The infamous events associated with the burning of the great ancient Persian capital of Persepolis in 330 BC. Alexander the Great, are shrouded in mystery. It is true that Persepolis was razed to the ground. This fact is not disputed. But what is central to the question of what happened, who was to blame, and why it happened in the first place is quite intriguing. The answers to these almost insoluble questions can be found in ancient texts written by at least three historians, who all basically agree that the fire was lit when Thais, a young Greek courtesan, persuaded Alexander the Great to light it during a drunken orgy. an act of revenge for the desecration of the Acropolis in Athens during the Persian War.
Before I continue, it is important to note that all the historians who have presented Thais as the instigator of the fire wrote their accounts centuries after the event, based on earlier works long lost to history. So I guess we’ll have to take their word for it that it happened. On the other hand, in a controversial account written by the 2nd century historian Arrian of Nicomedia, things are not so clear cut. Arrian believes that Persepolis was deliberately burned on the grave orders of Alexander. His troops systematically looted and burned the city in retaliation for the crimes committed by the Persians against the Greek cities. How does Arrian come to this conclusion? Well, because Ptolemy (Alexander’s general) and the historian Aristobulus of Cassandria, who both apparently witnessed the destruction of Persepolis, both fail to mention in their accounts the supposed infamous drinking bout that led to the fire. So, in short, according to Arrian, it is fair to say that there was not a single drunken party that would lead to intoxication. Alexander to make such a dirty decision.
Whatever the truth, it is nonetheless intoxicating that an educated courtesan or mistress like Thais occupies the first place in this historical drama. Interestingly, there is not much information about Thais before the fire, except that she was Ptolemy’s mistress, and also possibly Alexander’s mistress, who joined both men during the campaigns of Alexander the Great.
If we fast forward to the drunken night referred to during what could have been a feast in honor of Alexander’s victories, it was here that the very drunken and loud Thais plucked up her courage and delivered a speech demanding vengeance on the Persians. She said: “… what would be the best of all his exploits in Asia for Alexander if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to palaces and allowed female hands to extinguish the glorious achievements of the Persians in a minute. ” (Diodorus Siculus XVII. 72) So, in a moment of madness, Alexander soon after, apparently jumped to his feet and, with a torch in his hand, led forward. Thais, for her part, was the first after Alexander to throw her flaming torch into the palace. It is said that after the destruction of the palace (even against the advice not to set fire to it), Alexander regretted it.
In art history, renowned 18th-century English painter Joshua Reynolds was commissioned by Charles Greville to create a painting that would perhaps best illustrate the great ancient Persian civilization about to burn down. For his plot, Reynolds chose the very dramatic pose of Thais leading the attack with a torch in her hand. Reynolds appears to have been inspired by John Dryskden’s 1697 poem “Alexander’s Banquet” and a passage that read: “Thais made a way / To light it with booty / And, like the other Helen, opened another Troy.”
With her exotically wild appearance and outstretched arms, Reynolds’ historical painting “Thais of Athens with a torch” is perhaps my favorite depiction of Thais leading an attack of destruction across Persepolis. Other examples of artists such as Lodovico Carracci And George Roshgross also notable for their depiction of Thais running in a rage. The latter illustrates in an interesting way how Alexander raises Thais high above their heads so that she can set fire to the banner. But, in my opinion, Thais and her premeditated actions in Reynolds’ historical painting against the backdrop of thick, smoky air with a burning city in the background are thrilling and provocative in equal measure in her attempt to tell a story.