‘Forgotten Empire: the world of ancient Persia’

Forgotten Empire is an exhibition at the British Museum of artefacts from ancient Persia. They’ve got together with the National Museum of Iran, the Persepolis Museum and the Louvre, so it’s a rare opportunity to see a lot of the objects. The title and a lot of the hype emphasise how little most of us know about the Persians compared to their contemporaries in Greece; and by implication the exhibition is supposed to act as a corrective. The period covered is about 500-300 BC; i.e. about between the golden age of Athens and the conquest of Persia by Alexander.

I was certainly persuaded that the Persian empire was impressively rich and powerful. The palace at Persepolis had columns 20m tall, apparently. That’s about the height of a seven-storey building. But the stuff in the exhibition was all relentlessly about power and wealth. It was all decorated in macho emblems – bulls, lions, sphinxes, war chariots. All the palaces seem to have been covered in endless friezes of people bringing tributes to the Persian king; everything was ostentatious, in your face. Not an easy culture to warm to, even if individual objects were attractive.

The implied comparison with Greece didn’t really work in the Persian’s favour. I wouldn’t want to buy whole-heartedly into the Greeks’ assessment that they were civilised and the Persians were barbarians; even I know enough about Greek history to know they were capable of being aggressive, ruthless, power-hungry and greedy themselves. But I look at the Greek civilisation and my idea of it is tinted by Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Sappho and Sophocles. No doubt there were great ancient Persian poets and thinkers, but I don’t know about them, and without that knowledge all I can see is the physical evidence of a megalomaniac culture. And in fact, aesthetically the classical stuff is more pleasing. The Persian figures are all very stylised and stiff, repetitive in the way Egyptian or Assyrian figures are, and wandering from the exhibition to the Parthenon sculptures, I was struck anew by how much more naturalistic and varied and fluid they are. Classical sculpture has become a bit of a visual cliché over the past two thousand years, but it looks pretty remarkable compared to a lot of the earlier traditions.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that my lack of enthusiasm is purely based on an idea of the Persians as imperialist megalomaniacs compared to the (somewhat) democratic Greeks. I’ve been very impressed by work from other cultures which seem equally megalomaniac, like the Egyptians and the Aztecs. The Persians just seem to lack visual pizazz, somehow.

7 Comments

  1. Messalina
    19 September 2005 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Harry – I didn’t know it was going on.

    I too only know a little about the Persian empire via the Greeks but just wanted to mention Thucydides who you left off your list of Greek sources. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ but if not, he is a totally different deal to Herodotus with his ‘stories’ and meanderings. I found Rex Warner’s (Penguin Classics) translation very readable and got a whole new take on the Classical Greeks as well as a very enjoyable glimpse at the Spartans in particular. If you don’t already know the book, it is well worth the read – if only to enjoy Thucydides’ dry sarcastic tone, which is a real pleasure!

  2. Harry
    19 September 2005 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Embarrassing to admit – I know I’ve read *some* Greek history, but can’t remember whose. I’m not much of a classicist, really – I’ve read quite a few things over the years but my reading tends to be random and patchy.

  3. Caligila
    25 March 2006 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Between you and I; I really feel the art of ancient Greece was more appealing than that of Persia` s; nevertheless, two things must be kept in mind. One; the Persians were such a big wave that not only they influence and triggered Greece’s culture, but they themselves gave the world many enduring contributions such as, proper etiquette which included honesty, kissing one another during greeting, introducing and wearing trousers, not allowing public nudity, and other gifts to humanity such as being g the saviour and protector of the Jews, tolerance for all other cultures, the first notion of internationalism, inventions of the first highways, courier post, governmental administrations like having governors, introducing Satan, angels and demons, and possibly even the first monotheistic religion to the world. Indeed, Herodotus himself wrote the Persians teach their children two things; to ride horses and shoot arrows, and to tell the truth. Family values were of paramount importance, and the love between a man and a woman was the only accepted courtship: homosexuality was almost unheard of. Even Alexander himself succumbed to this culture, and was despised by the Greeks because of it.

    Compare that to the idle worshipping, homosexual society of Greece, who’s so called Democracy murdered Socrates for telling the truth. Because of Persia` s culture and wealth, the Greeks were green with envy, yet, it was this power–Persia–that single handedly dominated Greek imagination, not only inspiring them, but also via competition forcing them to greatness as well. Alexander the Great in known as one of the history’s greatest Generals, but Cyrus the Great is known as one its biggest heroes. He is almost worshipped as a saint by the Jews. The megalomaniacs who you speak are, are the decedents, sexual sadists, idle-worshipping, inhumane tyrants of Rome. Indeed as Persia’s religion, Zoroastrianism thought the Empire; the world is involved in a fight between the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness. And, the forces of darkness were the Evil Empire that was Rome, not Persia.

  4. Harry
    25 March 2006 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Oh, well, since I have no particular objection to homosexuality or public nudity, and no particular enthusiasm for monotheistic religion, I can’t agree with all your conclusions. But I take your point.

  5. Caligila
    25 March 2006 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Certainly today’s homosexuality is different, and I too have no objections to it, but this was not the case in ancient Greece and Rome, since women were not revered as main natural partners to men. I am glad cultures like Persia’s pushed forth the idea of family values, and equality between men and women. In fact, astonishingly, Cunei tablets that were discovered recently show Achaemenid Persians not only paid their workers who built palaces like those in Persepolis, but they gave more to the women in maternity; an idea that some countries including modern day Iran do not hole heartedly follow.

    And, as far as monotheism goes–you have to admit, the Persian Empire’s religion changed the psyche of humanity as we know it, although, unfortunately many today think Angelology, Demonology, and Satan came from the Bible.

    But that was just the first dynasty. In time, Persian poets would be recognized for their greatness, epics like `Epic of Kings`, and `One Thousand and One Nights` would be written by them, and their scientists would invent Algebra, would write the Medical Encyclopedia through Avicenna who’s book would be the foundation of modern medicine, would calculate Earth’s circumference, discover alcohol and sulphuric acid, and invent heavy cavalry etc.

    But, the Greeks did a masterful job of painting them as villains, yet, even so, I still like Greek art better than Persian’s.

  6. Harry
    25 March 2006 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I’m an admirer of the golden age of Islam, but that was a full 1200 years after the period I’m talking about here, so frankly I can’t see it’s relevant.

    Anyway, I never really meant to criticise the Persian empire – I don’t know enough about it – I just don’t like their art very much.

  7. Caligila
    25 March 2006 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I understand you because Persian history is so obscure. One last thing, I actually tried to name some of the contributions of Persian through out histoty, and get this, it is yet another unfortunate thing that many people don`t even know Islamic era scientists were mostly Persians, rather they think they were Arabs.

    As you can see, there is only one culture that should ultimately be blamed for such misrepresentations; that would be the Persians themselves.

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