History of Iran

Persian influence on Greece
By: Janine Bakker

The ancient Persian and Greek cultures did not exist in isolation. There was cross-fertilization. The present article contains a description of Persia's influence on Greece.
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Persian rhyton
Tehran (National Museum)
The buildings we are about to discuss, were all built after the Persian general Mardonius had destroyed Athens in 479 BCE, and after the battles in the harbor of Athens, at Plataea and at Eurymedon, where the Greeks had defeated the Persians. The Athenians had obtained much wealth after these battles. Herodotus tells that after the battle of Plataea:
    the Greeks dispersed themselves about the Persian camp and found tents furnished with gold and silver, and beds overlaid with gold and overlaid with silver, and mixing-bowls of gold, and cups and drinking vessels [i.e., rhytons]. They found also sacks laid upon wagons, in which there proved to be caldrons both of gold and of silver; and from the dead bodies which lay there they stripped bracelets and collars, and also their swords if they were of gold, for as to embroidered raiment, there was no account made of it.
    [Herodotus, Histories 9.80]
When a Persian king went to war, he not only took his army with him, but many courtiers as well. In this way, he could also live like a king when he was at the front, and was able to give fitting rewards to his brave warriors.

After the Greek victory, the booty was divided between the towns and cities that had shared in the fighting, and everybody received a fair share. So did Athens. As one of the leading powers, it must have been one of the first to choose, and as a consequence, much silver, gold, and other luxuries were brought to Athens. A simple but excellent example are the Persian rhytons (drinking vessels), which appear in Athens suddenly and in great quantities after the war. They were immediately imitated by Greek artists.

Athenian rhyton
Museo di archeologia ligure, Genova
Except for precious metals, utensils and luxuries, weapons and tents were taken away from the battle field at Plataea. Especially the royal pavilion, in which Mardonius had had his lodgings, had the full attention of the Athenians.

Architecture: Odeon
It is certain that after Plataea, the pavilion of the great king was taken to Athens. But what happened next? It has been assumed that (a part of) it was already used in 472 BCE as decor [skÍnÍ] of the tragedy The Persians by Aeschylus. Another and more plausible suggestion -not necessarily contradicting the preceding one- is that the wooden construction was used as a music hall (odeon) and later rebuilt from stone. This can be concluded from the following words by the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea:
    The Odeon, or music room, which in its interior was full of seats and ranges of pillars, and outside had its roof made to slope and descend from one single point at the top, was constructed, we are told, in imitation of the king of Persia's pavilion [skÍnÍ]. This was done by Pericles's order.
    [Plutarch, Life of Pericles 13.5-6]
Pericles' Odeon
It is not surprising that the pavilion was used as a piece of scenery or/and music room. After all, Athens had been sacked and emergency accommodation and temporary buildings are to be expected. Besides, the pavilion of Xerxes was not a family tent, but a portable palace.

When the Odeon of Pericles was excavated, it turned out to have almost the same dimensions as the so-called Hall of the Hundred Columns at Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire. The Odeon measured 68,50 x 62,40 meters and contained 9 x 10 columns; the room of the Persepolis palace had -surprise, surprise- 10 x 10 columns and measured 68,50 x 68,50 meters.

The similarity is too obvious to be coincidental. The pavilion must have been a copy of the Hall of the Hundred Columns, and the Odeon must have been a copy of this copy.

It should be noted, however, that this Persian example was not really followed in Greek and Roman architecture. The acoustics of the Odeon of Pericles must have been terrible. Later odeons, e.g. those of Agrippa, Domitian and Herodes Atticus, were little theaters and not square halls.

The Hall of the Hundred Columns at Persepolis

Architecture: Prytaneum
The prytaneum at the Athenian market (agora) was the building where the prytaneis, the executive committee of the Athenian democracy, gathered. It was built in 465 BCE. The building has the form of a circle and is very simple, without much ado. The Athenians called this building simply the tholos ('round building') or skias ('parasol'). It is therefore probable that the building looked like a parasol and had a round, pointed roof.

The Persian king and his satraps were often portrayed with a parasol. It has therefore been assumed that the Athenians used Persian left-behinds (e.g., a royal tent) and reconstructed it in a more durable material, retaining the original form. (The same happened when the Athenians built the Odeon of Pericles.) This assumption gains credit when we take into account that round buildings were extremely rare in the period before the Athenian prytaneum was built. There were, of course, round buildings, but they were always surrounded by stoas - something that is certainly not the case with the tholos.

Again, we may assume that the Athenians used the Persian spoils. And again, the influence of this model was not very great. Later prytanea were built differently.

Our next subject is completely different. The Parthenon frieze, just like the Pathenon itself and the Athenian owls, has become a symbol of the Greek world and its culture. They represent Athens at the top of its power and at its best. The fact that the way of representation may be un-Greek, makes the frieze no less important and certainly more important.

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