“Ancient Iran and the Classical World”, an exhibition currently running at the J Paul Getty Museum, is the second in a series that examines how ancient Greece and Rome interacted with the other civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and beyond. A sequel to the inaugural exhibition, “Beyond the Nile”, the current exhibition considers the significance of ancient Persia (Iran) and follows interactions between Persia and the Classical world from the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) through the Arab invasion in 638 BC.
The accompanying (and eponymous) exhibition catalogue, Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World covers Persia for the roughly millennium and a quarter from the 7th century BC to the Arab conquest of AD 651, placing it in the wider context of the Greece and Rome, and the relations—political, intellectual, religious, and artistic—between them. As befits the exhibition it is based on, the volume comes replete with more than 300 illustrations of sculpture, silver, jewelry, coins and inscriptions. As noted in Jeffrey Spier and Timothy Potts’s Introduction,
No understanding of ancient Greek and Roman culture is possible without considering the far-reaching exchanges that took place in the highly interconnected world that spanned the Mediterranean, the Near East, and Central Asia. This exhibition, the second in the Getty Museum’s continuing program The Classical World in Contect, considers the significance of ancient Persia (Iran). For more than twelve hundred years, from around 550 BC to AD 651, Persia was the most powerful nation of western Asia, controlling an empire of unparalleled size, stretching from the border of India to northern Greece and from the Caucasus to Egypt.
The works of art that feature in Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World are primarily expressions of political power, that seek to glorify king and empire. In architecture and works of art, the Persians, Greeks, and Romans each carefully constructed their own political, military, and cultural images as well as those of their enemies. From monumental sculpture carved into rock, to precious metal vessels, coins and gems, these images strongly influenced and at times even mirrored one another.
In the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the Greeks, whose culture was flourishing during a period of regional expansion, inevitably came into conflict with the Achaemenids in Persia. The great Achaemenid King Darius I (552-486 BC) created a new court style that drew on a mixture of cultures—Elamite, Median, and Persian—and was visible in architectural decoration of the time and on luxurious objects that were created for presentation to courtiers. Elaborate horse trappings and weapons reflect the importance of cavalry in Persian warfare. Jewelry, silver vessels, engraved seals, and other luxury items created for courtly circles were decorated with distinctive new imagery that exalted the Achaemenid king.
The dynasty was brought to an end in 330 BC as Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) swept across the Near East in a series of spectacular conquests. With the great Persepolis set alight, a new dawn ushered in a spreading of Hellenistic culture, eastwards into Asia as evidenced in Graeco-Roman Buddhist sculpture from Gandhara.
A lack of documentary sources has prevented a clear understanding of the Parthian empire (ca. 247 BC – AD 224). Despite this, there are some fascinating examples of Parthian sculptures from the Baghdad National museum of Iraq as well as representative examples of Parthian silver that shed light on this phase of history. Parthian coins notable for royal iconography and historical importance are featured in the exhibition catalogue.
Sasanian kings (AD 224-651) took great care in crafting new examples of royal imagery. Pictorial representations on rock reliefs, silver plates, coins, and gems show the kings in highly elaborate dresses. Armed with a bow and long sword and usually mounted on horseback, the king was depicted in hunting scenes that symbolized his divinely granted royal authority. The Sasanian period ended with the Arab invasion of AD 651.
Due to rivalries between the Sassanians and Byzantines there was not as much cultural interaction in objects as seen earlier. However, both Byzantine and Sasanian silver plates did share mythological images intended to demonstrate the sophistication and learning of their aristocratic owners.
This exhibition and accompanying publication is a call to consider the far-reaching exchanges that took place in the highly-connected world that spanned the Mediterranean, the Near East and Central Asia in developing an understanding of ancient Greek, Roman and Persian culture.
Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World combines scholarly research with high quality photography that conveys stories of the past as well as exhibit fine Persian craftsmanship. While scholarship is in-depth, it can be read by those who have a basic understanding of the ancient and classical world and wish to gain a deeper perspective of the artistic and cultural connections between the rival powers of Iran, Greece and Rome.