500 BC to 400 BC
7″ (17.8cm) high
This piece dates from the Achaemenid Empire (559-330 BC), one of the most dynamic and historically significant socio-political entities of the first millennium BC. The era was ushered in with a series of major martial victories in the Aegean area under the rule of Cyrus, who went on to besiege and capture Babylon in 539 BC; his release of Jews who had been held captive there earned him immortality in the Book of Isaiah. The empire continued to grow until Cyrus’ death in 529 BC, by which time the kingdom extended as far as the Hindu Kush in present-day Afghanistan. His successor was less successful, however. Governance by Cyrus’s unstable son, Cambyses II, let the empire fall into disrepair. A coup led by a priest, Gaumata, was overthrown in 522 BCE by a member of a lateral branch of the Achaemenid family under Darius I (also known as Darayarahush or Darius the Great). Darius may have managed to hold the empire, but his defeat at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) forced the Achaemenids to withdraw to Asia Minor. This resulted in a period of consolidation and internal development that saw major improvements to the infrastructure of the reduced – yet healthy – empire. However, this period of amelioration was destined to be short lived. Following the death of Darius in 486 BC, his son and successor, Xerxes, was chiefly occupied with suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylonia. He also attempted to conquer the Greek Peloponnesus, but overextended his forces and suffered overwhelming defeats at Salamis and Plataea. By the time his successor, Artaxerxes I, died in 424 BCE, the imperial court was beset by factionalism among the lateral family branches, a condition that persisted until the death in 330 of the last of the Achaemenids, Darius III, at the hands of his own subjects.
The cultural achievements of the Achaemenids were considerable. They were basically enlightened despots who allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in the form of the satrapy system. The twenty satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometre highway, the most impressive stretch being the royal road from Susa to Sardis, built by command of Darius. Relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote areas in fifteen days. Royal inspectors, the “eyes and ears of the king,” toured the empire and reported on local conditions, and the king maintained a personal bodyguard of 10,000 men, called the Immortals. Darius revolutionised the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage system. Trade was extensive, and under the Achaemenids there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities among the far reaches of the empire. As a result of this commercial activity, Persian words for typical items of trade became prevalent throughout the Middle East and eventually entered the English language; examples are, bazaar, shawl, sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach, and asparagus. Trade was one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, along with agriculture and tribute. Other accomplishments of Darius’s reign included codification of a universal legal system upon which much of later Iranian law would be based. In its art and architecture, Persepolis reflected Darius’s perception of himself as the leader of conglomerates of people to whom he had given a new and single identity. The Achaemenid art and architecture found there is at once distinctive and also highly eclectic. The Achaemenids took the art forms and the cultural and religious traditions of many of the ancient Middle Eastern peoples and combined them into a single form. This Achaemenid artistic style is evident in the iconography of Persepolis, which celebrates the king and the office of the monarch.
The image of this winged bull moving toward the left comfortably fills the area of the tondo in which he strides. It was created in repoussé, a technique by which the metal-smith produces a frontal relief design by working the back of the object. In keeping with the decorative design tenets of Achaemenid art in general the metal- smith has relied upon a series of linear elements that reinforce the circular design of his composition. To that end, the horns of this composite beast conform to the curved perimeter of the plate’s edge, as do the re- curved tips of his wings and the configuration of the tail. Careful detailing of the bull’s muscles, in order to convey a sense of its strength and power, enhances these accomplished decorative effects. To that end, his head is tucked in close to his chest with lowered horns poised to attack and his right rear leg is depicted digging into the ground in order to push off at the start of his charge. The metal-smith has admirably captured the feeling of the tail swishing back and forth in anticipation of the encounter.
Our plate is an outstanding example of Achaemenid decorative arts at its finest. It has been meticulously crafted and is characterised by considerable attention to form, precise detail and an orderly composition enhanced by rhythmic designs. The style evokes the justly famous depictions of guardian beasts created in glazed bricks that decorate the Persian palace at Susa and are themselves the artistic successors of the glazed tiles on the Ishtar Gate at Babylon. This style continued to characterise the art of the Persian Empire until its conquest in the late fourth century BC by Alexander the Great. Such plates appear to have been used by elite members of the Persian court during the sumptuous banquets for which they were famed.
Lloyd, S. The Art of the Ancient Near East (New York 1963). Pp. 241-256.
Amiet, P. The Art of the Ancient Near East (New York 1980). Pp 252-258.
Keith, J.L. The Pomerance Collection of Ancient Art (Brooklyn 1966). Pp 50-51. (See catalogue number 58, for a stylistically similar plate in silver, with additional bibliography).Login to view price