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The Art of Ancient Iran; Pre-Islamic Culture

The Art of Seleucids


 

By: Edith Porada

Columbia University

With the collaboration of R. H. Dyson and contributions by C.K. Wilkinson

 

After the victory over the last Darius at Guagamela in 331 BC, the Macedonian, Alexander, was considered the Great King by many Persians. The people of Babylon scattered flowers in the path of the young conqueror; Susa with its riches yielded without resistance. At Persepolis he must have found vast treasures; but in the fourth month of his stay at Persepolis, its buildings went up in flames. The modern excavators of the site found evidence of pillaging which preceded the fire. This pillaging and destruction of Persepolis may well have been executed with the acquiescence of Alexander by his soldiers. Even if he had not planned the complete annihilation of the residence, lack of water on the terrace would have made it impossible to extinguish a fire raging in these buildings, with their wood panelling and ceilings and heavy curtains.

Persepolis was the only Persian site which was destroyed by Alexander, surely because of its great significance for the Achaemenid dynasty; otherwise he can be called a founder of cities in which Greeks and Persians came to live side by side. [1] His great plan to unite and rule Greece, Egypt and Asia in a vast empire and to establish a real cultural, social and economic unity of Asia and Europe died with him in Babylon in 323 B.C.

After the wars of the Diadochi which followed upon his death, the countries of Iran, Mesopotamia, northern Syria and the greater part of Asia Minor came to be ruled by Seleucus, one of AlexanderÕs former generals, who continued the policy of unification of Greeks and Persians. He had married a Persian noblewoman and was fortunate in having a son, Antiochus, who seems to have been a gifted military leader and administrator and who consolidated the rule of the Seleucid dynasty which his father had inaugurated. The dynasty was able to maintain itself in Iran and Mesopotamia until the middle of the second century B.C. From about 240 onward, however, the Seleucids were under increasing pressure from a semi-nomadic people, later called Parthians, who penetrated into Iran from the north-east.

Moreover, the satrap of Bactria, a province which approximately corresponded geographically to what is today northern Afghanistan and Turkestan, made himself independent about the middle of the third century B.C. The Bactrian kingdom, which appears to have been a focal point for Hellenistic influences in surrounding areas, [2] was destroyed in the second century B.C. by the invasion of Scythian nomads and other tribes from Central Asia. [3] Only in Syria were the Seleucids able to maintain themselves until the middle of the first century B.C.

The most important aspect of their rule in Iran was the urban life developed in the cities newly founded by the Seleucids or re-established by them. The Achaemenid system of communications seems to have been maintained, and travel and trade on the road between Seleucia on the Tigris in Mesopotamia and Bactra in Bactria seem to have been further facilitated by newly-founded cities along this route. Beyond it there were apparently few major Seleucid settlements, though such an old centre as Susa played its role as a polis in Seleucid times. Greek replaced Aramaic as the most important common language and was used even in places where Greeks are not known to have settled in large numbers. But Aramaic must have continued in some manner, for eventually the Iranian language was written with Aramaic signs. Frye thought that the explanation probably was that the Seleucids kept on the Aramaic chancellery of the [p. 179] Achaemenids. Though this cannot be proved at present, the suggestion may be retained because other cultural features also survived from pre-Hellenistic to later Iranian times through the medium of the Seleucid rule, which seems so alien to the superficial observer. In fact it was a period in which some branches of traditional intellectual activities reached new heights. This can be proved for astronomy by the elaborate astronomical texts on cuneiform tablets of the Seleucid period discovered in the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Babylon. [4]

Art and architecture must have been employed to enhance the prestige of the rulers, to serve religious purposes and even to grace the homes of the numerous wealthy citizens of Iran in the Seleucid period. Few remains of the period, however, are known at present. In fact, only two rather barbaric Ionian columns, remains of a structure at Kurha near Qum, are admitted generally to belong to the Seleucid period. [5]

At Kangawar near Kermanshah, remains of a large structure with masonry of 'huge square stones' above which was a colonnade were assigned by Herzfeld to the Seleucid period on the basis of presumed differences from Parthian building methods; these, however, are not known from any indubitably Parthian building of Iran. Of the temple which Antiochus III ordered to be built in Nihavend for the cult of his wife Laodicea, nothing remains. Presumably Seleucid structures followed Greek tradition in the use of good stone, well-dressed masonry, and marble or limestone columns, all of which were surely plundered by the local peasantry, who are avid for worked stone in most parts of the Near East.

Mud-brick structures would escape more easily; indeed they have been preserved below the Persepolis terrace in a complex excavated by Herzfeld, who believed one of the rooms to be a fire temple planned according to earlier Achaemenid fire sanctuaries. That some of the rooms in the complex had a religious significance is likely in view of Herzfeld's discovery of votive inscriptions addressed to Greek gods who took the place of the Iranian ones, Zeus Megistos instead of Ohrmizd, Apollon and Helios for Mithra, Artemis and Queen Athena for "Anáhit whose name is Lady". [6] In the jambs of a stone window frame belonging to one of the rooms of the complex--but not to the one identified as a fire temple--were found the reliefs of a male and a female figure with raised hands and barsom bundle. Herzfeld considered the male figure to represent a fratadara, keeper of the fire, a title supposedly assumed by princes of Fars who considered themselves successors to the Achaemenids since names like Darius and Artaxerxes stressed Achaemenid tradition. The title has also been read frataraka, which would be the equivalent of governor, a more prosaic interpretation.

The relief of these two figures is crude, and details are merely indicated by engraved lines. Although one cannot call so inept a manner of carving a style, it nevertheless manifests a distinctly Iranian quality, for the later reliefs of the Parthian age are similarly flat and crude. Apparently only the content, not the form, was important for certain purposes, mainly religious ones.

Only fragments are preserved of large and handsome bronze sculptures of the [p. 180] Seleucid period, especially the male head identified with Antiochus IV [176-163 B.C.]. These fragments, as well as smaller works of Hellenistic art, figurines of deities, [7] indicate the extensive use of metal for the art of the period. It is likely that this extensive use of metal resulted in the destruction of all such works of art not accidentally preserved, since metal was probably re-used in the ancient Near East more consistently and with greater disregard for artistic values of the past than in any other part of the world.

Some concepts of Seleucid art and its double heritage of Hellenistic and ancient Near Eastern style and subject-matter can, however, be gained from a study of seal impressions on tablets and bullae of this age. The subject-matter of the imprints includes the entire figure, bust, or only the head of Greek deities or heroes, portraits of the Seleucid rulers, masks, symbolic objects like the tripod of Apollo or the specially Seleucid symbol of the anchor, used by Seleucus together with the head of a horse as his personal symbol. Occasionally there are entire scenes of religious significance or from daily life, and there are also animals and monsters. [8]

It is not always possible to distinguish clearly between Hellenistic style and the traditional style of the ancient Near East. The latter is mainly noticeable in the rendering of monsters like the goat-fish [Latin: capricornus], which shows little change of its characteristic simple outline from Neo-Babylonian through Achaemenid to Seleucid times. Rostovtzeff pointed out that creatures like the goat-fish or the crab are signs of the zodiac and that their occurrence on seals may indicate the significance of astrology, in the life of the Hellenistic Babylonians. M. Rostovzeff, [9] Though the signs are of very ancient origin, they may indeed have assumed an astrological meaning in the Hellenistic period. At that time personal astrology emerged, perhaps in Babylon, under Hellenistic influence and as a new development from the old astronomical omens and the predictions based on them which had concerned only the king and the country as a whole. Thus 'the one science which gave insight into the causes of events on earth,' [10] in the opinion of Hellenistic scholars, demonstrates the fusion of Near Eastern and Greek elements which resulted from Alexander's conquests. [p. 181]


NOTES:
1. For a summarizing chapter on the policies of Alexander and on the history of the Seleucid period, see Frye, Heritage of Persia, pp. 124 ff.

2. For a summery of the problem of Bactria as a focus see Frye, Heritage of Persia, p. 169.

3. For a reconstruction of the historical situation at the end of Greek rule in Bactria, see Frye, Heritage of Persia, pp. 164-167.

4. See O. Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity [Brown University Press, 2nd ed., 1957] pp. 98ff.

5. For photographs of these columns, see Herzfeld, Iran, Pls. LXXXVIII and LIX above; for photographs of the columns and masonry of Kangawar, also considered by him to have been seleucid, see Pl. LXXXVII. A view of the ruins in 1843-1854, in a drawing by Flandin-Coste, is conveniently reproduced by Ghirahman, Persian Art [1962], p. 24, Fig. 30.

6. See Herzffeld, Iran, p. 275.

7. Examples are reproduced by Ghirshman, Persian Art [1962], p . 19, Fig. 23.

8. This abbreviated survey of subjects is based on the seal impressions from Seleucia on the Tigris published by R. H. McDowell, Stamped and Inscribed Objects from Seleucia on the Tigris [University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series, XXXVI, 1935].

9. 'Seleucid Babylonian Bullae and Seals of Clay with Greek Inscriptions,' Yale Classical Studies III [1932], p. 21.

10. Quoted from Neugebauer, op cit. in note XIII/4, p. 168, from which is derived the information concerning Babylonian and Hellenistic astrology here summarized.

 

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