This research project explores the influence different cultures can have on each other, and how this influence affects their art by looking at different types of relief from two ancient cultures: Assyrian relief panels, and Greek stelai. To research this topic, an annotated bibliography was conducted in which specific pieces from each style and culture were discussed, as well as the histories behind some pieces, and the cultural and technological aspects surrounding them. This process revealed that while each group’s individual culture was present in each artwork, there were similarities in style and purpose, and many differences could be explained by a difference in technology.
A Comparison of Ancient Assyrian and Greek Stone Carvings
The interaction of cultures is like the mixing of paint. The more two groups of people exchange aspects of themselves, the more those aspects are shared between them. This is true today and also in antiquity. The empires of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean interacted for thousands of years, through conflict and through trade, exchanging many cultural aspects from warfare, to religion, to art.
This paper will focus on the artwork produced by the ancient Assyrians and ancient Greeks, the cultural values that are expressed in those artworks, and the similarities and differences between them. The analysis for the Assyrians will focus on their carved stone portraits called reliefs, particularly two on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. These artworks portrayed many aspects of Assyrian life, from religious ritual to the decimation of enemy cities. Much of Assyrian culture is displayed in these pieces. The analysis for the Greeks will focus on their stelai, specifically the stele of Dexileos. Much like Assyria’s reliefs, Greece’s stelai show much about its culture, from warfare, to religion, and everything in between. After analyzing the two cultures separately, a comparative analysis between the two will be conducted, examining where they intersect and where they differ. Subjects such as religion, foreign policy, views on war, subject, composition, and style will be examined. Since the Assyrian Empire existed before the era in Greek history that is being analyzed, influence from Assyria onto Greek culture will also be explored. The stone carvings of both the ancient Assyrians and ancient Greeks share similar stylistic qualities, as well as expressing similar cultural aspects.
Cultures, History, and Pieces
The Assyrian Empire was well known for its brutality. Its military often perpetrated atrocities that are unimaginable to us today. These horrific actions served a purpose, however. They demonstrated to a war-torn area that the power of the Assyrians could not be challenged without risking the utter annihilation of oneself and one’s people. Simply committing these atrocities was not enough to keep and hold the empire, however. Newly conquered subjects needed to be reminded of their defeat and subjugation, and potential enemies needed to be shown the might of Assyria. Propaganda served this need. Countless artworks were created in many styles to celebrate Assyria, and to intimidate enemies and dissenters; one such style of artworks was their reliefs.
Assyria’s reliefs are some of the most common forms of their artwork found. Their style is very unique, and they carry with them political and religious significance. Beginning with their style, the poses of the human and animal figures are very rigid, as shown in Figure 1. Their bodies look very stiff and most compositions are not very dynamic or flowing because of it. The scenes look very static, as if frozen in time. Making the figures in the pieces so rigid, as well as the equal spacing between figures that commonly occurs, gives many of these pieces a strong sense of rhythm and movement of a different kind. The eye bounces around the piece, which is often depicting a story, and gives life and movement to the characters of the story, as seen in Figure 2. These works however, also often lack a sense of depth. Most figures seem to be on the same plane, the only thing hinting at anything different is occasional overlapping. Similarly, the Assyrian style is lacking realistic detail. Most figures have an unrepresentative look to them. The viewer can make out what it is, but it is an abstracted, near caricatured, version of what it is portraying. An aspect of these pieces that has been lost however is the paint that once covered them. These pieces, as well as many other types of artworks that the Assyrians created, were brightly painted in their entirety. While it is not widely known exactly what colors the Assyrians used and why, what is known is that blue was used frequently, most likely because resources that could be used to make the color were scarce in the area. Having it line palaces and other government buildings demonstrated Assyria’s wealth and power.
Though the style of Assyrian reliefs was consistent, their subject matter varied greatly depending on what the emperor wished the piece to project. Most common among subjects chosen for reliefs were military victories and battle scenes, depictions of aspects of their religion, and scenes aggrandizing the ruler. As discussed earlier, military victories were chosen to display the empire’s military might to enemies, as well as to conquered subjects thinking of fighting for their freedom. Religious depictions are also popular subjects in Assyrian reliefs. Many works were created depicting ceremonies and their gods themselves, as shown in Figure 3. Similar to why they chose to demonstrate military power through their art, the Assyrians wished to promote a stabilizing unity throughout their empire, and sought to do this through promoting a single religion. By filling their cities and government buildings with art showing their religion, they hoped to promote obedience to the empire. Another common subject of reliefs is the aggrandizement of the current ruler. Again, this was meant to strengthen the hold the Assyrian imperial government had on its people. By showing the opulence and luxury the ruler lived in, as well as the power they held entirely on their own, they demonstrated to their people how superior to they were, and how inferior and powerless the average person was. Such a showing can be seen in Figure 4. Few single works of art from Assyria capture all of the aspects of their society that have so far been discussed, except for the Black Obelisk.
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is a tower discovered in the ancient city of Nimrud, in modern day northern Iraq. The tower is decorated with a series of reliefs with descriptions celebrating the accomplishments of king Shalmaneser III, and descriptions of the scenes. The Obelisk is covered with many interesting pieces, but chief among these are the reliefs depicting Sua of Gilzanu before the king (Figure 5) and Jehu of Israel before the king (Figure 6). In his piece, Sua, the ruler of the land of Gilzanu, located in modern day Azerbaijan, is seen kneeling before the king in submission. This is to be expected, as Gilzanu had been under Assyrian control for decades at this point in their history. What separates this piece from that of the one depicting Jehu, as both rulers are kneeling in both pieces, is that the king is dressed for war. He is holding a bow and arrows and is accompanied by two soldiers and two officers. This is confusing as there are no records of Assyria being at war with Gilzanu at this time. What is more confusing is why the piece depicting Jehu is different. Jehu’s piece similarly shows him kneeling before the king, but the king is dressed more for a ceremony at court. He is wearing the ceremonial fringed mantel and is accompanied by a servant holding a sunshade and a second dignitary. What these differences are thought to possibly represent is how each country was brought into the empire. Gilzanu was brought into the empire through conquest after they lost a battle, while Israel approached the king and surrendered without military action. The goal of this possible representation was to show the two paths a people soon to be conquered could take: military action and defeat, or acceptance of their fate without bloodshed. Another interesting aspect of these pieces is that they are located one on top of the other on the Obelisk, yet they are geographically very distant from each other and were conquered at very different times in the empire’s history. What could be meant by doing this was the king displaying the vastness of his empire, and therefore the vastness of his own power, by showing the viewer two of the most distant lands incorporated into it, and their rulers both kneeling before him.5
Also on display in these pieces is Assyrian religion. Presiding over both rulers paying tribute to the king are the god Shamash and the goddess Ishtar. Shamash, the god of the sun and justice, is portrayed in his common depiction as winged disk, while Ishtar, goddess of love and war, is shown in her common depiction as a star. The inclusion of both of these gods in both of these pieces would seem to indicate their importance to the Assyrians. By having them watch over this interaction between rulers, it would seem Assyria has been given the divine right to rule over these areas.
This grants more power to the Assyrian king, while also promoting their religion, as people are more likely to convert to a religion that seems to grant them the gods’ favor.
Assyria and its reliefs hold interesting places in history. They demonstrate one of the first sophisticated uses of propaganda in human history. Their promotion of the ultimate authority of the ruler, their celebration of militarism, and their perpetuation of their culture through the display of their religion would all become staples of propaganda use throughout the rest of time.
Their style and use of stone carving would be equally influential, as it swept across their empire and into areas that they traded with as well, including the Mediterranean.
Greece has gone through many wars throughout its history; some with foreign powers, many amongst itself. One such war between Greeks was the Corinthian War, a war fought between Spartans and their allies, and Athenians and their allies. During the second campaigning season of this war, the biggest battle between Greeks took place; the battle of Nemea River. With 20,000 hoplites fighting on each side, the battle took 3,900 Greek lives, resulting in an eventual Spartan victory. After the battle, a mass grave was dug for the fallen soldiers on the side of the Athenians. This graveyard was filled with monuments to the fallen soldiers, many of them being stelai.6
Stelai are stone carvings usually created as funerary markers that depict some aspect of a person’s, or group of persons’, lives. If a person had a specific occupation for which they were well known, such as an athlete or a soldier (Figure 7), their stele would show them doing what they did in life. Familial stelai were also common (Figure 8), marking the area in which a family has been buried together.7 The style of Greek stelai is very naturalistic. The poses in which the figures are usually carved, look very relaxed and realistic. The figures themselves are very representational, usually having proper proportions and lifelike details. Most pieces also have a strong sense of depth and volume. The figures do more than overlap. The viewer can tell there is meant to be space between them. Figures are also carved in such a way that they have a presence in the piece; they look very voluminous, as though there is more to them than just what is shown. An excellent example of all of these traits is the stele of Dexileos.
The stele of Dexileos is a stele marking the tomb of a young horseman who died in the battle of Nemea River, fighting for the side of the Athenians. He was one of an elite group of horsemen who most likely all perished in the battle. Their conduct was so extraordinary that they were all buried together, in state, and given their own monument to remember them by.
These accolades were not enough for Dexileos’ parents, who felt their son needed something more to mark his honor and bravery, and who were wealthy enough to commission something grander. His parents commissioned his own stelai, and had it placed above all the rest (Figure 9).8 Dexileos’ stele, like most stelai, focuses heavily on him, the person the stele was made for. It is a marker of individuality after death; a brief look into a single person’s life as they were when they were alive. Idolizing individuality in such a way is indicative of the larger culture surrounding these artworks. Athens during this time had switched over to a direct democratic form of government, the first in human history. Their belief in the individual as a significant participant in society was reflected in their art and was seen more clearly than in their stelai. Another aspect of Greek society present in the Dexileos Stele is their celebration of the hero. In his stele, Dexileos is depicted during the battle of Nemea River, rearing up on his horse, preparing to vanquish an enemy soldier. The scene is very dynamic. The eye follows up the horse, to Dexileos’ face, and down to the enemy soldier on the ground, as if the viewer is thrusting the spear through him with their eyes. With merely the flow of the scene, the viewer feels they are sharing a victory with Dexileos, and that he is a hero worth being venerated. This was also characteristic of the culture that produced these works of art. Greece, especially Athens, is famous for the plays and epic poems it produced during this time period, most of which follow a hero facing adversity for what they believe is right and sometimes not making it back alive. This reverence for individuals going out, facing the odds, and fighting for what they want and believe in can be seen throughout their society, especially in their art such as stelai.9
Greece’s stelai are an interesting cross section of their culture. So much of their society can be seen in these artworks and the stories behind them. Their preference for the realistic, their reverence for the individual, their hero-worship, are all present in these pieces. They are great examples of what Greek artistic culture produced in this period.
Both styles of stone carving, Assyrian panel relief and Greek stele, are excellent views into the cultures that they were produced from. Comparing the two, their styles will be examined, looking at how they portray figures, their style of poses, their use of depth, as well as their use of paint. Subject matter will also be explored, focusing on their views of the state and the individual, their portrayals of war, as well as religious aspects. Finally, the purpose of these artworks will be discussed, looking at how they were used, and by whom.
To begin, their styles vary wildly. The Assyrian style is very abstracted, where the Greek is very realistic, even idealistic at times. Figures in Assyrian reliefs look very stiff and near cartoonish. Some pieces have more realistic details, but none are quite like the exceptionally realistic Greek style. Figures in Greek stelai look relaxed and dynamic. They have a very naturalistic quality to them that sets them apart from the Assyrians. These dynamic poses give the stelai a flowing movement in some pieces that is not matched in Assyrian reliefs. The reliefs, however, have a different sort of movement. The stiff poses of their figures and regular placement in the scene gives many pieces a rhythmic movement that is not seen in Greek stelai.
This effect is also magnified by the fact that most panel reliefs have little sense of depth to them.
The closest most panel reliefs get to showing depth is figures overlapping, whereas stelai excel at showing depth and volume. When looking at most stelai, a viewer can easily tell that there is meant to be space between figures. A possible explanation for this discrepancy in styles is technology. In Mesopotamia, the production of hard stone seals increased gradually over a 3,000 year period, where in Crete, the same levels of production were achieved over a 1,000 year period.10 The technology that was created to achieve these levels of production would also have been used in carving stone artworks. This head start, technologically speaking, gave the Greeks more time to develop techniques using these advanced tools, and therefore develop their more realistic style.
Where these artworks also differ however is in their subject matter. What these pieces depict and the meaning behind them diverge almost as much as their style does. Assyrian reliefs are almost always propagandistic. They were created to praise and demonstrate the power of the state and the ruler. These artworks were meant to intimidate enemies and make loyal and devout citizens, whereas Greek stelai were meant to celebrate an individual. Being funerary markers, the stelai were made to celebrate the achievements and life of whoever’s grave they were meant to mark. They are more centered on the individual than on the state, though often celebrating an individual’s sacrifice for the state, such as one in war. Religiously, the stelai were more personal and individualistic as well. Occasionally they were decorated with symbols or depictions of gods that the commissioners of the stele wished to honor with it. However, Assyrian reliefs were much more communally focused religiously. Their use as propaganda did not stop at their religion. Their inclusion of religious symbols and references in these pieces was meant to validate their conquests by showing their victories as divinely ordained. Early Mesopotamian Cultures, especially Assyro-Babylonian societies, thought of representation through art and writing as taking a more active role in the world than Greek culture did. They saw depicting something through art as creating in the artwork an essence of whatever was being depicted and a substitute in the real world what was depicted.11 So a relief depicting the king conquering an enemy city meant more to the Assyrians than just an image of that happening. It took on a life of its own. It was as impactful as seeing the city fall in person. This is wildly different from Greek ideas about art. For the Greeks, an image was just an image; a mere copy of what one would see, made of stone. One thing the Assyrians and Greeks did share however, was their celebration of war. Most artworks by either culture that portray an act of war portray it as glorious and honorable. While for different reasons, as the Assyrians gave most of the honor to the king, and the Greeks gave most to the soldier, both cultures showed participation in war as a virtuous thing.
Assyrian and Greek art share much in common and differ on much more. Their styles contrast greatly from each other, and so do their use of their art, specifically their relief panels and stelai. What also distinguishes them from each other are their cultural views on authority, and how this influences their art. What they do share is a common reverence for battle, however, and a general use of stone carving as an art form, both being possible examples of cross-cultural exchange. In the end, examining these two cultures’ artworks serves as an interesting look into how these two groups of people changed each other over the centuries. It gives a better understanding of how cultural exchange works, and how to look at it in other cultures in the future.
Bahrani, Zainab. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Accessed February 23, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhp5g.
Carlin, Dan. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Kings of Kings. Podcast audio. December 2015. https://open.spotify.com/episode/6EDjj9pMFbm1gVuw3TSlWX?si=x6mYn7zBQw2qO4 CGH8RO_g.
Getty, J Paul. “Assyria: Palace Art of Ancient Iraq.” Getty Museum. Accessed February 23, 2021. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/assyria/.
Gorelick, Leonard, and A. John Gwinnett. “Minoan versus Mesopotamian Seals: Comparative Methods of Manufacture.” Iraq 54 (1992): 57-64. Accessed February 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/4200352.
Hurwit, Jeffrey M. “The Problem with Dexileos: Heroic and Other Nudities in Greek Art.” American Journal of Archaeology 111, no. 1 (2007): 35-60. Accessed March 1, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40024580.
Porada, E. “Remarks about Some Assyrian Reliefs.” Anatolian Studies 33 (1983): 15-18. Accessed February 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/3642685.