The influx of elements of Greek art into Persia during the Achaemenid period was primarily the result of the importation of artists and artisans from Hellenized Asia Minor and rarely due to a direct supply of objects. After Alexander, more or less faithful local imitations of Greek forms and subjects were also produced, responding to the demands of Greco-Macedonians settled in Persia and their descendants, and especially the more or less Hellenized local elites.

Achaemenian period. Soon after his conquest of Lydia and the Ionian cities in 547 B.C.E., Cyrus the Great decided to have their artists and artisans work at Pasargadae, his capital. These were soon joined by Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, and later by Egyptians, destined to carry out the imperial program as an image of the king’s power over a diversified and peaceful empire. To all the known monuments of Pasargadae, Ionian artisans contributed the techniques of stonework, such as the ornamentation of a platform with bosses, or occasional architectural forms such as tori with horizontal flutings, or profiles like the molding of Cyrus’s tomb or the drapings of sculpted figures (Nylander, 1966; idem, 1970, pp. 103-10; Stronach, pp. 104-6; Boardman, 2000, pp. 19-44, 53-65). The long colonnaded porticoes, a Persian creation, were inspired by the 6th-century Ionian stoa, though of a quite different function, or Ionic dipteral temples (Nylander, 1970, pp. 118-21; Boardman, 2000, p. 61).

With the reign of Darius the Great, greater and more diversified contributions were made by the countries of his own empire towards the building and decoration of Persepolis and Susa (DSf 30 ff.; Nylander, 1968). Hence the part played by Asia Minor is less directly perceptible at these places than at Pasargadae. The Greek archaic art that penetrated into the Persian Empire derived its own evolution, iconography, and style from the 7th-century B.C.E. Oriental elements. This Oriental influence continued in Greece even during the Achaemenian period and is manifested by booties, importations, and purchases, as well as by products imitating or adapting Persian art, such as jewelry, arms, ceramic forms, themes of paintings on pottery or sculptural details, even architectural features such as hypostyle rooms (Miller, pp. 135 ff.; Boardman, 2000, pp. 207-17).


The Persepolis tablets mention among the numerous foreign workers (kurtaš) a few dozen Lycians (Uchitel) and Ionians (Hallock, index, s.v. yaunap; Dandamaev and Lukonin, pp. 158 ff., 170 ff.), whose function is not specified. The Carian stonecutters are mentioned on the Treasury Tablets under Xerxes (Cameron, no. 37). According to Darius’s inscription at Susa concerning the foundation of his palace there (DSf; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 142-44), which has more of a propaganda character than any documentary value (Nylander, 1975), Ionians and Sardians did stonework, while Sardians and Egyptians did woodwork (Vallat, p. 55; Steve, p. 159). Pliny’s passage (Historia naturalis 24.68) on the activity of Telephanes of Phocaea at the service of Darius and Xerxes remains an isolated western testimony.

Five short inscriptions in Greek in a quarry on Kuh-e Raḥmat near Persepolis (Carratelli, p. 31, figs. 2-6) and some masons’ marks on stone blocks at Persepolis and Susa, which closely resemble characters of the Lydian alphabet, point to the presence of artisans from Asia Minor among the builders of Persepolis (Nylander, 1979b). Among the constituent elements of the Achaemenian column, the contribution of Ionia to the positive eclecticism of Achaemenian art (Root, 1979, p. 24; Nylander, 1979a, p. 355) appears in the torus and the fluted shaft. Ionian artists also took part in producing the bas-reliefs of Persepolis, as witnessed by certain details in the drapery of the figures and in their faces or in the rendering of animals (Richter, 1946). They are considered to be the more direct authors of sculptures in the round of animals, dogs, bulls, and ibex or goats (Kawami, 1986).

Artists produced some purely Greek objects such as a slab of local stone featuring a finely carved decor, a scene of the fight between Apollo and Heracles, which was meant to be painted; or Greek faces engraved on a sculpture of a foot of Darius in his Tačara at Persepolis (Farkas, pp. 91-92; Roaf and Boardman; Nylander, 1981, p. 83).

There are few importations from the Greek world at Persepolis, and the statue believed to represent Penelope is an exception (Schmidt, p. 66, Pls. 29-30; Boardman, 2000, pp. 134-39). Susa presents more testimonies of works produced in the Greek world. Some are probably the result of pillage, like the enormous bronze knucklebone from the temple of the Apollo of Didyma near Miletus. Others appear to be importations, like the dozens of ivory fragments found in a well, of which there are four series, Persian, Syro-Phoenician, Egyptian, and Greek. They are for the most part plates with a sculpted or carved decor, serving as covers for boxes. The iconography and style of the Greek series contain representations of figures such as youths, goddesses and sirens, dating from the late 5th to the early 4th century B.C.E. (Amiet, 1972, pp. 324-29). A few dozens of sherds of Greek vases with red figures and a fragment of a rhyton signed by the painter Sotedes are also importations (Jéquier, pl. V).

The seals of a “Greco-Persian Style,” now called “Court Style,” were generally considered as a predominantly Anatolian production, although very few of them are of a certified provenance (Richter, 1946; idem, 1952; Boardman 1970). However, certain imprints on the Persepolis tablets are quite similar to them, thus pointing to a product of the central empire which, on the other hand, may have been spread to the periphery (Garrison, 1996; Boardman, 1998; idem, 2000, pp. 156-74; Root, 1998). This series of documents does not share the diversity of the Hellenizing iconographic motifs featured on the imprints of seals from Achaemenian Babylonia.

The Seleucid and Parthian periods up to the 1st century B.C.E. The Macedonian conquest and the founding of Greco-Macedonian colonies all over the empire of Alexander and his successors as far east as the Oxus River explain the presence of Greek or Hellenized works. The former, whether imported or local productions, coincide quite precisely as to space and, to a certain extent, as to time, with the Greek inscriptions of the 3rd to 1st century B.C.E in western Persia; the latter went through a more diversified distribution, but this is perhaps partly due to the hazards of research.

In architecture, Hellenistic testimonies are relatively less numerous than in Mesopotamia and Central Asia, the more so because the period of certain monuments must be updated from the Seleucid (Herzfeld, pp. 275-86) to the Parthian era. It has now been proven that the Kangāvar ruins do not represent the temple of Artemis of the Seleucid period, as mentioned by Isidore of Charax, but a building of the late Sasanian period (Azarnoush); similarly, the Ḵorha (a village at 50 miles southwest of Qom) building is not a temple of Dionysos of the 3rd century B.C.E. (Hakemi), but no doubt an aristocratic construction of the Parthian period (Lecuyot; Rahbar, 1999a), as shown by the ceramics, the non-Greek proportions of the columns, and the Ionic style of the capitals (Hakemi, figs. 15-17). At Estaḵr, too, the Corinthian capitals of the columns and pilasters must be updated to the early Sasanian period (Bernard, pp. 285-88), not so much because of local Hellenizing survivals, but because of a fresh influence of Greco-Roman art in the east; this is also shown by the Hellenistic stucco decors of Qalʿa-ye Yazdegerd near Tāq-e Girra, dating from the 2nd century C.E. (Keall, 1977, pp. 8-9).

Architectural elements of Susa, such as flat tiles, junction plates, or palmetto roofings (Jéquier, p. 116), point to the Hellenization of certain parts of the city in the Seleucid period, but this type of roofing is also found later towards the end of the Parthian period at Qalʿa-ye Yazdegerd and Tall-e Żaḥḥāk in Azerbaijan (Keall, 1982, pp. 69-71; Kleiss, p. 182). Walls painted with a Hellenizing decor have also been found in Seleucid Susa.

The monumental or small-scale sculpture is divided into two series, works probably belonging to the Greek world of the 3rd-2nd centuries and local productions based more or less remotely on Greek models, perhaps beginning with this period, but more certainly starting from the second half of the 2nd century B.C.E. From the early Christian era, local production definitely becomes a Parthian art. The rock bas-relief of Bisotun showing a nude Heracles lying on a lion’s skin is a local work of a pivotal period, dated 148 B.C.E. in a Greek inscription and commissioned by a Greek. Nearby, the two later reliefs of Mithradates II (123-88 B.C.E.) and Gotarzes II (38-51 C.E.; see GŌDARZ) are Parthian works following an Achaemenian tradition, with winged Victories and Greek inscriptions (see BISOTUN ii; Vanden Berghe, 1983, 41-45; Kawami 1987, pp. 35-43). Further south, the series of bronze statuettes fortuitously found near Nehāvand are objects of a Greek style representing Greek divinities (Apollo, Athena, Isis, etc.). Together with a copy in stone of an edict of Antiochus III, which was found nearby, they witness the existence of a polis, a Greek city, probably Laodicea. A stone basin decorated with busts of satyrs was found at Dinavar, in the same region (Ghirshman, 1962, figs. 21-23).

At Susa, three series of sculptures are attested, Hellenistic, Near Eastern Parthian, and Elymean; at least seven marble sculptures or fragments of male or female figures represent probable importations of the Seleucid period (Amiet, 2001; Curtis, 1993, pl. 11a). The localization of the first series in the southern part of the site, where most of the Greek inscriptions were found, would correspond with the administrative center of the Greek city. The Greco-Oriental series includes a female head with a crenelated crown, signed Antiochus son of Dryas, found in the same sector (Cumont). It is of good quality and seems to be a local production, perhaps corresponding with the Greek type of Tyche, which is well represented in the coinage of Susa. About fifteen other fragments of heads, clothes, hands, or nude male figures belong to this local series of the early Parthian period, when Greek was still written at Susa. The terracotta figurines fall into two distinct groups, a Greek one and an Oriental one, but no mixed groups, although they were all made by the same local artisans (Martinez-Sève). Despite the mediocre technical quality, they are true to the Greek iconography, especially since they were duplicate moldings and thus automatic reproductions of a model. This kind of production was widespread in the neighborhood (Wenke, pp. 65-68). The occurrence of themes of both cultures in one and the same tomb, or more rarely even one and the same object, is attested by some documents from Susa and the necropolis of Dostovā near Šuštar (Rahbar, 1997).

East of Susa, the Šami sanctuary, which is not yet precisely localized, has yielded documents of both series: next to the famous bronze statue of a Parthian prince, there were two fragments of heads, a man and a woman, and bronze arms in a Greek style, datable to the 2nd century B.C.E.; a female torso draped in the Greek style comes from the same mountainous region (Ghirshman, 1962, figs. 26-27). The sanctuaries on the Seleucid and Parthian terraces of Masjed-e Solaymān and Bard-e Nešānda received numerous figurines and small sculptures as offerings; both kinds, as well as monumental sculpture, historiated capitals, columns and large statues, are Parthian in style, although some have preserved an identifiable Greek iconography such as Heracles, or the wearing of the causia as headgear. Greek objects are very rare (Ghirshman, 1976).

Beyond the western mountain chains, documents of a Hellenizing kind are few and far between, like a female head found at Tall-e Żaḥḥāk near Fasā (Stein, 1936, pl. xxix), dating from the Hellenistic period, or a Dionysos from the Bušehr region (Rahbar, 1999b).

Greek ceramics were rarely imported into Persia and are represented in Susa by only a few dozen sherds with a black glaze dating between 350 and 330 B.C.E. (Clairmont, pp. 24-28), and some amphoras from the late 4th to the early 2nd century B.C.E. (Börker, pp. 44-45); they did not lead to any luxurious imitations. The local pottery of Susa contained some Greek forms without de-cor, and imitated a few others among a vast repertory of local forms (Boucharlat, pp. 196-97). At Pasargadae, the 3rd century also features some western shapes (Stronach, pp. 184-85, figs. 112-14), but hundreds of kilometers further east, in the Jāz Muriān region, a necropolis has yielded vases, particularly rhytons with an iconography revealing Greek influence (Čubak).

Seleucid royal or municipal coinage at Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis used the type inherited from Alexander; on the obverse is the sovereign’s bust with a Greek inscription, and on the reverse, Zeus is seated on a throne. This was changed in the Parthian period, representing on the obverse the portrait of the sovereign; the Greek inscription is deteriorated to the point of being illegible, having been replaced at the beginning of our era by an inscription in Middle-Parthian. The reverse of the coin varies (see COINS). Similar to the coins, the more than 150 tokens of Susa are earthenware chips, very likely invitations to banquets, perhaps funereal ones. Until the Parthian period, they present an iconography of Greek divinities, namely Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, or animals treated in the Greek style (Guillaume).


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(Rémy Boucharlat)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

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