Art of an Empire: The Achaemenids of Persia

Persia, centered around present-day Iran, was the site of a vast empire that existed in three general phases. The Achaemenids (550–330 BCE) established the first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, who quickly expanded the empire’s borders until the conquest by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in 300 BCE.

The Achaemenids ruled Persian with a tolerance for diverse ethnicity and religions. Under it Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic religion, dominated the Persian Empire until Islam supplanted it in the 7th century CE. Likewise, the art of the Achaemenid empire was largely syncretic, combining the styles of diverse conquered and neighboring peoples to forge a new, unique Persian style.

Early Persian Empire: In the Achaemenid period, the Persian Empire stretched across a vast swath of the Middle East into northern Africa and southern Europe.


The extraordinary architectural and artistic legacy of the Achaemenids is best seen in the ruins of the opulent city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Located about 70 kilometers northeast of the modern Iranian city of Shiraz, Persepolis was built as a wide, elevated complex ringed with walls 40 feet high, 100 feet wide, and a third of a mile long. The planning of the city was begun by Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE) and largely completed by his son Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE). The tremendous political and economic power of the Persian kings was expressed by the scale of the architecture at Persepolis, especially the monumental audience halls where grand stairways were decorated with finely carved images of people from all over the kingdom carrying precious gifts to their Persian overlords.

Oblique aerial view of the terrace of Persepolis from the northwest, taken during an aerial survey expedition in Iran.

View of the eastern stairway and columns of the Apadana (Audience Hall) at Persepolis, Iran, 5th century BCE.

Relief from Apadana Hall, Persepolis showing 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume. Note the subtle differences in the clothing and style of the soldiers on each side. The Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots.

Winged sphinx from the Palace of Darius, Persepolis, Iran, 5th century BCE.

Cast of a horse, Persipolis, Iran, stone, 68 x 71 x 30 cm (W x H x D).
This beautiful hand-carved sculpture of a horse is one of many that once decorated the palaces of the Persian “kings of kings”. It was first carved in clay, then produced in stone.

End of an empire

The palace at Persepolis stood for nearly 200 years until 330 BCE, when the Macedonian emperor Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) captured the city and allowed his troops to loot the palace. Inscriptions describe a great fire that engulfed the palace, which brought an end to the Achaemenid Empire. Persepolis thereafter became a Macedonian province under the Seleucid Empire of the Greeks.

Art of the Achaemenid Period

On a much smaller scale from Persepolis, Achaemenid objects of decorative and function uses were exquisitely fashioned from precious metals (often gold and gemstones) that revealed an impressive level of craftsmanship.

Horn-shaped vessel with lion, Iran, 5th century BCE, gold, 17 × 13.8 × 9.2 cm. Metropolitan Museum.

Horn-shaped vessels ending in an animal’s head have a long history in the Near East as well as in Greece and Italy. The making of this vessel demonstrates superb technical skill as several parts were invisibly joined by careful brazing. 136 feet of twisted wire decorate the upper band of the vessel in 44 even rows. The vessel is fronted with a lion-like figure. The roof of the lion’s mouth is raised in tiny ribs. It has a crest running down his back; his mane has the disciplined appearance of a woven material; and his flanks are covered by an ostrich plume.

Ornament with back-to-back lions, Iran, 6th – 4th century BCE, gold. 4.1 × 4.1 × 0.1 cm. Metropolitan Museum.

This gold applique depicts two rampant lions back to back with their noses touching and tails intertwined. This applique was made by hammering a single sheet of gold and cutting out the openwork parts. It would have been attached originally to clothing, along with many other similar appliques. Some of the reliefs from Persepolis depicting the Persian king show decorations on his robe that are probably meant to represent appliques like this. Lions, signifying strength and raw power, were a popular feature of Achaemenid art, especially royal iconography.

Rhyton (cup), Iran, 5th century BCE, gilt silver, 13.4 – 14.5 cm. British Museum.

A rhyton is a conical container from which fluids were intended to be drunk or to be poured in some ceremony such as libation, or at a feasting table. They are typically formed in the shape of an animal’s head, and were produced over large areas of the Near East, from Persia to the Balkans. This rhyton is made from hammered and horizontally fluted silver. It features a horned winged griffin wearing a necklace, originally set with a gem pendant. The eye sockets were also originally inlaid.

The Oxus Treasure

The Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Achaemenid art, too diffused throughout this region. Indeed, some of the most iconic artworks of the Achaemenid Empire come from the collection known as the Oxus Treasure; a hoard of beautifully crafted works discovered in the late 19th century buried in the north bank of the Oxus River. This collection includes coins, bowls, figurines and statuettes, jewelry, jugs, and plaques of gold. Although the authenticity of a number of these items has been challenged in the past, the scholarly consensus presently is that they are all genuine artifacts from the Achaemenid period, most likely taken from a nearby temple and buried for safety during one of the many turbulent periods of the region. The refined craftsmanship of some of the pieces demonstrates extraordinary skill in metallurgy, as exemplified by this intricate golden chariot model with horses and figures. Even though this model is unfinished, the detail of the horses’ harness, the wheels, and the ornamentation of the chariot itself would have required considerable effort and a high skill set.

Egyptian chariot model, Oxus treasure, recovered from Takht-i Kuwad, Tajikistan. Achaemenid Period, 5th to 4th centuries BCE, gold. British Museum.

The Egyptian god Bes is depicted on the front of this gold model chariot. Bes was the protective deity of the young, and this would suggest the chariot was made for a child. Chariots with the same profile and the wheel construction are shown on sculptures at Persepolis and the so-called Darius seal.

The Oxus River, today called Amu Darya in its western part and Wakhsh in its eastern parts. The river flows for a length of 2400 km across modern Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan into Lake Aral. In Ancient times it crossed the regions Fergana, Bactria, Oxeiana, Sogdiana and Khiva.
Lobed bowl, Oxus Treasure, from Takht-i Kuwad, Tajikistan. Achaemenid Period, 5th to 4th centuries BCE, British Museum.

This gold bowl was decorated with pushed-out lobes and lions standing on their hind-legs with their front paws raised. The shape and decoration of the bowl was made by hammering. The bowl is part of the Oxus treasure recovered from Takht-i Kuwad, Tajikistan dating to the Achaemenid Period.

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