Skeletons Found in Persepolis

The headline reads 13 Skeletons discovered in hidden layers of Persepolis. Below it is a video report. You can watch it on the Mehr News Agency website, here.

Intriguingly, the article that accompanies the video explains that ‘the discovered skeletons, probably murdered, may belong to Achaemenids [sic] era and the time Persepolis was raided by the Alexander the Great and his army.’

Alexander arrived in Persepolis at the end of January 330 BC. There, ‘cruelty as well as avarice ran amok in the captured city’ (Curt. V.6.6).

According to Curtius, Alexander held a meeting with his generals prior to entering the city. He told them that ‘no city was more hateful to the Greeks than Persepolis’ (C. V.6.1), because from it came the soldiers who had made war on Greece 160 years earlier. ‘To appease the spirits of their forefathers’ (C. V.6.2) Alexander allowed his men to loot and destroy the city.

Many Persians fled the city before the Macedonians arrival. Of those who remained, some were murdered by the invaders while others chose to kill themselves and their families. No one was granted mercy. The Macedonians appear to have used rape as part of their vengeance because Curtius adds that Alexander had to issue an order ‘for his men to keep their hands off the women and their dress’ (C. V.6.8).

Curtius states that Alexander ‘eventually’ issued this order, so presumably he permitted his men to rape Persian women for an amount of time before then. This puts a limit on how much we can say he respected women, though it is surely significant that he issued the order at all. It would surely have been far easier for him to let the men do as they wished until he was ready to bring a halt to the rampage.

The Macedonian Assault on Persepolis
Arrian III.18.10
Curtius V.6.1-8
Diodorus XVII.70
Justin XI.14.10
Plutarch Life of Alexander 37

Arrian does not mention the Macedonians’ assault at all. He states simply that they arrived ‘before the garrison had plundered the treasury’. So not only does he not mention what the Macedonians did, he makes the Persian garrison look like the bad guys. Whitewashing of the first order (having said that, a few lines further on he does freely criticise Alexander for burning Xerxes’ palace down).

Diodorus‘ account of the Macedonian assault is so similar to Curtius that you can see they were using the same sources (Cleitarchus and eye-witness testimony). Like Curtius (C. V.6.4), Diodorus mentions that the Macedonians turned on each other in their greed. He doesn’t, however, mention Alexander’s order to leave the Persian women alone. He notes only that women were taken into slavery. Diodorus tells us that the Macedonian rampage lasted for a day, at the end of which, they were still greedy for more.

Unsurprisingly, given the brevity of his whole account, Justin says very little about Persepolis – simply that Alexander captured it.

Unfortunately, Alexander’s arrival at Persepolis is missing from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. It covers the period immediately after the attack on the Persian Gates to the end of his account of the Macedonian assault on Persepolis. All that remains is a reference to a ‘terrible massacre of prisoners’ that occurred.

The destruction of Persepolis, rape and murder of her people is one of the darkest moments of Alexander and the Macedonian army’s career. Having said that, we cannot be surprised that Alexander let his men loose on the city: this was one of the perks of their jobs. What is a surprise is that he permitted it relatively rarely. If memory serves, the last time he cut his men loose was in Tyre two years earlier, although that was in the context of the siege of the city. After Persepolis, nothing like it occurs until – ? I need to look this up, as I’m not sure. India? Outside of battles, I don’t think Alexander put any Bactrian or Sogdian cities to the sword. I’m happy to be corrected on this.

One final point – can we trust Curtius’ account? He is not always very trustable. Unfortunately. Arrian’s silence and Justin’s brevity make it difficult to assess Curtius’ case. Diodorus backs him up but then he would as he was surely using the same sources.


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