Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa

This massive capital is very different from those of Greece, and suggests the frightening power of the Persian Empire.

Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa, c. 510 B.C.E., Achaemenid, Tell of the Apadana, Susa, Iran (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing in the Louvre, looking at an enormous top of a column and capital formed of two bulls’ heads. This is such a strange motif to me. It’s so different than capitals we see in ancient Egyptian or ancient Greek art.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:20] We’re in a period when ancient Greece was in fact beginning to produce its most famous architecture. This is about 500 B.C.E. We’re in the area that is currently Iran.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] This is the Achaemenid Empire. They ruled over a vast area of the Mediterranean and the Near East.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] They tried to rule over ancient Greece, but the Greeks would be successful, much to their surprise.

[0:41] Just from this bull capital, because of its massiveness and because you know that this is just one of dozens of such capitals, you get a sense of the scale of the royal architecture of this dynasty, and the power of the Persians, and how frightening that must have been to the ancient Greeks.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] This capital was one of 36 that topped enormous columns in the audience hall, or Apadana.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] We’re in the ancient city of Susa. This capital comes from one of two major palaces that were built by the Persian king, Darius. Look at the size of those bulls. I wouldn’t stand as tall, even though it’s crouching.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] Imagine this in a hypostyled, or columned, hall, this dense forest of columns. This is where the king would receive visitors, so this expression of power within an entire palace complex, built of precious materials brought from all over Darius’ empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:36] The large scrolling forms — which remind us a little bit of Ionic architecture from ancient Greece — would themselves have only been a transitional layer, because below that would have been an additional capital, and then below that would have been the shaft of the column itself, with a base.

[1:51] The bulls themselves would have been quite high up, and would have probably have been much more dimly lit than we’re seeing them now. You can see how the two bulls are actually connected into a single form, with only the heads and the front parts of the bodies doubled. Then, in the notch that is created in their backs, we have the beams of the palace cradled.

Dr. Harris: [2:09] These capitals supported a very high wooden roof. Probably 40, 50, or 60 feet high. They seem to be kneeling and yet towering above us. I imagine anyone entering this hallway would have felt very small.

Dr. Zucker: [2:22] In part because you have this great mass that is at the very top of a slender column, which emphasizes that sense of scale. The other issue is that these are carved out of stone, which would have been imported from local mountains, whereas most of the palace was made out of mud brick that had been fired.

[2:38] The monumentality of the density of this stone would have been impressive as well.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] One of the things you notice immediately when you look at the capital is that it seems to be comprised of two different colors of stone. This is because what we’re looking at is actually a composite restored by archeologists from several different capitals.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] Even though the bulls themselves are fragments that have been put together, some of the craftsmanship is still evident. Look for instance at the patterning of the curls of the fur, you can see that especially on the bulls’ breasts. The delicacy of the ears, and the horns, and the eyes. They really are expressive creatures.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] But frightening. Everything in this palace was meant to impress. Some of the glazed brickwork survives from the palace. There are images of griffins, of sphinxes, of guards.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] The guards are interesting. They’re holding spears. They’ve got bows wrapped over their shoulders. You can see their quivers just over their backs.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] This accumulation of images of power as you made your way up to the audience hall through this field of columns.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] By the time you got your audience with the king, you would’ve been most impressed. The power that he wielded over so much of the Mediterranean, over so much of the Near East, was clear.

[3:47] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed June 25, 2024,