Persia

Art of the Persian Empire

The art of the Persian Empire combined a diversity of styles from other cultures to create a unique Persian style.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the art produced at the beginning of the Persian Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Assyria, ancient Egypt, and Mycenae are three of many cultures whose styles feature in Persian art.
  • Gold and silver objects demonstrate advanced skill in metalworking among artists living in the Persian Empire.
  • Multilingual inscriptions, such as those on a relief of Cyrus the Great, demonstrate the diversity of those living in the Persian Empire.

Key Terms

  • rhyton:A large ceremonial drinking cup fashioned in the shape of an animal’s head.
  • syncretic:Art that bears the style(s), themes, or other attributes of more than one culture.
  • stylized:Art that is not naturalistic but not distorted enough to be abstract.

Persia, centered around present-day Iran, was the site of a vast empire that existed in three general phases. The Achaemenids (550–330 BCE) established the first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, who quickly expanded the empire’s borders. Zoroastrianism , an ancient monotheistic religion, dominated the Persian Empire until Islam supplanted it in the seventh century CE. While the religion was unique, the art of the empire was largely syncretic , combining the styles of diverse conquered and neighboring peoples. The result was a new, unique Persian style.

Map renders the Persian Empire in green. The colored area includes modern-day Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and small portions of Egypt and India.

Early Persian Empire: In the Achaemenid  period, the Persian Empire stretched across a vast swath of the Middle East into northern Africa and southern Europe.

Metalworking

One artistic technique incorporated from other cultures involved the smithing and hammering of gold, possibly adopted from the Medes. The most common surviving metal objects are ceremonial drinking cups called rhyta made of gold and silver. Rhyta were used in prehistoric Aegean and Greek cultures, most notably the Mycenaeans in the sixteenth century BCE. The gold rhyton below, which bears a stylized ram’s head in relief, dates to the Achaemenid period.

Photo depicts a gold cone-shaped drinking cup with a relief of a bull's face and horns.

Gold rhyton (550–330 BCE)

Better known than ceremonial rhyta is the Oxus Treasure, a 180-piece trove of reliefs, figurines , jewelry, and coins made of gold and silver. The treasure is important because it demonstrates the variety of forms in which metal was worked during the early Persian Empire. The gold chariot below demonstrates the precision possible with small sculptures and includes a small votive based on the Egyptian god Bes.

Photo depicts gold figurine of a chariot pulled by three horses. Inside the chariot are a driver and passenger.

Gold chariot from Oxus Treasure, amalgamated from fragments of other objects in the trove

The griffin-headed bracelet also found in the treasure was once inlaid with enamel and precious stones. Once thought to have originated with the ancient Egyptians, the manner of goldsmithing evident in the amulet was later found in Assyrian art. The style of the animals originated with the Scythians, who inhabited the Steppes of Russia.

Photo of a gold cuff-style bracelet with two griffin heads.

Bracelet from the Oxus Treasure: Indentations show where the bracelet once held enamel and stone inlay.

Cyrus the Great

Persian art incorporated not only the styles of conquered peoples but also their languages. A large bas relief representing Cyrus the Great as a four-winged guardian figure proclaims his rank and ethnicity as an Achaemenidian in three languages. The stylized profile pose in which the king stands recalls the dominant Egyptian style of depicting the human body in art.

Photograph depicting bas-relief described above.

Cyrus the Great as a winged guardian figure: This stylized relief of Cyrus borrows from the Egyptian style of depicting the human body and proclaims the king’s ethnicity and rank in three languages.

Cyrus is believed to have died in December 530 BCE and was interred in a tomb that further demonstrates the syncretism of Persian art. The load-bearing tomb, pyramidal-roofed, sits atop a geometric mound that resembles a stepped pyramid of Pre-Dynastic Egypt. Despite the razing of the original city centuries ago, the tomb remains largely intact.

Photo depicts tomb of Cyrus the Great, the lower part is built of stones cut square and was rectangular in form. Above, there was a stone chamber with a roof and a door leading into it. The main decoration on the tomb is a rosette design over the door.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great: Syncretic attributes include the pyramidal base of the tomb.

Art and Architecture of the Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid Empire was known for its eclectic style of art and architecture synthesized from many foreign influences between 550 and 330 BCE.

Learning Objectives

Discuss Achaemenid art and architecture in the Persian Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Achaemenid Empire stretched across western Asia from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon in the west.
  • The quintessential characteristic of Persian art and architecture is its eclectic nature, combining elements of Median, Assyrian, and Asiatic Greek styles .
  • The Achaemenid Persians were particularly skilled at constructing complex frieze reliefs , crafting precious metals, and glazed brick masonry. They also constructed spectacular cities for governance and habitation, temples for worship and social gatherings, and mausoleums honoring fallen kings.
  • The ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire was Persepolis, which preserves the best of ancient Persian architecture. It is best known for its pillared Apadana Hall, decorated with complex sculptural reliefs depicting the king and his subjects.
  • The palace at Persepolis stood for nearly 200 years until it was looted and burned by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

Key Terms

  • hypostyle:Having a roof supported on a row of columns.
  • immortal:A member of an elite regiment of the Persian army.
  • fluted:Having semicylindrical vertical grooves, either for decoration or to trim weight.
  • capital:The topmost part of a column.
  • frieze:Any sculptured or richly ornamented band in a building or, by extension, in rich pieces of furniture.

Ancient Persian art developed and flourished under the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BCE), an Iranian empire in Western Asia, which eventually came to rule the ancient world from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon in the west.

Not only was the Achaemenid Dynasty militarily and politically influential, but it also left a long-lasting social and cultural legacy throughout its vast realms. Among its greatest cultural achievements was the development of Achaemenid art and architecture, which were intimately intertwined, reflected techniques and influences from the many corners of its huge empire, and synthesized different styles to develop a unique Persian style.

Photograph of frieze on the brick wall at the Palace of Darius.

Decorative frieze from the palace of Darius the Great at Susa, ca. 510 BCE: Decorative panels from the terra-cotta griffins’ frieze. The vivid colors were preserved, thanks to the ruins being buried underground and protected from the elements.

The Achaemenid Persians were particularly skilled at constructing complex frieze reliefs; crafting precious metals into jewelry, vessels , statuettes, and a myriad of other shapes; glazed brick masonry; decorating palaces; and creating gardens. They also constructed spectacular cities for governance and habitation, temples for worship and social gatherings, and mausoleums honoring fallen kings. The quintessential characteristic of Persian art and architecture is its eclectic nature, combining elements of Median, Assyrian, and Asiatic Greek styles.

Persepolis

The extraordinary architectural legacy of the Achaemenids is best seen in the ruins of the opulent city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Located about 70 kilometers northeast of the modern Iranian city of Shiraz, Persepolis is a wide, elevated complex 40 feet high, 100 feet wide, and a third of a mile long.

Photo depicts the ruins of Persepolis. It shows a raised foundation with steps on either side. On the foundation, there are various structures that look like doorframes.

Persepolis: A panoramic view of its ruins.

It consists of multiple halls, corridors, a wide terrace, and a symmetrical double stairway providing access to the terrace, decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from nature and daily life. The largest hall in the complex is the audience hall of Apadana. This hypostyle hall has a total of 36 fluted columns with capitals sculpted into unique forms . It famously features the exquisite Treasure Reliefs”—friezes emphasizing the divine presence and power of the king and depicting scenes from all across his vast empire and his army of Persian immortals .

The construction of Persepolis was initiated by Darius I (550–486 BCE), who also commissioned the construction of a grand palace in the city of Susa. The palace featured imperial art on an entirely unprecedented scale. Materials and artists were drawn from all corners of the empire to work on it. Styles, tastes, and motifs intermingled in a lavish expression of the hybrid art and architecture that was characteristic of the Persian Achaemenid style. This attention to diversity also appears in the reliefs from the hall of Apadana, in which leaders and dignitaries from various provinces appear in regional fashions beneath a frieze punctuated by male lamassus adopted from previous Mesopotamian cultures .

Photograph of a relief found inside the ruins of Persepolis.

Relief from Apadana Hall, Persepolis: Features 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume. Note the subtle differences in the clothing and style of the soldiers on each side. The Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots.

The palace at Persepolis stood for nearly 200 years. In 330 BCE, the Macedonian emperor Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) captured the city and allowed his troops to loot the palace. Inscriptions describe a great fire that engulfed “the palace” but do not specify which palace. Scholars believe these writings describe the destruction of Persepolis, based on the condition of the ruins found there. The fire likely started in the living quarters of the former emperor Xerxes I (518–465 BCE) and spread throughout the rest of the city. This event brought an end to the Achaemenid Empire and made Persepolis a Macedonian province.