Ancient History & Civilisation


Greeks, Romans, Parthians and Sasanians: before Islam

We have already met the Parthians, invaders from Central Asia who took over much of Persia and the Near East after the Achaemenids had been defeated, and to whom the Seleucid Macedonians had eventually also largely given way, as they had to the new Greek kingdom in Bactria. And we have seen something of their presence in north India, as at Taxila. To the Greeks at least they could appear philhellenes. King Orodes mounted Greek plays and was said to have used the defeated Roman general Crassus’ head as a prop in a production of Euripides’ play Bacchae (Plutarch, Crassus 32–3). They were attacked by Romans, from sad Crassus and Mark Antony on, and usually they effectively repelled them. The Emperor Trajan took and held for a while Mesopotamia and Armenia in the early 2nd century AD, but apart from a sometimes faltering hold west and east the Parthians determined much that was built and created from the Mediterranean to Bactria, and remained in power until a new Persian dynasty, the Sasanian, claimed the old Persian heritage, one attested also by the use of Aramaic for bureaucrats. A Greek presence throughout this period is certain but Greek influence seems slight, although Parthian architecture presents many variations on – one might sometimes say travesties of – the classical, while retaining a certain oriental majesty. Thus, the details of the classical orders are copied but adjusted, and the proportions of columns can be changed out of all Mediterranean norms, from the stumpy to the elongated. More superficially Roman in appearance is the ready use of the arch, as for a moderately Roman-looking triumphal arch at Uruk [131], and the common use of acanthus ornament and Hellenistic mouldings in architecture.443 Brick too, a Roman rather than Greek material but for far longer used in Mesopotamia, comes into its own again, notably for defence-work of Roman aspect.444 Subsidiary decoration can be classical, such as acanthus leaves and floral friezes, but there is also more geometric pattern.445 Palmyra, en route to the east, has an interesting and monumental Greco-Roman aspect.446 For a new building at Nimrud the Greek sea monster (ketos) is borrowed for a lintel, and improved by being given wings and hind legs [132]; we have met it often in the east.447 One cannot but think that direct Greek intervention or invention is almost wholly lacking.

131 Triumphal arch at Uruk. 1st cent. AD.

132 Lintel with ketea. From Nimrud. (London, British Museum ANE 118896)

For other arts, we have had occasion to wonder about a very Greek source for some of the finer Hellenistic metalwork from regions in the Parthian sphere. Otherwise, the Greek models suffer much as did the architecture, to the point that actual Greek design must be doubted. Military figures and many deities are staidly frontal, only very occasionally relaxing a pose. But as well as these there are a number of works in what one must judge a purely classical style, or one barely adjusted for somewhat unclassical figures, such as the famous bronze ruler from Shami of around the turn of the era [133].448 At Susa there is what might be the marble portrait of a Parthian queen (Mousa?), wearing a version of the crenellated crown whose origins are both Persian and, via Cybele, Greek, and signed by a Greek artist Antiochos.449 Of the period are also several Greek inscriptions at Susa recording manumissions, with consecration to Nanaia.450 Divine figures get somewhat translated, notably the recliners, like the Herakles/Verethagna we met at Bisitun [38]. A marble reclining lady, naked but for her necklace, is from Seleucia, offering a Greek motif in a compromise between easy classicism and blunt eastern frontality.451 At Seleucia on the Tigris terracottas are wholly Hellenistic in form.452 Later, in a Persian fortress site in northeast Piran (Qal’eh-i Yazdigird), we are offered stone reliefs with vine friezes, Pans, naked dancers, and Erotes with panthers [134], as plausible though not as authentic as any in the corners of the Roman Empire in the west.453 There really is no ‘common style’. Hatra is the richest source. A group presenting Allat as Athena [135] is an interesting translation of the classical, while the reclining god in ill. 136 copies the pose of the Herakles we often meet.454 But the last years of Hatra in the west (it was destroyed in AD 240) yield a stiffly uncompromising sculptural style, thoroughly eastern with but a glimpse of Roman (rather than Greek) inspiration;455 for example, a dedication to Herakles with one of the rare Latin inscriptions to be met in the east [137]. Direct Greek intervention in ‘Parthian’ arts is not easily defined. Certainly there were ‘Parthian’ periods in Gandhara and north India – but they too are not easily defined or illustrated.

133 Bronze statue from Shami. (Teheran Museum. H. 2 m)

134 Reconstructed relief with classical figures from Qaleh-I Yazdigird. (Toronto, Royal Ontario Museum 983.61.2)

135 Relief with goddesses, showing Allat as Athena. From Hatra. (Iraq Museum. H. 1.28 m)

136 Lintel from Hatra. Herakles/Vajrapani reclining at feast, with Victories. (Iraq Museum. W. 2.5 m)

Painting traditions, on the other hand, died hard, with glimpses of the classical everywhere, but perhaps at two or three removes, and inaugurating an important period of Central Asian painting. And again, for Parthians in Central Asia, we have bronze buckles of a type well known in the area and commonly decorated with the Parthian pair of busts, but one has a very classical group of a horseman hunting a stag [138].456

The Sasanian kings of Persia reigned from AD 224 to 636, and their empire was no whit smaller than the Achaemenid had been; indeed it matched the Roman for the size of its army and sophistication of its defences, a feature that has been appreciated only in recent years after exploration in Central Asia.457 It was the last and biggest of the empires of the Old World, succumbing to Islam at about the same time as did the classical Byzantine. The Sasanians devoted themselves to driving Romans out of Asia, in which they achieved no little success, with Shapur I defeating and capturing the Emperor Valerian in AD 260, a success celebrated on their own monuments in a style that owed much to the old classical traditions in the east, but with added interest in false-perspective views of the world that are pictorially very successful but owe nothing to any deliberate attempt to observe and copy the world around. In a rock relief at Naqsh-e Rustam the mounted Sasanian king grasps Valerian, at the same time receiving the homage of Emperor Philip the Arab. The same success was celebrated in a more purely classical manner on a unique cameo [PL. XLVI], a genre not much practised in Asia, and probably cut by a Greek.458 The kings collide but the Persian grasps the wrist of the Roman, so he has the upper hand, and the symmetry has an eastern flavour rather than the realistic classical.

137 Relief from Hatra with a Latin dedication. (Iraq Museum)

138 Bronze belt plaque featuring a horseman, dog and stag. (Los Angeles County Museum)

We shall return to Sasanian monumental arts, but begin with silver plate, since it is a subject already broached and in many respects it exemplifies Sasanian figurative and narrative arts. The commonest medium is the shallow silver bowl, like a phiale, followed by deeper ovoid bowls and jugs. On the bowls we find new techniques involving the soldering on of parts or all of the relief figures, and much gilding, commonly all over.459

We start with some problem pieces of uncertain association with the Sasanians – ‘Asian’ rather than ‘Sasanian’ – but best studied at this point in our narrative. They seem to betray a degree of remotely informed classicism that may go a little beyond the continued copying of a foreign style and figures, but which exemplifies a culture or cultures to which such a style still has a relevance, perhaps reinforced by true Greek experience, and certainly one which could offer Greek iconographic models to serve various purposes. A number of silver vessels from Central Asia betray distinct signs of classicism, without quite being Greek or even having anything very close to do with the well-known Sasanian styles. They are ‘late’, but how late? They are not easily dated by either their classical or eastern features, yet they clearly show knowledge of classical art and iconography. They are nearly hemispherical phialai, relief-decorated on the outside. One scholar has associated their figure decoration with knowledge of the works of the 5th-century BC Greek playwright Euripides, but the associations are probably accidental and by no means explain most of the decoration. Others place them far later, nearer the 5th century AD, which is perhaps too far and renders closer comparison with the basic Sasanian styles more difficult. All have relief roundels underneath and their rims have beading or wave pattern. The figure scenes are classical in style. On one from Kustanai (north Kazakhstan) [139] a group clearly derives from the classical formula for the scene of Admetus leaving Alcestis, but the other figures tell nothing and include a frontal seated goddess being attended. Most elements are broadly classical but only the one group specifically so. It is almost as though the artist had a pattern book of classical iconography while his style and composition are not altogether oriental in concept.

On another cup [140] there are several classical figures and groups, inviting attempts to associate them with specific scenes in classical art, but only superficially and with no common theme. On this, and another [141], a man with a club is prominent, like a Herakles but with no lionskin and belabouring another man holding a boar. The facing head in the roundel beneath looks rather like a satyr mask, and may have derived from one, but comes to have a good career in the east as the mask of the Indian war god Skanda, and called Kirtimukha. Another bowl [142], once in Tibet, has a lot of foliage and classical figures including a young Herakles with lion-head cap but no coherent narrative setting. Its base roundel has fish in water, like a dish at Begram and also on Sasanian silver,460 and a subject for Roman mosaicists, while there are technical affinities with ‘standard’ Sasanian silver (the soldered-on figures).461

139 Silver cup from Kustanai bearing groups, including one recalling the classical Admetus and Alcestis. 1st/2nd cent. AD (?). (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

140 Silver cup bearing various classicizing scenes including a possible Herakles. 1st/2nd cent. AD (?). (Washington, Freer Gallery)

141 Silver cup with classicizing scenes including Herakles (?) attacking a seated man. 1st/2nd cent. AD (?). (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

142 Silver bowl with figures set in a landscape of trees. From Tibet. 1st/2nd cent. AD (?).(After DCAA)

143 Gilt silver dish showing Herakles at feast. From Badakshan. 2nd cent. AD (?). (London, British Museum)

But I start with one in this technique462 which, it is possible (indeed likely), is pre-Sasanian in date, and which carries a very remarkable and detailed copy of a totally misunderstood and reinterpreted classical motif [143]. It had been in the hands of the rulers of Badakshan (northern Pakistan) in the 19th century, acquired by the British, went to the Calcutta Museum, whence to the British Museum, much regarded and described, although not always accurately. It is an interesting lesson in the processes of copying and interpretation, and has a very real Sasanian succession, both the whole scene and parts. However, the possibility of Parthian origin needs to be admitted, and the Parthian-Sasanian succession in silverware remains a matter for debate.463

144 Sardonyx cameo showing the Triumph of Dionysos. 1st cent. BC/AD. (Naples, Museo Nazionale)

The subject’s origins can be readily understood from two first-century BC classical cameos showing the triumph of Dionysos.464 On one [144] we see the god reclining in a chariot whose wheel is being pushed by an Eros, while another stands on the chariot pole with a torch held horizontally; the chariot is pulled by two winged women (Psychai), one of whom looks round at the other. On the other we have also an Eros flying overhead and a figure seated at the back corner of the chariot/cart. On the eastern silver dish [143] we have the same two women pulling the chariot with one looking round to the other, but now they have no wings and their attachment to the ‘chariot’ has disappeared. The flying Eros and the one on the chariot pole keep their postures but are now joined by a ribbon and one Eros holds a jug. The chariot has become a plain rectangle, which is the way carpets are soon to be shown in the east and may be so translated already here. Its wheel is still being attended to by an Eros and there is a female figure seated at one corner, as on the cameos. The reclining figure holding a bowl is no longer Dionysos but the Herakles type already met in the east on the relief at Bisitun in Persia [38] (of the Parthian period, mid-2nd century BC). Behind there skips a satyr, with a short goat-tail, holding an animal skin and a club. The pose is exactly that of many a satyr in 1st-century BC/AD classical art, deriving from a popular Praxitelean type, but his throwing stick has been thickened. Behind him is a vine. In the exergue, between eastern peonies, a panther investigates a pot, a common subject on Roman sarcophagi, but without the eastern flowers. A purely classical subject has been misunderstood and reinterpreted in the interests of showing the epiphany of a drinking, oriental Herakles. The maker knew without wholly understanding a classical model which served his depiction of an orientalized classical deity. That model might well have been a cameo, gem or silver plate, since the subject does not appear otherwise on portable objects. It is in a way ironic that the original subject celebrated the god Dionysos’ victory over the Indians and his ‘gift’ of wine to the east. Whether the dish needs to be as late as early Sasanian remains a moot point; we have no clear evidence for the shape and technique in silver any earlier, yet there is nothing whatever Sasanian in the decoration. It might be late Parthian, which means that the technique was one already established when Sasanians began to rule, and this is by no means impossible. The Parthian world was not technically inept and could be heavily classicizing, as we have seen. And the Herakles image and story was to have a yet longer resonance in the east than that of Dionysos, even affecting the image and story of the Persian hero Rustam, as described in the 10th-century Shahnama.465

The Sasanian link is made clear by two other, purely Sasanian bowls which are much later (5th century AD?) and reprise the subject, yet further adjusted [145]. Without knowing the model we might well, and rightly, judge that the ‘chariot’ is simply a carpet, especially since there are now two Erotes below, not promoting movement, but more resembling attendants of the familiar eastern Wheel of Fate, and at the same time resembling the common classical group of Erotes with a wreath or even a shield between them. The women ‘pulling’ and the two Erotes above are essentially the same, but the god has been turned into a near-naked goddess and a naked woman sits at the corner.466 The satyr has acquired a countryman’s hat and seems to grow from the vine, a feature stillrequiring explanation. Below, the panther has musicians to accompany him. We would be hard put to give Sasanian identities to the figures now, but at least their classical origins are clear, although there can be no question of any true western intervention in the new designs. Much the same scheme seems to have been kept for more wholly eastern scenes of open-air drinking – ‘a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou’ – depicted on silver cups.467

145 Sasanian gilt silver dish showing a goddess at feast. 4th/5th cent. AD. (Washington, Freer Gallery)

The Greek elements in Sasanian art, which is otherwise characterized by a strongly individual idiom for figures and compositions, sometimes seem at odds with the essential style. Purely Greek compositions, like that echoed via the Badakshan dish, are hard to find. But there is one plate with a scene of Herakles in his lionskin tipping the Erymanthian boar on to Eurystheus cowering in a basket [PL. XLV],468 which reproduces the essentials of the scene as it was shown on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia a millennium earlier. But even the little Eros with a ribbon which appeared on the cups (as in ill. 143) survives to honour a Sasanian prince on one of the slightly less usual silver cups [146],469 and even later still on work that barely remains Sasanian.470 It appears notably on a fine cup with a royal boar hunt and attendant elephant.471 In addition, recalling the Tillya Tepe Dionysos and Ariadne on a lion, crowned by a Victory [PL. XXXI], one cannot help wondering about a late Sasanian cup with a man on a lion and a female figure hovering behind him, raising a ribbon [147].472 The group of the great bird Garuda lifting Anahita473 may seem borrowed from the classical group of the Zeus-eagle lifting Ganymede, but has curious earlier analogies in Gandhara.474 It is a motif that is continued in Indian art. The many naked or near-naked ladies, their dress below mid-thigh, clearly betray their inspiration in classical Aphrodites for all the differences in physique and other dress. Most of these cups present the king, usually hunting quarry, which is commonly represented in a lively and realistic style. Some subjects are more obviously foreign in aspect, like the two heroes with horses [145], which recall the Dioskouroi at Dilberzin [46], but, with the horses winged and with bent heads, certainly also evoking something of the popular classical motif of Bellerophon watering Pegasus on Acrocorinth, especially since there seems to be a water-carrier below them, presenting a fine confusion of myth and iconography.475 The winged horses appear alone also in Sasanian art and they are shown beside royal thrones.476 It is not clear whether the partly clothed men and festive near-naked women, some with vines and Pan pipes, which are prominent on Sasanian plate are indeed lingering shadows of Dionysos and his maenads [149].477 They may indeed owe something to classical models, yet seem almost an integral part of Sasanian court imagery, but even the Roman wolf with Romulus and Remus has an eastern currency.478

146 Sasanian gilt silver dish showing an enthroned king attended by a Cupid. 3rd/4th cent. AD. (London, British Museum)

147 Silver dish showing a woman crowning a man seated on a lion. 4th/5th cent. AD (?). (St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum. After Lukonin)

148 Sasanian gilt silver dish showing the Dioskouroi/Bellerophon. 3rd/4th cent. AD (?). (New York, Metropolitan Museum 63.152)

Sasanian seal engravings offer a very wide range of subjects, a few of which are classically inspired. On one [150] we see a Sasanian hero dealing with what looks very much like the Greek god Pan, ithyphallic and with animal extremities.479 Pan himself is not so treated in the west but his figure was widely used, including in Parthia, to personify any rustic demon.

149 Sasanian gilt silver flask showing a woman piping in a vineyard. 3rd cent. AD (?). (Washington, Freer Gallery)

In Sasanian architecture the remnants of classicism are more disguised but the Corinthian order is remembered in capitals of the same general shape, without the flowing leaves, but with a fine mix of classicizing florals in low relief [151].480 This is in fact a type also widespread in the eastern Byzantine Empire and later will be found from Córdoba in Spain to Faras in Nubia.481

150 Sasanian medallion with a ruler attacking a Pan-like figure. (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale 1975.251.12)

151 Sasanian ‘Corinthian’ capital from Taq-I Bustan. 4th/5th cent. AD (?). (Photo, author)

More unusual and thought-provoking is the possibility that Sasanian art contributed to the western iconography of episodes in the ‘Alexander Romance’, a colourful account of Alexander’s further exploration of the world in an animal-powered flying machine. There are Sasanian representations of the raising of the Moon God, and of rulers on thrones that seem about to take off, lifted by winged monsters, as in ill. 146.482 The subject was one which was current in much later Persian art.

The Sasanians, although generally successful against the Romans, met their match in the Emperor Heraclius, who, in the early 7th century, drove their armies deep back into Persia. But very soon after, both his, that is the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Sasanian Empire, fell to the advance of Islam.

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