Diodorus Siculus: The Destruction of Persepolis

PERSEPOLIS was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces. It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind. Here much silver was carried off and no little gold, and many rich dresses gay with sea purple or with gold embroidery became the prize of the victors. The enormous palaces, famed throughout the whole civilized world, fell victim to insult and utter destruction.

The Macedonians gave themselves up to this orgy of plunder for a whole day and still could not satisfy their boundless greed for more. Such was their exceeding lust for loot withal that they fought with each other and killed many of their fellows who had appropriated a greater portion of it. The richest of the finds some cut through with their swords so that each might have his own part. Some cut off the hands of those who were grasping at disputed property, being driven mad by their passions. They dragged off women, clothes and all, converting their captivity into slavery.

As Persepolis had exceeded all other cities in prosperity, so in the same measure it now exceeded all others in misery.

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. 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. By these means Alexander transported everything to the desired places. He felt bitter enmity to the inhabitants. He did not trust them, and he meant to destroy Persepolis utterly.

I think that it is not inappropriate to speak briefly about the palace area of the city because of the richness of its buildings. The citadel is a noteworthy one, and is surrounded by a triple wall. The first part of this is built over an elaborate foundation. It is sixteen cubits in height and is topped by battlements. The second wall is in all other respects like the first but of twice the height. The third circuit is rectangular in plan, and is sixty cubits in height, built of a stone hard and naturally durable. Each of the sides contains a gate with bronze doors, beside each of which stand bronze poles twenty cubits high; these were intended to catch the eye of the beholder, but the gates were for security.

At the eastern side of the terrace at a distance of four plethra is the so-called royal hill in which were the graves of the kings. This was a smooth rock hollowed out into many chambers in which were the sepulchres of the dead kings. These have no other access but receive the sarcophagi of the dead which are lifted by certain mechanical hoists. Scattered about the royal terrace were residences of the kings and members of the royal family as well as quarters for the great nobles, all luxuriously furnished, and buildings suitably made for guarding the royal treasure.

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. At this point one of the women present, Thaïs 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. 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. 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.

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, Thaïs the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was most remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis of at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport.

Bibliotheca historica XVII 70–72, written down about 300 years after the events happened, translation by C.H. Oldfather.

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