In the Classical World, Persia’s Powers Rivaled Greece and Rome

An exhibition at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles shows how ancient Iran held its own against its better-known contemporaries

A gold Achaemenid plaque featuring a winged lion-griffin, dated to between 500 and 330 B.C.E.
A gold Achaemenid plaque featuring a winged lion-griffin, dated to between 500 and 330 B.C.E. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Who were the power players in the interconnected classical world? Ancient Greece and Rome likely come to mind. But a new exhibition at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles aims to put another superpower back in the picture: ancient Persia, in what is now Iran.

The Persian Empire spanned roughly 550 B.C.E. to 650 C.E. and saw three primary dynasties in that time: the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian. As the “dominant nation of western Asia for over a millennium,” according to the exhibition website, ancient Iran both influenced and was influenced by the traditions of Greece and Rome.

“[A]fter Egypt, Persia is the nation that had the most profound and sustained influence and impact on the classical world,” Timothy Potts, the museum’s director, tells Getty magazine’s Erin Migdol.

Achaemenid relief with a lion and bull in combat, dated to between 359 and 338 B.C.E.
Achaemenid relief with a lion and bull in combat, dated to between 359 and 338 B.C.E. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago / Photo by Michael Tropea

“Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World” is organized by each consecutive dynasty. Per a statement, the show features royal sculpted reliefs and precious metal vessels meant for ceremonial use at banquets and often gifted by courtiers, among other objects on loan from museums across the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

Ties between the ancient Greeks and the ancient Iranians were particularly close thanks to Alexander the Great, who conquered the Achaemenid Empire between 334 and 330 B.C.E. The Macedonian king’s troops burned the palace at Persepolis—the Achaemenid capital—in an event that symbolized “the passing of the old order and the introduction of Greek civilization into western Asia,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. It took almost 100 years for native rulers to rise again.

“[A]ll the cultures interacted very closely, with Greeks and Romans living in the East and with plenty of foreign traders living in Greece,” Jeffrey Spier, the museum’s antiquities chief, tells Getty magazine. “They shared art, religion, myth and culture. … Greece, Rome and Persia were the superpowers of the time.”

Silver Sasanian drinking horn with head of a gazelle, dated to between 300 and 400 C.E.
Silver Sasanian drinking horn with head of a gazelle, dated to between 300 and 400 C.E. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Some of the objects in the exhibition are on display in the U.S. for the first time ever, says Spier in the statement. Curators strived to show the stylistic progression of Iranian craftsmanship over time by featuring silver wine cups and drinking horns dated to the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian Empires. All three periods have slightly different decorative touches, whether they be a detailed inscription, a lion’s torso with a gold-colored mane or the head of a gazelle. More than 700 years separate the earliest and most recent of the drinking vessels on view.

For visitors who want a truly immersive touch, the exhibition boasts an interactive reproduction of the palace at Persepolis—what the Getty calls “an ancient city of awe-inspiring beauty.” An immersive web experience titled Persepolis Reimagined accompanies this on-site film. Each virtual journey offers a chance to learn more about the royal residence, see the palace as it would have looked nearly 2,500 years ago and compare its ancient glory to the ruins that survive today.

The exhibition is part of a Getty series called “The Classical World in Context.” Designed to deepen the public’s understanding of what the classical world really was like, the first iteration debuted in 2018 and focused on ancient Egypt. According to the statement, Thrace—an ancient Balkan kingdom known for its fine arts—is next.

Sasanian mosaic featuring a woman musician, dated to about 260 C.E.
Sasanian mosaic featuring a woman musician, dated to about 260 C.E. Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, Paris, AO 26169 / Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The study of ancient Persia has at times suffered from a bias toward the Western world, Ali Mousavi, an expert on Iranian archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a consulting scholar on the exhibition, tells Getty magazine.

Mousavi remembers a former teacher’s casually dismissive tone about Persepolis, arguably one of the most important existing examples of ancient Iran’s artistic and political prowess.

“OK, this is Persepolis,” the teacher said when showing an image of the city to Mousavi and his classmates. “There’s nothing to say about this site. This is just a transposition of Greek art.”

Homing in on ancient Iran’s influence through physical artifacts also posed a unique challenge for curators. Due to sanctions and other factors, the Getty was unable to include items loaned from the country of Iran itself. Instead, institutions like the British Museum and the Louvre offered artifacts from their collections.

Achaemenid earrings with inlays, dated to between the late 400s and early 300s B.C.E.
Achaemenid earrings with inlays, dated to between the late 400s and early 300s B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Edward J. and Mary S. Holmes Fund, 1971.256 Photograph © 2022 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The exhibition has personal significance for the Los Angeles area, which houses the nation’s largest Persian community, according to the U.S. Virtual Embassy Iran. Alireza Ardekani, an exhibition cultural partner and executive director of the Farhang Foundation, says he’s already seen Iranian guests engage positively with the material.

“I particularly remember a grandmother who brought her two little grandchildren on her own, and she was so proud to be able to share this history with her grandchildren who were born in the United States,” Ardekani tells Paria Honardoust of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. “They’ve never been to Iran, and this way, they can learn about their roots and that it’s something to be proud of.”

Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World” is on view at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California, through August 8, 2022.