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Persian Influence on Greco-Roman Culture
He stands there, examining a beautiful white column, with perfect curves around it and an exquisite capital that shows detailed architecture. He twists his head to the right just a bit to read the official description. He is in the Louvre museum and a bit surprised. He was expecting to read “Pre-Hellenistic Greek Column,” but stunned, he realizes that it says “columns of Persepolis, circa 500 B.C.E.” “That’s surprising”, he says to himself “I could have sworn that that one came from Greece.” Yes, surprising. As a matter of fact, many things which are considered to have originated in Greece and are now known as “Western” culture, art, and architecture, actually originated in the Middle East, or more precisely, in ancient Persia.
Most people don’t know it, but Persia was the center of the world before and during the Greco-Persian Wars (492-449 BC) (”Greco-Persian Wars”). The whole world looked to Persia and everybody tried to model everything after the Persian way. Even Greece copied Persia on some occasions. In fact, Greece, before Alexander the Great, was just a coalition of small kingdoms. Persia, the biggest empire to exist up that time, was the “world power,” controlled the way of thinking of the time, and placed a deep mark into not only Greek thinking and culture, but also the “Western” idea and life. Many people do not realize it, but much of today’s culture can be found in ancient Persian literature, art, and architecture.
Much has been made of the Greco-Persian Wars, and rightfully so. The Greco-Persian Wars were a series of wars between the Persians and the Greek coalition. The number of victories favored the Persians by far, however, the one event that mattered because it ended all Persian presence in Greece, the battle of Platea, was won by the Greeks. This series of wars may very well be the event which most changed history single-handedly. Considering that the Persians were the only real world power at the time, it is easy to see that the world would be much different today had Alexander the Great not come to lead the Greek coalition to victory. All of Western society is based on Greece and Greek government and culture, but many things could have been different had Persia won. First, the Middle East, not Europe, would be the most powerful and wealthy part of the world. Also, despite the fact that much of Persia’s culture was mimicked in Greek culture, there were still many differences, and the world would probably be very different than it is today.
Throughout history, each regime has changed the past to benefit itself. This is ongoing, and today, the West has reshaped history to better its own share. People now learn only of the great achievements of the Roman and Greek empires, but seldom does it occur that a student knows where the Assyrian empire was located and just how powerful the Mongols were at the height of their civilization. Most notably, the Persian Empire is one that has been neglected time after time. The Greek people were the ones who defeated Persia and they adapted many of Persia’s ways. The Greeks and Persians were closely related people in both blood and culture, but today, the Europeans and Iranians are no longer considered one people. However, when one takes an objective look at the Persians, it can be seen that much of the culture that is present today in Western society comes from ancient Persia.
Greco-Western culture, art, and architecture have all evolved from ancient Persia, and, because these have been mimicked by Greece, roots of Persian influence can be readily found in Greco-Western.
Greek and ancient Persian architectures were similar in many ways. Most people think that if they are similar, then the Greeks were the ones who originally had the architecture. However, it is interesting to note that the most ancient Persian architecture found was in the cities of Susa and Elam dating from 1600-1000 BC (Histoire vol.1, 211). One notable aspect of Persian architecture imitated by the Greeks was the famous “Greek columns.” As explained in the introduction, the Greek columns were very similar to Persian columns; and, because of time periods, it can be deduced that the Persians had great influence on the Greek columns (210). Nearly every part of the Greek column, from the capital, the abacus, the annulated, and the echinus, to the shaft and the base, is a near copy of the Persian column which dated approximately 500 years before the Greek confederation (Histoire vol.2, 38). There are many examples of Greek and Persian columns still standing today which can demonstrate the influence that Persian architecture had on Greek columns. One example is the Temple of Discuses. In this architectural marvel, of which only the columns remain, the columns, dating to the 5th century B.C.E., show Persian influence in not only the shape and design of the column, but also in the material used (32). Even at Delphi, one of the most ancient Greek cities, where some of the oldest Greek temples are found, the columns are comparable to the Persian columns (35). Another type of Persian architecture that the Greeks imitated is the famous wall carving. Believed by most to be a Greek invention, it was actually started during the Persian rule and possible even before that (1500-1000 BC) (Histoire vol.1, 35). Wall carvings, beautiful sculptures of people, animals, and sentimental and religious objects, were started in the Near East, but spread to Europe through Greece. The Persians also included many stories into their carvings, notably stories of crowing shahs and drawings of soldiers and generals going to war. Also, in many cases, the Persians made carvings of gods that they had, such as Mitra, to honor them (212). The Greeks made wall carvings very similar to the Persian carvings, and many of the stories were parallel to the Persian stories. Many of the symbols used by the Persians were also used in Greek wall carvings (Histoire vol.2, 61). Another noteworthy way that Greece emulated Persian architecture was in their statues. The Persians had begun to make human-sized sculptures around 1000 BC (Histoire vol.1, 213). One exquisite statue is that of queen Napir-Asu. Though decapitated, the way she has been built demonstrates her royal and high-class stance. It is very interesting that her stance is the same one used for many years up to today by the high-class society (214). There were three symbols, the golden winged goat, representing the Persians’ admiration for the goat because, despite its small stature, it was a very tough and powerful animal (226). The second was the winged horse with the head of a king. This animal represents the power of a winged horse, coupled with the mind of a king (224). The third and last was the winged lion which, to the Persians, was the ultimate sign of power. The lion represented what every king wanted to be: a powerful person who could oversee everything and whom everybody feared (221). The Greeks used all three of these symbols in their sculpture. The animal which was used most of the three was the winged lion. However, the winged lion had in most cases the head of a human (Histoire vol.2, 34). This symbol of power a knowledge is a mixture of the Persian lion and headed horse. This influence is readily apparent throughout Greek architecture.
Greco-Roman art is beautiful but, upon closer examination, resembles very closely to ancient Persian art. As with architecture, most just believe that the Greeks were the ones who created this art first, but due to the time periods during which the Persians and Greeks existed, it is only logical that Persians started the art first. One type of Persian art which the Greeks seem to have emulated is pottery. When examining Persian pottery, one can easily see the makeup of the designs. First of all, all of the pottery is oval shaped with an opening at the top and handles on the side. Furthermore, there are horizontal lines which drawn onto the pot which split it into five or six distinct portions. Each of these parts has specific drawing on it except the top two and bottom two. The drawings are generally either of abstract shapes, such as squares, rectangles, and triangle, or of stories such as the ones that were carved into the walls (Histoire vol.1, 228). The Greek pots, which were made approximately 500 years after the Persian ones, are similar in shape and art. The Greek pots look similar to the Persian pots, but they are flipped over, that is, the thin part is the base and the round part is the top with the opening. As with Persian pottery, Greek pots have the horizontal lines which split the pot up, but the latter have many more lines. There is much more detail placed into the Greek designs between each line, and this make for more beautiful pots, but the fundamental ideas of Persian pottery are present. The drawings between lines also include abstract shapes as well as stories, just as in Persian pottery (Histoire vol.2, 57). Another similarity existent between Persian and Greco-Roman art is their paintings. Many beautiful Greek paintings have been recovered from ancient times, and these paintings seem to be originals to the untrained eye. But a person knowledgeable in ancient arts can see that, despite the dearth of uncovered ancient Persian paintings, the few that have been found show a great similarity with their Greek counterpart. Persian paintings tend to display stories of soldiers going to war, Shahs being crowned, or the Gods being prayed to. Furthermore, Persian artists painted with black and brown as their main colors nearly all of the time (Histoire vol.1, 238). The stories in the Persian paintings always had a background, and this rubbed off onto Greek art. Most Greek paintings show some of this influence in them because they describe in many cases Gods being offered gifts and soldiers going to battle, but one interesting addition they made was that in their paintings they also added scenes of men and women playing or dancing with each other. Another aspect of similarity which is noticeable is that, just as the Persians, the Greek painters used black and brown as primary colors with shades of yellow and red as well (Histoire vol.2, 113). One more important similarity between Persian and Greco-Roman art is one that people rarely consider, that of music. Throughout history, people have always had music, but the music that is played today finds its roots in ancient Persia. Most of the instruments existing today have existed for thousands of years in different forms. These instruments find their roots in Persia, and despite not being recognized as officially Persian, all have an extraordinary amount of resemblance to the instruments of ancient Persia. One example of Persian influence in Western music is the Piano. Though most believe the piano is a purely European invention, it actually finds its ancestry in the Persian “Santoor.” The Santoor dates back to 1000-600 B.C.E. and is a trapezoidal instrument made of wood and strings. The musician hits the strings with two hammers, and each string makes a different sound. The piano works in the same way as the santoor. As each key is hit, a hammer is triggered to tap a string. The piano is a direct descendant of the santoor (Alberti 23-24). Another instrument which finds its roots in ancient Persia is the guitar. In Persia, there was an instrument which was similar in shape and sound to the guitar. It was called the “Sitar.” This instrument had a round centerpiece and a handle just as the guitar does, but it had only three strings. Sitar means Three Strings in ancient Persian. This instrument existed between 800-600 B.C.E. The sitar is the ancestor of the guitar, and this is visible not only in the instrument itself but also in the name: Gui”tar”. This is just like the ‘tar’ in sitar (27-28). It is easily observable that Persian art had a great deal of influence in Greco-Roman and Western art.
The culture that most of the West lives by today is a mix of many different cultures and, even though each country has a unique culture, most are similar in that they have the same roots. The roots of Western culture today come from ancient Greco-Roman culture, and a good deal of the ancient Greco-Roman culture has roots in ancient Persian culture in an assortment of ways. There are a variety of foods that exist in Europe today which people consider to come from Greece. Many of these foods are currently made in Greece, but they were not started there. They were started in ancient Persia. Some foods, such as baklava are known to have been first made by the Persians. Baklava is a delicious treat which is small in size (3cm by 2cm), but very sweet and loaded with spices. This famous pastry is eaten throughout Europe and even in the United States, and most believe it is of Greek origin. However, the truth is that the Persians were the first to actually make it (Batmanglij 249). Another famous dish eaten throughout Europe is the dolama. This is meal known throughout Europe as Greek. It is made up of marrow, tomato, or cabbage stuffed with minced meat and rice. This is yet another dish which makes up a Persian influence on the modern day European as well as the ancient Greek societies (267). Another important manner in which ancient Persia has influenced the Greco-Roman world is in the arena of sports and games. Many games which today are considered “European” are actually of direct Persian descent. One famous sport played across the world and believed by most to be a British sport is polo, a sport in which the object is to hit a bill into a goal while riding a horse. This sport actually originated in ancient Persia circa 600 B.C.E. It was known as a royal sport and was call “Chogan. It spread from Persia through the Byzantine Empire to the rest of Europe (”History “). Another well-known game is chess. This game of chess is known as a game rich in history which shows that intellect is just as important as strength. What is not known about chess is that it was originally made by a Persian king-king Khosroe I-to show that battle strategy is of utmost importance in a fight. He made it to show that, despite the fact that both armies start with equal forces, one wins because of better techniques and skill, and this must be displayed on the battlefield. It is believed that chess was created in 600 C.E. (”Origins “). One last game known all across the world is backgammon. This game also tends to be categorized as “European,” but once again a more in depth look shows that it was also created first in Persia. In fact, backgammon is the oldest known recorded game in man’s history. It was created in ancient Persia around 800 B.C.E. by a Persian Shah who wanted to show his people and his armies that no matter how bad a battle situation looked, some luck could change the whole tide of the battle (Salar). From Persia, it spread not only West through Greece and Rome to all of Europe but it also spread East towards India, China and Japan. These games truly changed the world, but Persia is no longer credited as the creator of them, Europe is, and it is important to know that Persian culture had a great impact on Western culture.
In conclusion, it easy to see that Greco-Western culture, art, and architecture have all evolved from ancient Persia, and, because these have been mimicked by Greece, roots of Persian influence can be readily found in Greco-Western.
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