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Persian influence on Greece (10)

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Map of the Persian empire. Design Jona Lendering.
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 last part of the article; the first one can be found here.


In the fields of architecture and politics, the Athenians of the fifth century BCE copied several Persian innovations. In the branch of architecture, this happened in two ways: practical and ideological. The first of these can be found in the production and elaborating of rhytons, but also in the building of the Odeon and the Prytaneum. A Persian tent (and therefore a Persian architectural style) was used when the city was rebuilt and offered space for cultural and political activities. At the same time, they offered proof of the Athenian victory in war.

The second type of emulation can be found in the Parthenon frieze and the caryatids. The difference is twofold: in the first place, the caryatids and the frieze are not based on something tangible like rhyta or tents; in the second place, not only a from, but also a general idea are copied. In the Parthenon frieze, the Persian ideal of "unity under the king" has been "translated" to Greece. The image and idea were adapted to Greek tastes, which made the work of art more accessible. In the caryatids, the original image (a bull or a feline) has been ignored and only the essence, the general idea, is copied - to women. Apparently, the Greeks found women better motifs to show subjection than animals.

Summing all up, a case can be made for the existence of Persian influence on Greek art. The same can be said for politics. The Athenians and Persians both were masters of the Greek towns in Ionia, and since the Athenians had no experience in ruling an empire (whereas the Persians stood in a long tradition), they copied Persian measures. Therefore, they copied the tribute system, organized their navy like their enemies did, and appointed episcopi to control the subject towns.

It was the obvious thing to do. After all, it is sound policy to make use of knowledge developed by others. Nineteenth-century European historians, however, have often ignored the Persian contribution to Greek culture. They believed in a "Greek miracle" and were unable to conceptualize oriental influences. (They had more or less the same perspective on European history, which had developed -in their view- autonomously.) Cultural contacts were ignored. Today, in a world in which cross-fertilization and clashes between cultures can no longer be ignored, scholars are more interested in cultural contacts. This perspective does more justice to the complexities that existed when two cultures encountered each other.

Architecture: Odeon
Architecture: Prytaneum
Architecture: Parthenon frieze
Architecture: Erechtheum
Politics: Delian League
Politics: Episcopus


  • J. Balcer, "The Athenian episkopos and the Achaemenid King's Eye" in: American Journal of Philology 98 (1977) 252-263
  • John Boardman, Persia and the West (2000 London) [for a completely different interpretation of the evidence]
  • O. Broneer, "The tent of Xerxes and the Greek theater", in: University of California Publications in Classical Archaeology 1 (1929) 305ff
  • J.A.S. Evans, "The settlement of Artaphrenes" in: Classical Philology 4 (1971) 344-348
  • E.D. Francis and Michael Vickers, Sigma priscae artes. Eretria and Siphnos, in: the Journal of Hellenic Studies 103 (1983) 49-67
  • H. Hoffman, "The Persian origin of Attic rhyta" in: Antike Kunst 4 (1961) 21-26
  • R.J. Littman, The Greek experiment. Imperialism and social conflict 800-400 BC (1974 London)
  • S.G. Miller, The Prythaneion, its function and architectural form (1978)
  • Margeret Miller, Athens and Persia in the fifth century BC (1997)
  • P.J. Rhodes, The Athenean empire (1985 Oxford)
  • Margaret C. Root, "The Parthenon frieze and the Apadana reliefs in Persepolis: reassessing a programmatic relationship" in: American Journal of Archaeology 89 (1985) 103-120
  • Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, "De Oriënt: bedreiging of bekoring?" in P.W. de Neeve and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg (eds.), Kaleidoskoop van de Oudheid. Opstellen van Nederlandse oudhistorici (1989) Groningen
  • Ch. G. Starr, "Greeks and Persians in the fourth century BC. A study of cultural contacts before Alexander", part 1, in Iranica Antiqua 11 (1976) 39-99
  • Ch. G. Starr, "Greeks and Persians in the fourth century BC. A study of cultural contacts before Alexander", part 2, in Iranica Antiqua 12 (1977) 49-115
  • D.B.. Thompson, "The Persian spoils in Athens" in: Saul S. Weinberg (ed.), The Aegean and the Near East. Studies presented to Hetty Goldman (1956 Locust Valley) 281-291
  • Michael Vickers, "Persepolis, Vitruvius and the Erechtheum Karyatids" in: Revue Archéologique 1 (1985) 3-28
  • H. von Gall, "Das Zelt des Xerxes und seiner Rolle als Persicher raumtyp in Griechenland" in: Gymnasium 86 (1979) 448ff
  • H.T. Wallinga, "The Ionian revolt" in Mnemosyne 37 (1984) 410-437
  • H.T. Wallinga, "Persian tribute and Delian tribute" in: Pierre Briant and C. Herrenschmidt (eds.), Le tribut dans l' Empire Perse (1989 Paris) 173-182
  • R.E. Wycherley, Stones of Athens (1978 Princeton)
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