Persians: Vitruvius theorizes about Greek depictions of enemies in architectural contexts (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Vitruvius theorizes about Greek depictions of enemies in architectural contexts (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 25, 2023,

Ancient authors: Vitruvius (first century BCE), On Architecture 1.1-6 (link); Pausanias (mid-second century CE), Description of Greece 7.11.3 (link).

Comments: Elsewhere we have already seen how ethnographic interests played a role in Vitruvius’ architectural work, in that case regarding his use of medical theories of climates and peoples as a basis for explaining the building of houses (link). Here, in the opening of his entire work On Architecture, Vitruvius begins by clarifying that the architect must be knowledgable in numerous areas of study, including history. He highlights the importance of a knowlege of history for understanding the incorporation of enemy peoples in architectural contexts, for instance. The main example he offers is the Greek, Spartan depiction of Persians in building structures as a means of humiliating such people and encouraging future courageous acts against enemies in the future, which he takes as representative of a Greek approach. These comments may provide some theoretical context for the reasoning behind many of the visual depictions of foreign peoples you find under category three to your right.

Pausanias happens to describe the Colonnade of Persians in his tour guide, so that passage is included here as well.

Works consulted: M. Vickers, “Persepolis, Vitruvius and the Erechtheum Caryatids: The Iconography of Medism and Servitude,” Revue Archéologique, 1985, 3–28 (link); .

Source of the translation: Frank Granger, Vitruvius: On Architecture, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1931), public domain (Granger passed away in 1936), adapted by Harland.



[Context of the necessary skills and training of an architect, including knowledge of history]

(1) The knowledge of the architect depends on many disciplines and various apprenticeships which are carried out in connection with other skills. His personal service consists in craftsmanship and technology. . . [omitted sentences]. (3) . . . The architect should be educated, experienced at drawing, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music, not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of legal experts, familiar with astrology and astrological calculations. . . . [omitted sentences]. (5) Architects should be familiar with history because in their works they often design many ornaments by which they should render an account to inquirers. . . [omitted section on the Caryatids and Caryae’s Medizing].

[Example of Spartans depicting Persians as a means of humiliation]

(6) . . . After conquering with a small force an infinitely large army of Persians, the Lakonians [Spartans] gloriously celebrated a triumph with spoils and plunder and, from the booty, built the “Persian Colonnade” to signify the merit and courage of the citizens and to be a trophy of victory to their descendants. There they placed statues of their captives in barbarian outfits. They were punishing the Persians’ pride with deserved insults to support the roof so that their enemies might shake in fear at such brave accomplishments and so that their fellow-citizens, on viewing this pattern of manhood and glory, might be encouraged and prepared for the defence of freedom. For this reason, many have set up Persian statues to support architraves and their ornaments. This motive has supplied for their works some striking variations. There are also other historical narratives of the same kind with which architects should possess acquaintance. . . . [omitted subsequent discussion of the importance of a knowledge of philosophy].



[Brief description of the Persian Colonnade]

The most striking ornament of the market-place [in Sparta] is a colonnade which they name the “Persian Colonnade.” Originally built from the spoils of the Persian war, it expanded over time into the spacious and amazing edifice there now. On the pillars are figures of Persians in white marble: one of them is Mardonios son of Gobryas. Artemisia, daughter of Lygdamis, and queen of Halikarnassos, is also represented. They say she freely joined Xerxes in his expedition against Greece, and distinguished herself by her prowess in the sea-battle at Salamis.

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