Did Alexander the Great set fire to the Persian city of Persepolis?

The destruction of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, remains one of the most debated incidents in ancient history. Situated in modern-day Iran, Persepolis was a symbol of Persian grandeur until its fiery end at the hands of Alexander the Great’s forces in 330 BC.

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In the article below, World History Edu explores the complexities surrounding the burning of Persepolis, considering the motivations, the accounts of ancient historians, and the consequences of this act.

Prelude to Destruction

Alexander’s campaign against the Persian Empire led him to Persepolis, a city that represented the zenith of Persian cultural and political power. The journey to Persepolis was marked by significant events, including an encounter with mutilated Greek artisans who had been taken captive by the Persians. This meeting, as documented by Diodorus Siculus, might have cast Persepolis in a harsh light for Alexander and his men, possibly fueling sentiments of revenge.

As a symbol of cultural heritage, Persepolis continues to inspire and educate, reminding us of the complexities and accomplishments of ancient civilizations. Image: Ruins of Persepolis.

The Battle for Persepolis

The entrance to Persepolis was fiercely guarded by the Persian Gates, where Alexander and his army faced stiff resistance from Ariobarzanes of Persis. After a prolonged siege and with the help of a traitorous local, Alexander’s forces managed to circumvent the Persian defenses, leading to the capture of the city.

The resistance faced at the Persian Gates, coupled with the subsequent looting permitted by Alexander, set a precedent for the events that followed.

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The Fire at Persepolis

The exact cause of the fire that devastated Persepolis remains a subject of historical debate. Some sources suggest the fire was accidental, while others argue it was a deliberate act of retribution for the Persian sack of Athens decades earlier.

The fire’s origin in the Hadish Palace, the living quarters of Xerxes I (also known as Xerxes the Great), and its spread throughout the city suggest a targeted act, possibly aimed at erasing the symbols of Persian authority and demoralizing any potential resistance.

Image: A painting by French artist Georges Rochegrosse entitled “The Burning of Persepolis”, depicting the fire incident.

Thaïs and the Banquet of Revenge

Greek and Roman sources, including Arrian and Quintus Curtius Rufus, attribute the idea to burn Persepolis to Thaïs, an Athenian courtesan and companion of Alexander.

In some account, it is said that during a drunken celebration Thaïs – the mistress of Ptolemy I Soter – proposed the burning as a symbolic act of revenge for Xerxes’ destruction of Greek sanctuaries.

Whether motivated by personal vengeance or a broader desire for retribution, the involvement of Thaïs highlights the complex interplay of personal and political factors in the decision to burn Persepolis.

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Cultural and Historical Loss

The burning of Persepolis resulted in the loss of invaluable cultural and historical treasures, including the Zoroastrian texts described in the Book of Arda Wiraz. Al-Biruni’s lamentation over the destruction of native Iranian historiography underscores the profound impact of the fire on the preservation of Persian history and culture. The irony lies in the preservation of the Persepolis Administrative Archives, which survived the fire and have provided modern scholars with a wealth of information about the Achaemenid Empire.

Archaeological Evidence and Legacy

Archaeological findings at Persepolis, particularly the recovery of the Fortification Archive tablets, offer a tangible link to the empire’s administrative and economic life. These artifacts suggest that while the fire destroyed much, it also inadvertently preserved records that might have otherwise been lost to history.

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