BMCR 2004.02.20

Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis

, Aspects of empire in Achaemenid Sardis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xv, 325 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 052181071X. $90.00.

In 1986, the apparent invisibility of the Persian empire in the archaeological record prompted an exasperated participant of the Third Achaemenid History Workshop to exclaim: “Was there ever a Persian empire?” When Elspeth Dusinberre (D.) quotes this incident in the Conclusion to her thorough re-evaluation of the material culture of Sardis in the Achaemenid period, the reader will not hesitate to join her in answering this question positively.

The historiography of the Achaemenid Persian empire has been revolutionized in the last two decades, propelled first by the series of Achaemenid History Workshops organized by the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and now the research network spearheaded by Pierre Briant. The empire’s impact on the cultures of the subject populations remains a crucial issue of current research, as it can potentially shed light on some of the administrative, economic, ideological and military structures that secured the functioning of the empire and that define it in relation to other empires. Earlier surveys of Achaemenid presence in various parts of the empire tended to emphasize the scarcity of relevant material remains, a phenomenon that could, according to a scholar’s adherence to modern ideologies, be interpreted as the result of imperial weakness, pragmatism or tolerance. With a closer look and more sophisticated parameters of inquiry that take into account not only outwardly Persian traits but also changes in e.g. settlement patterns and land use, social stratification, economy and commercial relations, evidence for the Achaemenid empire is becoming more tangible. Both new fieldwork and the re-examination of existing materials contribute to a sharper image.

Sardis is a case in point: the site of the satrapal capital is not renowned for spectacular monuments linked to the Persian presence, but D.’s careful study of many earlier and some more recently excavated remains leaves no question that Achaemenid rule affected local culture in several areas and at different social levels. Each of the main chapters focuses on one category of the material evidence and indicates some of “the ways in which the new Achaemenid administration worked with and within a pre-existing society to ensure the successful annexation of a region and its populace into the empire” (1).

The introductory chapter “Sardis in the Achaemenid Empire” (1-30) sets the stage in various ways. First, D. introduces the reader to the Achaemenid empire and interpretative issues relevant to the following chapters. She stresses the multicultural aspect of the empire and the flexibility in administrative and ideological matters that this called for; local structures (and personnel) were accommodated and imperial ideology (expressed verbally or in images) couched in familiar terms to integrate a range of different peoples. Achaemenid hegemony created a “polyethnic” elite and new social identities whose material expressions were influenced by imperial artistic patterns.

There is a very brief account of Achaemenid Anatolia and the problems of its archaeological record, and of Sardis as capital of the satrapy Sparda (the Achaemenid name of city and capital alike) and the extent of its excavation. In fact, only a small fraction of the Achaemenid city has been excavated, and it is necessary to combine literary, archaeological and art historical perspectives to achieve at least an approximate picture. As D. cautions, further excavation might change this picture. Achaemenid Anatolia is often analyzed in a bipolar framework, as a geographic zone open to influences from both Persia and Greece. By taking several pages to describe the approach to Sardis from the east, D. declares her eastern viewpoint and places Sardis firmly within the Achaemenid empire. Despite occasional lyric touches, the account of the road from Sardis to Susa remains a little dry without a detailed map. Once arrived, the reader is familiarized with Lydia’s geology and climate, as well as its natural resources, which included not only gold but also other metals, timbers and the ingredients for a flourishing textile industry.

The hasty reader will find a quick reward in the overview of the book that concludes the Introduction and summarizes the individual chapters (23-30). This section provides a context for the discussions to follow, but as a recapitulation, it would also have made a good introduction to the Conclusion, where the overly hasty reader will miss it.

Chapter 2 (31-45) is also of an introductory nature and outlines the political and military history of Sardis and the city’s involvement in imperial Achaemenid politics. The relevant information comes largely from ancient Greek authors. No administrative archive has yet come to light in Sardis, but wherever possible D. takes recourse to Achaemenid Persian sources, such as the Persepolis Fortification tablets, in a sensible attempt to balance Greek and Persian stereotypes. This narrative brings out Sardis’ relative importance at the western edge of the empire: it served as a base for the king’s army on campaign and was governed by Persians of high rank, including members of the royal family. To nuance the author’s overall image of a prosperous and thriving city, the reviewer would like to point out that many inhabitants would have lost their livelihoods (or lives) in one of the frequent attacks or uprisings mentioned in this chapter.

With the next chapter, the book turns to its central concern, the material remains recovered at Sardis. In Chapter 3 (46-77), D. bravely tackles the little evidence available for the urban structure and architecture of the Achaemenid city. Partly due to massive erosion, there is insufficient survey data to determine the city’s layout and relationship to the surrounding countryside. The impressive fortification walls of the Lydian city were destroyed by the Persians and rebuilt on a lesser (but by no means insignificant) scale. The acropolis had its own fortification, creating what D. calls “nesting layers of defensibility and security” (55), typical of several ancient Near Eastern cities. Literary sources suggest that the Persian garrison and the royal palace were located inside the inner fortifications. Most probably, the satraps reused the palace of Croesus, which has not been found; similarly, the existence of paradeisoi is currently only attested in literary sources. In contrast to the “blatant Persianism” of the latter, the extremely scarce and, in fact, uncertain traces of domestic architecture seem to suggest the continuity of local building traditions.1 The construction of a stepped altar to Artemis and the remodeling of an existing altar to Cybele, which was perhaps transformed into a fire altar, provide possible instances of syncretism and conversion. This chapter would have benefited from a plan marking the Persian-period structures more clearly than the master plan (Fig. 4).

Chapter 4 (pp. 78-112), which deals with sculpture from various urban contexts, is again based on a relatively small number of excavated objects. Except for the anthemion stelae, the relevant monuments are described in Appendix 1. The chapter begins with a useful and well-illustrated overview of sculpture preserved elsewhere in the empire. At Sardis, almost all sculptures were found employed in secondary use, which means that their original context is unknown. They combine Greek stylistic influence with local and eastern themes, and D. envisages their creation in an international environment characterized by the mobility of artists and their flexibility working in different styles. One pediment and two funerary stelae (one dated to 330-29 BC) depict banqueting scenes, which may be seen in connection with the provision of couches in many Achaemenid-period tombs at Sardis. The motif of the reclining banquet is widespread in the funerary art of Achaemenid Anatolia. Whether its prominence is due to the impact of Persian customs, as D. seems to imply, is a question that needs further scrutiny. In any case, the frequent occurrence of similar banquets on sculpted funerary monuments in Lycia deserves recognition in this context. At Sardis, female figures carved in the round and in relief, images of lions and representations of the goddess Cybele attest the continuity of local traditions.

Public expressions in another medium are discussed in Chapter 5 (113-127): inscriptions. The text should be read together with Appendix 2, which provides English translations of datable Lydian inscriptions, ranging from the Lydian kingdom to the death of Alexander. No other compendium of Lydian inscriptions translated into a modern language is currently available, and D. has done the general reader a huge service. This reviewer has to leave the critical appreciation of the translations to specialists of the Anatolian languages. In contrast to the other chapters, Chapter 5 includes Lydian material not of Sardian provenience. The main criterion for inclusion is datability, which is not always easy to follow: two puzzling omissions are the inscription on a funerary stele dated to the first half of the fourth century in Appendix 1, and the graffito on the Ikiztepe incense burner, which would have been an important addition to the author’s section on ownership inscriptions.2

Most of the Lydian inscriptions were originally connected with tombs, warding off intruders with a curse, a practice that continued from the Lydian kingdom through the Achaemenid period to the time of Alexander. Among the tomb inscriptions is a Lydian-Aramaic bilingual which may show that the authority of the Achaemenid administration could be appealed to in this concern. There are also some dedicatory inscriptions and two inscriptions by one Mitridastas regarding his benefactions to Apollo and Artemis of Ephesos. Taken together with the Greek Droaphernes, Mnesimachos and Sacrilege inscriptions (also included in the appendix), the epigraphic material gives some clues about language use, personal names and naming practices, religion and cult, the social makeup of Sardian society, land-tenure systems and taxation. It attests to the continuity of certain Lydian traits, but also to the mingling of people and to some extent of traditions of different ethnic backgrounds, including the involvement of Iranians in local cults.

Like the relief sculpture, the inscriptions cannot be linked to individual tombs. The problem of the mortuary evidence of Achaemenid-period Sardis, which is discussed in Chapter 6 (128-157), is one of quality, not of quantity. More than a thousand graves were opened by the Butler expedition in the early 20th century, but the surviving documentation is sparse, compounding the dating problems caused by reuse and plundering. Appendix 3 describes just under ninety tombs on which there is some information available, often not more than a list of associated finds. The chapter begins with some general considerations and goes on to interpret the evidence of tomb structures and grave goods in relation to status, funerary practices and ethnicity. At least three tomb types seem to have been current already in pre-Achaemenid Lydia: tumuli, rock-cut tombs and cists. Wealth and, by extension, status did not play a role in the choice of tomb type. The provision of couches in rock-cut tombs and tumuli seems to have been an innovation of the Achaemenid period. D. argues that the couches may have had twofold significance: on the one hand, continuity of traditional Lydian ideas of an eternal banquet, on the other adherence to practices of Mazdaism, by elevating the corpse over the ground. The concept of “exposure” in a closed tomb (and sometimes even a coffin) is somewhat problematic, however, and comparative evidence for heartland Persia is comprised by Greek descriptions of Cyrus’ tomb furniture. The apparent connection of death and the reclining banquet calls for investigation in a broader geographical perspective.3

The increasing number of tumulus burials may signify social mobility and, seen in context with the so-called Pyramid Tomb with its stepped base, may indicate that the choice of tomb structure was a statement about the ethnic belonging of the deceased. The evidence of mortuary inclusions is limited since most tombs were found plundered. Still, D. can show that the same forms of personal ornament occur in tombs of all types, attesting “a koine in artistic style extending across such points as country of origin or ethnic affiliation, uniting the elite in a group linked by status rather than nationality” (148). The iconography of most gold appliqués has strong Achaemenid affinities, which is also true for some pieces of jewelry addressed only summarily by D.4 These findings are likely to reflect elite practice in the living society, i.e. the attempt to differentiate “themselves from those of lesser status through adaptive referencing to Achaemenid expressions” (154).

That personal ornament makes a public statement is especially true of seals. Chapter 7 (158-171) is dedicated to the seals recovered at Sardis, of which Appendix 4 describes and illustrates 31 examples. The book under review grew out of a dissertation completed at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and D.’s discussion benefits from her familiarity with issues raised by the ongoing publication of the sealings of the Persepolis Fortification tablets by Margaret Cool Root and Mark Garrison. The main focus is on an elaborate cylinder seal engraved with specific Achaemenid motifs that reveal the high status of its owner.5 The style of the seal, however, is local, and D. argues that this may have been a conscious choice on the part of the owner to reflect “his western imperial locus of activity” (167). Most other seals, pyramidal stamp seals and some scarabs, weight-shaped seals and engraved gold rings, are also attributed to the “Graeco-Persian” category, a term which D. retains but criticizes for its inherent (and inappropriate) ethnic polarization. The iconography of the seals includes Achaemenid as well as local and Greek themes.

Appendix 4 is fully illustrated. It was obviously not possible to obtain new images of the seal impressions, so the book reproduces the photographs of the original publication, already deemed provisional when they were taken after World War I. This is most probably due to circumstances beyond the author’s control, and it is a pity indeed that archaeological scholarship of the 21st century should still be hampered by such problems. Chapter 8 (172-195) concentrates on local pottery and is perhaps the most important, in that it calls for a revision of the common perception that Achaemenid impact rarely affected the lower levels of the population.6 D. takes a closer look at the sherd counts of eight Achaemenid-period and Hellenistic deposits, which reveal the enduring popularity of Achaemenid bowls over the traditional Lydian skyphoi. This phenomenon is convincingly explained as non-elite emulation of Persian and persianizing elite drinking customs and assumes the copying in clay of a shape first introduced to Sardis in precious materials. The Achaemenid-type silver plate excavated from tombs at Sardis deserved more attention in the present book, as it constitutes a rare instance of provenanced objects of a class more frequently brought to light by illicit digging. In any case, elite emulation was not the only factor bringing about change in the local pottery record. Vessels, including cooking pots and trays, were now generally thinner walled and fired harder than previously, indicating shifts in technology and perhaps also workshop organization, while developments in shape such as the replacement of stemmed dishes by bowls with incurved rim suggest changes in diet. Finally, it should be noted that the majority of the relevant deposits were excavated in the last two decades, so that continued excavation at Sardis may hold more surprises in store for the student of the Achaemenid empire.

The Conclusion (196-217) sets the results of D.’s investigation into the context of empire studies and proposes further avenues of interpretation through comparison with recent work on the Roman provinces. Inclusion into the empire clearly affected administrative and interregional relationships, but do we also detect changes in social stratification, in the sense that wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few? What were the effects of Sardis’ placement on the Royal Road? Should burial in tumuli be counted as resistance to Achaemenid ideology?

There follow the appendices (218-284): Appendix 1-4 list and describe sculpture, datable inscriptions, mortuary remains and seals; Appendix 5 gives a concordance of the Achaemenid bowls. The appendices are a useful resource, and it is unfortunate that they are little integrated with the narrative. For example, the criteria according to which a sculpture was included in Appendix 1 are not set out. Due to the lack of cross-references, readers seeking confirmation for D.’s important statement that appliqués were among the mortuary inclusions in tumuli will be puzzled by their absence from the tumuli listed in Appendix 3, unless they flip to the “Miscellaneous” category, which includes finds reportedly from a tumulus at Bin Tepe. Appendix 4 includes 31 seals, n. 34 on p. 167 lists 32, the text mentions a total of 34, counting all seals mentioned, the reader will come up with 36.7 It does not help that the seals are referred to by their museum numbers, while the lists in the appendix are sorted by the catalogue numbers of the original publication. In this appendix, one also misses references to the publications of John Boardman, which offer better images and, in some cases, divergent stylistic attributions. The bibliography (285-314) is mostly complete until 1998/99. In the text, references tend to be more extensive on methodological issues and parallel occurrences in other empires than on comparanda from other parts of Anatolia.

Anyone working on the Achaemenid empire will find much food for thought in this book. D.’s insistence on new, “hybrid” artistic forms created by a “polyethnic” elite is in tune with recent trends in the study of acculturation to emphasize the “middle ground”, the communal culture evolving from the interaction of different groups. How does a “polyethnic” elite at Sardis tally with Briant’s concept of a Persian “ethno-classe dominante”, apparently borne out by the strong heartland affiliations of the satraps of Sparda? Is the embracing of imperial ideology that is manifest in personal ornaments and seals of local style perhaps mainly an expression of the political aspirations of local elite of Lydian background? Our glimpses of religious life at Sardis seem to provide instances of both Persian interest in local cult and the establishment of Persian cult at Sardis, indicating a more profound mingling of traditions. Indeed, Croesus’ palace, coins and stonemasons were probably not the only aspects of Lydian culture that appealed to the Persian newcomers. The image of an imperial koine evolving with the consolidation of the empire is complemented by D.’s observations on tomb structure, which may indicate a way of signaling more specific cultural identities.

On the whole, “Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis” is carefully written, methodologically well informed and thoughtfully argued. There are very few typing errors or other oversights.8 The book is a timely case study, of interest to specialists in the Achaemenid empire, Anatolia and the Greek world, be they archaeologists, historians or art historians. It also contains valuable insights for a more general readership concerned with imperialism and acculturation. The material basis is thin at times; nonetheless, D. succeeds in showing what can be gained from a courageous reconsideration of the evidence. It is to be hoped that her study will inspire similar work throughout the Achaemenid empire; in fact, a conference held in Paris in November 2003 was dedicated to taking stock of archaeological research in other satrapies. In her forthcoming studies, announced in the introductory blurb, D. will doubtless address what this reviewer misses in the present book: a more explicit Anatolian perspective considering Anatolian traditions as well as developments in other areas of Anatolia under Achaemenid rule.


1. D.’s evaluation of these architectural remains is ambiguous, compare “no Achaemenid-period domestic architecture at Sardis has yet been excavated” and “the few excavated remains of houses” in the same paragraph (59).

2. R. Gusmani, Lydisches Wörterbuch. Ergänzungsband (Heidelberg 1980-86) nos. 101, 104. The reader misses references to the consecutive numbers of Gusmani (1980-86), and is left at a loss in identifying the source of the inscriptions cited “Gusmani A III 2”, etc. The relevant publication, R. Gusmani, Neue epichorische Schriftzeugnisse aus Sardis (1958-1971) (Cambridge, Mass. 1975), is not included in the bibliography.

3. For an alternative view see E.P. Baughan, “Funerary Klinai and Cultural Identity in Archaic Anatolia” in AIA Annual Meeting Abstracts, 2003.

4. Cf. E. Rehm, Der Schmuck der Achämeniden (Münster 1992).

5. Discussed in more detail by D. in Ars Orientalis 27 (1997) 99-129.

6. This chapter updates the author’s article in AJA 103 (1999) 73-102.

7. C.D. Curtis, Sardis XIII. Jewelry and Gold Work (Rome 1925) has 36 catalogue entries, including IAM 4532, counted as cylinder seal by D. but described as an Egyptian figurine by Curtis (1925) 39 no. 103.

8. This reviewer noticed the following: 118: according to the appendix, no. 37 is a potsherd, not a tablet; 128 n. 2: Morris (1987) not (1988); 134 and elsewhere has the pseudo-Greek term “amphorai”; 139 n. 36: Root (1999) does not appear in the bibliography; 295: Steinschneidekunst; 297: und der Literatur; 300: Achämenidenherrschaft; ÖJh; 313: in den nordwestlichen; Achämenidenreiches.