BMCR 2004.02.21

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.

[Disclaimer. As Associate Director of the Sardis Expedition I worked with the author quite closely in the field and talked about the earlier Lydian pottery with her. I was not a member of her dissertation committee and I was not at Sardis the year she prepared her study of Achaemenid bowls referred to below. Although she had free access to the records of the Sardis Expedition and general encouragement, this book is not part of our publication series.]

The title does not prepare the reader for the main thrust of the book. It sounds as if it might be a list of topics loosely strung together, leaning on the city of Sardis as the unifying principle. Sardis does, indeed, serve as the unifying principle, but the topics chosen offer a tightly presented view of the circumstances of life and society at Sardis set in the context of other centers of the Achaemenid Empire. The main argument of the book is the attractive hypothesis that the apparent absence of obviously Achaemenid artifacts from the archaeological record at Sardis is explained by the fact that a new synthesis of the Lydian and Persian cultures was created after the fall of the Lydian Kingdom: in exterior form the household articles were very close to the pre-existing traditions of the Lydians but the more elaborate items for the elite incorporated many variants of formal Achaemenid imagery.

Supposedly these external similarities in material culture and the absence of substantial buildings of the Achaemenid era from the current archaeological record are what have hidden the life of this period from previous research. This proposition is demonstrated in nine chapters that describe and evaluate excavated evidence as well as historical texts, followed by five appendices documenting the details of the data from Sardis. These appendices are of variable length and value for the uninitiated: the single-page summary of the identifiers for the Achaemenid bowls really requires that the reader refer to Dusinberre’s 1999 article in AJA to make any sense,1 because, as presented, it is not clear that the numbers listed are either Expedition catalogue numbers or ‘basket’ numbers given by the excavators in the field to define the context of the findspots. An explanatory sentence or two might have helped, or perhaps including the numbers with the entry for each deposit would have been even clearer.

After an introductory chapter siting Sardis within the Achaemenid Empire and describing the physical situation of the city and the economic resources of its surroundings, a second chapter entitled ‘Textual sources and the effects of empire’ summarizes the history of the region and its relationship to events and personalities in the administration of other satrapies and to the court itself. The next six chapters present the material evidence and its implications; the topics offered are: ch. 3 monuments (actual or assumed); ch. 4 sculpture (especially the relationship between actual pieces from Sardis and the wealth of items from Persepolis and sites in Southwest Anatolia); ch. 5 inscriptions (mostly Lydian); ch. 6 mortuary evidence (the tombs themselves and grave goods); ch. 7 sealstones (as ‘personal signifiers’); and, ch. 8 Achaemenid bowls and other ceramics (for the taste and habits of the ‘non-elite’). This chapter is particularly closely argued, but to my mind D does not make enough of the basic difference between earlier fine tableware and the Achaemenid bowls, i.e. the harder firing and the (mottled) red color of the latter. Except for those features, many of the sherds she illustrates (absent a substantial profile) might just as well be Ionian bowls. The concluding chapter draws these topics together into a theoretical comparison with the reaction of other defeated peoples as they were integrated into their opponents’ society; the examples are offered to validate the conclusions drawn from the evidence presented in the earlier chapters.

Most of the obviously Achaemenid items adduced to support D’s hypothesis were excavated in the early years of the 20th century by the team headed by Howard Crosby Butler from Princeton. They excavated over 1100 tombs in the necropolis hill on the west bank of the Pactolus opposite the acropolis. A few more rock cut tombs with various arrangements for sarcophagi or couches were also explored further to the south. Almost all of them had been opened, but several produced rich examples of grave goods in the form of ornaments made of gold foil that were sewn onto garments and stamp seals, often referred to as Greco-Persian because many are carved in a Greek style but have formal Achaemenid subject matter and Aramaic or Lydian inscriptions.

The stamp seals have a chapter to themselves as links to the ideological expressions of power at the court of the Great King. They represent heraldic lions or a hero figure combating a winged lion, but they were actually carved in a number of different styles either derived from the practice in other localities or resulting from the gem cutters’ ability to subordinate their artistic inclinations to the requirements of the patrons. The pictures, although frequently referred to in the text, are separated in appendix 4; this is in contrast to practice in the rest of the book, where the pictures accompany the relevant text. This reader was quite disconcerted by the very blurry images scanned from Curtis2 and questions the decision to illustrate the actual intaglios rather than impressions of the designs that would have appeared as the sealings and that would have been much easier to read (as, for instance in Boardman).3

The evidence is used to strengthen the idea that large scale blending of cultural habits among the Lydian and Persian elite was occurring at Sardis. According to D, this newly constructed society in Lydia was by nature inclusive, and a significant part of the social hierarchy depended upon wealth rather than national affiliation, as is demonstrated by statements in the literary sources that people of various ethnic origins had important roles in the administration at Sardis. D seems much better at recreating the social structure in Achaemenid Sardis, where she has a range of theoretical studies to draw on, than she is at reconstructing the material remains. Hardly any remains from the Achaemenid era have been excavated within the line of the Lydian fortification wall; most of those, as she herself says, are from a series of pits by the east face of the wall, and no associated occupation strata have yet been explored. Areas that have been extensively excavated are by the river, outside the line of the city wall. One structure here, a possible Lydian Fountain House, so described as an explanation for the purpose of an apsidal structure with a well at its apex, has been turned by D into the center of a Persian water system by relying on undocumented “major waterworks” (p.69). Thence the argument moves to suggest the presence of formal gardens because of the availability of this water. Much of the book proceeds in this way, from possibilities to probabilities, producing what is, underneath, a rather fragile construct for the layout and appearance of the city over two and a half centuries of Achaemenid rule.

Overall the book is very well produced and sports a handsome, colored dustcover consisting of a photograph looking south from the ‘Royal Cemetery’ toward the acropolis of Sardis and Mt. Tmolus beyond. I have already mentioned the difficulties with the images scanned to the very limit but I should add that my copy was marred by about 12 pages with unacceptable bleed-through, combined with very light printing compared to the rest of the book. There are a number of infelicities of language that a more attentive editor might have caught, e.g. p.39 fn. 38 should read ‘court of last resort’ instead of ‘last instance’; p. 210 ‘The transition of Rome from a conquest state to a tributary empire’ seems to misunderstand the meaning of tributary. In more than one place I find ‘problematize’ and ‘narrativize’ both ugly and unclear. On p. 209, the abstraction ‘Roman imperialism’ is given tasks that should be performed by actual Romans.

The idea that a fresh society with new values and carefully altered forms of material culture was created at Sardis by a combination of Persian, Lydian and other cultures under the liberal umbrella of the Achaemenid Empire is most attractive, and D’s book goes a long way towards demonstrating that possibility. It is, however, early yet to describe the architectural and material context in detail because so little is known from within the early town itself on account of thick overburden and the presence of many substantial later buildings. But our eyes can now be opened to a new way of appreciating the old evidence. In spite of my quibbling with some of the details from the site itself and the actual presentation, I think that Dusinberre’s book brings Sardis studies forward in a vital way. She is not afraid to approach theoretical questions like the place of Sardis in the Achaemenid Empire and the lives of its citizens. One does not, however, need to be convinced of the whole detailed argument, resting on theoretical models grounded in the social sciences, to appreciate the value of D’s work. She prods us to look harder and from multiple viewpoints at categories of artifacts and relationships that may have become stale or be taken for granted. We need more studies that approach the growth and life of the city in a synthetic and interpretive manner, because Sardis is a critical location for the political and economic history of Greece, Lydia, and the Persian Empire in the west, from the seventh through the third centuries BC.


1. Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, “Satrapal Sardis: Achaemenid Bowls in an Achaemenid Capital” American Journal of Archaeology 103 (1999), 73-102.

2. C. Densmore Curtis, Sardis XIII. Jewelry and Gold Work (Rome 1925).

3. John Boardman, “Pyramidal Stamp Seals in the Persian Empire” Iran 8 (1970), 19-45.