Art History History Painting

History Painting: ‘Thaïs of Athens with Torch’ by Joshua Reynolds, 1781.

The notorious events surrounding the burning of the great ancient Persian capital of Persepolis in 330 BCE by Alexander The Great is clouded mystery. It is true that Persepolis was razed to the ground. That fact is not disputed. But what is central to the question of what happened, who was to blame and why did it happen in the first place is quite intriguing. The answer to these almost impossible questions are found in ancient texts written by at least three historians, who all basically agree that the fire was started when Thaïs, a young Greek courtesan, during a drunken orgy persuaded Alexander The Great to do it, as an act of revenge for the desecration of the Acropolis in Athens during the Persian War.

Before I go on, it is important to note that the historians who framed Thais as the instigator of the fire, all wrote their accounts centuries after the event, based on earlier works long lost to history. So I guess we will have to take their word for it that it happened. Then again, in a conflicting account written by the 2nd century historian Arrian of Nicomedia, its not so clear-cut. Arrian believes Persepolis was deliberately burned upon Alexander’s serious-minded orders. His troops systematically sacked and burned the city as retribution for crimes committed by the Persians against Greek cities. How does Arrian come to this conclusion? Well because Ptolemy (Alexander’s general) and historian Aristobulus of Cassandreia, who were both apparently eye witnesses to the destruction of Persepolis, both fail to mention in their accounts the alleged infamous drinking party that led to the fire. So, in short, it’s fair to say according to Arrian that there was no drunken party that led to an inebriate Alexander to make such a foul decision.

Whatever the truth might be, it is still nonetheless intoxicating that an educated courtesan or mistress like Thaïs has top billing in this historical drama. Interestingly, there is not a lot of information about Thais prior to the fire, except to say that she was the lover of Ptolemy, and also possibly Alexander’s mistress, who joined both men during Alexander The Great campaigns.

If we are to fast forward to the drunken night in question during what might have been festivities in honour of Alexander’s victories, it is here that a very tipsy and vocal Thaïs worked up the courage and delivered a speech exacting revenge against the Persians. She 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.” (Diodorus Siculus XVII.72) And so, in a moment of madness, Alexander not long after this apparently leapt to his feet and with a torch in his hand led the way. Thaïs for her part was the first, after Alexander, to throw her blazing torch into the palace. It is said that in the aftermath of the destruction of the palace (even against advise not to set fire to it) that Alexander would come to regret it. 

In art history, the renowned 18th century English painter Joshua Reynolds was commissioned by Charles Greville to produce a painting that would perhaps best illustrate the great ancient Persian civilisation about to go up in flames. For his subject Reynolds chose a very dramatic pose of Thaïs leading the charge with a torch in her hand. Reynolds was apparently inspired by John Dryscden’s 1697 poem, ‘Alexander’s Feast’ and the passage that read: ‘Thais led the Way/ To light him to his Prey/ And, like another Helen, fir’d another Troy.’ 

With her exotically wild appearance and her arms outstretched, Reynolds history painting ‘Thaïs of Athens with Torch’ is arguably my favourite depiction of Thais leading the charge of destruction through Persepolis. Other examples by painters such as Lodovico Carracci and George Rochegrosse are also noteworthy in their depiction of Thaïs running amok. The latter interestingly illustrates Alexander lifting Thaïs high above heads so she can set fire to a banner. But for my mind Thaïs and her wilful actions in Reynolds history painting set against the heavy smoke filled air with the city burning in the background is equally exciting and provoking in its attempt to tell a story.

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