Saturday, 7 November 2020

Burning down Persepolis

This is a portrait from 1781 by the English painter Joshua Reynolds of the courtesan Emily Warren as Thaïs, the Athenian mistress of Alexander the Great, who infamously urged the Greek conquerors to torch Persepolis to punish the Persians for burning down the Acropolis during the Persian Wars.

Plutarch describes the scene thus: 
‘As the drinking went on, Thais delivered a speech which was intended partly as a graceful compliment to Alexander and partly to amuse him. What she said was typical of the spirit of Athens, but hardly in keeping with her own situation. She declared that all the hardships she had endured in wandering about Asia had been amply repaid on that day, when she found herself revelling luxuriously in the splendid palace of the Persians, but that it would be an even sweeter pleasure to end the party by going out and setting fire to the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens in ashes. She wanted to put a torch to the building herself in full view of Alexander, so that posterity should know that the women who followed Alexander had taken a more terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece than all the famous commanders of earlier times by land or sea. Her speech was greeted with wild applause and the king's companions excitedly urged him on until at last he allowed himself to be persuaded, leaped to his feet, and with a garland on his head and a torch in his hand led the way.’