Art Through Time: A Global View
Ceremony and Society Art: Procession of Tribute Bearers
King of Persia and ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, Darius I began building the monumental palace complex at Persepolis in the sixth century BCE.
Over the next two centuries, the site was expanded by Darius’s successors before being looted and burned by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Intended as the capital of the empire, Persepolis was a grand demonstration of the power and resources of the Achaemenids. It was also to serve as the backdrop for various ceremonies of state.
Among the most impressive remains discovered at Persepolis are the two monumental stairways leading to the Apadana, the main reception hall of the Achaemenid kings, started by Darius and completed under his son, Xerxes. These stairways, a portion of which appears here, were decorated with relief carvings of an annual New Year’s festival during which representatives from the empire’s subject nations congregated to pay tribute to the king. The identity of each figure is indicated through his costume, appearance, and also through the gift that he bears—a product of his native land. In addition to these foreign dignitaries, the procession includes courtiers, servants, soldiers, and guards. For those foreign visitors climbing the stairs or even for those members of the king’s retinue stationed at Persepolis, these carvings, which record a ritual of submission, were both a reminder of their relationship to the Persian king and a model of ideal behavior.
Expert Perspective: Patrick Hunt, Director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project
“Persepolis was first imagined as a monumental proclamation to the world of the vision and greatness, the cosmopolitan nature of ancient Persia—how it could take the best from all of the civilization around it. Persepolis was imagined to be a place of celebration, where all the different provinces, or satrapies, could come in monumental processions and visit the heart of Persia, the seat of the emperor.
The art of Persepolis, while it may evoke some of the same ideas of ceremony that you see in processions in Greek art or Egyptian art, it’s very different. The stateliness and dignity of the processants carrying tribute suggests in every way that these aren’t slaves; these are people with dignity who are bringing gifts not so much out of obligation as out of acknowledgement of greatness of an empire in which they were part.
Persepolis is a unique monument to the human love of beauty, aesthetics, splendor, drama.”
Boardman, John. The World of Ancient Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, 5th ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, 2nd ed. Edited by Gregory Castillo. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Van de Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 BC.Second edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.