Parthenon Frieze, Athens: Influenced By Persepolis Reliefs Which Were Inspired By Ionian Sculpture
This is the second of three stories that aim to show the cultural link between two arch-enemies, Ancient Greece and the First Persian Empire, using three objects that are on the display in the British Museum. The first story was about the Cyrus Cylinder. The subject of this story will be the Parthenon Frieze. The third one will discuss the Mausoleum.
What Is Parthenon?
It replaced an older temple of Athena that was destroyed in 480 BC, during the Second Persian invasion of Greece. The new temple was erected to show the might of Athens in general and their superiority over Persians in particular. This becomes obvious if one examines the Parthenon Frieze.
What Is The Parthenon Frieze?
Below are the Parthenon frieze slubs that show the culmination point of the procession: Zeus, Hera, other Greek gods, as well as heroes or civic dignitaries.
What Links Parthenon Frieze And Persian Culture?
One can see it particularly well on the reliefs of Apadana, the great audience hall of Persepolis. They show the processions of representatives of twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire, with court notables and Persians and Medes, followed by soldiers and guards, their horses, and royal chariots. Delegates carry gifts as a token of their loyalty and a tribute to the deity-like king.
There are a few obvious similarities between the reliefs of Parthenon and Persepolis: both depict processions, both are in the locations where these processions were actually happening. There are also some compositional similarities: the deities (Parthenon) and the king (Persepolis) are seated, and surrounded by standing high profile figures, whereas the lower profile figures walk (Persepolis) or ride (Parthenon) towards them.
Although we cannot be absolutely certain that the Ionian Greeks are the makers of the reliefs discussed below, it is reasonable to assume this, since no other nation in the Achaemenid Empire was capable of the perfect rendering of the human body.
There were, most likely, carved reliefs on the Ionian Temple of Artemis (this temple was rebuilt 3 times; the second incarnation, begun at cr. 550 BC, a few decades before the beginnings of Persepolis, is relevant to us).
One could also try and link it to the Siphnian Treasury, that was begun in 525 BC. The link is possible because Siphnos was mostly populated by Ionians.
Part Of The Artistic Tradition
The artistic back-and-forth between Greek and Persian cultures is part of a much longer artistic tradition of representing stately processions. Such representations were created by other great cultures of antiquity: Ancient Egypt, Assyria and Sumeria.
- Greek sculpture that we see in the museums is greyish white, the natural colour of the marble. However, originally it was brightly painted. We don’t know exactly how it was, as very few fragments of the paint survived.
Persepolis reliefs (made of limestone) were richly painted, too.
- It is possible to have a virtual visit of
Greeks would often dress their imaginary arch-enemies, Amazons, as their real arch-enemies, Persians or Scythians (wearing patterned trousers). Amazons didn’t need to have distinctive costumes because they would be the only warrior women represented in Greek art.
- When working on this post, I came across a wonderful source of information about the ancient history: livius.org. There is a lot of high-quality content there, spanning from Ancient Greece and Persia to medieval and Byzanthian art and history! Highly recommended. Here is more information on Persian Influence on Greek architecture.
- Ionia and Ionian (as in the Ionian Sea or the Ionian Islands) are two unrelated geographic names. They appear the same in English, but they are spelt differently in Ancient Greek. Ionia is spelt Ἰωνία, Iōnía or Ἰωνίη, Iōníē. Ionian is spelt Ἰόνιοι, Ionioi. Ionic as in Ionic order refers to Ionia.
- The above mentioned Lydian king Croesus was so famous for his wealth that his name remained proverbial beyond classical antiquity: in English, expressions such as “rich as Croesus” or “richer than Croesus” are used to indicate great wealth to this day.
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