Ancient History & Civilisation


Greeks and Alexander ‘the Great’

The invasion of the Persian Empire

North of the Greek states lay the Macedonian kingdom. It had been penetrated by the Persian invasions of the early 5th century, and occupied, with no lasting harm done so far as we can judge. The Macedonian language was related to Greek, but remotely, hardly more than to any other Indo-European language, and the Macedonians were not Greeks, did not speak Greek, nor did they write. To the Greeks their coastline was a foreign place on which to plant colonies, just as they did in Italy, but since it was immediately adjacent these soon became the basis for an extension of the Greek ‘homeland’.74

But Macedonia was rich, in minerals and farmland. Its physical situation was so unlike that of Greece to the south that it naturally prospered as a whole rather than in separate states. Its kings could build palaces and monumental tombs on what seems an Anatolian pattern. They had big ideas. In the 5th century they began to cast covetous eyes abroad and not least on Greece, beginning to absorb, through imitation and migration of artists, much of Greek art and culture, although certainly no form of democracy (rare enough in Greece at any level). The Greeks were typically disdainful of their rich and powerful neighbour and tended to rebuff advances and any attempts to infiltrate through the creation of pro-Macedonian leagues. But the Macedonians admired Greek civilization, as did the Romans in later years, however much they may have despised the Greeks themselves, and they wanted to embrace it, even to be regarded as part of it. Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359–336 BC) united his country and spread its boundaries to the south, expanding or destroying Greek cities. He had little trouble in northern Greece but Athens and Thebes resisted the Macedonians until they were defeated decisively at the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, an event celebrated by the erection there of a colossal and very Greek statue of a lion.

Now that Philip could regard himself as an honorary Greek he began to look east, towards an empire that still had more than vestigial interests in the west. His pose, that his mission was to free the Greeks of Asia Minor and exact revenge for the Persian assaults on Greece itself in 480/79 BC, was rather a sham, disguising sheer territorial ambition. But he was ready to appear to be behaving in a pro-Greek manner, despite his attitude and behaviour towards contemporary Greeks. There were some Greeks who were acquiescent, and he was even encouraged to attack Persia by the Athenian lawyer and orator Isocrates. However, Macedonian palace and dynastic intrigues, such as always beset such kingdoms, led to his assassination in 336 BC.

In dealing with ancient and modern attitudes to Greeks and Macedonians we have to remember that we are almost wholly dependent on the testimony of Greek authors, most of whom may have been schooled in believing that Philip’s son Alexander was near-Greek and to some degree a saviour and champion of their nation. The attitude persists, and Alexander can be treated as a Greek hero, motivated by the very best and pro-Hellenic feelings, and with an essentially Greek empire. But even the historians’ testimony, since they were prone to record the truth, tells a different story. Alexander emerges as a brilliant general, certainly, but a man who mainly despised the Greeks and often acted against their best interests, although he was in many ways dependent on their skills, more administrative than military.

Philip had seen to it that Alexander was brought up to Greek ways, tutored by no less a sage than Aristotle from Athens. It is difficult to imagine what a teenage riding-and-shooting prince could have learned, and the later stories of him mocking his tutor ring true.75 He spoke some Greek, but even to the Greeks there was always some hesitancy about his authenticity. He was alleged to have had a copy of the Iliad annotated by Aristotle in a box76 – I wonder. However, in the Greek manner he pretended to a legendary Greek heritage, through the heroes Perseus and Herakles, even from Achilles. So his eastern ambitions might seem in a way to be continuing the Trojan War, and indeed he visited Troy to pay respects to ‘Achilles’ tomb’ and pick up ‘Achilles’ shield’. Elsewhere he might seem to be following the god Dionysos’ footsteps into Asia, ‘pursuing the Scyths beyond the bounds of Dionysos’; following Herakles too, and both god and hero had an eastern aspect and from an early date. It is clear that Alexander encouraged the view that he could be assimilated to them. His mother Olympias was said to have had a fondness for snakes (like a maenad).77 This was a mode long familiar in Greece for rulers, but Alexander took it farther, and even embraced a persona as Zeus, after visiting the god’s Ammon shrine in Egypt, and thereafter often wearing the Zeus-Ammon rams’ horns in portraits. It was an easy step from this to begin to entertain the possibility of his own immortality and to consider the appropriateness of obeisance before him, a Persian practice abhorrent to Greeks and, as it proved, not much to the taste of Macedonians. And after he had occupied the Persian homeland and began to move on east he seems to have been more obsessed with a view of himself as the new emperor of Persia, adopting suitable costume, expecting fitting behaviour from his followers, and acting rather like what the Greeks regarded as a ‘barbarian’ king, although his elite ‘Companions’ resisted Persian dress. His attitudes could not have endeared him to many, but he was militarily, and therefore personally, irresistible.78

Our principal source for Alexander is the Greek 2nd-century AD historian Arrian, but he had been the subject of many monographs and other histories, of which we have fragments. With Arrian we can follow Alexander’s progress through the Persian Empire, to the sack of Persepolis and into Asia. Our best supplementary guide is simply geography, with archaeology (mainly art history) providing a sometimes vivid commentary on events. Arrian was no fool: ‘Alexander said that he wished to punish the Persians for sacking Athens and burning the temples when they invaded Greece, and to exact retribution for all the other injuries they had done to the Greeks. I do not think that Alexander showed good sense in this action nor that he could punish the Persians of a long past age’ (Anab.3.18.12).

Alexander’s army was formidable, unlike Greek armies except in the use of exceptional platoons of hoplite soldiers, with extra long spears (sarissai), and in his most intelligent and effective use of cavalry – never a strong point for the Greeks. He crossed the Hellespont to invade the Persian Empire in 334 BC with 40,000 men, of whom only 7,000 were Greek hoplite allies. But there were also Greek mercenaries (5,000) and Balkan troops, and the whole force rose to well over 60,000 within four years, and later, some have thought, even doubled. In Asia Minor he was often facing Greeks in Persian service and could reflect that they were in fact traitors to the Hellenic ideal, though they were clearly happy and prosperous enough as the distant king’s vassals. They suffered for it.

In Alexander’s campaigns his Greeks seem to have played no prominent role, and the forces from the Corinthian League, which had been formed to support the Macedonians against Persia, were demobilized after the battle at Ecbatana in 330 BC. He made little enough use of a relatively small Greek fleet of 160 ships and soon dismissed it. Perhaps he was not totally confident in a people so recently defeated by his father, and one of whose major cities, Thebes, he had himself recently (333 BC) destroyed. His triumphant progress through the Persian Empire, and all its provinces, including Egypt, was a Macedonian success, even if proclaimed as avenging the Greeks, whose leadership he had assumed. The Persian Empire was already in some disarray, with several local revolts, generally crushed, but we do not see that the local populations were for the most part glad to be ‘liberated’ by Alexander. He was an utterly ruthless conqueror, merciless even to his own folk if they crossed him. He was responsible for the arranged deaths of several prominent courtiers and has even been suspected of conniving in his father’s murder. It is difficult to admire much in his career beyond his military successes, which were staggering, dismantling the most powerful empire that the world had seen in barely ten years; moreover, this was an empire that, in the terms in which we can understand any ancient empire, seems the most ‘civilized’ and forward-looking of antiquity. Alexander, in destroying it, has a lot to answer for, but he incidentally helped carry Greek manners, arts and peoples far to the east, and this is our concern.

Into Asia

Alexander’s armies marched beyond Persia into Central Asia, encountering native as well as Persian resistance in the outlying satrapies. The Persians had perhaps never been such harsh masters; after all they had come from Central Asia in the first place and were, in a way, ‘at home’. They had built towns, fortresses and palaces in the east, and the Persian stamp remained long visible on culture. His campaigning became more and more ruthless, conspiracies against him multiplied, and his behaviour became even less like that of an avenger of Greeks. He married a Bactrian princess, Roxane. His victorious surge ranged wider, north to the Syr Darya, soon south into India itself, and it seemed that even the boundaries of the known world were too small for him. At length his men could stand no more and refused to go yet farther south and east, and Alexander had to acknowledge that his vicious campaign of revenge and acquisition was at an end, and he turned for home. But behind him he left an organization based on what the Persians had established, with ‘satrapies’ which had been managed by Persian officials and no doubt some Greek staff. His determination to ‘settle’ Asia as part of his new empire is shown by his desire to found cities, new Alexandrias like the one in Egypt. Not all the alleged foundations can be identified and the record of them may be inflated, as well as confused.79 Likewise there is seldom any consensus about the composition of the population of the new cities – locals, retired Greek and Macedonian soldiers, their camp-followers;80these were by no means normal Mediterranean poleis in their organization or personnel, yet they certainly contributed to some settled way of life for many Greeks, and in various respects echoed the appearance and structure of Mediterranean towns. But Alexander could pretend that he (as if Greek) could find himself at home, and at Nisa it was said that the Indians surrendered to him because their city had been founded by Dionysos and was the only place where ivy grows (Arrian, Anab. 5.1).81

Persians had already settled Greek prisoners and hostages in Bactria, from their 5th-century campaigns, mainly in Anatolia (notably the people of Didyma, the Branchidai). These had become bilingual and, to a degree, possibly degenerate, depending on your point of view – perhaps simply accustomized to a new environment and neighbours. They were partly responsible for some local minting of Greek-type coinage, beside the Greek-inspired Persian, introducing an influential form of monetary economy just as the Greeks had done in the western Mediterranean. When Alexander found these Greeks in the east he killed them ‘for the crimes of their ancestors’, perhaps regarding them also as traitors – there were, after all, more Greeks in the Persian army than in Alexander’s, where most were mercenaries rather than patriots from a united homeland. So we cannot regard his vengeance for the Greeks, carried so far to the east, as intended to establish new boundaries for Greekness rather than simply the rule of Macedon – yet, perversely, it did. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, and at the news the Greeks in Bactria revolted.

28 Silver decadrachm coin of Alexander the Great, showing him as Zeus with a thunderbolt and Victory overhead, and on the reverse Alexander (?) attacking an Indian war elephant. Minted in Babylon (?) about 323 BC. (Drawing, author)

Alexander’s heritage in the east is the subject for many pages to come.82 His success was celebrated in his lifetime in a medium which the Greeks, and especially the Romans, found particularly effective, since it was so easily and widely diffused. In Babylon were struck the coins that show Alexander as the Greek Zeus on one side, holding a thunderbolt and crowned by Victory (Nike, whose image will have a longer life in the east than Alexander’s), and on the other a cavalryman, perhaps Alexander again, attacking a war elephant, no doubt that of the Indian King Poros [28].83 The Alexander image survived long on eastern coins. One remarkable gold example has a rugged portrait of him, wearing the Zeus-Ammon horns, minted in the east and known so far in just one specimen [PL. VII], recently recovered, and which has aroused some suspicions (probably wrongly).84 But the distinctive profile with jutting forehead and scowl became well known, in bronze and clay,85 and on a remarkable gem cut in a rare stone and concealing a tiny inscription in Indian Kharoshti script [30, PL. VIII],86 as well as much elsewhere. Whatever the Greeks thought of him, his image and victories were to haunt their art and history for many years to come, and even far from his and their homelands.

29 Clay head of Alexander, from Hadda.

30 Impression of the gem illustrated in PL. VIII, showing the head of Alexander.

Greeks now found themselves in Asia, having soldiered against or for Alexander, a leader whose assumed Greekness seemed to have been rapidly fading. Earlier Greek knowledge of the region had been very varied. Herodotus had a lot to say about the habits of the nomads there, and the related Amazons, a fighting race of women whom most Greeks probably located in northeastern Anatolia.87 Greek settling and trading in Colchis (modern Georgia) had led them close to the Caspian Sea and the routes into and from Asia. We have seen how, from the later 7th century on, they had been in touch with the Scythians on the northern coast of the Black Sea and were soon trading vigorously and supplying them with appropriate luxury goods, some modelled on Scythian shapes but in Greek style.88 In this way Greek art was already beginning to permeate Central Asia, independently of its influence in Persia. Farther south, the presence of Bactrians in the Persian army was twice noted in Aeschylus’ play Persai, early in the 5th century BC. At the end of that century the playwright Euripides had Dionysos resident in Bactria before returning to Greece,89 and we have noticed Greeks settled there by Persians. At about that time Ctesias, a Greek visitor to India, remarked on how good the wine and cheese were; this could be a ‘home from home’.90 Ctesias was a doctor attending the Persian court around 500 BC. We know his writings only from the quotations of others, but from them it is clear that at least one Greek had already heard the tales of ‘Indian’ marvels, the skiapods, the griffins that guard the gold.

Dionysos and Herakles were soon being recruited as proto-Alexanders invading the east. It was said that Dionysos found in the Indus Valley the town of Nisa – the name of his old nurse, and nearby Mount Meru, centre of the Indian universe and covered with ivy and vine, and for him a reference to meros (‘thigh’), since he had been born from Zeus’ thigh. Greek mythography could compass any eventuality when it wished.91 We shall have to revert to the vinous theme later.

The Greek world-view placed an encircling sea, the Ocean, around their known world, with outlets at the Caspian and around Arabia; of the continents beyond they knew nothing beyond hearsay. They were aware of India, but China lay hidden behind deserts and mountain ranges. Herodotus’ detailed description of inner Asia did not depend on first-hand knowledge but was well-founded, much of it corroborated by Chinese sources,92 and not as fanciful and unreliable as some classical scholars have thought.

The Hellenistic heritage: 3rd to 1st centuries BC

At his death Alexander left an empire that was roughly co-extensive with what the Achaemenid Persian kings had ruled, but including Greece, however uneasy many of the Greeks may have felt about it.93 The empire’s geography broadly followed what Persia had established, but local rule depended on the presence and armies of Alexander’s generals, soon to develop into a nexus of independent but competing kingdoms (‘kingdoms’ being a Macedonian concept foreign to Greek thought and preferences). Although essentially a Macedonian empire, it bore much appearance of being Greek, and its organization depended largely on what Persian rule had established. There were Greeks throughout it already, and many more came flooding in to live, trade and join the administration. This, though managed by ‘kings’ and ‘governors’, still had much Greek and Persian about it, and at lower levels there was some degree of democracy, but it would be wrong to think that the eastern Hellenistic world was a logical successor to the classical Greek. Homeland Greece and its western colonies in the Mediterranean still clung to much of the rather chaotic styles of classical political behaviour, and only succumbed to imperial bureaucracy when Rome intervened. In the east the Macedonians remained largely disdainful of Greeks, who had to forge their own fortunes but were pervasive if seldom dominant.

In Egypt the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty ruled a country which had welcomed Greeks from the 7th century BC on, and the new city of Alexandria, where the great man was buried, expressed in many ways the essence of the Greekness of Hellenistic arts, subtly wedded to the far longer traditions of Egypt, and ready to feed back into Greece, and Rome, much that was to shape the later development of classical art. The Ptolemies also controlled for a time from Egypt parts of the east Mediterranean seaboard, from Anatolia south, but not being ‘Asia’ are not further considered here beyond the considerable influence their arts exercised on Greek or hellenized arts in the east.

In Anatolia the Romans had begun their march eastwards, defeating Seleucid Antiochos III, with the help of Pergamum, at Magnesia in 190 BC, leading to the Peace of Apamea in 188 BC. But the Macedonian Attalids came to create a new kingdom centred on Pergamum, soon embracing all Anatolia except Pontus and Cilicia at the east. Attalus III, at his death in 133 BC, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, and this new Mediterranean power enters the equation for the fortunes of Greeks in Asia. By then the Greek homeland itself had already abandoned any semblance of independence and freedom to Rome, as had the Macedonian kingdom. But in the northeast, after Attalus III, Pontus takes the centre stage, having been modest in expansion locally until the spectacular reign of Mithradates VI ‘the Great’ (reigned 120–63 BC).

This Mithradates, sharing a name with many easterners and recalling their worship of Mithras, was himself son of a Persian king but claimed also, perhaps rightly, some trace of Macedonian royal blood. He has enjoyed a mixed reputation, as a brave champion of Greeks against the spread of Rome, or as a near-mad monster, obsessed with his own importance and power, and prey to strange religious practices and experimentation with poisons. His ancestry meant that he could pose as a champion of both Greece and the east against the new Mediterranean power. If we discount the bad press he got in antiquity, he emerges as a sad but heroic figure, and he plays an important role in understanding the destinies of the Greek populations of Anatolia.94

Having introduced Mithradates I have to anticipate some aspects of other Greek fortunes in Anatolia. Rome started to interfere in Pontus in 89 BC, was defeated, and in the following year Mithradates ordered the massacre of all Romans in Anatolia (some 80,000 of them). The year after he turned west to liberate Greece from Rome but was rebuffed by the Roman general Sulla. A Second ‘Mithradatic War’ pushed back the Romans, with Mithradates looking to encourage sedition even in Italy itself. The Third War (73–63BC) sees the Roman Lucullus in Anatolia and Mithradates seeking the support of the Parthians, the new rulers of Persia. The Roman Pompey (the Great) put an end to his ambitions and Mithradates killed himself in 63 BC. Pompey’s triumphal procession in Rome in 61BC, displaying the loot of Anatolia, signalled the end of Greek pretensions to remain in complete control of their own fate, at least to as far as the Euphrates. But it also displayed no little that depended on Greek views about triumphal processions from the east of their homeland, and especially the Dionysos/Alexander associations.95 Pompey wore what he took to be Alexander’s cloak.

We now return to the years immediately following Alexander’s reign. Farther east there had still been fighting in Mesopotamia after Alexander, and in 312 BC Macedonian Seleukos captured Babylon, and his dynasty had to try to command territories from the Mediterranean to India.96 This was, of course, impossible, but cities could be founded and a population imported, as at the new Antioch-Persis established on the Persian Gulf and peopled from western Anatolia.97 On the Euphrates Apamea and Seleukia faced each other across the river. On the Tigris a new Seleukia effectively replaced old Babylon, 40 miles (65 km) away, and a new Susa was founded at the old Achaemenid capital. Farther northwest, on the Euphrates, near prehistoric Mari, stood a new city, Dura Europos, which in the 2nd century became a major centre, but, for the rest of its history, mainly under Parthian control although heavily aware of the Mediterranean, and to become almost the easternmost point at which Rome had some influence and presence.98In the Persian Gulf a town and garrison was established on the island of Failaka99 to control trade; it was provided with monumental buildings that subtly combined the Achaemenid and Ionic. These were Macedonian cities but their appearance and the bulk of their populations were Greek and native.100

The Seleucid Empire is not an easy one to assess. It was spared most of the inter-Macedonian rivalries farther west and had to deal mainly with local populations, Persians, the remnant of the highly organized Persian Empire, and what Alexander had begun to make of it.101 In Anatolia the further hellenization of an already fairly mixed population continued apace, as at Sardis.102 Seleukos I rebuilt the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, but with oddly eastern, even ‘fire-temple’, features, and it continued to serve Anatolian peoples of mixed religions and allegiances.103 When Seleukos I sent presents to the new temple they included Greek plate, a ‘barbarian wine-cooler’ and spices from India.104 Where Alexander went beyond the Persian homeland, to the east, the Seleucids inherited the problems met by both Persians and Alexander. Seleucid arts were Hellenistic Greek as devised for Macedonian kingdoms living a Greek cultural heritage, marked by Macedon only to the extent that there were now important dynastic aspirations to satisfy and not just local Greek pride. Naturally, in a Persian environment which had absorbed more than a little of Greek manners, especially in the arts, we find a continuation of much the same blend, as in the architecture at Failaka. But the Seleucids were very conscious of being heirs to the Babylonian and Achaemenid empires as much as to Alexander’s, and could be as diligent in the rebuilding of temples near Babylon105 as they were in redefining the east as an extension of the ‘classical’ Mediterranean, Greek and Macedonian world. Thus, brick and terracotta remain as media even for the monumental, in the old Mesopotamian tradition. The Hellenistic gold wreaths and other goldwork so familiar from Macedonian tombs became equally familiar in the east. Some eastern capital cities such as Uruk were, however, barely affected by the west. In some respects this was the result of a policy of non-intervention, and the Seleucid east no more became ‘Greek’ or even ‘Macedonian’ than India became ‘British’ in the 19th century.106Seleucid armies too were no more Greek than Alexander’s had been.107 But in the east, as in Egypt, we need not think that the arts that served the rulers were other than mainly Hellenistic Greek (there is no ‘Macedonian’ art or literature), devised for Macedonian royalty, but still for a partly Greek population, although in a foreign environment to which, however, they had been long accustomed. The subject of this book sadly has to exclude full consideration of the evidence for oriental continuity in the arts, except where something Greek intervenes or merges.

A new problem had been posed by yet another wave of newcomers from Central Asia, from just east of the southern Caspian Sea: the Parni – Parthians, their name derived from the Seleucid satrapy Parthava, and starting a dynasty of their own (the ‘Arsacid’) in 247 BC. They spread rapidly through old Persia, but were thrust back at the end of the 3rd century by the Seleucid King Antiochos III (‘the Great’; reigned 223–187 BC), who went on to retrace Alexander’s steps even as far as India. After the mid-3rd century the Seleucid hold on the east began to unravel. This was partly through the defection of the Bactrian Greeks, on whom more later, although even there a measure of Seleucid control must be admitted, especially under Antiochos III, and partly through the resurgence of the Parthians under their new king, Mithradates (a common regal name, acknowledging the god of Persians and others). He died in about 138 BC. His empire had become, at least in the east, as extensive as the Achaemenid Persian had been. But his successors had to fight to retain Babylonia, while the Greeks in the east were forging their own new kingdom. Parthian fortunes rallied for a while, before dealings with the grecophil Mithradates of Pontus (see above) and their confrontation with Rome. What we need to consider is the extent to which Greek presence and Greek influence affected the development and appearance of the new Persian/Parthian world of the 3rd to 1st centuries BC.108

Yet farther east the story remains more Macedonian/Greek. Seleukos I had been given five hundred elephants by the Indian King Chandragupta (Sandracotta, to the Greeks), in return for control of Kandahar. Elephants, with new types of chariot, had been adapted for use in the traditional Macedonian army, the westerners adding a turreted howdah making them more like tanks.109 Seleukos’ army included many ‘natives’, while the Greek proportion remained modest. He was fighting Chandragupta in 305 and 303BC, but eventually the Indian king was left in control of Arachosia and what is now east Afghanistan. At Kandahar his grandson, Mauryan Asoka, left an edict in Greek and Aramaic enjoining Buddhist righteousness (dhamma) and forbidding the killing and eating of living things.110 Alexander’s site at Merv (Margiana) was reshaped and fortified by Seleukos’ son Antiochos I.111 But by the mid-3rd century Seleucid rule in Bactria and parts of Parthia was threatened by both natives and Greeks, as we shall see. Kandahar was Alexander’s ‘Alexandria in Arachosia’, but we still know too little of its Greek history despite British excavations, aborted by the Russian invasion in 1978. The site is spectacular, encompassed by great cliffs with, at its centre, the massive mudbrick remains of a citadel, 18th-century in its latest phase, but embracing the ruins of a massive Achaemenid Persian fortress [PL. XI].112 Around 275 BC a Greek inscription records a dedication by a son of Aristonax.113 Some time in the 2nd century BC one Sophytos had inscribed there, ‘at the road side’, an acrostic poem in Greek (the first letters of each line give his name and parentage) recording his devotion to culture, but notably his success in leaving home to make a fortune through trade, and returning to rebuild his family seat and tomb. But Sophytos, through his name and that of his father Naratos, must be seen to be of an Indian family, yet proud to declare his successful career in Greek.114 And of about the same date a Greek poem dedicated to Hestia and Tyche is found in Tadjikistan.115

I A gold comb from a tomb at Solokha. A Greek cavalier in full armour is being attacked by two Scythians wearing their tight dress and carrying semicircular shields; a fallen horse lies beyond them. Set on a plinth with crouching lions. 5th century BC. (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

II A gold cup of eastern shape from a tomb at Gaimonova. The decoration is in Greek style: two Scythians seated at ease, a Greek leaf-and-dart pattern above. 4th century BC. (Kiev Archaeological Museum)

III A detail from the ‘Alexander Sarcophagus’ found at Sidon in Phoenicia. A fight of Greeks against Persian horsemen, the figure at the left probably representing Alexander. Late 4th century BC. (Istanbul Museum)

IV A clay relief revetment from a temple at Duver in Anatolia. A horseman in Anatolian dress is pursuing a griffin, in a provincial graecizing style. Early 5th century BC. (Ankara Museum. After Akurgal)

V Stone relief in bricks from the Persian capital at Susa. It shows a warrior with bow, quiver and spear. The painted geometric decoration of his dress contradicts its carved Greek-style natural folds, shown in the drawing to the left. 5th century BC. (Paris, Louvre)

VI Marble statue of a seated woman from Persepolis, probably representing the mourning Penelope. This was likely a gift from a vassal Greek state to the Persian king. Late 5th century BC. (Teheran Museum. Photos below, author. H. 85 cm)

VII Gold coin from a hoard in Afghanistan. It bears a portrait of Alexander wearing an elephant cap and with the ram’s horn signifying assimilation to Zeus Ammon at his ear. Late 4th century BC. (After Holt and Bopearachchi)

VIII Elbaite (like tourmaline) gemstone showing the head of Alexander with the Ammon horn. A tiny inscription in Indian Kharoshti script is at his neck, so it was made in the east (see ill. 30). Late 4th century BC. (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1892.1499. 25 × 25 mm)

IX Athenian red-figure jug showing a Greek sexually threatening a cowering Persian. Late 5th century BC. (Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 1981.173)

X Reconstruction of the interior of the Great Hall at the Parthian capital, Nisa, with freestanding and engaged classical columns. 3rd/2nd century BC. (After Invernizzi)

XI A view of ancient Kandahar from the south, the site of the Persian fortress at the centre. (Photo, author)

XII Silver statuette of a naked man, with gilt headdress, his hands held forward as if to hold sceptres or branches. From the ‘Oxus Treasure’. 5th/4th cent. BC. (London, British Museum WA 123905. H. 29.2 cm)

XIII Gilt silver rhyton-cup, a grape vine at the neck, palmettes and buds behind the forepart in the form of a leaping lynx. 3rd/2nd cent. BC. (Miho Museum, Shigaraki. L. 44 cm)

Coming much later, by 51 BC the Parthians controlled everything from their original homeland, through Persia, into Mesopotamia as far as the River Euphrates, whence they had repelled the Romans in the greatest catastrophe for Roman arms of all time (or so it seemed) at the battle of Carrhae (53 BC). From the 3rd century BC on they had found themselves heirs to both the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the fluctuating Seleucid/Macedonian Empire. The latter poses the usual question about how much is Macedonian, how much Greek, since it is clear that there was no total fusion and there is record enough, also under the Seleucids, of considerable friction between the nominal conquerors and their mercenary or vassal Greeks, who in effect may well have run much of the empire but not the army, and were certainly the major influence in the arts. The Parthians had still to deal with occasionally resurgent Seleucids, and soon, to the east, the new Greek kingdom in Bactria.

To the west, Dura Europos on the Euphrates flourished under the Parthians. It was a Seleucid foundation, occupied by Parthians after about 100 BC, and thereafter, until Sasanian times, offering as rich a mixture of cultures and arts as any city in the Near East, being on the western crossroads of west and east: Christianity, Judaism and Mithraism were all at various times accommodated, with adjusted classicizing arts serving them, notably in painting and mosaic.116

The Parthian capital in their homeland, east of the Caspian, was at Nisa, and as early as the 3rd century BC there seems to have been considerable new building there, to suit the home of new dynasties. The iwan, a broad open room, open at one side, was a characteristic feature, but at Nisa now much of the architectural carved detail is indebted more to the Greek tradition than to any Persian [PL. X]. When we deal with architecture the ground plans tell as much or more about cultural affiliations, commonly eastern, than the aboveground ornament, which is often Greek-inspired. But in the other arts too, including painting, as at Nisa, Hellenistic styles are developed, clearly by Greek artists working in the east, but often for new masters.117 Statuary types are very Greek – an acrolithic Aphrodite [31] (her lower part carved in inferior stone), an archaistic goddess [32], and realistic clay heads [33].118 A cheekpiece from a helmet has a Greek warrior, winged and with a floral below the waist [34].119 Much derives from the homeland styles of the Mediterranean, but in the east there are new traditions, and much that seems to have been created by Greeks there can be seen even to have had its effect back in the homeland.

31 Acrolithic statue of Aphrodite (the dress rendered in poorer stone), from Nisa. 2nd/1st century BC (?). (After Invernizzi)

32 Statue of a goddess in classical archaizing style, from Nisa. 1st century BC. (After Invernizzi)

33 Clay head of a warrior, from Nisa. 2nd/1st century BC. (After Invernizzi)

34 Bronze cheekpiece from a helmet decorated with a winged warrior with tendril legs. 2nd/1st century BC. (After Invernizzi)

Another example is furnished by the horn-shaped rhyton, a common eastern drinking vessel. It was known in Greece too, part of the general orientalizing, even somewhat persianizing movement since the 6th century BC. In the eastern ‘Hellenistic period’ it becomes particularly important, executed in gold and silver (often gilt) and decorated with generally Greek floral patterns on the horn and highly imaginative animal heads and foreparts at the pointed ‘mouth’120 [35, PL. XIII]. Occasionally, at the geographical fringes, there are clearer indications of recollection of earlier forms for the mouthpieces. But for the majority the pure Greek styles of design and workmanship make clear their sources, even though their customers and patrons may have been Greek, Macedonian, Persian or Parthian. A particularly rich haul of ivory rhyta was found at Nisa, in what looks almost like a butler’s pantry, stored ready for the feast. Be that as it may, the workmanship and subjects shown on the rhyta, which also boast relief scenes on their ‘collars’, are wholly Greek, whether of the new Persian/Parthian world, or, more probably, of the new Greek Bactrian – in which case they are loot. We shall return to them in the next chapter [42–45].

35 Silver rhyton with the forepart of a zebu bull and the horn decorated with a wreath and acanthus leaves. 2nd/1st century BC. (Toledo Museum of Art 88.23)

Another field of art of some significance throughout the east is that of seal-engraving. We have looked at the Greco-Persian gems with their mixed subjects. The style and shapes survive the Persian Empire, as do many of the subjects, notably Persian women at ease [36]. But the Persian males disappear and the hunting scenes are conducted by men with flat caps (kausia) characteristic of the Macedonians [37],121 so we may judge them Seleucid. In many respects the style has weakened: there is a lot more simple drill work than there had been even on the Greco-Persian seals, and in no respect do they truly reflect any of the new spirit of the Hellenistic arts of the west. Yet we shall find that they had a following farther east.122

Other arts of the ‘Hellenistic’, intermittently Parthian, east in Persia, are hard to judge since they present a blend of the Greek and eastern in which the latter is often dominant and distorting. A relief carved beside the great Achaemenid relief at Bisitun in Persia, showed (it is largely destroyed now) a king and four vassals in a very stiffly oriental group, albeit in flowing Greek-style dress, and one figure holds aloft a totally Greek figure of a trumpeting Victory.123 Figures of Greek religion and iconography have new roles and identities, and Greek architectural motifs, other than those which had already contributed to Achaemenid Persian art in the palaces, find a new role. All this will be more easily explained when we come to consider Parthia in the Roman period in more detail (Chapter 7), but there is an interesting earlier example of religious/political assimilation which is worth recording. Also at Bisitun in Persia, at the base of the cliff in the gully where Darius had carved his relief and inscriptions, there was a small sanctuary of Herakles, created by a Macedonian for Cleomenes, governor of the ‘upper satrapies’ in 148 BC. A relief was cut in the rock (just above an earlier outline relief of a lion, appropriately) of Herakles reclining at feast with a cup, his club before him, but also, incongruously (not his weapon), a quiver on the wall above [38].124 For Persians Herakles was Verethagna; there was no problem in borrowing Greek iconography for a Persian god and we shall meet this version of him again.125 The equation of Herakles and Verethagna is made explicit in the Greek and Aramaic inscriptions on a fine Hellenistic (about 100 BC) bronze statue of the hero found at Seleucia, but taken there long after it was made, as Parthian booty.126

36, 37 Impressions of a chalcedony scaraboid showing a Persian woman seated with a harp and a dog, and another showing horsemen wearing kausia pursuing stags. (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 03.103; Merz Collection. W. 22 mm and 40 mm)

38 Rock relief at Bisitun showing Herakles (as Verethagna) reclining at feast with his club and quiver. The lion relief below him is older. (After DCAA)

As a finale for the Hellenistic Greek record in the nearer east we may return closer to the Mediterranean, to the kingdom of Commagene, lying between the Euphrates and the coast. The royal house celebrated itself in colossal seated figures, and in reliefs that adjusted Greek realism for an eastern audience more interested in pattern, as in the 1st-century BC relief where a Herakles, again translated as the eastern Verethagna, acknowledges a local king127 [39], and the monumental idiom of the Greek world again has to compromise with the formality of the east at the hands of, certainly, a non-Greek artist. Generally, Greek traditional figures, not only Herakles, remained popular subjects in all media under the Parthians, but they are sparse and may reflect simply lingering local traditions. And in Commagene there is a plethora of monumental ‘Hellenistic’ sites, barely explored as yet.128 Of far more moment for the development of the arts in the region was the new emphasis on frontality for figures, which may still be dressed ‘classical’ but which abjure the basically naturalistic principles of classical art for something far more formal, and which soon shrink from real portraiture.129

39 Relief slab from Nemrud Dagh showing Herakles/Verethagna with a Commagenian king. (London, British Museum)

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