Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.1.04

Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persians in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. 331, 150 illus., 2 maps. $100.00. ISBN 0-521-49598-9.

Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, University of Bern, Switzerland,

"It is a commonplace of modern scholarship that the Athenians hated and despised the Persians ... evidence can be found in the rhetoric of the theatre and the assembly, as well as in art. But the claims of contempt are disproved by the evidence of archaeology, epigraphy, iconography and literature, all of which reveal some facet of Athenian receptivity to Achaemenid Persian culture" (1). It is with these sentences that M.'s thorough, careful and highly readable study starts, the aim of which is to show "that the social culture of classical Athens was not the monolithic construct it now appears" (ibid.) and that Greece was not only ready, but even eager to receive foreign, "barbaric", cultural influence.

The study is divided into two major parts: part I (3-133) deals with the "Spheres of Contact" and establishes the possibilities and the extent of relations between Athenians and Persians; part II, "Perserie" (135-258), examines the complex Athenian response -- both of the state and of individuals -- to Persian culture.

The first chapter (3-28) gives a detailed overview of the connexions between Athenians and Persians from their beginnings down to the late fifth century. Starting shortly after the fall of the Lydian King Kroisos in the 540s, these connexions grew ever more frequent and intense, until they reached a high point with Xerxes' invasion (6-8), which gave a huge number of Athenians direct knowledge of Persian ships, armour (e.g. that beneath Masistios' tunic, cf. Hdt. 9.22.2), dress, ornament and of the Persians themselves -- but it is difficult to assess how many Iranians actually were in Xerxes' army (in relation to the many other nations). Prisoners of war are scarcely mentioned, which could either mean that they were an obvious phenomenon or that they were executed. After Mykale, there were still several years of struggle until all Persian forces were out of the Northern Aegean; a decisive victory, celebrated in at least one red-figured vase, was the battle at the Eurymedon, although the background and even the exact date are unclear (about 466 BC). After that, the sources lose interest in Persia until the late 5th century, when Persian gold begins to play an important role in Greek politics (9-14). There were intense diplomatic activities in the 430s/20s (cf. Ar., Ach.), and Persia was, of course, "in everybody's mind" (25) at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War as a potential ally of Sparta as well as of Athens, so that at the end of the 5th and beginning of the 4th century many noble Athenians had had close contact with Persia and many had visited a Persian court (15-27).

The spoils of the Median Wars made up a considerable part of Athens' financial resources even after the great classical building program (Thuk. 2,13,3-5). A big part of the influx already came with Marathon (the many ancient, but mostly problematic testimonia about votives from the Marathon spoils are discussed by M. on p. 30-32); the even more abundant booty taken after Plataia, Mykale and Eurymedon is considered in detail as well (33-40). All this booty was not only of impressive material substance, but the armour of about 6400 dead barbaroi already at Marathon, the luxury tents, metalware, even camels and people of all social ranks including eunuchs and concubines showed the Athenians a "whole new order of luxury culture" (41), traces of which have survived (arrowheads, items of bronze and ivory). Of these spoils dedications were made by the state for everyone to see; the rest was probably distributed according to the ranks in the army, and sometimes the state sold items, so private individuals who where rich enough could buy them.

In "Tracing the booty after capture" (46-62), M. gives an impressive and carefully researched account of the further fortunes of the Persian booty, both from literary accounts and from items excavated in Greece; all those items must have given a very large number of Greeks "a sudden glimpse of a whole different order of economic standing" (46). Among other things, M. surveys weapons and armour (e.g. the akinakes, the corselet of Masistios -- for these things the Greeks may have developed a taste but not any serious interest, given that they were the victors, 62), richly decorated tents with luxury furniture and textiles; gems, jewellery, little decorative attachments for clothes, vessels, sunshades and parasols.

More difficult to grasp concretely than these remains are the traces of cultural exchange through trade and its impact since most of the imported goods were perishable (63-81). In the western fringe of the Achaemenid Empire, black-gloss Attic pottery of high quality filled the gap between coarse ware and local metalwork; interestingly, there was a continuous growth of trade in the 5th century -- politics apparently had little impact on trade in the Mediterranean (72). In Greece, apart from Achaemenid coinage, the most interesting goods may have been textiles, which played a decisive role in the transfer and spread of motives (fragments of Chinese silk and Indian cotton were found in Attic graves).

M. also takes a look at "the human factor", i.e. the slaves and metics (81-85) who came to Athens through trade and exchange. I thoroughly agree with her conclusion that there must have been a large population of "barbaroi" in fifth-century Athens, but I am not quite convinced by Table 3.1 (82 f.), which uses literary and epigraphical evidence (Attic stelai, Hermokopidai auction lists) as sources, but omits -- as far as I can see -- the grave-stelai of "barbarians" in Attica (apart from the Laureion inscriptions), which could modify the picture that is drawn up here concerning the various nationalities; Syrians, e.g., were much more prominent in Attica.

Chap. 4 (89-108) explores the "zones of contact between Greeks and the western Empire": apart from the possibilities of border contact (above all in East Greek regions, where Persian rule was probably felt the most, above all after the Ionian revolt), there were many Greeks in the Persian Empire (aristocratic refugees who got land-grants, soldiers, architects, physicians, secretaries, craftsmen; cf. the works of Nylander and Hofstetter cited by M.); but it is doubtful whether the Greek military colonists in Susa and Babylon and the East Greek workers in Persia could return and provide information; one of our most valuable informants, therefore, is Herodotus, who travelled within the Persian Empire and whose work was disseminated in Athens (105-108).

Only members of diplomatic embassies had the chance to see royal Achaemenid palaces from within (109-133), but one may ask, of course, how much of Persian culture these envoys could understand and how much of what they got to see was Achaemenid propaganda (Ar. Ach. 61-125, about 425 BC, is a parody, i.e. the public knew the "real" thing). There are many known Greek embassies to the Persian king (cf. table 5.1); they usually consisted of 2-10 envoys chosen by the ekklesia and up to 20 attendants (112-114). The ambassadors were mostly rich and prominent citizens who already had some link with Persia (e.g. Kallias); they were on their journey for a long time, being sometimes delayed for months due to the complex court infrastructure.

Part II ("Perserie", 135-258) gives a rich account of how Persian material culture and art exerted influence in Attica. Apart from Persian spoils, gifts exchanged diplomatically (mostly precious metalware and luxurious textiles from the Achaemenid side) played an important role in cultural exchange. M. methodically distinguishes between imitations (137-40, e.g. the so-called Achaemenid Phiale, which begins to appear in the late 6th century and was more likely used for drinking than for ritual purposes), adaptation (141-6, e.g. animal-headed cups; black-gloss deep "acrocup") and derivation (147-9: the grafting of foreign details onto traditional Attic forms, new surface treatments like fluting, grooving, petal-grooving in black-gloss Attic ware). M. convincingly concludes that there was more adaptation than imitation; the Hellenisation of oriental forms resolved "the tension between ethnic pride and the need for new expressions of status" (152).

An important aspect of "Perserie" was the incorporation of foreign items of dress (Chap. 7, 153-187) such as the long sleeved chiton, the kandys, the ependytes; evidence for the use of such costumes can be found in depictions on vases and grave-stelai.1 Although I most often agree with M.'s interpretations, this is the part where I harbor some doubts, especially concerning servants on grave-stelai (the stele of Myttion and the like): Can we really state with assurance that most of these persons were Athenians? There was the predominant topos that "barbarians were slaves" (and, vice versa, that free people were Greeks); therefore I tend to interpret the long-sleeved chitons of female servants on grave-stelai as the oriental-barbarian 'Einheitstracht'.2 If we tend to see everything as "Modetracht", we have to rely on very subjective criteria like "barbarian facial features" to decide whether a barbarian was actually meant. I would like to suggest that the presence of real barbarians in Athenian life is greater than is usually considered.3

Greek tradition associated luxury with eastern "barbaroi", and ordinary Greek households are thought to have generally been of humble means. Nevertheless, the Athenian wealthy elite maintained a luxury culture that was expanded and transformed through contact with Persia (189): peacocks (189-192) and parasols (193-198), e.g., are accessoires for women of certain social standing on vases (while in the Achaemenid East it is the men who use these items). Sometimes there are slaves who hold these accessoires -- which shows that the status-emphasizing role of servants gets more important, that they become more numerous and more specialised ("conspicuous consumption of slave labour", 210-212); exotic slaves (black boys as servants at the symposium, sometimes even eunuchs, 212-217) were used as a status symbol; they were one more item of Persian luxury with a 'mythical notion of value' (Gernet) that could be acquired by means of commerce (216).

An extensive chapter is dedicated to the Odeion of Pericles and its problems (chap. 9, 218-242). The Odeion is one of the most important and most interesting structures of the Periclean building program, as it shows the public response of Athens to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (219). On p. 219-224, M. discusses the literary evidence for it and argues that the claim that it was an imitation of Xerxes' tent was a Hellenistic fable invented to explain its "Persoid" appearance. Considering the complex structure of a Persian palace tent (235) this is hardly possible, and, as M. already shows on p. 35, it was Mardonios' tent rather than Xerxes' that was captured at Plataiai; more probably, the Odeion was inspired directly from the royal architecture at Apadana (236). M. then discusses possible reconstructions of the rectangular hypostyle hall in the context of Greek architecture (problems are the probably pyramidal roof, the lighting and the entrance, features which make Korres' reconstruction without walls probable (224-232). In any case, its form appeared "Persian" to the Greeks, which shows clearly that at this time not only individuals, but also the state could look towards the east for symbols of rank and status (242). Very interesting is M.'s discussion of the various theories of the original function of the Odeion (232-5) which all encounter various problems; her own conclusion is that "the Odeion, uniquely in Greek architecture, was built to be rather than to do: to look Persian rather than to accommodate a specific activity" (235) and that "resonating against its Persian models, it is a proud statement of empire" (241).4

The last chapter stimulatingly explores general principles of cultural receptivity and its specific structures and patterns in classical Athens (243-258); M. shows how an increasingly rich social texture was also increasingly in need of external status-indicators which were first imported among the élite but then underwent a process of "devaluation" and "democratisation" (251-256) which was complete by the Peloponnesian War period; when at that moment also the demos was allowed to employ Persian status symbols, the élite, in search for novelty, turned to Lakonism.

In the course of her admirably thorough and comprehensive study M. has reached a general conclusion that has already been adumbrated by others who have taken a closer look at Athenian cultural responses to Persia - namely, that there is a contradiction between the disdain of "barbarians" in official rhetoric and the readiness, even need, of Athens for the reception of "barbarian" phenomena.5 Though this conclusion may not be entirely original, then, it has to be added that the book is a major achievement and a model of its kind: never before have the many-faceted relations between Athenians and Persians been brought so vividly and in such detail before our eyes.

M. states in her preface that this book needed to be written, but that she had doubts whether she "should be the one to write it" (xiii); having read it, this reviewer is thoroughly convinced that M. was exactly the right person to write it.6


1. Concerning p. 154: I think we actually can establish that persikai were imitated in Athens rather than simply imported from Persia, for there is a grave-stele from the Kerameikos with the inscription "Thrax Persikopoios" (see my "Fleissige Thrakerinnen und wehrhafte Skythen: Nichtgriechen im klassischen Athen und ihre archäologische Hinterlassenschaft," forthcoming, Kat. No. 116).  

2. As for the stele of Myttion: can we be sure that she was not a barbarian? After all, there is no patronymic and demotic on her inscription, as was usual for Athenian citizens.  

3. See e.g. the torso of a grave-statue of what must have been a high-ranking Persian (Athens, National Museum 2728; B. B. Kat. 42), who was buried at a prominent place in the Kerameikos; for the possibility of the depiction of barbarians on the Parthenon frieze cf. J. Borchhardt, Terra Ant Balc 2, 1985, 60-71; I. Mader, in: Festschrift für J. Borchhardt (1996) 59-64.  

4. On p. 240, M. somewhat dismisses the idea that the Odeion might originally have been something like a "victory monument" of Athens over the Persians; if, however, one may compare the building of the famous (and in a peculiar way Phoenician-looking) Olympieion at Akragas after the battle of Himera, the idea retains some plausibility.  

5. For a similar kind of phenomenon concerning slaves, servants - above all nurses -- in Athens who received grave-stelai with often touching epigrams from their masters, see the reviewer's forthcoming study cited above in note 1. -- There are still only few studies extensively tackling the interaction of two complex societies; yet it is clear that no complex society reacts monolithically.  

6. The book is admirably produced, and there are only very few misprints; I found none at all in the whole text and only some minor ones in the bibliography (265-314): p. 280 at the bottom read Phrygische (instead of Phrygisches); p. 281, line 17 from above read Bildnis (instead of Bildniss), Herrscher (instead of Hersscher).