Dynastic Deeds

Alessandro Poggio, Dynastic Deeds: Hunt Scenes in the Funerary Imagery of the Achaemenid Eastern Mediterranean, (Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2020). 9781407356389; 9781407354668.

Reviewed by Stephanie Kimmey, Colorado College, skimmey@coloradocollege.edu

Poggio’s book fits in its art historical context by exploring dynastic funerary monuments, while also using a wider range of supporting evidence, such as iconography of other media and textual sources. It is also situated within a current publication trend centered on the study of the Achaemenid empire.2 Poggio’s main goal is an important contribution to scholarship: to study monumental art produced in the Eastern Mediterranean through cultural and political connections independently from the surrounding Greek and Persian worlds, essentially placing these images into a specific local context.

In order to do this, Poggio examines the iconography of eight dynastic tombs in the Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. He identifies the Eastern Mediterranean as the “southern coast of Anatolia and the Levant, notably ancient Caria and Lycia in present-day Turkey, and ancient Phoenicia in present-day Lebanon” (1). He aims to answer the following questions through the visual and textual evidence: “Why was this iconography so popular among the dynasts of the Eastern Mediterranean? Is it possible to assign more specific meanings to this iconography? What kind of artistic and social implications can be inferred by the widespread use of this iconography along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean?” (3).

Overall, Poggio does an excellent job at answering these questions and thus proves that the multiple-quarry hunt imagery was a result of internal dynamics. He clearly argues that the innovation and development of this iconography within the Eastern Mediterranean is due to the larger importance placed upon the connections between the dynastic courts, the political aspects of the hunt, and a need to both align and compete with surrounding areas. Thus the multiple-quarry hunt becomes the main hunt iconography of the period.

While Poggio should be commended for using textual sources to support his interpretive readings, local textual sources do not survive, so he relies heavily on Greek sources. Unfortunately, this evidence was the least convincing, since the study focused on “internal dynamics” over the larger spheres. Thus, it was curious that Greek texts appear so frequently, seeming to support the larger sphere of Greek influence on the Eastern Mediterranean rather than a local one.

The Introduction does an excellent job at establishing the context of this study, outlining important definitions and methodologies to explain how and why his approach is new. Whereas other art historical studies approached these monuments from a larger Greco-Persian viewpoint, Poggio employs a transregional perspective to highlight the commonalities and differences across a specific geographical area. Therefore, Chapters 1 and 2 present the larger historical, cultural, and artistic context, which provides the necessary background for the iconographical analysis in Chapters 3–6.

Most helpful is his introduction to the term “multiple-quarry hunt.” Beginning with earlier scholarship that focuses on Vergina and the Black Sea, Poggio refocuses the term for the Eastern Mediterranean by adding two components.3 The temporality of the scenes expands, since the multiple hunts are not necessarily contemporary, and the examples are studied as whole, rather than as different hunt scenes or different parts of the monument.

Poggio’s methodology goes beyond iconography, examining ecology and geography to understand how materials, ideas, and artists circulated within the Eastern Mediterranean. Although much of this is the focus of Chapter 2, some of these aspects fall short, especially a clear discussion of routes or connection to ecology, and the discussion of natural resources is limited to marble. The aspects examined were helpful in understanding how this particular motif spread throughout the area, but if the reader is looking for more specific information on ecology or trade routes, they may be disappointed.

Chapter 1 presents the political and cultural aspects of the Eastern Mediterranean under Persian rule, while addressing the historiography of Greco-Persian art. For those scholars approaching this material from a Greek background, like myself, this chapter is a terrific overview of the changing political dynamics of the area, from Persian rule to the emergence of coexisting dynasts and local rulers of Lycia and Cilicia. Much of the specific details focus on court life, negotiating rivalries, and how spheres of influence shifted over the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

The discussion of “Greco-Persian” in scholarship begins, rightly so, with Adolf Furtwängler’s 1900 study of gems as examples of the spread of Greek art outside of Greece.4 Throughout the twentieth century, scholars continued to support Furtwängler’s conclusion that the art should be seen as Greek but patronized by the Persians.5 In the 1980s, scholarship shifted to focus on indigenous elements, emphasizing the role of Persian artists, with terms like “Perso-Anatolian” or “Anatolo-Persian.” Poggio notes that “the ruling classes of the Eastern Mediterranean…adopted this artistic language in order to convert specific messages connected with their status” (18). Thus, he situates his work among scholars focusing on the indigenous elements of Achaemenid art to highlight the importance of looking inward before external influences.

Chapter 2 presents the circulation and spread of these iconographies with a brief introduction and description of the main regionally based case studies, starting with Caria, then Lycia, and concluding with Phoenicia. This section is clearly organized with each of the eight examples individually highlighted. For those readers without an in-depth knowledge of these tombs, the first part of Chapter 2 provides the needed background to understand the subsequent analysis.

Caria receives the shortest discussion, focusing primarily on the well-documented Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Unfortunately, the other Carian example, the Hekatomneion, was recently discovered in 2010 and is still under publication, leaving very little for Poggio to discuss. Lycia produces three examples. The Nereid Monument of Xanthos, Poggio points out, marks a transition from sixth century BCE pillar tombs to funerary monuments in the end of the fifth century BCE. Two contemporary examples, the Heroön of Trysa and Heroön of Limyra, round out the Lycian funerary monuments. In Phoenicia, four examples are presented chronologically; all are sarcophagi from the capital at Sidon. The Satrap Sarcophagus marks the transition from anthropoid sarcophagi to an architectural structure with figurative decoration. Poggio argues that the Lycian Sarcophagus was created for a Sidonian ruler according to a Lycian model, presenting a clear internal influence. The Mourning Women Sarcophagus incorporates local Anatolian characteristics in its use of mourning figures in the intercolumniation. Lastly, the Alexander Sarcophagus preserves innovative features, such as a more complex battle scene that emphasizes drama, placing it firmly in a larger Hellenistic context.

Chapter 2 then turns to a comparative analysis of topography and artistic elements. Although brief, Poggio’s discussion of topography and display highlights patterns for the dynastic monuments, such as their visibility from the coast, especially in the case of the Lycian and Carian examples. As noted earlier, this section could have benefited from a larger discussion of geography and travel routes, such as visitors approaching from inland locations.

For the display discussion, Poggio sets out the trends of similar and reoccurring themes of hunting, battle, and banquets, but notes that in the fourth century BCE these themes changed slightly. Influenced by Greek art, banquets adopted symposium iconography reinterpreted for a local context. Battle scenes place the dynast as an observer rather than an active participant. Hunting scenes shift from a solitary struggle between the protagonist and the prey to the multiple-quarry hunt model, often sequencing hunts in the same continuous narrative.

To conclude the chapter, Poggio discusses the circulation and mobility of artists and materials, specifically white marble. Seven of the eight tombs used white marble, demonstrating the desire for the material and the need for experienced artisans. Poggio points out the use of Parthenon motifs and caryatids to demonstrate connections to Greek art and Greek artists—such as Scopas, the architect for the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea and later artisan for the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus—who were the most trained to work in white marble. Yet, Poggio argues that these “shared trends may be explained through internal factors, such as patronage, which played a role in the process of adopting and developing different cultural horizons…rather than only external reasons” (44).

In Chapter 3, Poggio presents earlier traditions and contemporary examples from Persian and Greek contexts to demonstrate that hunting iconography on these monuments was not only “a sign of social status, but that a specific iconography, the multiple-quarry hunt, conveyed precise socio-political messages” (47). What follows is an analysis of the cultures contributing to the artistic and visual language of the multiple-quarry hunt. Before the Persian Empire, hunt imagery can be found in Hittite, Assyrian, and Levantine/Cypriot examples, ranging from small-scale stone art, like orthostates and friezes, to moveable objects, like bowls and seals. In the Levant, Cyprus, and Persia, these hunt images are mostly found on portable objects. These examples help to establish the geographic scope and range of media-related hunt imagery.

The discussion briefly turns to the Greek world, which felt like an add-on rather than an integrated part of the larger argument. For example, Poggio discusses ceramics, as there are few examples on monumental art. He notes that “in the Archaic age, there was a wide variety of compositional solutions for representing hunts…The Classical age offered further examples” (63) and yet concludes the section by stating that “Greek evidence…seems minimal, which suggests that the dynastic hunting representations in the Eastern Mediterranean were determined more by local contexts” (63). Perhaps the minimal evidence refers to the concentrated use on ceramics; thus, there is a minimal range of media, and yet the previous section on Persia mostly focused on glyptic examples. Even if the Greek world is limited to ceramic examples, a simple search on the Beazley Archive Pottery Database for “hunt” as the decoration term word produces 171 examples. While some of these are mythical depictions, it is unclear what factors Poggio uses to identify a precursor to multiple-quarry hunt scenes. As a result, it seems like Poggio underplays Greek hunting scenes to fit his argument of an internal development of the iconography.

In Chapter 4, we finally turn to the main focus of the book, as Poggio examines the iconographic features by highlighting the type of prey and the hunting techniques represented, and how to read and interpret these images. Of the eight examples included here, five have prey of different species in a single figurative field, while two distribute the prey on different sides of the monument. The eighth example is the unpublished Carian Hekatomneion, which is not included in this discussion.

At this point, Poggio expands his corpus to include examples of sculpture from western Anatolia, showing how this iconography spread throughout society. Five examples from Lycia and three from northwestern Anatolia range from sarcophagi to stelae, while Greco-Persian tabloid seals show that the compositional themes of the monumental art are mirrored on smaller, portable objects. Poggio convincingly proves that the multiple-quarry hunt image extends to other art forms and social classes.

The highlight of this chapter is the typological appraisal of these examples. Poggio argues that there are two main groups that multiple-quarry hunt images fall into. The first he terms “hypotactic multiple-quarry hunts” (81) where the narrative ranks the hunted prey in a precise chronological order. Although only the Satrap Sarcophagus and the Nereid Monument fall into this group, the northwestern Anatolian stelae favor this approach. The other category is the “paratactic multiple-quarry hunt” (81) where diverse prey coexist in the same field. The majority of Poggio’s examples fall into this category, notably those with larger surface area for the decoration.

Chapter 4 concludes with an analysis of the individual elements of the iconography: prey, hunting techniques, geography, and timeframe. While this might seem, at first, to be repetitive, the individual details underscore nuances in the iconographical reading. For example, the dynastic monuments only depict quadrupeds as prey, most often deer or ibex in pairs; bird hunting or fishing is avoided in favor of weapon-driven hunts to represent the hunters’ skills; bear hunts are depicted on Lycian and Anatolian examples, where bears are geographically common; and mythological references are more often centered around mythological animals, the chimera and griffin, rather than mythological hunts. The geography/location is addressed within the timeframe of the hunt. Previously it had been suggested that these hunts occurred in paradeisoi, since deer and bears are rarely found in the same geographical location; however, Poggio argues that the “multiple-quarry hunts do not necessarily depict historical events, but their symbolic status—conveyed by the accumulation of different prey—does not project them onto an entirely unreal dimension: they could be the celebratory image of the hunting deeds, ideally carried out by the dynasts during his lifetime” (91).

Chapter 5 is the last one of analytical content, in which Poggio explores “The Hunt as Mirror of Social Structure.” Unfortunately, this is one of the weaker chapters, as it becomes a catch-all for discussing the remaining aspects of the iconographical reading that did not fit elsewhere. These outlier observations include the number of participants, the depictions of the main figure, and figures attributed to the dynasts’ retinue. The dynastic monuments favored encirclement of the prey to highlight their circle of power and universal attributes to identify the dynasts rather than any sense of true portraiture. The result is that the tombs take part in a visual language that would have been understood by a wide audience, but Poggio’s connection to social values is that the hunt groups “[reflect] the ways in which the dynast exercised power” (100), which seems a bit lackluster.

Where Chapter 5 falls short, the conclusion, Chapter 6, surely makes up for it. Many of these larger, impactful conclusions seemed saved for a final chapter rather than woven into the chapters. Poggio pulls together his study to demonstrate that, beyond chronological or geographical horizons, the multiple-quarry hunt was a creation of an enduring new language of power. This shared visual language shows the interconnectedness of the Eastern Mediterranean and yet allows for regional variations, with individual historical development. In the section titled “Competition,” Poggio finally connects the imagery to explicit historical contexts, placing the iconographical development into a specific context rather than images that formed in a vacuum. The conclusion ends with the spread of the multiple-quarry hunt imagery throughout the Mediterranean, each tied back to the Achaemenid Empire: Tomb II at Vergina is connected to the Persian court; the Alexandrovo Tomb in Thrace was an area previously under Persian control; and the Marisa Tomb in the southern Judaean mountains is connected to Sidon. Poggio successfully demonstrates that the development of the iconography can be traced to the Eastern Mediterranean and thence spread outwards to the larger Greco-Persian world.

As a whole, Poggio’s book provides a concise and focused discussion of the multiple-quarry hunt imagery on the dynastic tombs of the Eastern Mediterranean. The in-depth focus of the iconography is supplemented with additional examples, literary sources, and a nuanced reading of each individual element of the monumental art. It is this that places Poggio’s work apart from previous work, especially the focus on the internal dynamics. While it seems obvious to many that the context of these monuments should have been the start of the scholarship, it is not surprising that earlier scholarship approached these monuments through a Greek or Persian lens. But Poggio’s detailed study accompanied by almost ninety figures accomplishes its goal to place these monuments back into their indigenous context, demonstrating their role in “shaping and innovating the tradition of hunting imagery in this area at the intersection of the Mediterranean world and the Near East” (119).

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–6)
1. Historical and Artistic Background (9–18)
2. Dynastic Tombs and Artistic Phenomena (21–44)
3. The Multiple-Quarry Hunt: History of an Iconography (47–67)
4. Images of Multiple-Quarry Hunts in the Eastern Mediterranean (69–92)
5. The Hunt as Mirror of Social Structure (93–114)
6. Conclusion: Hunting, Politics, and Tradition (115–20)


[1] For example, when discussing the Satrap Sarcophagus on page 27, the book references figure 56 (on p. 71) and figure 2 (on p. xiv). Throughout the book the same major examples are discussed in several chapters, which resulted in images occasionally being closer to a second, more in-depth discussion, rather than the first mention of the figure. Though a bit more work for the reader, it makes sense having read the full volume.

[2] Such as Elspeth Dusinberre, Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Janett Morgan, Greek Perspectives of the Achaemenid Empire: Persia Through the Looking Glass (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); Sasan Samiei, Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2021); and Bruno Jacobs and Robert Rollinger, A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire (New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2021).

[3] Bruno Tripodi, “Il Fregio della “Caccia” della II Tomba Reale di Vergina e le Cacce Funerarie d’Oriente,” Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne 17, no. 2 (1991): 143–209; Margaret C. Miller, “Art, Myth and Reality: Xenophoantos’ Lekythos Re-Examined,” in Poetry, Theory, Praxis. The Social Life of Myth, Word and Image in Ancient Greece. Essays in Honor of William J. Slater, ed. Eric Csapo and Margaret C. Miller (Oxford: Oxbow 2003), 19–47.

[4] Adolf Furtwängler, Die Antiken Gemmen. Geschichte der Steinschneidekunst im Klassischen Altertum (Leipzig and Berlin: Giesecke & Devrient, 1900).

[5] Gisela M. A. Richter, “Greeks in Persia,” American Journal of Archaeology 50 (1946): 15–30; John Boardman, Greek Gems and Finger Rings. Early Bronze Age to Late Classical (London: Thames & Hudson, 1970).


1. Bringing all this evidence together to highlight the unique aspects of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Achaemenid Empire as communities shows the importance of looking inward when trying to understand large patterns in art and architecture. What drew you to the dynastic tombs specifically? 

These dynastic tombs, which were created in a limited timespan between the fifth and the fourth centuries BCE, speak of common threads across the Eastern Mediterranean in the Persian period, such as the multiple-quarry hunt iconography. Since I was interested in these shared elements, I started asking questions both about the micro-contexts of the monuments (the single regions) and their macro-context (the Eastern Mediterranean). This analysis interestingly shows that the construction of these tombs triggered a movement of people, ideas, and materials, and therefore can be considered as the expression of supraregional phenomena involving the Eastern Mediterranean under Achaemenid rule.

2. The two stelae from northwestern Anatolia suggest a wide spread of the use of the iconography to smaller stone monuments. Since material is a major component of the dynastic tombs, how does the material of these stelae factor into the interpretation? Are these two examples outliers, or perhaps part of a larger corpus that is now lost to us? And how might that help to understand the spread (or not) of the iconography through other social classes?

The stelae emerge as part of a broader tendency in the funerary art of western Anatolia, widespread amongst the elites, to order funerary monuments in stone, decorated with images from the deceased’s life; marble was the best choice for a durable and high-quality monument. In this context, multiple-quarry hunt images stand out as a privileged means to convey the virtues of the western Anatolian elites. However, on the stelae there was less space to be devoted to figurative decoration, therefore multiple-quarry hunt scenes were more concise than on the larger monuments. However, the stelae show that, in spite of the different iconographic solutions, the representation of multiple-quarry hunts was an important feature for the entire social spectrum, not only for those who could afford lavishly decorated tombs.

3. What I really enjoyed was your comprehensive approach, using textual sources to help understand the iconographic choices, but overwhelmingly, the sources are Greek authors. Considering your aim of the study was to focus on internal dynamics that contributed to the multiple-quarry hunt, why did you decide to include so many Greek authors?

My aim was to use the widest range of sources to better understand the societies at the centre of my study. I have sometimes included Greek authors in order to understand the phenomenon of hunt on a comparative basis. More often, I have considered those authors who are crucial for our knowledge of the Persian Empire. But can we trust the Greek perspective on the Persian world, the “enemy” par excellence? On the one hand, when critically reading Greek literary sources, we should consider the potential biases against the Persian world; on the other hand, it is important to overcome a view simply based on the opposition between Greeks and Persians. For instance, the label “Greek authors” includes Xenophon, an Athenian who had a first-hand experience of the Persian Empire, or Ctesias, who was from Cnidus (southwestern Anatolia) and lived at the Persian court. In other words, the interactions between the Greek and the Persian worlds encompassed a wide range of situations: we have to take this into account when reading Greek literary sources, which remain essential because they often provide relevant information about the Persian world that would not be available otherwise.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. It’s clear that this is a much larger topic that needs attention. The 4th century is often overlooked because of its transitional nature, but produces such interesting material culture as a result of these large-scale interactions. This is especially the case when considering the impact of the Greek authors through their travel. I very much look forward to your next project!

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