Parthenon Frieze, Athens: Influenced By Persepolis Reliefs Which Were Inspired By Ionian Sculpture

This is the second of three stories that aim to show the cultural link between two arch-enemies, Ancient Greece and the First Persian Empire, using three objects that are on the display in the British Museum. The first story was about the Cyrus Cylinder. The subject of this story will be the Parthenon Frieze. The third one will discuss the Mausoleum.

What Is Parthenon?

Parthenon, the most famous Greek temple, was located in Athens. Its remains still tower the city: it is considered to be the most important surviving building of Classical Greece. This temple was built over the years 447-432 BC and dedicated to goddess Athena.
It replaced an older temple of Athena that was destroyed in 480 BC, during the Second Persian invasion of Greece. The new temple was erected to show the might of Athens in general and their superiority over Persians in particular. This becomes obvious if one examines the Parthenon Frieze.

What Is The Parthenon Frieze?

Panathenaic amphora, cr. 425 BC-400 BC, Attica, attributed to the Kuban Group
Panathenaic amphora,
cr. 425 BC-400 BC, Attica, attributed to the Kuban Group
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Entablature that shows a frieze, Source: A. Rosengarten, A Handbook of Architectural Styles, NY, 1898
Entablature that shows a frieze,
Source: A. Rosengarten, A Handbook of Architectural Styles, NY, 1898
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The frieze is the wide central section part of an entablature, the band that rests on top of the colonnade. It can be plain or, as in the case of Parthenon, have reliefs carved into it. The reliefs on the Parthenon Frieze depict two files of a procession, including preparation for the procession, the procession itself, and, probably, Greek gods at the end. We cannot be certain what procession it is, but many scholars believe it is a representation of a procession that would culminate the Panathenaic Games. That would be fitting given that Panathenaic would culminate in Parthenon.
Below are the Parthenon frieze slubs that show the culmination point of the procession: Zeus, Hera, other Greek gods, as well as heroes or civic dignitaries.

Block IV showing eponymous heroes or civic dignitaries, East frieze of the Parthenon, 438 - 432 BC, Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
Block IV showing eponymous heroes or civic dignitaries, East frieze of the Parthenon, 438 - 432 BC,
Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
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Block IV showing Hermes and other Greek gods, East frieze of the Parthenon, 438 - 432 BC, Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
Block IV showing Hermes and other Greek gods, East frieze of the Parthenon, 438 - 432 BC,
Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
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Block V showing Zeus And Hera, East Parthenon frieze, 438 - 432 BC, Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
Block V showing Zeus And Hera, East Parthenon frieze, 438 - 432 BC,
Designed by Pheidias, Athens, Greece
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What Links Parthenon Frieze And Persian Culture?

Central Relief of the North Stairs showing Darius the Great, 520 - 486 BC, Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
Central Relief of the North Stairs showing Darius the Great, 520 - 486 BC,
Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
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In circa 515 BC Persian king Darius the Great founded a new capital, Persepolis. Its construction was a way to declare to the world that the great empire was born. This idea is also reflected in the decorative details of the palace.
One can see it particularly well on the reliefs of Apadana, the great audience hall of Persepolis. They show the processions of representatives of twenty-three subject nations of the Achaemenid Empire, with court notables and Persians and Medes, followed by soldiers and guards, their horses, and royal chariots. Delegates carry gifts as a token of their loyalty and a tribute to the deity-like king.
There are a few obvious similarities between the reliefs of Parthenon and Persepolis: both depict processions, both are in the locations where these processions were actually happening. There are also some compositional similarities: the deities (Parthenon) and the king (Persepolis) are seated, and surrounded by standing high profile figures, whereas the lower profile figures walk (Persepolis) or ride (Parthenon) towards them.

Median Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC, Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
Median Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC,
Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
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Babylonian Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC, Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
Babylonian Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC,
Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
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Prior to the ascension of Darius the Great, Persians were mostly nomads, and obviously, there were no Persian craftsmen to build a vast and richly decorated palace complex. So the future symbol of the Persian empire was built by foreigners: Babylonians, Medes and Egyptians. The reliefs were probably carved by Ionians.

Ionian Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC, Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
Ionian Tribute Bearers, 520 - 486 BC,
Apadana Staircase, Persepolis, Iran
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Ionians were one of the Greek tribes, and lived in Asia Minor, on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The defeat of Lydian king Croesus by Cyrus the Great was followed by the conquest of all the Ionian cities in 547-546 BC, and remained part of Persian empire until 479 BC, when Persians were defeated by Greeks at the Battle of Plataea. They retained their autonomy until the Peace of Antalcidas in 387 BC once more placed them under the nominal dominion of Persia that lasted until 334 BC, when Alexander the Great defeated Persians in the Battle of the Granicus and subsequent battles.

Although we cannot be absolutely certain that the Ionian Greeks are the makers of the reliefs discussed below, it is reasonable to assume this, since no other nation in the Achaemenid Empire was capable of the perfect rendering of the human body.
There were, most likely, carved reliefs on the Ionian Temple of Artemis (this temple was rebuilt 3 times; the second incarnation, begun at cr. 550 BC, a few decades before the beginnings of Persepolis, is relevant to us).
One could also try and link it to the Siphnian Treasury, that was begun in 525 BC. The link is possible because Siphnos was mostly populated by Ionians.

Frieze of Siphnian Treasury, cr.  525 BC, Delphi, Greece
Frieze of Siphnian Treasury, cr. 525 BC,
Delphi, Greece
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Fragment of a marble frieze, Temple of Artemis, 550-510BC, Ephesus, Ionia (now Anatolia, Turkey)
Fragment of a marble frieze, Temple of Artemis, 550-510BC,
Ephesus, Ionia (now Anatolia, Turkey)
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Part Of The Artistic Tradition

The artistic back-and-forth between Greek and Persian cultures is part of a much longer artistic tradition of representing stately processions. Such representations were created by other great cultures of antiquity: Ancient Egypt, Assyria and Sumeria.

The Standard of Ur, cr. 2500 BC, Ur, Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia (now Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq)
The Standard of Ur, cr. 2500 BC,
Ur, Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia (now Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq)
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Plaster cast of a relief showing pharaon Ramesses II receiving produce of Nubia and the lands of tropical Africa, 1269 – 1213 BC, Temple of Beit el-Wali, Nubia, now Aswan, Egypt
Plaster cast of a relief showing pharaon Ramesses II receiving produce of Nubia and the lands of tropical Africa, 1269 – 1213 BC,
Temple of Beit el-Wali, Nubia, now Aswan, Egypt
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The Banquet of Ashurbanipal, 645 BC - 635 BC, Nineveh, Assyria, now Mosul, Iraq
The Banquet of Ashurbanipal, 645 BC - 635 BC,
Nineveh, Assyria, now Mosul, Iraq
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