Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes
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Categories: Ancient

Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes

a Greek vase painting of Darius on his throne as a man in Greek dress approaches to give advice
This painting is contemporary with Darius III, but the material culture does not convince me! Note the nice long kopis cleaver and the knobby walking stick. The Darius Krater in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples (from Apulia, c. 340-320 BCE), c/o Wikimedia Commons

Greek and Roman literature is certainly an important collection of evidence for clothing in the Achaemenid empire. Most of these passages describe the clothing of the king and satraps, or simply say that such-and-such is the Persian equivalent of a Greek garment. Herodotus and Strabo provide information about the garments of other people. Herodotus says that Babylonian men dress as follows:

Hdt. 1.195: For clothing, they wear a linen tunic (kithōn), reaching to the feet; over this the Babylonian puts on another, woolen, tunic (kithōn), and wraps himself in a little white mantle (chlanidion leukon): he wears the sandals (hupodēmata) of his country, which are like Boeotian sandals. Their hair is worn long, and bound with a girdle (mitra); the whole body is perfumed. Every man has a seal and a carved staff, and on every staff is some image, such as that of an apple or a rose or a lily or an eagle: no one carries a staff without a device.

τὰ μὲν δὴ πλοῖα αὐτοῖσι ἐστὶ τοιαῦτα: ἐσθῆτι δὲ τοιῇδε χρέωνται, κιθῶνι ποδηνεκέι λινέῳ, καὶ ἐπὶ τοῦτον ἄλλον εἰρίνεον κιθῶνα ἐπενδύνει καὶ χλανίδιον λευκὸν περιβαλλόμενος, ὑποδήματα ἔχων ἐπιχώρια, παραπλήσια τῇσι Βοιωτίῃσι ἐμβάσι. κομῶντες δὲ τὰς κεφαλὰς μίτρῃσι ἀναδέονται, μεμυρισμένοι πᾶν τὸ σῶμα. [2] σφρηγῖδα δὲ ἕκαστος ἔχει καὶ σκῆπτρον χειροποίητον: ἐπ᾽ ἑκάστῳ δὲ σκήπτρῳ ἔπεστι πεποιημένον ἢ μῆλον ἢ ῥόδον ἢ κρίνον ἢ αἰετὸς ἢ ἄλλο τι: ἄνευ γὰρ ἐπισήμου οὔ σφι νόμος ἐστὶ ἔχειν σκῆπτρον.

https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Herodotus/1D*.html#195
A relief sculpture of two bearded men in tunics and cloaksbearing gifts
The ?Babylonian? delegation on the Apadana, Persepolis. Note the short sleeved tunic of the man on the left, a typical Babylonian fashion. Their tunics end a bit above their ankles and are not pleated. Photo c/o livius.org

Herodotus never claims to have visited Babylonia like he says he visited Egypt, and he is probably referring to the dress of wealthy and respectable men.

a bas relief of men in different costumes holding their hands overhead to support a throne
The “throne-bearers” on the tomb of Darius I at Naqš-i Rusam, Iran. The cuneiform captions label them as a pointed-hood Scythian (15), Babylonian (16), Assyrian (17), and Arab (18). Not the belt-knife (patri ša qabli) on the Assyrian. From Erich F. Schmidt (ed.), Persepolis III, OIP 70 plate 25.

Strabo’s section on Babylon is cribbed from Herodotus, but he has more to say about the Persians of Persis. He seems to draw on a source from the 4th or 3rd century BCE, because his descriptions resemble Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Diodorus’ account of the wars of the Diadochoi after Alexander’s death.

Strabo, Geography, 15.iii.19 “They are armed with a rhomboidal wicker shield (gerron), and besides quivers they have axes (sagareis) and cleavers (kopidas), and about the head they have towering felt hats (pilēma). Their breastplate is scaled. The dress of the rulers is a triple pair of trousers (anaxyris), a sleeved double tunic (chitōn xeiridōtos) as far as the knees, the undergarment being white (leukos), the overgarment colourful (anthinos). The summer cloak (himation) is purple or violet, the winter colourful. Their tiaras resemble those of the Magi, a deep double shoe (upodēma koilon). Among the masses a double tunic (chitōn) as far as the middle of the shin, and a rag of sindon about the head; each of them has a bow and a sling.

ὁπλίζονται δὲ γέρρῳ ῥομβοειδεῖ, παρὰ δὲ τὰς φαρέτρας σαγάρεις ἔχουσι καὶ κοπίδας, περὶ δὲ τῇ κεφαλῇ πίλημα πυργωτόν, θώραξ δ᾽ ἐστὶν αὐτοῖς φολιδωτός. ἐσθὴς δὲ τοῖς ἡγεμόσι μὲν ἀναξυρὶς τριπλῆ, χιτὼν δὲ χειριδωτὸς διπλοῦς ἕως γόνατος, ὁ ὑπενδύτης μὲν λευκός, ἄνθινος δ᾽ ὁ ἐπάνω: ἱμάτιον δὲ θέρους μὲν πορφυροῦν ἢ ἰάνθινον, χειμῶνος δ᾽ ἄνθινον, τιᾶραι παραπλήσιαι ταῖς τῶν Μάγων, ὑπόδημα κοῖλον διπλοῦν, τοῖς δὲ πολλοῖς χιτὼν ἕως μεσοκνημίου1 διπλοῦς, ῥάκος δὲ σινδόνιόν τι περὶ τῇ κεφαλῇ: ἔχει δ᾽ ἕκαστος τόξον καὶ σφενδόνην.

Strabo’s double tunic seems to be the same as the undergarment and the overgarment. Its just possible that he means a white tunic sewed inside a colourful tunic as a lining. Greek artists don’t seem to have been interested in accurately portraying the clothing of foreigners, and what Greek writers say should be treated with caution too. But its still worth reading their descriptions, because Persians and Babylonians did not leave us disinterested descriptions of their own cultures.

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Further Reading: Shapur Shahbazi, “Clothing ii. In the Median and Achaemenid Periods,” Encyclopaedia Iranica https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/clothing-ii

3 thoughts on “Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes

  1. Jaojao says:

    Great post, this is a subject I am really interested in! If I may ask some questions, recently I found an artist who draws Achaemenid clothing a lot, a furry with a deep interest in historical fashion called Ohs688 (images: https://d.furaffinity.net/art/ohs688/1443410609/1443410609.ohs688_%EC%82%AC%EB%B3%B8_-%ED%8E%98%EB%A5%B4%EC%8B%9C%EC%95%84_%EA%B4%80%EB%B3%B5_%EB%B3%80%EC%B2%9C%EC%82%AC.jpg and https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EIhqoUtU4AUN0aZ?format=jpg&name=4096×4096) Do you think these are accurate? At least they seem well-researched. For another question do you know if there are any references for how Persian eunuchs were dressed? I have been reading Curtius Rufus’ writings on Alexander’s lover Bagoas and have wondered what he would look like. Thank you so much!

    1. Sean says:

      I am glad you like it! Just for a quick reply, some people think that some of the beardless servants in the reliefs at Plataea are castrati. https://www.livius.org/pictures/iran/persepolis/ and http://persepolis3d.com/ are good places to look for the sculptures from Persepolis.

      There are quite a few texts about gender-bending from Mesopotamia but thats not an area of my expertise.

      1. Jaojao says:

        Thank you! That is useful

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