Week 5: Achaemenid Empire


Kuhrt, A. 2001.  “The Achaemenid Persian empire (c. 550-330 BCE): continuities, adaptations, transformations.”  In Empires, ed. S. Alcock, et al (2001), 93-123 (for background) Kuhrt Achaem Empire 2001

Nylander, C. 1979. “Achaemenid Imperial Art.” In Power and Propaganda: A Symposium on Ancient Empires, edited by M. T. Larsen. Copenhagen.  pp 345-59. Nylander

Root, M. C.  2000. “Imperial Ideology in Achaemenid Persian Art: Transforming the Mesopotamian Legacy.” Canadian Society for Mesoopotamian Studies Bulletin 35. Root Imperial Ideology

Selection of Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions Achaemenid Inscriptions

Like last week, I will also post a series of images for you to look at ahead of time.  As you look at the art and inscriptions, consider the ways in which Achaemenid Persian official art is similar to and different to Assyrian official text and art.  Both Nylander and Root make arguments that Achaemenid imperial art is carefully constructed and looks the way it does in order to correspond to a particular imperial ideology.  How convincing do you find their arguments and the connections they make between Achaemenid art and earlier artistic canons?

Images to preview:

Pasargadae and Bisitun

Susa; seal designs



One response to “Week 5: Achaemenid Empire

  • Danielle Lee

    One thing that struck me was how the textual inscriptions in the Achaemenid art was situated alongside instead of right over the depicted images as we had seen in the Assyrian art. As we had read and discussed in class, Assyrian literature seemed to be a very lofty method of communication. Even among the literate, few would have been able to understand all that was inscribed with the reliefs. Not to mention the rather impossibility of actually reading the text line by line since the words extended along the entire wall rather than in one focused location. And all that is in addition to the fact that the words are melded into the images making reading the inscriptions an even harder and more demanding activity. To me it seemed that the Assyrian inscriptions, while it gave some sort of definition to the images that were to be seen for ages to come were more out of superiority and official conduct rather than accessibility for the intended audience.

    While browsing through the Achaemenid images however, there did not seem to be any such inscriptions that were superimposed on the relief images. Instead, they seemed to be in a more ‘caption’ style so as to narrate what was being portrayed. That is not to say, of course, that Assyrian art did not have these types of reliefs accompanied by separately located texts. Nor does it mean that there were not superimposed texts in Achaemenid art since I have not been acquainted with all Achaemenid art and much has been lost throughout the years. However, this simple stylistic fact demonstrates, to me, the Persian desire to be accessible to its subjects.

    Moreover, the texts were inscribed in more than one language as discussed by Kurht and Root. The Achaemenids for whatever their reasoning, be it religion or their lack of strong cultural foundations, found it very important to communicate acceptance and tolerance of the different cultures and nationalities that were being incorporated in the expanding empire. And this is clearly shown in the Bisitun relief that is surrounded by inscriptions of all different tongues.

    This totally contrasts with the practice of the Assyrians who, as seen in their art, would forcefully deport the conquered nations to create diasporas throughout the empire. There is no need for narrative texts to understand the mindset behind this Assyrian practice. In their sense of cultural superiority and for fear of local rebellions, the Assyrians were compelled to break down the possible bonds between the subjected peoples to ensure loyalty to the Assyrian nation alone.

    While the Assyrians’ dominating, might-conquers-all makes logical sense, there is a value in the way the Achaemenids handled the incorporation of the different peoples. In the words of King Darius, he mentions many times how much he values the man who brings his skills and ability as offering to himself, the king. While the Achaemenid policies of tolerance did not necessarily indicate a complete absence of cultural superiority within the Achamaenid empire, at least from today’s cultural standpoint, the level of acceptance given by the Achaemenid administrations would have allowed for increased stability for lack of oppression.

    In the end, both Assyrian and Achaemenid rulers saw themselves as the liberators for the peoples they were inherently conquering. However, the difference in their attitudes towards those people is demonstrated in their art as well as in their politics.

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