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Alexander the Great & the Burning of Persepolis

In the year 330 BCE Alexander the Great conquered the Persian capital city of Persepolis, and after looting its treasures, burned the great palace and surrounding city to the ground. Persepolis had been known in antiquity as Parsa (`The City of the Persians’) and the name `Persepolis’ meant the same in Greek.

The city and great palace were built in 518 BCE by Darius the Great (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 in all the empire. The palace was greatly enhanced (as was the rest of the city) by King Xerxes, son of Cyrus, who invaded and destroyed much of Greece in 480 BCE, burning villages, cities and temples (including the Parthenon of Athens) until defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis.

When Alexander the Great arrived at Persepolis it was the jewel of Persia 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.

Exactly why Alexander would burn the great palace, which, as conqueror, he now owned (and especially considering his well-known interest in the arts and sciences) 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 Hetera 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 Athenaeus states 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 Hetera was more than just a high class prostitute and was also skilled in singing, recitation of poetry and storytelling.

One most famous accounts of the burning of the great city comes from the historian Diodorus Siculus (90-21 BCE) who gives the following account 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. 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. 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.

The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus (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 [one to three feet of cedar ash were found in the excavation]. 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.

Plutarch (46-120 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.

The historian Arrian of Nicomedia (87-160 CE, the same who studied with Epictetus) 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 claimed that “ 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.” According to Arrian, Persepolis was deliberately and soberly burned as retribution for the Persian burning of Athens in 480. 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 in circa 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.”  Whatever the motive, it is a certainty that the destruction of the palace and surrounding city of Persepolis was a great loss of the accumulated learning, art and culture of ancient Persia and an act which, also according to the ancient writers, Alexander always regretted. 

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