HELLENISM, a term created in Judea in the 2nd century BCE, signifying the adoption by some of the Jews of Greek language, customs, and manners. By extension it came to mean Greek culture and all the characteristics which made a Greek recognize himself as such. In the absence of any unified Greek political state, it was their cultural affiliation which made the Greeks recognize themselves as members of one and the same community (koinè). Among the strong points of Greek culture were the facility with which it spread among the nations who were in touch with the Greeks and the appeal it exercised on them. These factors account for its lasting influence, even after the disappearance of the last Greek state, especially in the Orient, one of the chief directions of its expansion. Cultural exchange was, however, by no means one-sided; through its contact with Eastern and Iranian cultures, Hellenism also was transformed. These relations thus led to mutual cultural enrichment. They also explain the longevity of Hellenism throughout the centuries.
The Aegean Sea was not a barrier, but rather an area of circulation; the populations who lived on its shores were at all times in communication; and a vast number of skills, practices, and techniques spread from one shore to the other. Contacts between Greeks and Orientals became closer from the early second millennium (the Mycenaean period), and again at the beginning of the first millennium, when the Greeks settled in Asia Minor on a long-term basis. But it was after the Greeks became incorporated within the Achaemenid Empire that Greek culture began to spread within the Eastern world and among Iranian populations.
The Achaemenid period. In the 540s BCE, Cyrus seized the kingdom of Lydia, ruled by Croesus, and acquired the rich Greek cities which he controlled. After the Persian conquest, Hellenism developed in the empire in two ways: one at its center, the court of the Great King, and one in Asia Minor. The Great Kings, especially Darius I, created an imperial art, intended to glorify them, which reflected the diversity of the empire. They summoned artists of all the provinces, each to be employed in his specialized trade. The Greeks of Asia Minor, who were good at stonework, introduced into Iran their cutting techniques and their tools, as well as certain architectural layouts, such as the massive use of columns (Nylander, 1970). The manner of sculpting the draperies of garments and a tendency toward realistic representation are stylistic elements which were influenced by Greek art, itself in full flower. These artisans are mentioned in the ‘charters of the foundation of the palace’ of Susa, in which Darius displayed a list of peoples who participated in the works (Lecoq, 1997). Two of them, Nikon and Pytharchos, also engraved their names at the Persepolis quarries (Pugliese Carratelli, 1966).
The imperial capitals where the Great King regularly stayed, and in particular Susa, which became the main one from the reign of Artaxerxes II, also attracted people coming from various regions of the empire and beyond it. Among them were Greeks such as a certain Nikoklès from Sinope, who died there (Cumont, 1928). Some Greeks were part of the Great Kings’ entourage (Hofstetter, 1978), including the Cnidian Ctesias (q.v.), who became the physician of Artaxerxes II after having been a prisoner. Several Greek warriors supplied their services and commanded troops of mercenaries, for instance the Spartan Klearchos, the head of the expedition of the Ten Thousand; others commanded parts of the Great King’s armed forces, as did the Athenian Conon and the Rhodian Memnon, at the head of the fleets of Artaxerxes II and Darius III. The Great Kings made good use of the abilities of these Greeks. For example, Skylax of Caryanda explored the maritime routes between the Indus and the Persian Gulf and is said to have traveled all over Arabia in the service of Darius I (Herodotus 4.44). Lastly, several Greek leaders in exile took refuge with the Great Kings and served them as advisers, among them the Spartan Demaratos and the Athenian Themistocles. Despite the example of Memnon, who was closely connected with the family of Artabazos, the satrap of Daskyleion and his brother-in-law, we must not exaggerate the role and importance of these Greeks, whom the Great Kings used to their own advantage (Briant, 1996). The Great Kings did not adopt the customs of the populations they had conquered; together with the Persian élites in their entourage, they formed a leading group attached to Persian traditions.
The situation was different in Asia Minor, which was already very Hellenized. The Great Kings’ wish to play a role in the Aegean diplomatic game led to the development of contacts among Greek cities and satraps. Several Persian aristocrats formed friendly relationships with Greeks with whom they could seek refuge. E.g., the son of Pharnabazos, satrap of Daskyleion, from an early age was the guest of Agesilaus, king of Sparta. The latter managed to have him allowed to compete in the Olympic games together with a Spartiate (trained citizen-soldier) with whom the young Persian was enamored (Bresson, 2002). The case of the son of Pharnabazos—behaving just like a young Spartiate, training at the gymnasium and having homosexual relations—is somewhat unusual but confirms that the court of Daskyleion had become Hellenized.
A large number of Iranians came to settle in Asia Minor, in the satraps’ capitals as well as in the countryside (Briant, 1996). As a result, close contacts were formed between these Iranians and the local Greek and non-Greek populations, as is shown by onomastics (Briant, 1996, pp. 722-25), and this development led to a spread of Persian cultural models. In Lydia and at Sardis, for example, Persian influence can be observed in ceramics, metalwork, and also in funereal architecture (Macintosh and Dusinberre, 1997; Dusinberre, 1999; Paspalas, 2000; Özgen and Öztürk, 1996). Persian ascendancy is also shown in the spread of an imperial iconographic repertory similar to that which decorated the palaces of the great capitals and formed a setting for the Great King (Kaptan, 1996; Kaptan, 2001; Davesne and Laroche-Traunecker, 1998). Asia Minor thus formed a very fertile exchange center among local Anatolian, Greek, and Iranian cultures. It is in this context that the so-called ‘Greco-Persian’ art was born. The Persian satraps and aristocrats, as well as the local élites, called upon artists who were able to combine the different artistic traditions. On the Tomb of theHarpiesat Xanthos, built around 480-470, the local dynast had himself represented like Darius I and Xerxes I giving audience, but according to the norms of Greek representation (Bernard, 1965; Asheri, 1983). Greco-Persian art also spread in Phrygia and especially Daskyleion (Bernard, 1969; Nollé, 1992). These artistic trends equally prevailed in the minor arts, including glyptic art. Greco-Persian seals have been found in the eastern regions, for instance in Mesopotamia (Wallenfels 1994), where this style was widespread.
The Persians were also confronted with Greek religion. They honored Artemis, especially her temple at Ephesus (Briant, 1996); an inscription tells us of a familial cult which a certain Droaphernes devoted to Zeus of Baradates (Briant, 1998). It is sometimes difficult to define the reality of the cult under these names, whether they are Greek names of Iranian divinities, as was the case of Artemis, or local divinities of Asia Minor, or else composite divinities. But it was conceivable for Iranians to devote a cult to a divinity which had a Greek form and name. On the other hand, the priest of Artemis at Ephesus bore a title of Persian origin (Xenophon, Anab. 5.3.6; Briant, 1996, p. 722), leading us to suppose that there were exchanges in both directions. Greek dialects underwent changes through their contact with local languages of Lydia and Caria (Blümel, 1990). Several Greek authors also mention the adoption of Persian habits by the Greeks, especially those of Ephesus (Plutarch, Lys. 3.3; Athenaeus, Deip. 525c-e).
We must not exaggerate the impact of Greek culture and artistic traditions on the Persians, including those who lived in Asia Minor. Despite their familiarity with the Greek world, there were few of them who spoke Greek. Among the kings, only Darius III was said to speak it (Quintus Curtius 5.11.4). Indeed most of the satraps of Asia Minor did not. Tissaphernes needed an interpreter to speak with Greek mercenaries of the army of the Ten Thousand (Xenophon, Anab. 2.3.17), although he governed the Aegean regions of Asia Minor. Also, Greco-Persian art is a result of Persian influences in a Hellenized western Asia Minor (Root, 1991), rather than the introduction of Greek influences within a Persian milieu.
In Greece itself, Persian influence developed from the time when relations intensified between the cities and the Achaemenid Empire. Certain shapes of Attic vases and certain surface decorations are directly inspired by Persian metalware. The imperial Achaemenid iconography also influenced some Attic painters, such as the one who represented King Midas enthroned like the Great King on a stamnos wine-jar preserved in the British Museum (E 447). In the field of architecture, the Greeks may also have derived from the Persians their hypostyle rooms, such as the Telesterion of Eleusis or the Odeon of Pericles, built on the model of Xerxes’ tent. A taste for Persian clothes such as the kandys developed among Athenian men and women in the second half of the 5th century (Miller 1988, 1993, and 1997).
Alexander’s conquests and the Seleucid period. Alexander the Great’s (Figure 1) conquest of the Achaemenid Empire between 334 and 324 and the submission of the East under Greek political control changed the situation and provided Hellenism with much greater significance. Greek culture became that of the rulers, while it had previously been that of a people subject to the Persians. To consolidate this conquest, Alexander the Great and the Seleucid kings who followed him founded colonial installations intended to divide up and control the region. Some were merely simple military establishments occupied by garrisons. The more important ones were actual towns. A number of them acquired the status of Greek cities, having traditional institutions and being able to govern themselves. But all were inhabited by Greco-Macedonians, who continued to live like Greeks and kept in touch with the local populations. The aim of Alexander and the Seleucids was not to Hellenize these populations in order to integrate them within the Hellenic world. What they wanted was to make the political domination effective and to consolidate it. But the spread of Hellenism was inevitable. On the other hand, the Greeks hardly became orientalized. The case of Peukestas remains exceptional; as Alexander’s general who had become a satrap of Persia, he learned the language of the people, became familiar with their customs, and adopted their clothes. Rather than this, being part of the élite meant to share a way of life marked by Greek customs. The local populations who tried to collaborate and become members of this élite had to become hellenized.
Contrary to what had happened during the Achaemenid period, the spread of Greek culture did not stop at the western fringes of Asia Minor. The Seleucid kings set up colonies all over their territories; each region was controlled by a capital at the head of a network of foundations. Seleucos I thus founded Seleucia on the Tigris in Mesopotamia and made Bactra his residence in Central Asia. These two cities, and especially Seleucia, became great centers for the spread of Greek culture. The network of installations built on the Iranian plateau was less dense. No city played the same role as Bactra or Seleucia on the Tigris. Ecbatana (q.v.), which was strategically situated on one of the roads leading from Mesopotamia toward Central Asia, was a very important royal mint; but, despite the excavations carried out there, the city is still poorly known (Sarraf, 1997; Boucharlat, 1998). This impression of sparse settlement is partly due to our scanty information, but it does seem that Greek presence was less strong in Iran. However, some foundations are known. There were military installations with garrisons, such as the ones at the frontier of Media Atropatene, at the Karaftō cave, and at Avromān (Bernard, 1980; Boyce and Grenet, 1991). In addition, epigraphic documentation shows traces of at least two real Greek cities. The first is Laodicea, situated near Nehāvand, the ruins of which have been found but not excavated. Some bronze objects, a stone altar, and three Greek inscriptions attest to the presence of a Greek community. It received a letter from the satrap Menedemos, who transmitted a decision of King Antiochos III, concerning the institution of a cult in honor of his wife Laodicea (Robert, 1949). Menedemos wrote on the same subject to the person responsible for a military district in the Kermānšāh area (Robert, 1967). The second Greek city is Antioch of Persia, situated near today’s Bušehr, known from an inscription found in Turkey at the site of Magnesia of Meander from the late 3rd century BCE The city, which was founded by Antiochus I, was inhabited in part by settlers from Magnesia. With a view to organizing a Panhellenic religious festival, it invited the cities of the Greek world to recognize it. Among these cities was Antioch, with which it maintained particularly friendly relations due to their common past. This document shows that a city, even when established in Iran, was no different from an old Greek city. Its institutions were the same as those of Athens and functioned in the same way. The Antiochians participated in the cultural life of the Greek world by sending delegations to the Panhellenic festivals, such as those of Delphi. This was a way of showing their belonging and their attachment to the Greek koine. Information about Susa is also available. From the reign of Seleucos I, or in the course of the 3rd century, it acquired the status of a city under the name Seleucia of Eulaios. The people of Susa of Greek origin lived there in a Greek environment (Martinez-Sève, 2002b). The mention of a chief magistrate of the gymnasium makes the presence of a gymnasium all the more probable, since the latter became the main center for spreading Greek culture. There was also a stadium. These Greek communities in Iran hence did not abandon traditional Greek ways of life.
It is in Central Asia, at Aï Khanoum [Āy Ḵānom], where we come across the best-known Greek foundation. Probably founded by Seleucus I, about 220 km east of Bactres, it was destroyed between 150 and 120 BCE as a result of nomadic invasions, and little occupied afterward, which makes its exploration easier. It controlled access to Bactriane along the northeastern invasion route and so was of important strategic value. A true city developed there, especially when the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides made it his capital under the name of Eucratidea, shortly before its destruction. The buildings were made of unbaked brick, according to local architectural standards, but the city had the usual installations of a Greek city—a theater, a gymnasium, and a fountain. The palace, built on an Oriental plan, included peristyle courtyards of Greek type. Also Greek was the Doric or Corinthian architectural decoration, and pebble mosaics covered the floor of some of the rooms. Several statues in stone and clay completed this Greek environment. The inhabitants spoke Koine Greek, and one of the inscriptions had been composed by the philosopher Klearchos of Soloi, who was passing through. It contained Delphic maxims defining the ideal of Greek men. A fragment of a philosophical dialogue and two extracts of theatrical plays were found in the treasury (Rapin, 1992).
Hellenism thus struck roots in the East and even persisted until long after the disappearance of the Greek states. It is difficult to gauge the reaction of the Iranian populations to the intrusion of a foreign culture and its impact on local lifestyles. The available documentation is scant and fragmented and only rarely deals with individuals. The way to join the élite was to adopt its culture and lifestyle, at least in appearance. It may be supposed that a certain number of Iranians became hellenized. It was mainly in those places where Greeks were concentrated that contacts were closest, that is, in the urban milieu. The Iranian plateau does not appear to have been greatly urbanized, yet it is unthinkable that the rural populations were entirely cut off from Greek influences. The integration of Iranian soldiers within the Seleucid army or the need of the Greeks to find wives among local populations must have led to contacts. Susa provides us with further information. Among the proper names which appear in the Greek inscriptions, there is no name of Iranian origin (Le Rider, 1965). This might be an indication that the élite was exclusive and that the local population was not part of it. But the custom for one and the same individual to have both a Greek name and a local one, which was well known in Egypt, is also attested in the Seleucid kingdom (Doty, 1977), and so Greek names could conceal Easterners. The example of the Susa coroplasts provides further elements for reflection (Martinez-Sève, 2002a). These artisans were for the most part Easterners but were able to assimilate new techniques introduced into the Near East by Greek artisans. They were also able to produce numerous iconographic types of Greek origin, while making very few mistaken interpretations. They could thus work “in the Greek way.” But these novelties had no effect on the function of the workshops or on the organization of production, and the main characteristics of the ancient Near Eastern coroplathy can still be observed in them. The artisans thus remained deeply influenced by Near Eastern stylistic conceptions.
There is often a tendency to view these contacts from two different aspects. G. Droysen assumes that a new civilization was born from the fusion between Greek and Oriental populations. This view was severely criticized, and it was asserted that, rather, Greek and Oriental cultures had co-existed without meeting one another. The situation is in fact more complex. Cultural integration implies various degrees in the reaction of populations faced with the irruption of a foreign culture. One would have to account for each individual, for there is a vast range of attitudes, extending from a complete adherence to Greek culture to its total rejection, with a large number of intermediary cases. The example of the Susa coroplasts shows that one and the same individual was quite capable of adopting foreign habits while remaining deeply true to his own cultural traditions. The situation is also different when we no longer observe it from an individual level but from a social one. The coexistence of populations of different origins within one and the same geographic space and the compulsory contacts caused as a result lie at the origin of new societies. The latter are characterized by the juxtaposition of populations of different origins and cultures, which did not always mix, except on the level of the élites, and by the appearance of common cultural features born from the meeting between their cultures. For this reason, G. Droysen’s conception is only controversial because it is too systematic. We may thus distinguish a culture of Ptolemaic Egypt, one of Bactriane, or one of Lower Mesopotamia (including Susa, even if its situation near the Iranian plateau led to local peculiarities). Each of these cultural entities had its own artistic repertory. In Lower Mesopotamia, there are numerous representations of figures in a static and strictly frontal position, including Greek-looking ones. Besides, the iconographic repertory is specific to the region and contains motifs that are neither found there in earlier periods nor in Greece (Martinez-Sève, 2002a). Although similar phenomena may have been present on the Iranian plateau, they are poorly documented. But there is no sign that this region, and especially Persia, was a center of resistance against Hellenism, as has sometimes been said (Eddy, 1961). There were some opposition movements at the time of Alexander’s conquest; but after the clever administration of Peukestas, followed by that of the Seleucids, Greek power was no longer contested. The rise of the dynasty of the frataraka (q.v.) in the second half of the 3rd century did not lead to a weakening of the Seleucid dynasty, although they were Zoroastrians and they claimed to belong to the Achaemenids (Wiesehöfer, 1994 and 1996). We must point out that if Hellenism prospered in the East, and if it changed as a result of its contact with local traditions, this happened involuntarily and without any conscious policy on behalf of the Seleucids. The latter initiated and furthered the settlement of Greek populations in the East; they greatly supported artistic and intellectual creation; but the destiny of the communities formed there and that of Hellenism were independent of their acts. These Greek com-munities lasted, and Hellenism continued to develop and change even after the collapse of the Seleucids. This shows the dynamism of the new societies and cultures arising from the confrontation between Greek and Oriental civilizations.
The Greco-Bactrians and their succcessors. Central Asia was the first region which the Seleucids lost, ca. mid-3rd century. Other Greeks replaced them in Bactria, namely, the Greco-Bactrian kings. It was under their sway that Greco-Bactrian culture developed, marked by a relatively traditional Hellenism, which was later combined or juxtaposed by local influences. These consisted of a synthesis of Iranian elements, based on sedentary and nomadic cultures of the region, and Indian elements. Nowhere else do Greek and Iranian populations appear to have so closely collaborated. This explains the success of the kingdom and its resistance against the constant inroads of nomads from the steppes or Seleucid attempts to reconquer it. The discoveries at Aï Khanoum provide us with a precise idea of Greco-Bactrian culture, as does the temple of Taḵt-e Sangin, which rose a little to the west on the shores of the Oxus (Āmu Daryā). This monument was built of unbaked bricks in a traditional style, and with an architectural decoration mixing Greek and Iranian elements. It contained a very large number of offerings, most of which dated from the 4th to the 1st century BCE. Among these art works were magnificent royal heads sculpted in unbaked clay, following a specific regional technique which forms one of the most remarkable features of Greco-Bactrian art. This temple, which was dedicated to the god Oxus, was visited by populations of various origins. A small altar with a statuette of the Greek Marsyas on it bears the Greek text of a dedication to the Oxus written by an Iranian named Atrosokes. It is remarkable that this person, whose name is connected with the Zoroastrian cult of fire, had offered a typically Greek cult object and written the dedication in the Greek language (Boyce and Grenet, 1991, Chuvin, 1999).
Greco-Bactrian culture lasted long after the disappearance of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom north of the Hindu Kush, ca. 145 BCE. It was destroyed by nomadic tribes, including the Yueh-Chi, who ruled over Bactria until the 1st century CE. One of the best-known examples of the artistic production of this period is the sculpted decoration in clay of the Khalchayan palace (in Uzbekistan). These scenes were composed to the glory of the king who founded the dynasty; they include battle scenes and scenes of the king enthroned, belonging to the traditional Iranian repertoire, as well as dionysiac scenes of Greek iconography. The characteristics of Greco-Bactrian art produced during the preceding period are quite in evidence, although the Iranian element is somewhat stronger. The discoveries of the necropolis of Tilia Tepe situated in northern Afghanistan also witness this fact. Nomadic princes and princesses had themselves buried there with very rich furnishings, including a large number of golden objects, in which one recognizes local versions of Greek divinities such as Aphrodite, Eros, Athena, or Ariane and Dionysos.
The importance of Greek influences within Greco-Bactrian culture explains the fact that Hellenism continued to imbue the civilization developing in Central Asia in the period of the Kushan empire, founded around the mid-1st century CE. It was governed by a dynasty of nomadic origin belonging to the Yueh-Chi tribe, which for a long time depended on the Hellenized Iranian élite. The Kushans did not reject their Greco-Bactrian heritage. This is shown by the appearance of their early coins and the use of the Greek script to write Bactrian, the language spoken in the Iranian part of their empire. Under their influence, Greek traditions continued to influence artistic production, both the art described as “dynastic” that was meant to glorify them (Rosenfield, 1967) and the Buddhist art which developed, along with Buddhism, in the regions they controlled. This Gandharan art was certainly influenced by contemporary Roman productions imported into Central Asia, such as those found at Begrām (q.v.), but it is above all the Greco-Bactrian substratum which explains the Greek component.
Sogdiane (in modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) was another region of Central Asia influenced by Greek culture, which developed after the foundations settled by Greek colonists, especially Samarkand (Bernard, 1996; Lyonnet, 1998). From the mid-2nd century BCE, this region broke away from the control of Greek authorities, but Hellenism had been sufficiently implanted in it to become a component of the local culture which developed in the first centuries of our era, and which became a mixture of Indian, Chinese, Buddhist, Iranian, and Greek influences. The great discoveries of Pendjikent [Panjakent] witness the wealth of this culture belonging to Sogdian merchants who traded along the Silk Road between the 5th and 8th centuries CE. Some characteristics of the architecture of the Aï Khanoum and Taḵt-e Sangin temples, such as the front porticoes or the position of the temples on a podium, are also found at Pendjikent. All these cultural influences found their major expression in the field of pictorial art, which forms the most remarkable category of Sogdian art. Many of the paintings illustrate the divinities of the local pantheon, which itself was greatly influenced by the religious traditions of the cultures interacting within the region. This situation fostered the rise of a syncretic iconographic repertory in which a number of images are influenced by Greek art. The survival of these images is mainly to be explained by the long conservation of Greek or highly Hellenized works, such as those discovered at Pendjikent. It is even possible that some of them, which were kept in the treasuries and temples of the Kushan empire, were pillaged and dispersed all over Central Asia at the time of the fall of this empire (Marshak, 1990 and 2002; Marshak and Raspopova, 1998). This also explains the presence of Greek mythological scenes on a gilded silver vase of a Sasanian type in the tomb of the Chinese general Li Xian (503-69) (Marshak and Anazawa, 1989).
The Parthian period. While in Bactria the Seleucids were replaced by the Greco-Bactrian kings, the Parthians settled in the ancient satrapy of Parthyene ca. mid-3rd century BCE. Their first capital, Mithridatkert or Old Nisa, situated on the northern slope of the Kopet Dagh (Turkmenistan), is relatively well known. As in Bactriane, the plan of the royal palaces and the construction techniques are traditional for the region, but the architectural decor is considerably influenced by Greek art. The same is true of many of the objects and works of art, such as the marble or clay sculptures. The first Parthian rulers lived in the same environment as that of the Greco-Bactrian or Seleucid kings. They had had Greek artists or artists familiar with Greek art come to Mithridatkert. Among the most sumptuous discoveries is a set of about fifty ivory rhytons preserved in the royal treasury. They are decorated with dionysiac scenes, female poets, and representations of the principal Greek gods. But the object itself, which is a traditional one among the Iranian peoples, and certain decorative elements (clothes and jewelry, for example) are locally inspired and witness the development of a Greco-Parthian culture.
The Parthian kings (see ARSACIDS) were able to build an extensive empire which lasted until 224 CE. They did not renounce their Hellenistic heritage, and the Greek element for a long time formed an important part of their culture. But from the 1st century CE, Greek influences gradually lessened, not because of a hostile attitude on the part of the kings, as has sometimes been assumed, but because the Iranian element increasingly took over and Greek influences became diluted within Iranian culture. The dynamic quality of Hellenism during the first three centuries of Parthian history is marked by the persistence of the Greek language. The kings used it in their relations with the Greek communities of their empire, who had kept their institutions and continued to administer them. This is shown by an inscription at Susa, reproducing a letter from king Artabanos II. A decree honoring the Parthian satrap of Susa confirms the community’s good relations with the central power. Susa indeed for a while was named Phraata of Susa, after Phraates IV (Le Rider, 1965). But the Parthian kings employed Greek in a wider context. For a long time their coin inscriptions were written in this language, according to the norms of the Greek world. Other borrowings are evidenced by the adoption in Middle Persian of terms of Greek origin for weights and measures (Huyse, 2002).
From the reign of Mithridates I, the Parthian kings regularly adopted the title ‘Philhellenic’ on their coins, thus going back to their Seleucid predecessors. The proclamation of Philhellenism by the Parthian kings was not merely propaganda meant to curry favor with the Greeks of their empire. It was real, if we trust Plutarch’s testimony (Crassus 33): when Crassus’s head was taken to Orodes, the latter was celebrating the marriage of his son with the daughter of King Artavasdes of Armenia and was watching a presentation of Euripides’ Bacchantes. Plutarch said that Orodes knew Greek and Greek literature and that the Armenian Artavasdes wrote works in Greek, some of which were preserved. It is significant that the Parthians built Ctesiphon, their main capital, next to Seleucia on the Tigris, which was the greatest Greek city of the East and was to become even more prosperous during the Parthian period. The empire also had an intellectual life largely dominated by the Greeks, some of whose names are still known: the historians Apollodorus of Artemita, author of a Parthian history, and Agathocles of Babylon; the geographers Isidorus of Charax (q.v.), who described the stages of the road leading from Zeugma to Alexandria of Arachosia (Kanda-hār), and his fellow-townsman Dionysios of Charax; and the stoician philosopher Archidemos, who founded a school for philosophy in Babylon. The Greek communities of the empire continued living in the Greek style of their ancestors. Susa again provides the best examples (Martinez-Sève, 2002a).
The art of the Parthians was still greatly influenced by Greek traditions. These merged more closely with Iranian and Mesopotamian traditions, leading to an artistic tradition peculiar to the Parthian empire (Schlumberger, 1970). These productions are mainly known in the provinces outside the empire, such as Hatra (q.v.), but they reflect those of Ctesiphon. Greek influence always appears in the borrowing of a Greek decorative architectural element, of which the rules of proportion are no longer respected, while new architectural forms or forms little used before, such as the ivān type of vault, are developed. In the figurative arts, the iconography is still largely influenced by that of Greek art, but figures issuing from the old local mythological background are also represented. By their frontal style and their lack of depth, these representations differ from those of Greek art. The origin of this frontality has sometimes been questioned. Several influences may have combined, but it is probably due to tendencies observed in Iranian artistic productions and especially in Hellenized Mesopotamian ones. The presence of Greek gods is a constant feature of Parthian art. But these images covered more complex realities, and local divinities lay concealed behind them. Since the Iranians usually did not represent their gods, they often borrowed images of foreign gods. We thus notice a coin from Susa on which the Parthian king Artabanos is shown kneeling before Apollo, who is none other than Mithra (Le Rider, 1965, no. 97; Boyce and Grenet, 1991, p. 39).
The Sasanian period. After the fall of the Parthian empire in 224 and its replacement by the Sasanian empire, the influence of Greek culture markedly declined in the Iranian world. The Sasanian kings were not on principle hostile to Greek culture, but they chose to give precedence to Iranian traditions. To unite their empire, they furthered the development of a truly Iranian culture and presented themselves as the successors of the mythical Iranian rulers and the Achaemenid kings. They also possessed a power conferred on them by the gods of Zoroastrianism, which they promoted to the rank of a national religion providing them with an ideological, even theological, foundation. Despite the innovative character of these choices, they did not make a complete break with their Parthian past. Hellenism had already considerably weakened; and in a city like Susa Greek cultural influences had lost their vigor and had finally disappeared towards the late first century CE. Yet the Sasanian empire was not completely closed to Greek influences. There still remained Greek populations and people of Greek culture in the empire, since Šāpūr I felt the need to engrave a Greek version of his famous inscription, the ‘Res gestae divi Saporis’ (Huyse, 1999). But what developed was mainly a new Hellenism, one that issued from the Roman provinces of the East with their Greek culture. A number of iconographic motifs borrowed from Greek art and found in Sasanian art were introduced from the Roman world and reflect contemporary artistic evolutions. E.g., the famous mosaics of Bišāpur (q.v.) contain dionysiac motifs whose subject, it has been suggested, is the triumph of Dionysos (Gall, 1971). The mosaics were made by artists from Antioch; they were among the numerous artisans whom Šāpūr I deported from Antioch and settled in a new city, Gondēšāpūr (q.v.), situated about 30 km east of Susa.
The presence of Greeks in the East caused Hellenism to spread and take roots. We lack sufficient information to assess its influence on the populations, but what is certain is that it was mainly the élites who became hellenized. Greek culture, however, was not only transplanted in the East. It evolved and grew richer through contact with local traditions, and these cultural contacts led to new civilizations in which it formed a basic element, which was real, although less and less visible. These intercultural exchanges were, moreover, very fruitful as regards ideas and intellectual life. From the period of Achaemenid domination, several Greek philosophers such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, and especially Heraclites, developed theories partially based on principles of the philosophy of the Iranian Magi. Asia Minor under Achaemenid domination was certainly a fertile soil for such intellectual exchange. We also find several Zoroastrian elements in Plato’s philosophy (Gnoli, 1995-96 and 1997-98). But the spread of Greek culture in the East during the Hellenistic period also had major repercussions on Eastern thought. It led to the expansion of the Greek language and a rationalistic view of the world, providing Eastern philosophies with new concepts and leading them to express themselves in a different way (Jonas, 1978). This caused the development, during the early centuries of our era, of new philosophical doctrines—particularly neo-Platonism and neo-Pythagorism—in the great intellectual centers such as Antioch and especially Alexandria. This encounter also furthered the appearance or the development of new religions (Judaism, Christianity, mystery cults, Gnosticism), which, in their turn, led to theological and philosophical thought. These exchanges and mutual enrichment between Greek and Oriental traditions continued during the Sasanian period. The persecutions of paganism and heresies by the Byzantine emperors led to the exile of many learned men and philosophers, who found refuge in the Sasanian Empire. Among them were Christian Nestorians, who established monasteries all over the empire and played an important part in spreading Greek medicine in Persia. They made up a body of scholars learned in Greek, Syriac, and Middle Persian; and they translated a large number of treatises, notably some of the works of Aristotle. Their relationships with the Byzantine empire did not cease, and in 6th-century Sasanian Persia the scholars disseminated the works of the schools of Constantinople and Alexandria. They also enjoyed the support of several Sasanian kings. According to the Dēnkard, Šāpūr I had embarked upon gathering all the Greek learning spread over India and the Byzantine empire. He wanted to reconstruct the corpus of scientific texts contained in the Avesta which Alexander the Great was supposed to have acquired and ordered to be translated into Greek before destroying the original versions. The works were collected, preserved in the imperial libraries, and translated. This explains the influence of Greek thought on the religious literature written in Middle Persian, and especially the Dēnkard (q.v.). King Ḵosrow I also supported these scientific activities and even received at his court the philosophers expelled by Justinian, especially those of the Athens school, which was closed in 529 (Hartmann, 2002). The Sasanian period was thus an important period for the conservation of Greek knowledge and its transmission to the Arabs. The work of translation was continued during the Arab period, especially under the Abbasids, who resumed the policy of the Sasanian kings of collecting ancient texts.
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Originally Published: December 15, 2003
Last Updated: March 22, 2012
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Vol. XII, Fasc. 2, pp. 156-164
Laurianne Martinez-Sève, "HELLENISM," Encyclopædia Iranica, XII/2, pp. 156-164, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/hellenism (accessed on 22 March 2012).