Greco-Persian gems: introduction

During the period of the Persian Empire, from the later sixth to the later fourth century BC, a series of gems were engraved in the western areas of the empire, mainly Anatolia (Turkey), which combine Greek style and subjects with Persian style and subjects. The main difference between these and the Classical Greek series is that the engraver tends not to disguise his technique, so that much of the patterning of figures is left in plain drill work. This follows eastern practice. Styles range from a very Persian 'Court Style' to subjects and poses which are wholly Greek except in details of their execution. The Persian subjects go far beyond the usual eastern range, which is very hieratic, and include rare views of Persian private life. The customers are Persians or Persian subjects, and in fighting scenes the Greeks are sometimes shown defeated. Animals are popular subjects, but shown in the eastern scheme of the 'flying gallop' and not the more realistic Greek. After the fall of the Persian empire there is an afterlife for the series, with Macedonian dress for some figures, and a prolific class of simple a globolo gems which are widely diffused in the east and come even to determine the style of Sasanian gems.

Shapes. The earliest are stamp seals of eastern type; then scaraboids like the Greek, especially favouring those with high, domed backs. There are also some tabloids, a few pear-shaped like pendants, and some multi-faceted bearing several different subjects. Cylinders, the prime eastern shape in the past, are rare.

Materials. Quartzes are preferred, especially chalcedony with a preference for the blue, which had been popular in Babylonia. There are fewer of opaque stones. Generally the range is as that for the Classical Greek.

Bibliography. J. Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings (1970/2001) Chapter VI (= GGFR); Persia and the West (2000) 166-174.

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