Rock Reliefs: Mass Communication and Propaganda in the Ancient World

By Guity Novin / 03.23.2014
Graphic Designer, Artist

Ancient rock reliefs played the role of today’s posters . Among these were the Persian rock reliefs, the Greek ”axons” the Roman ”Albums”, and other ancient carved images from Egypt, and Far East. The Persian rock reliefs depicted the triumphant stories of the Parthian and Sassanian kings. In ancient Greece the name of athletes, and games schedules were written on columns that were slowly turning on an axis. Romans used whitewashed walls in their markets in which sellers, money lenders, and slave traders wrote their announcements and advertised for their products, which in order to attract the attention of customers they added attractive designs .

The Behistun Inscription (also Bisitun, Bistun or Bisutun, Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning “the god’s place or land”) is located in the Kermanshah Province of Iran.

The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. A British army officer, Henry Rawlinson, had the inscription transcribed in two parts, in 1835 and 1843. The text of the inscription is a statement by “Darius I” the great of Persia, written three times in three different scripts and languages: two languages side by side, Old Persian and Elamite, and Babylonian above them. Some time around 515 BC, he arranged for the inscription of a long tale of his accession in the face of the usurper Smerdis of Persia (and Darius’ subsequent successful wars and suppressions of rebellion) to be inscribed into a cliff near the modern town of Bisistun, in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

The inscription is approximately 15 metres high by 25 metres wide, and 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana). It is extremely inaccessible as the mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The prostrate figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and ten one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king. One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was (oddly enough) Darius’ beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead.

The monument suffered some damage from soldiers using it for target practice during World War II. In recent years, Iranian archaeologists have been undertaking conservation works. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006

Ardashir I Coronation scene

The above Persian rock relief depicts Ardashir I Coronation scene; as the first king of the Sassanid Empire of Iran, Ardashir receives the ribboned diadem, the symbol of kingship, from the spirit of Darius I of Persia of the Achaemenid dynasty. Ardashir takes the diadem with his right hand, and salutes Darius with his left fist and pointed index finger as a token of respect and obedience (a gesture depicted on many Sassanian rock reliefs). The image design is symmetric, and balanced, and is focused on the daidem. Both kings are on horseback and are of equal size. Under the horse of the King Ardashir lies the last of the Parthian Kings, Artabanus IV of Parthia. Under the horse of King Darius lies Gaumata the usurper, a Magian,. The relief of Ardashir is, therefore, the legitimization of the new Sassanian dynasty by the pre-Alexander Achaemenid dynasty. The inscription in Persian, Parthian, and Greek, reads: ”This is the image of the Hormizd-worshipping Majesty Ardashir, whose origin is of the gods.”

Sassanid king Shapur I of Iran in this relief at Naqsh-e Rostam, celebrates his victories over the Roman emperor Publius Licinius Valerianus , City of Marvdasht , Iran.

According to Shapur’s records:

“Just as we were established on the throne, the emperor Gordianus gathered in all of the Roman Empire an army of Goths and Gemans and marched … against us. On the edges of Assyria,… there was a great frontal battle. And Gordianus Caesar perished, and we destroyed the Roman army. And the Romans proclaimed Philip emperor. And Philip Caesar came to us for terms, and paid us 500,000 denars as ransom for his life and becme tributary to us”.

This rock relief is of special interest within the art of ancient Elymais, since the iconography and the style of the figures in the scene are very different: whilst the four standing men in the right half of the relief are depicted in a frontal position and in Iranian dress, the horseman and his attendant in the left half are the only figures among the whole set of Parthian rock reliefs to be depicted in profile. The horseman has been interpreted by many scholars as the Parthian king Mithradates I (141-138 BC), honoured by an Elymaean sovereign –Kamnaskires I  – and his retinue.

Heracles rock relief at Behistun, Province of Kermanshah, Iran.

A religious syncretism occurred in Iran soon after the beginning of the Seleucid dynasty, seen Heracles assimilated with the old Iranian divinity of power Verethragna. In this relief, Heracles is shown in a languorous attitude, laying naked on the skin of a lion (probably the Nemean lion he killed in his 12 labours) , holding a bowl, under the shadow of an Olive tree. His traditional wood bludgeon and elbow lay near him. If the topic is typically Greek, either the fashion and carving technique reveal the relief was carved by some Iranian artist, unfamiliar with the greek iconography. The main reason was probably because it was not a royal relief but one of a local person According to its Greek inscription, the rock relief representing Heracles at Behistun was carved in 148 BCE , being dedicated to a local Seleucid governor. After the collapse of the first Persian Empire following the Macedonian invasion, following the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek dynasty of the Seleucids (from Seleukos, former general of Alexander) were the main rulers of the western part of the Iranian plate. The Seleucids were dominating the cities and the main commercial roads, but failed to impose their power in the rural lands. However, their artistic influence began to penetrate the Iranian plate and will remain for centuries, through the Parthian then the Sasanian dynasties. The presence of a statue showing Heracles there testifies such artistic influence, as for the often seen Greek inscriptions or representations of Nike in the later carved rock relieves all over the country.

A religious syncretism occurred in Iran soon after the beginning of the Seleucid dynasty, seen Heracles assimilated with the old Iranian divinity of power Verethragna. In this relief, Heracles is shown in a languorous attitude, laying naked on the skin of a lion (probably the Nemean lion he killed in his 12 labours) , holding a bowl, under the shadow of an Olive tree. His traditional wood bludgeon and elbow lay near him. If the topic is typically Greek, either the fashion and carving technique reveal the relief was carved by some Iranian artist, unfamiliar with the greek iconography. The main reason was probably because it was not a royal relief but one of a local person.

Relief at the temple Banteay Srei in Angkor, Cambodia, depicting a religious scene.

Banteay Srei, is unique among the great temples of Angkor in that it was built not by a monarch, but by a courtier and scholar named Yajnavaraha (“the sacrificial boar”), who served as an advisor and guru to the Cambodian King. It is dedicated in 967 A.D. to the Hindu god Siva. In the middle of the scene stands the ten-headed demon king Ravana. He is shaking the mountain in its very foundations as the animals flee from his presence and as the wise men and mythological beings discuss the situation or pray. According to the legend, Shiva stopped Ravana from shaking the mountain by using his toe to press down on the mountain and to trap Ravana underneath for 1000 years. The east-facing pediment on the southern library shows Shiva seated on the summit of Mount Kailasa, his mythological abode. His consort Uma sits on his lap and clings anxiously to his torso. Other beings are also present on the slopes of the mountain, arranged in a strict hierarchy of three tiers from top to bottom. In the top tier sit bearded wise men and ascetics, in the middle tier mythological figures with the heads of animals and the bodies of humans, and in the bottom tier large animals, including a number of lions.

Ankhenaten, Nefertiti, and Children

This shrine stela from the early part of the Amarna Period depicts an intimate family moment of Pharaoh Ankhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and Princesses Meretaten, Mekeaten, and Ankhesenpaaten worshiping the Aten as a family. While Akhenaten leans forward to give Meretaten a kiss, Mekeaten plays on her mother’s lap and gazes up lovingly. At the same time Ankhesenpaaten, the smallest, sits on Nefertiti’s shoulder and fiddles with her earring. At the top of the composition, the sun-god, Aten, represented by a raised circle, extends his life-giving rays to the Royal Family.

Part of the north frieze of the Parthenon at the British Museum in London, from the series of sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles. Designed by Pericles’s master sculptor, Phidias, the marbles were part of a monumental frieze that adorned the Parthenon. In 1801, they were removed from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman empire.

Personification of Earth

The personification of Earth. The figure is sometimes identified as Italia, or Italy. The Roman relief  on the east end of Ara Pacis, or the Altar of Peace, the most famous example of Augustan art. Altar of Peace,  founded on July 4, 13 BCE and completed on January 30, 9 BCE, was designed as a permanent monument to the most important accomplishment of Augustus –the bringing of an era of peace. This was particularly important to the Romans who had witnessed the instability of the Civil Wars that marked the end of the Republican period.

The two children in Earth’s lap along with the animals and plants allude to the bounty of earth, especially in an era of peace. She is flanked by female figures with billowing mantles that can be identified as sea and land breezes.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and members of the Imperial family offer sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes. In the backgrounds stands the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium (this is the only extant portrayal of this roman temple). Bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome

A Cancelleria Relief 

The Cancelleria Reliefs,  found under the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome in the late 1930s and now in the Vatican Museum, are a fine example of imperial Roman propaganda art. The setting where they were discovered indicates that they had been discarded in the late first century.

The figure at the left end of this relief is a lictor. Victory’s left wing is visible above above his head. The lictor carries a fasces in his left hand, an axe bound to a bundle of wooden rods. The lictor with his fasces was a symbol of the power of the emperor to impose punishment of any degree of severity. He probably held a laurel wreath in his right hand, missing in this relief. The fasces itself, being comprised of a bundle of rods, indicated strength as a consequence of unity. Next to the lictor stands Mars, the Roman god of war, with helmet. In Roman tradition, Mars was the father of Romulus, who founded Rome.

Next to Mars, in third position, stands Minerva, who flirts with emperor Nerva, wearing a long flowing gown beneath an aegis with gorgon visible below Nerva’s right arm.

Nerva, was chosen as emperor by the Senate upon the assassination of Domitian, his predecessor. Domitian was the third emperor of the Flavius family; preceded by his father Vespasian and his elder brother Titus. Vespasian and Titus were regarded as good emperors. Domitian, however, was tyrannical. Members of the senate were involved in his murder. Nerva was picked as his successor partly because he had no family, and thus the risk of dynastic succession was small.

Behind Nerva stand two soldiers in low relief and then the scantily clad Roma, who nudges Nerva in Minerva’s direction, directing his left hand with her right. She carries a round shield with a gorgoneion, the image of a gorgon, at its center. Roma is the personification of the Roman state.

Behind Roma is the head of a soldier in low relief, and then a high relief carving of a bearded Genius Senatus, carrying a scepter in his left hand. The acronym  SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanorum), indicates that the emperor gets his power from the senate and the people of Rome. The Genius Senatus, or genius of the Senate, then represents the Senate – not a specific set of people comprising the Senate – but the concept of a senate in its role in government. The Genius Senatus waves his right hand, symbolizing his concurrence with whatever is going on between Nerva, Mars, and Minerva.

To the right of the Genius Senatus (as you view the relief) stands another soldier in low relief, and then the bare-chested (as usual) Genius Populi Romani, a representation of the people of Rome, typically paired with the Genius Senatus. The remaining characters on the right end of the relief are soldiers.

Borobudur Temple, Magelang-Central Java, Indonesia

The Borobudur Temple Compounds is one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world, and was built in the 8th and 9th centuries AD during the reign of the Syailendra Dynasty. The monument is located in the Kedu Valley, in the southern part of Central Java, at the centre of the island of Java, Indonesia.

The main temple is a stupa built in three tiers around a hill which was a natural centre: a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental stupa. The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs, covering a total surface area of 2,520 m2. Around the circular platforms are 72 openwork stupas, each containing a statue of the Buddha.

The vertical division of Borobudur Temple into base, body, and superstructure perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology. It is believed that the universe is divided into three superimposing spheres, kamadhatu, rupadhatu, and arupadhatu, representing respectively the sphere of desires where we are bound to our desires, the sphere of forms where we abandon our desires but are still bound to name and form, and the sphere of formlessness where there is no longer either name or form. At Borobudur Temple, the kamadhatu is represented by the base, the rupadhatu by the five square terraces, and the arupadhatu by the three circular platforms as well as the big stupa. The whole structure shows a unique blending of the very central ideas of ancestor worship, related to the idea of a terraced mountain, combined with the Buddhist concept of attaining Nirvana.

The Temple should also be seen as an outstanding dynastic monument of the Syailendra Dynasty that ruled Java for around five centuries until the 10th century.

The Borobudur Temple Compounds consists of three monuments: namely the Borobudur Temple and  two smaller temples situatued to the east on a straight axis to Borobudur. The two temples are Mendut Temple, whose depiction of Buddha is represented by a formidable monolith accompanied by two Bodhisattvas, and Pawon Temple, a smaller temple whose inner space does not reveal which deity might have been the object of worship. Those three monuments represent phases in the attainment of Nirvana.

The temple was used as a Buddhist temple from its construction until sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries when it was abandoned. Since its re-discovery in the 19th century and restoration in the 20th century, it has been brought back into a Buddhist archaeological site.

The original materials were used to reconstruct the temple in two phases in the 20th century: after the turn of the century and more recently (1973-1983). Mostly original materials were used with some additions to consolidate the monument and ensure proper drainage which has not had any significant adverse impact on the value of the property. Though the present state of Borobudur Temple is the result of restorations, it retained more than enough original material when re-discovered to make a reconstruction possible.

Nowadays the property could be used as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Its overall atmosphere is, however, to a certain degree compromised by the lack of control of commercial activities and the pressure resulting from the lack of an adequate tourism management strategy.


[LEFT]: Prince Siddharta Gautama shaves the hair off his head as the sign to decline his status as ksatriya (warrior class) and becomes an ascetic hermit, his servants hold his sword, crown, and princely jewelry while his horse Kanthaka stands on right. Bas-relief panel at Borobudur, Java, Indonesia.
[RIGHT]: Lalitavistara Deva listening to Dhamma


[LEFT]: Avadana Level 1, Court Musicians
[RIGHT]: Avadana Level 1, Bowman


[LEFT]: Jataka Level 1 Bottom, Merchants
[RIGHT]: Jataka Level 1 Bottom, Deva


[LEFT]: Jataka Level 1, Three Scenes
[RIGHT]: Borobodur Relief


[LEFT]: Borobodur Relief
[RIGHT]: Borobodur Relief


[LEFT]: Queen Maya, Borobodur Relief
[RIGHT]: Jataka Level 1, Group Scene


[LEFT]: Lalitavistara, Heavenly Musicians
[RIGHT]: Jataka and Avadana Level 1, Family Scene

Lalitavistara, Queen Maha Maya (Māyādevī)

Siddharta Gautama Buddha was born as a Kshatriya, the son of Śuddhodana, “an elected chief of the Shakya clan”, whose capital was Kapilavastu, and who were later annexed by the growing Kingdom of Kosala during the Buddha’s lifetime. Gautama was the family name. His mother, Queen Maha Maya (Māyādevī) and Suddhodana’s wife, was a Koliyan princess. Legend has it that, on the night Siddhartha was conceived, Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six white tusks entered her right side, and ten months later Siddhartha was born. As was the Shakya tradition, when his mother Queen Maya became pregnant, she left Kapilvastu for her father’s kingdom to give birth. However, her son is said to have been born on the way, at Lumbini, in a garden beneath a sal tree.

Relief yang ada di candi Borobudur Magelang Jawa Tengah Indonesia