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

The Achaemenid Empire's bull capital in the Louvre showcases Persian power around 500 BCE. Found in Susa's ancient city, it topped 36 columns in the audience hall or 'apadana'. The massive stone structure, with detailed craftsmanship, supported a high wooden roof, making visitors feel small and emphasizing the king's authority. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: 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. Voiceover: And we're in a period when ancient Greece was, in fact, beginning to produce its most famous architecture. This was about 500 B.C.E. We're in the area that is currently Iran. Voiceover: This is the Achaemenid Empire and they have ruled over a vast area of the Mediterranean in the Near East. Voiceover: They tried to rule over ancient Greece, but the Greeks would be successful, much to their surprise. And 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 just how frightening that must have been to the ancient Greeks. Voiceover: This capital was one of 36 that topped enormous columns in the audience hall or 'apadana'. Voiceover: So, 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. Voiceover: So, imagine this in a hypostyled or columned hall. This dense forest of columns. And 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. Voiceover: 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. The bulls themselves would have been quite high up and would've 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 part of the bodies doubled. And then in the notch that is created in their backs, we have the beams of the palace cradled. Voiceover: 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. So, I imagine anyone entering this hallway, would have felt very small. Voiceover: 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. And so the monumentally of the density of this stone, would have been impressive as well. Voicover: 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. And this is because what we're looking at is actually a composite restored by archeologists from several different capitals. Voiceover: 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. Voiceover: But frightening and everything in this palace was meant to impress. Some of the glazed brickwork survived from the palace. There are images of griffins, of sphinxes, of guards. Voiceover: The guards are interesting. They're holding spears and they've got bows wrapped over their shoulders. You can actually see their quivers just over their backs. Voiceover: This accumulation of images of power as you made your way up to the audience hall, through this field of columns. Voiceover: By the time you got your audience with the king, You would've been most impressed. And the power that he wielded over so much of the Mediterranean, over so much of the Near East was clear.