Common Errors (16): Persepolis

The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

In the first weeks of 330 BCE, Alexander the Great captured the capital of the Persian Empire, which the Macedonians and Greeks called Persepolis, “City of the Persians”. The living quarters were looted immediately, and when the invaders continued their expedition in early Spring, the palaces were destroyed as well.

Our sources are not in agreement about the way this happened. According to Arrian (Anabasis, 3.18.11), it happened after deliberations; it was a well-planned operation. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander, 5.7.3-12) and Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 38) say that Alexander was drunk – by no means excluded.

Scholars have so hard been trying to find out what happened exactly, that they ignored a more important question: did it actually happen? The problem is that many buildings were simply left intact: the Gate of All Nations and the Palace of Darius the Great, for example. Of course, the wooden and the limestone parts have vanished, but the gates, windows, and lower parts of the walls are still standing. No traces of vandalism here.

Something else happened in the Palace of Xerxes: hardly anything survived. Fragments of the columns that once supported the roofs of Xerxes‘ rooms were discovered far away: these palaces were the victims of a gas explosion (a “delayed flash-over”, as the fireman I once interviewed on the subject explained). There’s also evidence for arson in the Treasury and the Apadana, the throne room where the Great King received embassies of the various nations. Here, the excavators found a stratum of one to two feet of charcoal: burnt cedar wood.

And that’s the smoking gun. These buildings were extremely significant: the Palace of Xerxes, because he had attacked Greece in 480; and the Apadana and Treasury, the symbols of the ritual of gift exchange that was Achaemenid equivalent of the social contract.

Of course fires are unpredictable, but why, out of a set of twelve momuments, were exactly these three buildings destroyed? It is almost impossible that these buildings, and these buildings only, were destroyed by a random process. The arsonists in Persepolis were not drunken vandals: this was a well-organized action.

<Overview of Common Errors>

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