In the year 330 BCE Alexander the Great (l. 356-323 BCE) conquered the Achaemenid Persian Empire following his victory over the Persian Emperor Darius III (r. 336-330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE. After Darius III’s defeat, Alexander marched to the Persian capital city of Persepolis and, after looting its treasures, burned the great palace and surrounding city to the ground, destroying hundreds of years’ worth of religious writings and art along with the magnificent palaces and audience halls which had made Persepolis the jewel of the empire.
Persepolis was known to the Persians as Parsa (`The City of the Persians’) and the name `Persepolis’ meant the same in Greek. Construction on the palace and city was initiated between 518- 515 BCE by Darius I the Great (r. 522-486 BCE) who made it the capital of the Persian Empire (replacing the old capital, Pasargadae) and began to house there the greatest treasures, literary works, and works of art from across the empire. The palace was greatly enhanced (as was the rest of the city) by Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE, son of Darius, and would be expanded upon by Xerxes I’s successors, especially his son Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE), although later Persian kings would add their own embellishments.
Darius I had purposefully chosen the location of his city in a remote area, far removed from the old capital, probably in an effort to dramatically differentiate his reign from the past monarchs. Persepolis was planned as a grand celebration of Darius I’s rule and the buildings and palaces, from Darius’ first palace and reception hall to the later, and grander, works of his successors, were architectural masterpieces of opulence designed to inspire awe and wonder.
In the area now known as the Marv Dasht Plain (northwest of modern-day Shiraz, Iran) Darius had a grand platform-terrace constructed which was 1,345,488 square feet (125,000 square meters) long and 66 feet (20 meters) tall and on which he built his council hall, palace, and reception hall, the Apadana, featuring a 200 foot-long (60 meters) hypostyle hall with 72 columns 62 feet (19 meters) high. The columns supported a cedar roof which was further supported by cedar beams. These columns were topped by sculptures of various animals symbolizing the king’s authority and power. The Apadana was designed to humble any guest and impress upon visitors the power and majesty of the Persian Empire.
Darius I died before the city was completed and Xerxes I continued his vision, building his own opulent palace on the terrace as well as the Gate of All Nations, flanked by two monumental statues of lamassu (bull-men), which led into his grand reception hall stretching 82 feet (25 meters) long, with four large columns 60 feet high (18.5 meters) supporting a cedar roof with brightly decorated walls and reliefs on the doorways. The city is described by the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (l.1st century BCE) as the richest in the world and other historians describe it in the same terms.
The Destruction of Persepolis
Xerxes I had invaded Greece in 480 BCE, burning villages, cities and temples (including the Parthenon of Athens) until defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis and later at Platea. The Persian invasion of 480 BCE was long remembered by the Greeks and is given as the primary motivation for why Alexander burned Persepolis, although every account also notes that Alexander and his men were drunk when they decided to destroy the city. When Alexander the Great arrived at Persepolis it was among the most impressive in the world and, when he left, it was a ruin whose spot would be known for generations only as `the place of the forty columns’ for the remaining palace columns left standing in the sand among the ruins.
Exactly why Alexander would burn the great city which, as conqueror, he now owned (and especially considering his well-known interest in the arts and sciences and love of Persian culture) is a question which historians have made answer to for centuries, most of them agreeing that the fire was started at the instigation of the hetiera (courtesan) from Athens, Thais. Thais was at this time the lover of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, bodyguards, and one of his oldest friends (possibly also his half-brother). She may also have been among Alexander’s lovers as the historian Athenaeus claims that Alexander liked to “keep Thais with him” though this could simply mean that she, like many women, was simply someone whose company he enjoyed. A hetiera was more than just a high- class prostitute; she was also skilled in singing, recitation of poetry, and storytelling which were talents often more highly valued than just sex.
The following are the best-known ancient accounts of the burning of Persepolis, all of them written centuries after the event, but based on earlier works now lost. In all of them, except Arrian’s, the story follows the same basic narrative of the Macedonian conquerors celebrating with too much wine and deciding to set the city on fire in retaliation for the burning of Athens in 480 BCE.
One most famous accounts of the burning of the great city comes from the historian Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca Historica who gives the following version of the destruction of the city:
As for Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, Alexander described it to the Macedonians as their worst enemy among the cities of Asia, and he gave it over to the soldiers to plunder, with the exception of the royal palace. It was the wealthiest city under the sun and the private houses had been filled for a long time with riches of every kind. The Macedonians rushed into it, killing all the men and plundering the houses, which were numerous and full of furniture and precious objects of every kind. Here much silver was carried off and no little gold, and many expensive dresses, embroidered with purple or with gold, fell as prizes to the victors.
But the great royal palace, famed throughout the inhabited world, had been condemned to the indignity of total destruction. The Macedonians spent the whole day in pillage but still could not satisfy their inexhaustible greed. As for the women, they dragged them away forcibly with their jewels, treating as slaves the whole group of captives. As Persepolis had surpassed all other cities in prosperity, so she now exceeded them in misfortune. (17.70.1-6)
Alexander went up to the citadel and took possession of the treasures stored there. They were full of gold and silver, with the accumulation of revenue from Cyrus, the first king of the Persians, down to that time. Reckoning gold in terms of silver, 2,500 tons were found there. Alexander wanted to take part of the money with him, for the expenses of war and to deposit the rest at Susa under close guard. From Babylon, Mesopotamia and Susa, he sent for a crowd of mules, partly pack and partly draught animals, as well as 3,000 pack camels, and with these he had all the treasure conveyed to the chosen places. He was very hostile to the local people and did not trust them, and wished to destroy Persepolis utterly. (17.71.1-3)
Alexander held games to celebrate his victories; he offered magnificent sacrifices to the gods and entertained his friends lavishly. One day when the Companions were feasting, and intoxication was growing as the drinking went on, a violent madness took hold of these drunken men. One of the women present, Thais, the Athenian lover of the Macedonian commander Ptolemy, declared that it would be Alexander’s greatest achievement in Asia to join in their procession and set fire to the royal palace, allowing women’s hands to destroy in an instant what had been the pride of the Persians.
These words were spoken to young men who were completely out of their minds because of drink, and someone, as expected, shouted to lead off the procession and light torches, exhorting them to punish the crimes committed against the Greek sanctuaries. Others joined in the cry and said that only Alexander was worthy of this deed. The king was excited with the rest by these words. They all leaped out from the banquet and passed the word around to form a triumphal procession in honour of Dionysus.
A quantity of torches was quickly collected, and as female musicians had been invited to the banquet, it was to the sound of singing and flutes and pipes that the king led them to the revel, with Thais the courtesan conducting the ceremony. She was the first after the king to throw her blazing torch into the palace. As the others followed their example the whole area of the royal palace was quickly engulfed in flames. (17.72.1-6)
The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus (l.41-54 CE) in his History of Alexander the Great, also cites Thais as the instigator of the fire which consumed Persepolis:
Thais had drunk as much as the others when she declared that if Alexander gave the order to burn the Persian palace, he would earn the deepest gratitude among all the Greeks. This was what the people whose cities the Persians had destroyed were expecting she said. As the drunken whore gave her opinion on a matter of extreme importance, one or two who were themselves the worse for drink agreed with her. The king, too, was enthusiastic rather than acquiescent. ‘Why do we not avenge Greece, then and put the city to the torch?’ he asked. They were all flushed with wine, and they got up, drunk, to burn a city which they had spared while under arms. Alexander took the lead, setting fire to the palace, to be followed by his drinking companions, his attendants and the courtesans. Large sections of the palace had been made of cedar, so they quickly took flame and spread the conflagration over a large area
. The army, encamped not far from the city, caught sight of the fire. Thinking it was accidental, came running in a body to help. But when they reached the palace portico, they saw their king himself, still piling on torch-wood, so they dropped the what they had brought and began throwing dry wood into the blaze themselves. Such was the end of the palace that had ruled all the East. (V.6.1-7)
Plutarch (l. c. 45-c.125 CE) in his Life of Alexander, gives a similar account of the incident:
As the drinking went on, Thais delivered a speech which was intended partly as a graceful compliment to Alexander and partly to amuse him. What she said was typical of the spirit of Athens, but hardly in keeping with her own situation. She declared that all the hardships she had endured in wandering about Asia had been amply repaid on that day, when she found herself reveling luxuriously in the splendid palace of the Persians, but that it would be an even sweeter pleasure to end the party by going out and setting fire to the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens in ashes. She wanted to put a torch to the building herself in full view of Alexander, so that posterity should know that the women who followed Alexander had taken a more terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece than all the famous commanders of earlier times by land or sea. Her speech was greeted with wild applause and the king’s companions excitedly urged him on until at last he allowed himself to be persuaded, leaped to his feet, and with a garland on his head and a torch in his hand led the way. (38.1-8)
The historian Arrian of Nicomedia (l.87-160 CE) disagreed with these others, however and, in his account, drew upon the primary sources of Ptolemy and Aristobulus, both of whom were allegedly eye witnesses to the event. Arrian claims:
Ptolemy and Aristobulus are the most trustworthy writers on Alexander’s conquests, because the latter shared Alexander’s campaigns, and the former -Ptolemy- in addition to this advantage, was himself a king, and it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than for anybody else. (III.18.11-12)
Arrian believed the motivation for burning Persepolis was so apparent, he did not bother to elaborate beyond, what he saw, as stating the obvious. According to Arrian, Persepolis was deliberately and soberly burned as retribution for the Persians burning Athens in 480 BCE. Arrian writes, “Alexander burnt up the palace at Persepolis to avenge the Greeks because the Persians had destroyed both temples and cities of the Greeks by fire and sword.”
Since neither Ptolemy nor Aristobulus claim any knowledge of a drunken party leading to the fire, Arrian assumes no such party existed. Yet he, himself, says, “even the most trustworthy writers, men who were actually with Alexander at the time, have given conflicting accounts of notorious events with which they must have been perfectly familiar” and admits that the possibility of ever knowing what actually prompted the burning of Persepolis may never be known.
Even so, Athenaeus, writing c. 200 CE, maintains Thais’ connection to the burning of the city. He writes, “And did not Alexander the Great keep with him Thais, the Athenian prostitute? Cleitarchus speaks of her as having occasioned the burning of the palace at Persepolis.” An immediate cause for Alexander’s actions is suggested, though never explicitly stated, by Diodorus. He notes that, as Alexander his army approached Persepolis, they were met by a crowd of 800 Greek artisans who had been help captive at Persepolis. These people – elderly men and women – had been taken prisoner years before and, as skilled workers, were set to various tasks at the city. They were mutilated, however – some losing a hand or a foot – so they could not escape (Diodorus, 17.69.1-9).
Alexander and his senior staff, Diodorus reports, were greatly moved by this encounter with the artisans and this may have motivated Alexander to treat Persepolis as poorly as he did. After Gaugamela, Alexander had marched to to the city of Susa – which surrendered without contest – and he prohibited his troops from damaging it or harming any of the citizens. By contrast, when he arrived at Persepolis, he let his troops loose, encouraging them to sack the city and doing nothing to stop them from raping and killing anyone they found within the walls.
Whatever Alexander’s motivation may have been, he is said to have regretted his actions the very next morning and for the rest of his short life. The destruction of Persepolis was an immense loss of the accumulated learning, art, and culture of ancient Persia. The religious works of early Zoroastrianism, written on goat-skin parchment, were destroyed along with art works, tapestries, and other priceless cultural artifacts. The administrative records of the city, written in cuneiform tablets of clay, were hard-baked by the fire and buried under rubble, surviving to the present day and providing archaeologists with vital information on how the Persian Empire operated and what the people valued. Even so, what was lost in the fire has long been recognized as irreplaceable and whatever motivated the destruction of Persepolis cannot finally matter.
- de Selincourt, A. Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. (Penguin Books, 1971).
- Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus Siculus Histories. (Harvard University Press, 2019).
- Everitt, A. Alexander the Great. (Random House, 2012).
- Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
- Scott-Kilvert, I. The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch. (Penguin Classics, 1993).
- Wise Bauer, S. The History of the Ancient World. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).
- Yardley, J. Quintus Curtius Rufus. (Andesite Press, 2017).
- Yonge, C. D. The Deipnosophits of Athenaeus. (Loeb Classical Library, 1989).
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02.23.2011, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.