Pleasure and Leisure in Ancient Persia

What were the main leisure activities of the Persian Upper Class?

 

“Pleasures, too, of all sorts they are quick to indulge in . . .” (Herodotus, Histories, 1.135)

Greek historians enthusiastically claim ancient Persians were forever feasting, drinking, playing games, hunting, and parading through sensuous pleasure gardens. Yet, taking these biased claims at face value is problematic (Kuhrt, 2001, 101).

Unfortunately, textual Persian perspectives are few (Dusinberre, 1999, 75). So, when the views of Xenophon, Herodotus and Plutarch are compared to the archaeological record what picture of ancient Persian pleasures will emerge?

Hunting

In his Histories, Herodotus states Persian youths were to learn: “to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the truth.” Xenophon, in Hellenica, describes a Persian satrap’s home as abundant in provisions and “splendid wild animals, some of them in enclosed parks.” In Cyropaedia, Xenophon claims all upper class Persian youths engaged in hunting. The hunting scene adjacent is an Achaemenid cylinder seal, c.6th-4th century BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no.1984.383.25).

In addition to hunting Crowther suggests archery images on Achaemenid coinage indicate Persians engaged in archery competitions (Sport in Ancient Times, 2007, 21). Xenophon’s remarks suggest the Persian elite engaged in sporting competitions:

“passing their time shooting with the bow and hurling the spear and practising all the other arts they learnt when boys, they continually engage in contests of this kind with one another. There are also public contests of this sort, for which prizes are offered” (Cyropaedia)

So, both archaeological and textual evidence suggest the upper class enjoyed hunting.

Persian Polo?

In addition to hunting, horse racing and an ancestor of modern polo may have been popular leisure activities in Persia (Womack, 2003, 132). There is no direct evidence the Achaemenid’s played the polo-like game chogan; the first Persian textual reference is Ferdowsi’s 9th century CE Epic of Kings. Yet, ancient Greek sources claim Darius III gave a chogan mallet and ball to Alexander the Great as a gift (Crowther, 2007, 21). So, Achaemenid nobles may have enjoyed playing chogan or ‘Persian polo.’ 

Chess and Backgammon?

Persian nobles may have enjoyed playing board games, including precursors to modern chess and backgammon (Daryaee, 2002, 281). Later Persian miniatures often depict Persian nobles playing a chess-like board game using dice. Plutarch recounts, in his Life of Artaxerxes:

“One day, finding Artaxerxes trying to amuse himself in a vacant hour, she challenged him to play at dice for a thousand darics [and] allowed him to win the game.”

Banqueting

The relief to the right comes from Persepolis, the Achaemenid’s grand temple complex, and it depicts two servants serving food and drink (Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no.34.158). Herodotus reports the Persians were “very fond of wine” and preferred to get drunk when making important decisions of state (Histories, 1.133).

Scenes such as the one in the relief and the discovery of a vast array of Achaemenid ornate fluted bowls, used for serving wine (Dusinberre, 1999, 103), seem to support Herodotus’ claims.

Yet, depicting enemies as uncivilised drunkards is a common trope of ancient Greek historians, and fluted bowls also acted as moveable wealth, some containing significant weights of gold or silver (Metropolitan Museum of Art). A 9th century BCE Assyrian ivory relief depicts banqueters surrounding the king who balances a drinking bowl on his finger-tips with cupbearers guarding wine jars. McGovern suggests this Assyrian scene is applicable to Persia given the significant increase in fluted wine bowl production during the Achaemenid period (2003, 183).

References

Crowther, Nigel. Sport in Ancient Times. New York: Greenwood Publishing, 2007.

Daryaee, Touraj. “Mind, Body and the Cosmos: Chess and Backgammon in Ancient Persia.” Iranian Studies 35, no.4 (2002): 281-312.

Dusinberre, Elspeth R.M. “Satrapal Sardis: Achaemenid Bowls in an Achaemenid Capital.” American Journal of Archaeology 103, no.1 (1999): 73-102.

Ferdowsi, Abul-Dasim. Epic of the Kings. Translated by Helen Zimmern. Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Ferdowsi/kings.html (accessed May 11, 2012).

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Kuhrt, Amelie. “The Achaemenid Persian Empire (c.550-c.330 BCE): Continuities, Adaptations, Transformations.” In Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History, edited by Susan Alcock, Terence N. D’Altroy, Kathleen D. Morrison and Carla M. Sinopoli, 93-124. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Collections Online,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/, (accessed May 11, 2012).

McGovern, Patrick E. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Plutarch. Lives. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. London: Harvard University Press, 1926. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:2008.01.0010 (accessed May 11, 2012).

Womack, Mari. Sport as Symbol: Images of The Athlete in Art, Literature and Song. North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2003.

Xenophon. Cyropaedia. Edited by Walter Miller. London: William Heinemann, 1914. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0204 (accessed May 11, 2012).

Xenophon. Hellenica. Edited by Carleton L. Brownson. London: William Heinemann, 1921. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0206 (accessed May 11, 2012).

Artifact Images from:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Collections Online,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/, (accessed May 11, 2012).

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