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Persian influence on Greece (6)

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The caryatids at the Erechtheion, Athens. Photo Marco Prins.
Athenian caryatids
The ancient Persian and Greek cultures did not exist in isolation. There was cross-fertilization. The present article contains a description of Persia's influence on Greece.

This is the sixth part of the article; the first one can be found here.

Architecture: Erechtheum

Another example of the emulation of artistic ideas can be found in the Erechtheum on the Athenian acropolis. It was built after the Parthenon, between 425 and 409, during the war against Sparta. For the present purpose, we are interested in only one part of this complex sanctuary: the caryatids.
Architecture: Odeon
Architecture: Prytaneum
Architecture: Parthenon frieze
Architecture: Erechtheum
Politics: Delian League
Politics: Episcopus

One of the caryatids of the Siphnos treasury in Delphi. Photo Marco Prins.
One of the caryatids of the Siphnos treasury in Delphi (Museum of Delphi).

In one of the wings of the Erechtheum, these female figures carry the roof on their heads. They are not the first examples of thus type of column in Greece: the caryatids of the Siphnian treasury at Delphi were, according to several art historians, erected after the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 BCE.

The issue is how and from where these women were introduced into Greek art. One explanation is offered by Vitruvius, a Roman architect who published a textbook On Architecture. He writes:

Should any one wish for information on the origin of those draped matronal figures [...] called caryatids, I will explain it by the following story. Carya, a city of Peloponnese, joined the Persians in their war against the Greeks. These in return for the treachery, after having freed themselves by a most glorious victory from the intended Persian yoke, unanimously resolved to launch a war against the Caryans. Carya was taken and destroyed, its male population extinguished, and its matrons carried into slavery. To ensure that these circumstances might be better remembered, and the nature of the triumph perpetuated, the victors represented the matrons draped, and apparently suffering under the burden with which they were loaded, to expiate the crime of their native city. Thus, in their edifices, did the ancient architects, by the use of these statues, hand down to posterity a memorial of the crime of the Caryans.
[Vitruvius, On architecture, 1.1.5]

Bull impost from Susa. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Bull impost from Susa (Louvre)

In other words, caryatids are not only statues with the function of columns, but express an idea: you were not supposed to collaborate with the enemy, because you would be subdued, humiliated, and punished.

This motif is also known from Persia. In the second half of the sixth century BCE, the great king had assembled a great many conquered nations. These people, or rather their subjection, became part of the royal imagery.

To express the idea that others were subjected, the Persians used no human but animal figures. For example, the imposts of the columns in the palaces (the top of a column which connects it with the supporting beams of the roof) often have the shape of of a bull or a winged feline. The analogy is obvious: like a griffin or a wild bull under a yoke, the nations were kept under control by the king.

Sometimes, humans are depicted as carriers of a great weight: for example, on the royal tombs at Naqš-i Rustam, we see the king, standing on two large platforms. These platforms are carried by men, who probably resemble the subject nations. Another example is the representation of the king on the tripylon-gate at Persepolis, where the king is sitting on a throne, supported by three levels of humans.

The Athenian caryatids do not resemble Athenian women: their hair cuts are uncommon and resemble Peloponnesian hair cuts. This is something we can say with certainty. It is tempting to look for a Persian antecedent for the caryatids, because there are no obvious antecedents in Greek art. But when we try to establish a Persian influence, we have to be more speculative. Why didn't the Athenians copy the animal figures and did they use women instead?

Carriers of the royal throne. Relief from Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
Relief from Persepolis (Hall of Hundred Columns)

If we ignore the possibility that the Athenian men treated their women like animals -which is certainly a possible interpretation- the solution may be that the Athenians only emulated the general idea behind the representation. In the Persian context, yoked animals or people are carrying a great weight, which was apparently seen as the essence of subjection. The same element can be found in the Greek situation: the caryatids are carrying a heavy load. This time, they are not animals but women, but this has a reason: as we have seen in the example of the Parthenon frieze (above), the Athenians adapted a general idea to a specific situation. They used a concrete example, the shameful subjection of the women of Carya, to show that they were prepared to subject people, as the Persians did.

This was not merely an intention, but the Athenians put it into practice. In the next section, we will deal with their imperialist policy. In the years after the Persian Wars, Athens expanded its empire and controlled a great part of the Greek world with its superior navy. This created new problems in the management of the empire, and the Athenians wanted to deal with them as efficiently as possible. Probably, they looked abroad how the Achaemenid empire had solved the same problems. Of course it is possible that the Athenian leaders were original and creative thinkers, but, as we shall see in the next parts of this article, there are indications that they copied Persian solutions.

to part seven

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