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“This interconnection between Greek tradition and science and mathematics, and the Babylonian traditions in astronomy and all these other very technical and very advanced sciences, this was a moment which really created the basis for science, mathematics, and so on in the Western world, and indeed, throughout the world, in later centuries and millennia.”
For more than a millennium, the Persian empire was the major political and economic force in western Asia. Beginning in the sixth century BCE, three dynasties of Persian rulers created the largest and most complex nation in the world. From the monumental reliefs of the Achaemenid ceremonial capital, Persepolis, to elaborate silver platters that tell the story of David and Goliath, the art and luxury objects of this period demonstrate the Persians’ political power and self-image. At the same time, much of our knowledge of ancient Iran comes from Greek and Roman writings and artworks because of the relationships and rivalries among these civilizations. The exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World showcases a wide range objects from the three cultures that shed new light on ancient Persia and tell the story of cultural exchange in this fascinating empire.
In this episode, Getty Museum director Tim Potts and curators Jeffrey Spier and Sara Cole discuss their exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World and some of the key objects in the show. The exhibition is on view at the Getty Villa through August 8, 2022.
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Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World explore the exhibition
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: This interconnection between Greek tradition and science and mathematics, and the Babylonian traditions in astronomy and all these other very technical and very advanced sciences, this was a moment which really created the basis for science, mathematics, and so on in the Western world, and indeed, throughout the world, in later centuries and millennia.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty Museum director Tim Potts and curators Jeffrey Spier and Sara Cole about their exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World.
For more than twelve hundred years, starting around 550 BC, Persia was the dominant power in Western Asia. Three successive dynasties—the Achaemenid, the Parthian, and the Sasanian—controlled a vast empire of unprecedented size.
The exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World at the Getty Villa showcases sculpture, gold and silver vessels, coins, and jewelry that are primarily expressions of political power and demonstrate how the ancient Iranians constructed their self-image.
Part of the Getty Museum’s series The Classical World in Context, the exhibition was organized by Getty curators Jeffrey Spier and Sara Cole and by Tim Potts, who is the Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. I recently spoke with them in the exhibition galleries.
Jeffrey, Tim, and Sara, thank you for joining me on this podcast episode. The exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World is part of the series of Getty exhibitions exploring the Ancient world. Tim, give us a sense of the series and how this exhibition contributes to it.
POTTS: The series was developed, really, to complement what we have in our own permanent collection, in our own holdings, which is Greek and Roman art. But that’s a narrow slice, of course, of what there was in antiquity.
There were all these other major cultures around it—the Egyptians, the Persians, the Assyrians, the Thracians, and many others. And you really cannot understand the cultural connections between these cultures, or even how these cultures evolved themselves, without understanding connections through trade, through sometimes military and political events, through exchanges of religion and languages and other things.
So this exhibition on Persia is one in a series, where we look at the relations between Greece and Rome, on the one hand, and another culture. The first one was Egypt, which we did a few years ago; now we’re looking at the relations between Greeks, Romans, and Persians. And there’ll be others into the future on Thrace, on the Levant, and other areas of the ancient world across Eurasia that interacted with the ancient world of Greece and Rome.
CUNO: Great. Well, Tim, give us a sense of Persia during the reigns of the Achaemenids, from about 522 to 330 BC.
POTTS: Well, this is the period of the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great around the middle of the sixth century. So around 550 BC, when he conquers the Medes, who had been, till that point, the most major power in Iran. Cyrus created, by conquering them and then moving into Anatolia—modern Turkey—and conquering regions there; then taking Babylon; and from then, much further east across Iran; all the way to Central Asia; and under his successors, also Egypt.
So it was Cyrus, from the middle of the sixth century. But then also, his successors a few generation later—Darius, Xerxes and others—who conquered and created the largest empire the world had known, or the world of Eurasia had known, until that point.
CUNO: How do we know this history?
POTTS: Part of the answer is the Babylonian Chronicle. That gives us information on some of the key events, like Cyrus’ conquest of the Medes and his conquest of Babylon, and so on. But the other very important part of the answer is that from the Greek authors—particularly Herodotus. So a lot of our knowledge about the history of the empire actually comes from Greek sources, which is both a great bonus, but also presents us lots of problems because the Greeks were seeing the Persians as their enemies because the Persians had tried to invade and take over Greece and make it part of the empire. Famously, they failed, against all the odds, and the Greeks remained, as they saw it, free.
And in fact, in Achaemenid terms, in terms of their royal, as it were, narrative, once the empire was created, between 550 BC, when they conquer the Medes, and then the wars against the Greeks in the early fifth century BC— By 550, there really wasn’t any historical narratives that they record. For them, history had, in a way, stopped because they’d created this vast empire; they were not just ruling it, running it, administering it. But they don’t record historical events from the Persian perspective nearly as much as we’d like them to have.
CUNO: Now Sara, what about these glazed-brick panels and the rock carvings under Darius?
SARA COLE: Well, during the reign of the Achaemenid King Darius I, starting in 522 BC, he really created a cohesive, consistent Achaemenid iconography of empire that would continue to be used throughout the dynasty, and that would impact later Persian dynasties, as well. And in doing this, he drew upon artistic traditions that were local to Iran, but also traditions from the lands that were ruled under the Achaemenid Empire, including places like Egypt, the Greek cities in Anatolia—present-day Turkey—and Assyria and Babylonia, in Mesopotamia.
And one of the areas in which we see this cohesive Achaemenid iconography of empire and of kingship is in how Darius decorated his palaces and other monumental structures at places like Susa and Persepolis. So the glazed-brick panels were used to decorate the palace of Darius at Susa, one of the capitals in southwestern Iran.
And the use of these glazed, colorful glazed-brick compositions to create figural scenes was a Babylonian tradition. And we know from a foundation inscription found at Susa, that Darius brought Babylonian artisans to Susa to execute these panels. So he was very much drawing on that tradition, but using a distinctively Achaemenid iconography.
CUNO: What about this Persian guard from the Achaemenid period, carved in limestone? It would’ve been painted, I assume.
COLE: On the palace façades at Persepolis were carved rows of guards carrying lances and bows and arrows. And these echo the figures that we see in the colorful glazed-brick panels from Susa. And they’re symbolically protecting the king and protecting the empire. And as with the other carved relief scenes at Persepolis, they probably were originally pigmented, and were full-size standing figures, though this fragment shows just the upper torso and head of the figure.
CUNO: How would their impact be felt by the people coming into the palace?
COLE: Well, they were used to decorate the facades of important buildings like palaces and audience halls at Susa and Persepolis. So they were highly visible. At Persepolis, for instance, the carved relief scenes decorated staircase façades. And so as you would approach these buildings, you would be confronted with these monumental carvings representing the king’s power and the vast reach of the empire.
CUNO: Now, how was it possible to carve these extraordinary stone monuments as carefully as they did carve them? Because the relief is so shallow, but it’s so exact.
COLE: They’re highly detailed, and made of locally-sourced stone. So the actual buildings at Persepolis themselves were primarily made up of mud brick, which was used throughout ancient Iraq and Iran, as the primary construction material. And then local stone slabs would be brought in and affixed to these façades, and then carved by artisans, using standard carving tools like chisels, to execute these very highly-detailed relief scenes.
This large fragmentary relief panel depicts a motif that we see repeated on several façades at Persepolis, of a lion attacking a bull. And so the lion grabs the hindquarters of the bull and sinks his teeth into the animal, and the bull is turning his head back over to look at the lion. The significance of this motif is somewhat ambiguous and debated, but it might represent the power of the king and of the empire to marshal wild forces of nature. Lions appear very frequently in early Mesopotamian art, but also in the Iranian tradition, as symbolic of kingship.
The animals on this relief carving are rendered in very intricate and delicate detail. We can see, for instance, the individual strands of fur on the mane of the lion, and the expression on his face as he’s biting into the hindquarters of the bull. And the animals are highly decorated, in a style that kind of references back to very intricate depictions of animals in Assyrian palace reliefs.
POTTS: And it’s interesting, perhaps, to point out that amongst the craftsmen that Darius records having worked on the palace— creating the palaces at Persepolis, Susa, and so on, were Greeks, from the western coast of Turkey, and others from the Kingdom of Lydia, which controlled many of those Greek areas. So this was a tradition which also reflects, even at this moment of creation, influence of certain Greek styles and motifs which appear in Achaemenid art at Persepolis, Pasargadae, and elsewhere.
CUNO: Well, Jeffrey, what about this golden sword, with its delicate precision in punch marks?
JEFFREY SPIER: The other thing produced in the Achaemenid Empire were luxury objects, objects of gold and silver and engraved gemstones, that were given as gifts by the king as signs of status. They impart recognition of individuals’ relationship with the king. And we know from Herodotus, that the sword, which he calls an akinakes—it’s a short sword, made of gold—was one of the ultimate gifts from the king. And this is what we’re showing here.
It’s a very beautifully-worked sword, with Achaemenid motifs of animals and birds and mythical creatures in relief on one side; and the other side, punched in three languages—in Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite—is the name of Xerxes, the king. So this actually bears the king’s name, and would have been given as a extremely prestigious gift. And we see these represented, in fact, on the Persepolis reliefs. A lot of the soldiers and bodyguards are wearing swords just like this.
CUNO: What about these silver bowls and rhytons?
SPIER: Similarly, the bowls and rhytons and were royal gifts. And we see them being carried on the Persepolis reliefs. Especially this amphora with handles in the form of lion-griffins. We have a big phiale, a large drinking bowl, which has the name of Artaxerxes on it. So again, it’s clearly a royal gift.
And rhytons, they’re drinking horns that terminate in various creatures. This one is a lion-griffin, with these big horns. And these would be for the royal drinking parties. You’d be given this and it would be full of wine, and you’d have to drink the whole think out of the spout at the front.
CUNO: What about this silver handle that’s here, that’s so exquisitely carved and punched?
SPIER: Yes, these handles in the form of animals are seen on the Persepolis reliefs, and we have an intact amphora in our own collection, which you can see in the room. But handle is one of a pair. This comes from a museum in Berlin. There’s another in another in the Louvre, in Paris, of a very large amphora which doesn’t survive, just the handles survive, of a winged ibex, a goat, which is very popular in Achaemenid iconography.
The quality is really superb, the modeling and gilding and the silver. And what’s also interesting about this one is it’s not quite in the style of the Persepolis, the royal capital. There seems to be some Greek influence here. He’s standing on the head of a Greek satyr. So we think this is from a different workshop, probably one in one of the Greek cities on the Black Sea, in modern-day Turkey.
CUNO: Well, even on Greek vases, you can identity Persian subjects. For example, the soft cap and pajama costume.
SPIER: Yes, the Greeks, having fought off the Persians, recognized the Persian costume, the typical attire of a Persian warrior, which is trousers—because they rode horses—and a soft peaked cap. And this is the costume that appears for hundreds of years in Greek and Roman art as a sign of the Persians.
And on the Greek vases of the early fifth century, following the wars between 490 and 479 BC, they often shown battle between a Greek soldier and a Persian soldier. And they do tend to show a lot of respect for them. They’re always beating the Persians, but they do— I think a lot of these artists actually were in the battles, so they know what it was like to be in war.
We also have some vases which are a little more exotic. We show Persians riding a camel, with his entourage with dancers and musicians. And even sort of genre scenes of a Persian sitting with his— presumably, his wife. This seems to have been sent, perhaps even to a Persian client, because it was found on the Island of Cyprus, which was under Persian control at this time.
CUNO: Now, what role did Alexander the Great play in this story?
POTTS: As the sort of representative, the self-appointed representative of the Greeks, he launches a campaign to bring the Achaemenid Empire down, in retribution for the destruction of Athens and other cities that the Persians, during their invasions of Greece, had perpetrated on the Greeks. Alexander himself’s a Macedonian, so not actually a Greek, but speaking a presumably related language. And certainly, culturally, he was a Greek.
In the years between 332 BC and his death in 323 BC, he swept eastward, first into Anatolia; then down the Levant, into Egypt; and then further east, through Mesopotamia, and right through Persia; and as far as the borders of India and modern Pakistan and Uzbekistan today. Conquered this huge territory, as big, and perhaps even, for a short period of time, marginally greater than the empire that the Achaemenids had had.
He defeated, in a series of battles, both in Turkey and then in northern Mesopotamia, the last of the Achaemenid kings, Darius III. And as I say, this was the turning point, where the Achaemenid Empire literally fell, collapsed. Alexander occupied the capital city, or the ceremonial capital, of Persepolis, where these reliefs come from. At a certain point, he allowed it to be burnt to the ground. And so it was largely destroyed, unfortunately, in an act, if you like, of vengeance. It was hugely wealthy. All the treasury, all the loot, as it were, that the Achaemenid kings had amassed was taken by Alexander.
But the other half of the answer to your question is, not only did he destroy something—namely, the Achaemenid Empire—bring it to an end, to a close; but by settling his troops and other Greeks throughout the regions that he conquered, he introduced a layer, if you like, of Greek culture—language, art, and all other aspects—throughout the Middle East, all the way to, as I say, India and Central Asia.
That you see developing new ways of looking and of representing the world in the arts, in the so-called Hellenistic period, which starts with his conquest, in the late fourth century, and runs through until the Romans, as it were, succeed to inherit these regions.
CUNO: So Sara, give us a sense of the Seleucids and the character of their empire, and how different they were from the Achaemenids.
COLE: Well, when Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, on campaign when he was in Babylonia, the question arose of what to do with this vast territory that Tim was describing, that he had conquered. And a period of conflict ensued. But essentially, in the end, Alexander’s vast territory was broken up among several of his generals who were Macedonians like himself.
And each of these men founded their own kingdom and their own dynasty. So during the Hellenistic period, whereas before, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East had been very dominated by the Achaemenid Empire, the Hellenistic period was a period of competing empires throughout this region. And the general who took control of much of what had been core Achaemenid territory in Iran, Iraq, and Syria was a man named Seleucas, or Seleucus, who founded the Seleucid Dynasty and the Seleucid Empire.
He was a Macedonian. He was married to an elite Iranian woman named Apama, at a large ritual wedding that Alexander had held for his generals, where he married them to local elite women. Because he understood, as did many of his successors, the significance of recognizing and maintaining local traditions, local institutions, and not coming in and simply imposing new institutions on the people, in order to be recognized as the legitimate ruler.
So the heirs of Seleucus could claim both Greek and Iranian heritage. And so they were ruling in this territory as both Hellenistic kings and presenting themselves—for instance, on their coinage and in the rare surviving instances of their portraiture—in a very Hellenistic Greek style; but also presenting themselves locally to the people as a legitimate continuation of Achaemenid rule. So respecting and building upon local Iranian traditions.
CUNO: Tell us about this head of King Antiochus III.
COLE: This portrait head that is believed to depict one of Seleucus’ successors, Antiochus III, who was the great-great grandson of Seleucus, this is a Roman marble copy of an original probably made during Antiochus’ lifetime, perhaps in bronze. And it represents the Hellenistic style in which the Seleucid kings were representing themselves, wearing the royal diadem in their hair, in a manner that very much builds upon Alexander’s own portraiture during his lifetime.
And we’re able to recognize this as Antiochus by comparing it to inscribed images of the king on his coinage. And so we can see here how the Seleucids, even though they we presenting themselves as legitimate rulers in Iran, as a continuation of Iranian traditions, artistically were representing themselves as Hellenistic Greek kings.
CUNO: And what about the Parthians, Jeffrey?
SPIER: A Iranian tribe from the northeast, which we call the Parthians, emerged and revoted against the Seleucids in the middle of the third century, around 247 BC, and fairly quickly reclaimed a lot of the land that the Greeks had taken. Eventually, they took much of the Achaemenid Empire into Mesopotamia, as far west as Mesopotamia. They captured Babylon.
And it really was an empire that lasted a very long time. It was almost 500 years, the Parthians. It was a more decentralized empire. They seemed to allow a degree of local rule to individual kings in different regions. And we show that here, the Babylons[sic] ruled by the Parthians, but there were regions in other parts of Mesopotamia ruled by individual kings. And Parthia became the big adversary of the Romans. So they were the two superpowers, eventually, until the beginning of the third century AD.
CUNO: You can see this here quite easily, when you see the image of Alexander the Great and compare it to the Parthian image of a man. Describe that for us.
SPIER: Parthian art is hard to define. It’s a very regional thing. But we certainly see already a sort of rejection of Greek style. Where the Greek portraits are what we’d call very realistic, very emotional, they have a lot of movement, the Parthians, and the Persians afterwards, tended to be very frontal. So on this other head, we have a very frontally-facing man with a big moustache and a highly-stylized beard and hair.
CUNO: And Sara, what about this reclining goddess?
COLE: During the Parthian period, a series of figurines like this one were created in Babylonia, in Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq, carved from alabaster, and depicting nude goddesses. And we believe that this might represent Nanaya, who was the daughter of the Babylonian moon god Sin.
And these figures build upon earlier Mesopotamian traditions of depicting nude goddesses in terracotta figurines, often standing and more rigid and frontal. But here, we see it interpreted in a way that builds upon that Mesopotamian tradition, but also perhaps incorporates some Greek stylistic influences in a bit more naturalism and movement and fluidity in the body.
And she’s carved from alabaster and has remarkable miniature gold jewelry. And she holds a pomegranate in her hand. And her eyes and navel are inlaid with garnets, and she wears a gold ring on one of her fingers, with a garnet inlay, also.
So this represents, as Jeffrey was discussing, the regionalism in Parthian art, where we’re seeing very strong local traditions continuing, but taking on new forms as some Hellenistic influences come into play.
CUNO: Would it have played any particular purpose or fulfilled any particular purpose in the context?
SPIER: I think these were dedicated in temples. They were probably offerings from worshippers.
CUNO: What about this extraordinary figure here, this bronze, wearing the various costume elements that you would expect?
SPIER: This is a remarkable bronze. It’s actually one of two that were discovered together in Egypt, of a young boy wearing that Persian costume we’ve already talked about—trousers and soft shoes and a tunic. He’s also wearing this tall peaked cap, which is the crown of the Armenian kings. And Armenia was one of those borderlands that was contested between the Romans and Parthians.
The theory about who this is is rather interesting. It’s a recent theory and I think it’s right, is that this is one of the two infant sons, of Antony and Cleopatra, the last Greek ruler of Egypt, because in a passage in the Greek writer Plutarch, he talks about a festival in Alexandria where the two sons were brought out to the crowds, one dressed as a Greek and one dressed as a Persian, and the King of Armenia and the Medes, it says.
So this is very likely meant to be the son of Antony and Cleopatra, who is proclaimed ruler of the east. Of course, they never achieved their aims, but their intention was to rule the whole world.
CUNO: What happened to them?
SPIER: Well, Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by the Romans, and that ended their dreams. They both committed suicide.
CUNO: What about this carving over here, this great figure with a similar costume?
SPIER: Yes, we do try to show the development of the new religions that emerge at the beginning of the Roman Empire. And one of these is Mithraism, the worship of the Iranian solar god, Mithras. The Romans sort of created a cult around him, which wasn’t entirely authentic Iranian, but he inspired a religion that spread throughout the Roman Empire.
And this relief shows the typical scene, the central scene, where Mithras, who is again shown in Persian costume, with the trousers and soft cap, is sacrificing the celestial bull between representations of the sun and moon. So this is— this is a great celestial event at the center of the universe. We’re not entirely sure what all of this means. We have a lot of images of this found throughout the empire. But it did attract a lot of worshippers in the second, third, fourth, centuries.
CUNO: What brought the end to that empire and the beginning of the Sasanian Empire?
SPIER: Well, unlike the Achaemenid Empire, which was ended by Alexander the Great, the Parthians fell to internal civil war. The King of Perseus, in the heartland of Iran, Ardashir, revolted, in 224 AD, against the Parthians, and established a much more centralized, militarized empire. We call it the Sasanian Empire, after— named after one of his ancestors, Sasan. And it immediately became more antagonistic to the Romans. Again, these are the two superpowers, with the border running from Mesopotamia north through Armenia and Georgia, this was the borderlands. And for more than 300 years, they contested rule of this area.
CUNO: So now we’re in a hallway between one gallery and another. And in this hallway are texts from Seleucid and Parthian empires. Tim, tell us about this.
POTTS: Well, there are three cuneiform tablets in the case in front of us. So they’re written in various versions of Babylonian, the southern version of the Akkadian language. So it’s often very miniscule and difficult read, and so it’s the small number of specialists in this field who can decipher these texts. But they are loaded with a lot of technical information.
In one of these is a mathematical text explaining how you do certain calculations. Another is one of the astronomical diaries. These are the things that chart the progression of the positions of the planets, of the stars, and so on. Which were thought to be important, of course, for predicting the future—horoscopes and so on. And another one is a, in a rather different vein, the cylindrical text is a cylinder of Antiochus I, one of the early Greek rulers of this part of the world. But importantly, he’s using the language of Babylon and in the cuneiform script, to establish his rule and to describe some of his achievements.
This was an incredibly important moment, where you get a connection between the two, between the Greek tradition from about 330 BC, when the Greeks conquered Babylon. Particularly in Babylon, you had the native Babylonian tradition of astronomy, mathematics, and other sciences, which were the most advanced in their fields in the world, and the greatest thinkers and traditions of Greek science, mathematics, and so on. But the connections between the two that were established from around 300 BC— And then it continued, not only under the Seleucids, who were the Greek rulers of Babylon for over a century, but then when the Parthians came through in the mid-second century BC also, up until about the first century AD, this interconnection between Greek tradition and science and mathematics, and the Babylonian traditions in astronomy and all these other very technical and very advanced sciences, this was a moment which really created the basis for science, mathematics, and so on in the Western world, and indeed, throughout the world, in later centuries and millennia.
CUNO: Were there great holdings of such materials in libraries, for example?
POTTS: There were tens of thousands of tablets of these kinds in Babylon at the time they were conquered, of course. Many of them do not survive. Just the vicissitudes of history and so on. And these tablets, which are inscribed in the soft mud clay, and it’s only if they’re fired, whether intentionally or accidentally, when buildings are burned down— It’s only if they’re fired that they become very durable, like these ones are, almost like terracotta. And so they survive well, even if sometimes in fragments.
There are many thousands of these in museums around the world that have been discovered through archaeological work. But of course, many more were destroyed, and many, many more still like in the various layers of ancient sites throughout Mesopotamia.
CUNO: Do they tell a coherent narrative?
POTTS: Well, they’re so many different genres. There are, as I say, the mathematical texts; there’s the astronomical texts; there are literary texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. But most of the tablets that are found are, of course, administrative texts, charting just the goods that were delivered to a temple or disbursements to laborers for their wages, things like this.
So a lot of them are, as it were, socially and economically interesting. But a small proportion of them relate directly to historical events, particularly things like the Babylonian Chronical. And the astronomical diaries like this are very important records.
CUNO: Jeffrey, tell us about the Sasanian Empire and what distinguished it from the earlier empires.
SPIER: The Sasanians took over the Parthian Empire, and it became a more centralized and militarized society. They founded many cities. They had a new administrative system, a very bureaucratic system, where we have some records of how they administered this very large empire. As with the Parthians, it was a very large empire, reaching from Mesopotamia, was the border with Romans, to the east, into India almost, the borders of India.
They tried to portray themselves as a very powerful empire and glorified the king. As we saw earlier, with the Achaemenids and the Parthians, they would give precious objects as symbols of status. These would include swords and robes and horse trappings. But especially silver. Silver plates, which show the king hunting, was the usual scene. Let’s go over here.
We show a number of silver plates, which glorify the king as the royal hunter. The animals were symbols of his authority, of his royal status. We have him on these plates hunting wild rams, lions, and even ostriches, on this plate, which were wild in Mesopotamia at this time. We also have silver vessels that were used at the drinking parties, which were, again, ritualized to glorify the king. Only the people who were closest to the king and had great status were allowed to go to these parties.
COLE: Something worth mentioning about the Sasanian period is along with the more centralized authority that Jeffrey was describing comes a more centralized image of kingship and empire. Whereas what we saw in the Achaemenid period was the establishment of a very consistent, cohesive iconography and style of empire, and then in the Parthian period, we saw a more diverse regionalization in the artwork, where local traditions are coming into contact with Greek influences in different ways, in the Sasanian period, we see the kings again creating this more centralized, consistent iconography and style that expresses kingship.
CUNO: What about this extraordinary silver plate depicting David and Goliath?
SPIER: It is an extraordinary plate. It’s a very large silver plate, one of nine found on the Island of Cyprus in the late nineteenth century, depicting scenes from the life of David, King David.
It was made in Constantinople in the 620s AD—we know that from stamps on the back, like hallmarks—during the reign of Emperor Heraclius. I think what this signifies, this particular plate, is a commemoration of Heraclius’ victory over the Sasanians at Nineveh, in modern-day Iraq, in 627.
This was a counterattack against a very successful Sasanian advance into Byzantine territory. And it was a miraculous victory. And in fact, it pretty much ended the Sasanian Empire. They never really recovered from this defeat. And within a generation, they had been invaded and conquered by the forces of Islam, the Arab army coming into their territory.
The reason David and Goliath are on this plate, perhaps, is that Emperor Heraclius was regarded as the underdog, and his court poets praised him as the new David. So this is probably why this design was chosen and then presented. These were official gifts—as the Sasanians gave gifts, the Byzantine emperors also gave gifts—clearly to someone very important, these nine plates, and along with gold medallions were found on Cyprus. It was probably an important military commander, I would guess.
CUNO: Well, this tells a great narrative, and with different parts of the narrative in different bands along the surface of the plate.
SPIER: Yes, and it’s quite like early manuscript illustration, too. They would tell these narrative scenes in bands at the top. David is calling to Goliath to challenge him to individual combat, and the big central scene is the actual battle, with David in his sling, getting ready to throw it. And at the bottom, Goliath has already been killed and is being beheaded by David.
CUNO: Now, what brought the end of empire to Persia?
POTTS: [off mic] The coming of Islam
SPIER: It’s the coming of Islam, yes. Internally, there were weaknesses, errors in strategy against their opponents, the Byzantines. And then they couldn’t resist the power of the Arab forces coming from the South.
POTTS: Sasanians fell in the mid-seventh century. Byzantium actually survives longer, until 1452. So in that sense, the Byzantines had the last word. But the fall of the Sasanians was the end of some 1200 years in which the conflict between the powers of Greece, initially; then Alexander the Great, with his invasion; and then with the Romans; and then, in the later phases, the Byzantine Roman Empire. Twelve-hundred years where the conflict with Persia was the defining relationship of more than a millennium. The conflict between these two great powers was always the issue of who was going to survive, who was going to be dominant. And it was a back and forth. Until the very end, and the coming of Islam, there really was not a conclusion to this rivalry.
And I can’t think of any other relationship, if you like, that starts well into antiquity, to sixth century BC, and we can trace it right for a thousand-two-hundred years, up to the seventh century, when one rivalry dominates the history and the cultural exchanges and the economies of the ancient world, of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and regions around them.
CUNO: Well, we look forward to it, certainly. So Tim, Jeffrey, and Sara, thank you for sharing this exhibition with me this morning. And also we should point out that the accompanying catalog is very well-received and handsomely produced. So we urge people to go get the catalog.
POTTS: Indeed. Thank you.
SPIER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
COLE: Thank you.
CUNO: The exhibition Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World is on view at the Getty Villa through August 8, 202
The exhibition in Los Angeles was made possible with lead support by Anahita and James Lovelace in memory of Professor Ebrahim Pourdavoud, and major funding by Elizabeth and Bruce Dunlevie, Farhang Foundation, Ellen and David Lee, Georgia and Ronald P. Spogli, and the Getty Patron Program.
The Farhang Foundation is the exhibition’s cultural partner and the Pourdavoud Center for the Study of the Iranian World at UCLA is the exhibition’s academic partner.
The exhibition catalog is generously supported by Jeffrey P. Cunard.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: This interconnection between Greek tradition and science and mathematics, and the...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824