristic shapes, including the likes of drinking horns and wine jars known as rhyta and amphorae in Greek. These vessels were often adorned with depictions of mythical beasts, contributing to the unique aesthetic of the Achaemenid court.

Shallow Cups and Bowls: The preferred drinking vessels at these regal banquets were shallow cups and bowls, referred to as Phialai. These vessels were not only functional but also objects of artistic expression. Ornamentation featured embossed lobes and stylized floral patterns, enhancing the overall elegance and sophistication of the Achaemenid metalwork.

Cultural Fusion in Design: Achaemenid luxury metalwork reflects a fusion of cultural influences, as these vessels were shaped not only by the skilled craftsmanship of the Persian artisans but also by the artistic inclinations borrowed from diverse regions within the vast empire.

The culmination of Art and Symbolism: Beyond their sheer beauty, these metal vessels carried profound symbolic meaning, embodying the wealth, authority, and cultural richness of the Achaemenid Empire. As vessels of both practical use and symbolic significance, they stand as tangible artifacts, providing a glimpse into the refined tastes and social dynamics of the Achaemenid Persian court.

Gems and Coins: Artistic Signatures of the Western Achaemenid Empire

Semiprecious Stone Seals: Carved personal seals crafted from semiprecious stones played a significant role within the Achaemenid Empire. Widely used as a form of signature, these seals were impressed into clay, leaving behind distinctive marks. Notably, those originating in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) showcased a hybrid Greco-Persian style. The images depicted on these seals often resonated with the tastes of the Achaemenid aristocracy, portraying scenes of warfare and hunting.

Gems and Coins: Artistic Signatures of the Western Achaemenid Empire

Coinage in the Achaemenid Realm: The Lydians introduced coinage in the late seventh century BC, a concept swiftly embraced by the Greeks in the region. While coins did not circulate extensively within Achaemenid Iran, they continued to be minted in Asia Minor under Persian rule. Notably, Carian, Lycian, and Greek cities in the region also issued their coins. Around 500 BC, the Persians introduced a distinctive gold coin featuring the image of the king, a coin that the Greeks would later call a “daric,” named after Darius I.

Portraits of Authority: Achaemenid coins were not only a medium of exchange but also a canvas for artistic expression and political symbolism. The daric, adorned with the image of the king, became a notable example of this fusion. Additionally, other Achaemenid coins portrayed the satraps, the provincial governors who wielded authority over various regions within the empire. These portraits not only served as a representation of power but also reflected the cultural diversity present in the Achaemenid realm.

Cultural Synthesis: The artistic motifs on both seals and coins from the Western Achaemenid Empire reveal a fascinating cultural synthesis. The Greco-Persian blend of seals and the diverse coinage originating from Asia Minor showcase the dynamic interplay of artistic styles and cultural influences within this ancient empire. These gems and coins stand as tangible artifacts, embodying the intricate tapestry of the Achaemenid Empire’s rich and diverse heritage.

Athenian Pottery: Depicting the Aftermath of Achaemenid Wars

Reflections on Victory: In the early fifth century BC, a series of wars marked the victories of the Greeks over the formidable Achaemenid Empire. Athenian pottery from this period serves as a visual record, capturing the prevailing sense of pride and relief felt by the Greeks after these triumphs. The painted images on these vases offer a window into the complex array of emotions and perceptions that characterized the aftermath of these conflicts.

Shifting Perceptions: The painted scenes on Athenian vases showcase a spectrum of shifting perceptions and attitudes towards the defeated Achaemenid Empire. From respect to disparagement, hostility to fascination, these vessels reflect the evolving mindset of the Greeks as they navigated the aftermath of the wars.

Visual Narratives of Conflict: Many Athenian vases depict Greek warriors prevailing over their Persian counterparts. These images portray the Persians either in flight or putting up a formidable fight, capturing the dynamic nature of the conflicts. These visual narratives provide insights into the evolving dynamics of power and the psychological impact of the victories on the Greek psyche.

Portrayal of Persian Life and Culture: Some Athenian vases go beyond depicting military encounters and delve into portraying Persian life and culture. The scenes presented often cast Persian customs as foreign and exotic, showcasing a blend of curiosity and perhaps a sense of cultural superiority.

Influence on Athenian Craftsmanship: Luxury vessels, particularly those of Persian form such as the animal-headed drinking horns (known as rhyta by the Greeks), had a notable impact on Athenian vase makers. The encounter with Persian luxury items left an imprint on Athenian craftsmanship, contributing to a cross-cultural exchange that influenced artistic styles and forms.

Complex Legacy: Athenian pottery from this era, with its varied depictions and influences, reflects the intricate and multifaceted legacy of the conflicts between the Greeks and the Achaemenid Empire. These vessels serve as more than artistic artifacts; they are historical documents embodying the complexities of post-war emotions and cultural exchanges.

Greeks, Romans, and Parthians (330 BC-AD 224): A Tale of Empires and Shifting Powers

Alexander the Great and Seleucid Dynasty (334–281 BC): In a swift military conquest from 334 to 330 BC, Alexander III, “the Great,” claimed victory over the Achaemenid Empire. Portraying himself as the liberator of the Greeks in Asia Minor and the rightful king of Persia, Alexander’s legacy unfolded after he died in 323 BC. His general, Seleucus I, asserted control over Alexander’s eastern territories, establishing the Seleucid Dynasty. For over two centuries, the Seleucid kings governed the vast lands of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran. Seeing themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids, they founded new Greek cities, imprinting Hellenistic Greek culture on the Iranian and local nations.

Greeks, Romans, and Parthians (330 BC-AD 224): A Tale of Empires and Shifting Powers

Rise of Parthia (247 BC): Around 247 BC, Arsaces I founded an independent state in Parthia, northeastern Iran. The subsequent Arsacid rulers expanded their domain at the expense of the Seleucids, eventually controlling all of Iran and a significant portion of Mesopotamia by the mid-second century BC. The Parthian Empire emerged as the dominant force in the Near East, ruling for nearly five centuries and becoming a formidable rival to Rome, the emerging superpower in the Mediterranean.

Parthia vs. Rome: Battlegrounds and Rivalries: The Parthian Empire and Rome frequently clashed in the borderlands of Mesopotamia, creating a dynamic and often contentious relationship. These two superpowers became primary rivals, engaging in geopolitical struggles for supremacy in the region. Mesopotamia emerged as a frequent battleground, witnessing the ebb and flow of power between Parthians and Romans.

Eclectic Parthian Art: Parthian art reflected a rich tapestry of influences, showcasing a highly eclectic style. A blend of Greek, Mesopotamian, Achaemenid Persian, and nomadic Iranian influences converged in Parthian artistic expressions. This amalgamation mirrored the diverse cultural landscape shaped by centuries of conquests, exchanges, and political transformations in the region.

Legacy and Transition (AD 224): The Parthian Empire, a political and cultural force for almost five centuries, faced its eventual decline. In AD 224, the era of the Arsacids came to an end with the overthrow of the Parthian rulers. This marked a significant transition as the political landscape continued to evolve, setting the stage for the subsequent chapters in the history of the Near East.

Parthian Silver: Symbols of Status and Ritualized Banquets

The Parthian aristocracy embraced sumptuous silver wine vessels as potent symbols of status during their ritualized banquets, continuing a courtly tradition adopted from the Achaemenid Persians and further perpetuated by the Seleucid Greeks. Among these vessels, the rhyton, or “flowing vessel” in Greek, took center stage. These ornate drinking horns, terminating with the forepart of a wild animal, had deep roots in Iranian tradition and were especially popular in these ceremonial occasions. While stylistically Greek, the vessels showcased here bear inscriptions on the rims, identifying Parthian owners and reinforcing their connection to this opulent cultural practice.

Iran and Roman Religion: Mithraism and Beyond

During the first three centuries of Roman imperial rule, several new religious cults gained popularity in the Roman Empire. One notable and widespread religion centered on the worship of the solar deity Mithras, derived from the Iranian god Mithra. In this Romanized version, groups of men celebrated elaborate initiation rituals in temples known as Mithraeums, scattered from Britain to Syria.

Iran and Roman Religion: Mithraism and Beyond

The Romans, with a limited understanding of the authentic Iranian tradition, crafted their complex mythology around Mithras, preserved in the images found in the sculptures and paintings within these temples. These depictions typically portray Mithras in Persian attire, heroically sacrificing a heavenly bull. The concept of a creative sacrifice sustaining the cosmos, unique to the Iranian tradition, set Mithraism apart from the Greco-Roman religious landscape.

The Magi in Greek and Roman Perspectives:

The Iranian priests known as the Magi held a longstanding reputation among the Greeks and Romans as possessors of ancient knowledge and advisers to the Persian kings. In the biblical Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are depicted as Eastern scholars who travel from the East to present gifts to the infant Jesus, proclaiming him the king of the Jews. Early Christian art often portrays the Magi in trousers and peaked caps, emphasizing their Eastern origin and underscoring the influence of the Iranian cultural and religious legacy in the broader Greco-Roman world.

Coins and Ornaments: Seleucid and Parthian Treasures

Parthian Coins: Reflections of Authority (circa 247–217 BC): Arsaces I, the inaugural king of Parthia and founder of the Arsacid dynasty around 247–217 BC, initiated a tradition of coin issuance that persisted throughout the Parthian Empire. Following the Seleucid Greek coinage model, Parthian coins consistently featured an image of the reigning monarch on the obverse. Initially influenced by Greek style, these coins portrayed Arsaces I in the attire of a Persian satrap, with Greek inscriptions and the diadem of Greek monarchs. However, as time progressed, the coins evolved, shedding their Greek appearance and adopting a highly stylized form with barely legible inscriptions. This transformation reflected a deliberate shift towards expressing a more distinctly Iranian identity.

Parthian Wealth and Jewelry: The Parthians amassed considerable wealth through lucrative trade networks, and this affluence manifested in the creation of luxurious jewelry adorned with semiprecious stones. Following Greek fashion, garnets were incorporated into their jewelry, while turquoise gained popularity in the regions of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. These ornate pieces not only reflected the Parthians’ economic prosperity but also showcased their affinity for opulence and artistic expression.

Texts from the Empires: Multilingual Challenges (Seleucid and Parthian Empires):

The Seleucid and Parthian rulers grappled with the complexity of governing a vast territory where multiple languages were spoken for various purposes. While Aramaic served as a principal bureaucratic language from the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and Greek language and institutions introduced by the Seleucids persisted under the Parthians, diverse languages continued to be utilized.

 

Elamite was widespread in heartland cities like Persepolis and Susa, ancient temples in Mesopotamia maintained records in Babylonian and Sumerian, and priests continued to use these languages for sacred texts. Clay tablets discovered in temple archives, notably in Babylon and Uruk, revealed a rich tapestry of mathematical, scientific, astronomical, and administrative texts, providing invaluable insights into the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Seleucid and Parthian realms.

The Sasanian Empire and the Romans (AD 224–651): Empires, Alliances, and the Rise of Islam

Ardashir I and the Sasanian Dynasty (AD 224): In AD 224, Ardashir I, hailing from Persis in southwestern Iran, overthrew the Parthian Empire, establishing the Sasanian dynasty that would rule “Ērānshahr”—”the empire of the Iranians”—for over four centuries. The Sasanians crafted a new Iranian identity marked by distinctive royal trappings, splendid art, centralized administration, city foundations, and an assertive military policy. Shapur I, Ardashir’s son, achieved notable victories over the Romans, including the capture of Emperor Valerian in AD 260.

The Sasanian Empire and the Romans (AD 224–651): Empires, Alliances, and the Rise of Islam

Roman and Byzantine Transformations: The Roman Empire, undergoing changes and converting to Christianity in the fourth century, shifted its capital to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey), giving rise to the Byzantine Empire. Despite intermittent conflicts, the Roman and Sasanian empires recognized the benefits of a balance of power and often found common cause in fighting mutual adversaries.

Rise of Islam and the End of the Sasanian Empire (AD 651): The emergence of the Arabs under the banner of Islam marked the demise of the Sasanian Empire in AD 651. The Islamic conquests reshaped the geopolitical landscape, bringing an end to Sasanian political control.

Artistic and Cultural Exchanges: Displays of power and propaganda, including prestigious gifts, flowed between the courts of Iran, Rome, and Constantinople. These exchanges facilitated the mutual influence of artistic styles. Even after the political collapse of Iran, the Sasanian legacy endured was remembered and celebrated in the courts of new Arab rulers and across Central Asia and China through art, poetry, and ceremony.

Sasanian Drinking Vessels: Bazm and Aristocratic Affirmation:

The ritualized drinking party, known as Bazm, served as a symbol of high status for aristocratic men in Sasanian society. Precious metal vessels, including tall ewers, shallow bowls, and drinking horns, were adorned with depictions of animals and scenes symbolizing the pleasures of the feast, affirming the elevated status of the participants.

Sasanian Drinking Vessels: Bazm and Aristocratic Affirmation:

Sasanian Royal Vessels: Regal Gifts and Symbols of Loyalty:

Silver and gold vessels from Sasanian court workshops were prestigious royal gifts, finely crafted with depictions of the king and his family. These vessels symbolized recognition of loyalty and bestowed high status upon the recipients.

The King as Hunter on Sasanian Plates: Symbolism of Invincibility: The image of the Sasanian king as an invincible hunter became a favored decorative motif on silver plates from court workshops. Owning such a plate marked the possessor as someone with a special relationship with the king, conferring great honor.

Greek Myths on Sasanian Plates: Reinterpreting Greek Motifs: Scenes of Greek myth, circulating since Alexander the Great’s conquest, continued to reach the Sasanian royal court from Rome and Constantinople. Sasanian craftsmen reinterpreted these motifs on silver plates, sometimes misunderstanding their original meaning, showcasing a fusion of cultures.

Sasanian Gems, Medallions, and Coins: Stylized Portraits and Symbolic Imagery: Seals carved from semiprecious stones served as signatures, while Sasanian coins in gold, silver, and bronze facilitated trade and taxation. The coins featured stylized portraits of kings, each with a distinctive crown, providing a visual record of Sasanian rulers.

Minority Religions in the Sasanian Empire: Diversity in Faith:


Judaism in Mesopotamia:

Jewish communities in Mesopotamia trace their roots back to the eighth century BC, and their numbers swelled significantly with the influx of exiles from Jerusalem following the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 587 BC. During the Sasanian period, Judaism gained official recognition from the royal authorities. Notably, religious academies, including prominent ones in Nahardea and Pumbedita along the Euphrates River (present-day Iraq), became centers for the formal study of the Talmud, contributing to the preservation and development of Jewish scholarship.

Christianity’s Early Presence in Mesopotamia:

Christianity established an early presence in Mesopotamia, evident with the presence of around twenty bishops in the region by the beginning of the Sasanian period. The fourth-century conversion of the Roman Empire, as well as Armenia and Georgia, to Christianity, led to tensions for Sasanian Christians. Authorities suspected disloyalty, resulting in conflicts. However, under the enlightened rule of Yazdgird I in AD 410, Christianity received official sanctioning, marking a turning point in the status of Christians in the Sasanian Empire.

Christianity's Early Presence in Mesopotamia:

Manichaeism’s Emergence and Spread:

Around AD 240, Babylonian doctor Mani introduced Manichaeism, a religion aiming to unite teachings from Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and other faiths. Manichaeism’s doctrine emphasized a stark division between the realms of light and darkness.

The religion propagated a rigorous behavioral code, encouraging individuals to align with the forces of light and goodness. With an organized hierarchy of bishops and presbyters employing illustrated books of Mani’s teachings, the religion rapidly spread. While Mani found favor in the Sasanian royal court for a time, his eventual fall from grace resulted in his execution in AD 274 or 277. Persian-speaking disciples later carried Manichaeism to Central Asia and China, where it found enduring success.

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