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Why Did Alexander Burn Persepolis?

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Relief sculpture from Tachara, Darius the Great's private palace at Persepolis.

Relief sculpture from Tachara, Darius the Great's private palace at Persepolis.

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Question: Why Did Alexander Burn Persepolis?
Answer: In May 330 B.C., a little over a month before Alexander the Great went after the escaped, last, Great King of the Achaemenid Persians (Darius III), he burned the king's palaces at Persepolis for reasons we will never know for sure. Especially since Alexander later regretted it, scholars and others have puzzled over what motivated such vandalism. The reasons suggested generally boil down to intoxication, policy, or revenge ("perversity") [Borza].

Alexander needed to pay his men, so he had allowed them to pillage the ceremonial capital city of Persepolis, once the Iranian nobles opened their gates to the Macedonian king. The first century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus says Alexander took an amount estimated to be almost 3500 tons of precious metals from the palace buildings, carried away on innumerable pack animals, perhaps to Susa (future site of the mass marriage of Macedonians, like Hephaestion, to Iranian women, in 324).

"71 1 Alexander ascended to the citadel terrace and took possession of the treasure there. This had been accumulated from the state revenues, beginning with Cyrus, the first king of the Persians, down to that time, and the vaults were packed full of silver and gold. 2 The total was found to be one hundred and twenty thousand talents, when the gold was estimated in terms of silver. Alexander wanted to take some money with him to meet the costs of the war, and to deposit the rest in Susa and keep it under guard in that city. Accordingly he sent for a vast number of mules from Babylon and Mesopotamia, as well as from Susa itself, both pack and harness animals as well as three thousand pack camels."
Diodorus Siculus Library of History Book XVII

"Nor was the money found here less, he says, than at Susa, besides other movables and treasure, as much as ten thousand pair of mules and five thousand camels could well carry away."
Plutarch (c. A.D. 46-120), Life of Alexander

But Persepolis was now Alexander's property. Why would he burn it and do so with such deliberate ferocity that the arsonists seem to have steamed the stones to crack and destroy them (according to Briant)?

The Greek-writing Roman historian Arrian (c. A.D. 87 - after 145) says Alexander's trusty Macedonian general Parmenion urged Alexander not to burn it, but Alexander did so, anyway. Alexander claimed he was doing it as an act of revenge for the desecration of the acropolis in Athens during the Persian War. The Persians had burned and razed the gods' temples on the acropolis and other Athenian Greek property between the time they massacred the Spartans and company at Thermopylae and their naval defeat at Salamis, where almost all the residents of Athens had fled.

Arrian: 3.18.11-12 "He also set the Persian palace on fire against the advice of Parmenion, who argued that it was ignoble to destroy what was now his own property and that the peoples of Asia would not pay heed to him in the same way if they assumed he had no intention of governing Asia but would merely conquer and move on. [12]But Alexander declared that he wanted to pay back the Persians, who, when they invaded Greece, had razed Athens and burned the temples, and to exact retribution for all the other wrongs they had committed against the Greeks. It seems to me, however, that in doing this Alexander was not acting sensibly, nor do I think there could be any punishment for Persians of a bygone era."
The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander Anabasis Alexandrou, A New Translation, by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Romm NY: Pantheon Books: 2010.

Other writers, including Plutarch, Quintus Curtius (1st century A.D.), and Diodorus Siculus say that at a drunken banquet, the courtesan Thais (thought to have been a mistress of Ptolemy) urged the Greeks to take this revenge, which was then accomplished by a tippling procession of arsonists.

"72 1 Alexander held games in honour of his victories. He performed costly sacrifices to the gods and entertained his friends bountifully. While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. 2 At this point one of the women present, Thais by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women's hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. 3 This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form the comus and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. 4 Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysius.

5 Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the comus to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thais the courtesan leading the whole performance. 6 She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. "
Diodorus Siculus XVII.72

It may be that the courtesan's speech was planned, the act premeditated. Scholars have sought clear motives. Perhaps Alexander agreed to or ordered the burning to send a signal to the Iranians that they must submit to him. The destruction would also send the message that Alexander was not simply a replacement for the last Achaemenid Persian king (who had not yet, but would soon be assassinated by his cousin Bessus before Alexander could reach him), but instead a foreign conqueror. Maybe it was all a big mistake. This is just one of the many unanswered questions one faces in looking at Alexander the Great's short life and career.

Want some others to think about?

  • Did Alexander play a part in the murder of his father?
  • Was he poisoned?
  • What were his plans?

References:

  • "Fire from Heaven: Alexander at Persepolis," by Eugene N. Borza; Classical Philology, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 233-245.
  • Alexander the Great and His Empire, by Pierre Briant; Translated by Amelie Kuhrt Princeton: 2010.
  • "Not Great Man History: Reconceptualizing a Course on Alexander the Great," by Michael A. Flower; The Classical World, Vol. 100, No. 4 (Summer, 2007), pp. 417-423.
  • "The Aims of Alexander," by P. A. Brunt; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 12, No. 2, "Alexander the Great" (Oct., 1965), pp. 205-215.

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