The palace of Persepolis was planned and begun by the Persian emperor Darius I in the early fifth century BC, although it was not until the reign of his grandson, Artaxerxes, that it was finally finished around the year 425 BC. It was one of the truly great Persian palaces and contained some of the finest examples of Achaemenid art.
The palace was made up of a collection of buildings on a rock terrace which had been levelled to provide the site. There was a great audience hall, known as an apadana, where the king would receive his subjects, along with other buildings where the king lived, kept his household (including a large harem) and conducted the affairs of state. The palace was completed by luxurious formal gardens and the whole complex was surrounded by a wall for fortification. The approach to the palace was up a huge stairway chiselled out of the rock.
persepolisDarius also built a palace at Susa in Elam, which is where the action of the biblical book of Esther takes place, and he had at his disposal the palace of Pasargadae which had been built by his predecessor, Cyrus the Great, but Persepolis, situated in Persia in the very heart of the empire, was his great statement to the world. His succession to the throne had not been easy, and with good reason – Darius may well have been totally unconnected to the royal line, despite his claims to royal ancestry, and there is a fair chance that he killed the legitimate heir to the throne on his way to the top. With Persepolis, he had a chance to draw a line under his past difficulties and make the case for his kingship.
The art of Persepolis borrows from earlier Assyrian imperial art, using fearsome animals and monsters as protective spirits for the palace, and showing the king seated in great dignity with stylised robes and beard. But the art of Persepolis also shows original ideas, especially in the famous Audience Relief. This huge piece of sculpture, which winds all along the staircase to the audience hall, shows subjects of Darius from throughout the empire (distinguished by their national dress) coming to bring gifts and pay their respects. Darius receives them seated on his throne which is supported by yet more subjects. It’s not hard to see the message that Darius was trying to give about his position and his right to rule.
Most of the important parts of Persepolis were actually completed by Xerxes, Darius’ son. He also completed his father’s foreign policy plans by launching the invasion of Greece which is depicted in the film 300. During this invasion Xerxes had the Acropolis of Athens burnt, destroying its buildings and artwork. Over a hundred and fifty years later in 331 BC, Alexander the Great, in the process of conquering the Persian Empire, burnt Persepolis to the ground. There was a popular story that this happened during a drinking party and that the idea came from a Greek hetaira (rather like a geisha) called Thais, but the official version said that it was revenge for the damage the Persians inflicted on Greece during the invasion. Given the symmetry of the punishment, that doesn’t seem unlikely.
Whether a symbolic punishment or a drunken prank, the fact is that Alexander later regretted his actions in destroying Persepolis, and it’s easy to understand why. It was the greatest of the classic Persian palace complexes and must have been a wonder to behold. We are lucky that some of the sculpture and foundations survived as evidence of the height of Persian art and architecture.