Contrary to what we like to believe, Persepolis was not THE capital of Persia but just one of the capitals. Because of the size of the Persian Empire and the different climates proper to each region, the King of Kings moved between several cities that became the capital for as long as he resided there. There is, of course, the city of Babylon (now in Iraq), a rather unhealthy place amidst the marshes of the Tigris floodplain where the summers were too hot but the winters rather pleasant. Susa, which was conquered by Cyrus the Great around 540 BC was a better place to reside and Darius the Great built his palace on its high plateau about the same time as he worked on the construction of Persepolis. Ecbatana, today’s Hamadan, was friendlier and cooler in summer because it was located much further to the north. Persepolis as well as Pasargadae were in turn built on a high plateau, which made both cities rather pleasant to stay. Pasargadae is the oldest city ever founded by a Persian ruler, in this case, Cyrus the Great, whose tomb still lights up the landscape. When Darius I, the later Darius the Great, came to power he wanted to build a palace of his own and that was nearby Persepolis.
As Alexander moved further east, he inevitably occupied each of these capitals in turn. First came Babylon, which he entered shortly after his victory at Gaugamela in October 331 BC. From there he marched to Susa in late November of the same year and reached it after twenty days of a leisurely march (see: Susa with its unique glazed brick walls). After a short winter, he headed for Persepolis where he arrived during the first week of February 330 BC (see: Alexander’s arrival at Persepolis and Alexander amidst the pomp and circumstance of Persepolis).
Alexander spent four months at Persepolis, yet it is difficult to track down what he did during that time. After the battle of Gaugamela, there had been no strain on his army as Babylon and then Susa surrendered without problems. The same reception was given at Persepolis and Pasargadae where the intact treasuries were handed over to Alexander. Of course, King Darius III was still on the run, sheltering at Ecbatana for the time being, meaning that Alexander must have kept one eye on the evasive king and one on his business here at Persepolis.
He had restrained his army from looting when entering Babylon and Susa, but once they arrived in Persepolis he let them loose to rampage the city, all but the palace. Arrian as usual is very sober about this but Diodorus and Curtius tell the story in every tiny detail – an awful business. According to them, Alexander would have described Persepolis to his troops as the most hateful city in Asia, the richest under the sun where even the private houses were furnished with great wealth. It is not surprising that the Macedonians were unstoppable in their insatiable greed, storming through the houses, plundering the premises, and slaughtering the men. The Persian wealth had rubbed off onto the common people and it is said they possessed much silver and gold, rich furniture and garments tainted with sea purple and embroidered with gold. Diodorus speaks of an “orgy of plunder”. After rampaging the city for a whole day, the Macedonians still wanted more and fought each other over the looted trophies, even killing their fellow soldiers who carried away bigger prizes. He reports that some went as far as splitting the finds in two so each would get his share, or cutting off hands of those who were grasping the same treasure piece they were coveting. They dragged off the women simply for their luxury dresses. Alexander’s proud army definitely was drunk with craving. Many Persians, rather than falling into Macedonian hands, threw themselves from the walls together with their wives and children. Others set their houses afire, preferring to be burnt alive with their families. The rampage became so outrageous that Alexander had to intervene in person ordering his men to spare the people and the ornaments of the women. No wonder that the Iranians today look at Alexander as a barbarian beast.
To distract his men or to keep them occupied in a more “civilized” way, Alexander set out for the interior of Persia proper with a light-armed force in order to reduce all the villagers to his power, devastating their fields. About 30 days later he returned to Persepolis where he performed costly sacrifices to the gods and held games in honor of his victories. He entertained his friends lavishly, feasting and drinking.
And then, there is the fire that destroyed the rich palace of Persepolis. What happened? Was the fire an accident or was it ignited on purpose? If so, why was Persepolis burnt or set afire? Many theories have been developed over the centuries but until now none of them has been conclusive.
Ancient sources are not too clear either. Arrian (who uses Ptolemy as his main source) mentions the fire as a matter of course, a mere statement of the fact, while Plutarch, Curtius and Diodorus (who used Cleitarchus as their source) tell the story of a drinking bout or a binge led by Thais that ran out of control – or didn’t it? Thais was an Athenian courtesan, mistress of Ptolemy, the later Pharaoh of Egypt. As such, any involvement by Thais might have its repercussions on Ptolemy’s rule and integrity when he wrote Alexander’s biography. This could explain why she was left out of Ptolemy’s account used by Arrian. The three other ancient writers sound, however, unanimous about Thais’ role in this devastating fire.
The story goes that there were prolonged banquets attended by the king and his companions, but also by some women. The wine flowed freely with lady pipers and flutists encouraging the singing. At a certain moment the said Thais, probably as drunken as the rest of the company, declared that Alexander would win prestige among all the Greeks by setting the palace of Persepolis on fire; it would only be a fair reprisal for Xerxes’ sacrilege at Athens some 150 years ago. The idea kindled the fiery brains of the banqueters and all jumped to their feet, seizing torches – some say Alexander was the first to spring into action. Well, it doesn’t really matter who threw the first torch that ignited the bone-dry adobe walls, the draperies, and carpets, the plastered columns catching the cedar ceiling and setting the palace ablaze in no time at all. It is believed that the fire started at the Palace of Xerxes and quickly spread to the Hall of the One Hundred Columns, the adjacent Treasury, and the Apadana. The Macedonian army that was encamped nearby rushed to the Palace to help to extinguish what they thought was an accidental fire, but upon arrival, it was clear the fire was lit on purpose and they joined the bonfire.
There is a theory that Alexander planned this fire ahead of time since all the jewelry and precious decorations had been removed from the walls and doorways throughout the palaces. But on the other hand, it is evident that not only the Treasury was emptied to be transferred to Ecbatana but also that all the gold, silver, and precious stones that were found throughout the palace had been removed. Moreover, the king had previously appointed a new satrap for Persepolis and arranged to garrison the city as he had done so many times before and would do so often afterwards.
Surveying the plateau of Persepolis it is easy to see how fast a fire could jump from one building to the next. Alexander and his Companions must have run for their lives in order not to be caught in the fire themselves. It feels awkward to be standing at the entrance of Xerxes’ Palace, the doorway Alexander must have used repeatedly getting in and out of the building, covering the short distance to the adjacent palaces.
With the fire, Alexander had destroyed the center of Persian power; his own new center would be Babylon. The statement was made – or wasn’t it? All ancient writers agree that Alexander regretted his act as soon as he sobered up and his regrets are reiterated six years later when he returns to Persepolis from the East, but the damage to the Persians was done and he didn’t live long enough to mend it. The Greeks may never have forgotten Xerxes' burning of Athens, but the Persians certainly never forgot Alexander’s burning of Persepolis.
[Click here to see all the pictures of Persepolis]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Persepolis]