Persia, Greece, and the Classical World

July 22, 2022
By Vasilis Papoutsis

LOS ANGELES – The Persian Empire also known as the Achaemenid Empire emerged under the leadership of Cyrus II around 550 BC and encompassed the area of modern-day Iran, Egypt, Turkey and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The influence of the Persian Empire was profound, and it can be seen in the arts, politics, and public administration throughout the lands it ruled. The new exhibit at the Getty Villa, Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World, is part of the Getty Museum’s program The Classical World in Context and showcases the artistic and cultural connections of rival powers Iran, Greece, Rome and how they interwove into each other’s identity despite their distinct differences.

An array of impressive artworks is part of the exhibit that includes royal sculpture, spectacular luxury objects, religious images, and historical documents assembled from major museums in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The layout of the exhibit offers a historical perspective that highlights the intricacies of these cultures.

Looking back at the history of Persia we see that Cyrus was the one who created the Persian Empire, but it was Darius who brought the empire to its greatest height. He set up a system of provinces and governors and established a postal service to widen communication between the provinces. And he used the tribute money from each province to fund public works and infrastructure.

The empire was thriving, but in 499 BC, the Greek city states in Ionia- the western region of modern-day Turkey, rebelled against the Persians while having the support of city-states in Greece. That led Persia in the path of retaliatory invasions into Greece but Darius’ army was defeated by the Greeks in 490 BC at the Battle of Marathon. His successor Xerxes in spite of gathering a massive number of troops and weaponry also failed to conquer Greece, suffering devastating defeats in Salamis and Plataea that forced the Persian army to withdraw.

Plate with Herakles and the Erymanthian Boar. Photo: George Ortiz Collection, Geneva

The successive unsuccessful campaigns against the Greeks significantly depleted the treasury and led to the weakening of the Persian Empire and indirectly to the rise of the Macedonian dynasty. And in 334 BC, it was the Macedonian King Alexander the Great who invaded and conquered Persia.

Like Cyrus, Alexander the Great maintained most of the institutions he inherited, and he encouraged cultural integration and religious tolerance. Macedonian and Persian elites were intermarried, and the interweaving of cultures is illustrated in the art and several artworks in the exhibit such as the Red-Figure Lekythos (an oil jar) depicting a Persian procession, the Red-Figure Neck Amphora (Storage Jar) with a Greek Pursuing a Persian, and a Plate with Herakles and the Erymanthian Boar among many others.

The Parthian Empire, a major Iranian political and cultural power that reclaimed lands once conquered by Alexander the Great, are also represented in the exhibit. The Parthians were culturally and politically heterogenous. They were also mostly polytheistic and Greek and Iranian deities were often blended as one, Zeus was often equated with Ahura Mazda, and Hera with Anahita. Greek and Roman deities also blended as one.

There is also a film presentation exploring the site and palaces of the ceremonial capital Persepolis.

Detailed information can be found online: https://bit.ly/3Ouf6tM.

The exhibit will be open to the public until August 8.


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