Pick'n'mix makes for an artful confection

Forgotten Empire - Birth of the Persian Empire
November 25, 2005

For the ancient Persians, the Greeks were insignificant, says John Boardman.

It is tragic that a great celebration of an ancient Eastern empire formed by a quite exceptional people should come at a time when that same, still quite exceptional people, should be troubled by the problems created by their own and Western ideologies. Of these books, Forgotten Empire is a catalogue, with several detailed background essays, of an exhibition in the British Museum, presented in a way that makes it perhaps the best available guide for everyman to the arts, and even history and religion, of Achaemenid Persia over the 200 years of its existence before it fell to Alexander the Great in 330BC. Birth of the Persian Empire is a scholarly collection of essays/ lectures about the background to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, notably its religion and "The idea of Iran".

That a once nomadic people could so rapidly create an empire that ran from the Aegean to India, from the Black Sea to upper Egypt, is remarkable enough in itself. It was certainly not to be expected even after the long careers of the various Mesopotamian empires, their Western neighbours and mentors in many things. That it also created a distinctive art and architecture that is as unmistakable as, say, the Egyptian or Aztec, but flourishing for barely two centuries, is a sober comment on the fragility of man's achievements. As Lord Curzon put it: "It takes its place in the chapter of things that have ceased to be; and its mute stones find a voice and address us with the ineffable pathos of ruin."

For all its apparent unity, the style of Achaemenid art and architecture was mainly a confection of the arts of others, yet it seems thoroughbred, and remained as unchanging as the "law of the Medes and Persians that altereth not". But in its provinces it was an empire that was probably no more demanding of its subjects than the Roman Empire was half a millennium later and that created an administration no less complex than the Roman.

The exhibition and its catalogue reinforce the impression one gets at Persepolis itself, of grandeur, discipline and size, of a certain exoticism quite unlike that of countries farther east but outdoing anything European, and quite unlike Mesopotamian architecture; also a certain mysterious remoteness, like coming upon an Egyptian temple in the desert. It was certainly "passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis", whether as resident ruler or conqueror. We miss the colour and the gold perhaps, because the stone of the reliefs is so drab, but it would have been painted and gilt. This, anyway, is compensated by the treasures of the museums of Teheran, London and Paris, displayed here, the richness in gold and silver, the careful elaboration of detail and decoration, but laid on, one feels, more with the template than the artist's free hand, although obeying a coherent, accepted style. And you have to read the labels to see if it comes from Persia, Turkey, Egypt or the wider spaces of Central Asia.

On the reliefs, of which the fragments and casts give an inkling of the way they dominate Persepolis, the ranks of soldiers, the processions of subject peoples from east and west bringing their tributes and gifts from Greek Ionia to India, seem to proclaim as to a drum beat the efficiency and power of the Empire. The king fights monsters, is carried by ranks of subjects, reigns in audience and acknowledges a god, Ahuramazda, who is not allowed too much of the visual glory. Just for a while one might wonder about the people of Persia, the sort of folk we have come to know well from Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Indian arts - the workers, farmers and their wives, even the soldiers other than on parade. Of these there is no glimpse: they play no part in the visual expression of invincible imperialism. Among all the treasures from the Persian palaces in the exhibition we find just one representation of a woman - a Greek statue that got to Persepolis as a gift or booty. Is this lack just a design fault or a serious social/political fault? Is it a fault at all?

Go outside Persia into its empire and we find the imperial style adjusted to the local, usually older, manners and conventions in the arts. It is the Greeks of Anatolia who show us Persian wives and children, Egypt shows the artisans, the Levant their assimilated gods and the tomb monuments with the usual heroic themes of the feast and chase. We do well to judge the Persians through the eyes of their neighbours and not by what they place on their palace walls at home. You will learn more about the Persians from Herodotus, who was a subject of their empire, and by no means wholly Greek in either lineage or temperament, but a man who travelled widely and who must have spoken Aramaic, the lingua franca of empire, as readily as he could write Greek.

There is, not surprisingly, a degree of Greek-bashing in this book, decrying influence in some arts and the bad press given by some Greek writers to Persians. These records should not be judged by the standards of the 21st century, and they often have a point. Perso-centrism can be as sterile as Helleno-centrism. The most flattering account of the Persian character was given by Herodotus, copied verbatim by Xerxes.

The Persian Wars may have come to be viewed in Persia as a "troublesome frontier skirmish", and for good reason. When an empire that encompassed all the urban civilisations of Asia and Africa sends a punitive expedition that is sent packing by a much smaller army (at Marathon), and when the Great Kings themselves march forth to annex Scythia (Darius) and Greece, where Xerxes bridged the Hellespont and cut a mighty canal through the Athos peninsula to accommodate his fleet, and again were sent home with empty hands, something more than a little embarrassing for Persian self-esteem had happened.

Perhaps there is/was a difference between west and east. To compare the Persian Empire with the Athenian "empire", which was hated by other Greeks and that, bundled up, would probably have fitted into Yorkshire, displays the differences of approach to power and people and antiquity, and is not a serious historical exercise. Of course, on the matter of Greek victories, "native sources are largely silent". Eastern annals are not grown-up history like Herodotus: they never admit that the Great King and his armies might have been defeated.

Sir John Boardman is emeritus professor of classical archaeology and art, Oxford University.

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

Editor - John Curtis and Nigel Tallis
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 2
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7141 1157 0

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