Luxury Silver of Ancient Persia

Ritual banquets - at which wine flowed freely from ornate gold and silver vessels - were a central practice among ancient Persian kings and aristocrats.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Stag Rhyton (Right profile), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn, 1st century B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Bowl with Anchor and Dolphin Medallion, Unknown, 100–1 B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lynx Rhyton (3/4 right at front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Net Pattern Bowl Net Pattern Bowl, Unknown, 1st century B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lynx Rhyton (Left profile), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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These skillfully crafted luxury vessels were not simply utensils. They were instruments of statecraft, ritual implements, and marks of distinction that articulated relationships of power, status, and identity for their owners.

The Getty Villa Museum holds one of the world’s most significant collections of silver from ancient Iran’s Parthian Empire (247 BC–AD 224).

Map of Parthia (2022) by The J. Paul Getty MuseumThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Parthian Empire is named for the region of Parthia, located between the northeastern Iranian plateau and the Central Asian steppe. A line of kings founded by a man named Arsaces originated here. The Arsacid dynasty created the greatest Near Eastern power of its day. The shaded area shows the extent of the Parthian Empire around 44 BC.

Stag Rhyton (Right profile)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A characteristic vessel shape used in ancient Persia was a type that the Greeks called a rhyton (“flowing vessel”). These drinking horns terminated in protomes – the heads or foreparts of animals. Sometimes the protomes represented real creatures, while others were mythical. 

Stag Rhyton (detail) (-0100/-0001) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Through a small spout between the animal’s legs, wine was poured into a cup or directly into the drinker’s mouth. 

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The decoration of this rhyton combines Greek and Persian influences present in Parthian-period Iran. Lions had royal associations in ancient Iranian art and were symbols of nobility and courage. The lion's torso and head, with inlaid garnet eyes, open roaring mouth, and bulging veins, leaps out from the vessel’s curved body. 

The same manufacturing method was used to make most rhyta in the Parthian period, including the ones at the Getty. 

The horn was raised (a process of repeated hammering and annealing—heating and cooling) from a single sheet of silver. 

The silversmith could then add elaborate designs through repoussé (in which raised patterns were hammered into the metal from the reverse side) and chasing (in which the metal was hammered down from the front side). 

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

On the lion rhyton, acanthus leaves and tendrils decorate the area above the lion protome. Garnet inlays add color and ornamentation. 

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A garland of ivy below the horn’s rim may allude to Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. 

The designs were enhanced with gold added through the diffusion-gilding method, in which gold foil was rubbed or burnished into the vessel’s silver surface and heated to create a metallic bond.

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The animal-shaped protome was raised from a separate sheet of silver. 

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The legs were usually fashioned as individual pieces (often solid cast, but the lion’s legs are hollow, suggesting that they were hammered from the same sheet of silver as the protome) and then attached to the body of the animal. 

Lion-Shaped Spouted Horn (1st century B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The artist then connected the protome to the horn via a circular cuff that covered the join between the two pieces. 

Lynx Rhyton (3/4 right at front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lynx Rhyton (Main View, 3/4 left at front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lynxes were particularly popular animals featured on rhyta of the Parthian period, including these two examples. The animals’ collars evoke the panthers that appeared in the retinue of the god Dionysos.

Lynx Rhyton (Main View, 3/4 left at front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The lynxes’ snarling mouths with bared fangs and retracted ears make the animals appear lifelike and fierce. 

Stylized V-shaped chasing overlaid on stippling (numerous small dots or specks) conveys the texture of the animals’ mottled coats. 

Lynx Rhyton (3/4 right at front)The J. Paul Getty Museum



Inscriptions in Parthian on the rims of both vessels’ horns record their weight – important information that was used to determine the value of the silver.  

Stag Rhyton (3/4 from above right front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Getty’s stag rhyton is one of the finest vessels to survive from Parthian Iran. 

Stag Rhyton (Back)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Its horn bears ornate leaf and vine garlands created through chasing and gilding. 

Stag Rhyton (3/4 from above right front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Alternating acanthus leaves and tendrils emerge from the cuff. . .

and rise into an elaborate floral pattern. 

A wreath of laurel and a frieze of palmettes encircle the upper portion of the horn. 

Stag Rhyton (Right profile)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The stag’s eyes were made of glass. The right eye still contains its original glass inlay. 

Stag Rhyton (top view) (-0100/-0001) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The stag rhyton is also noteworthy in that it bears two Parthian inscriptions. 

Stag Rhyton (inscription detail) (-0100/-0001) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

One, located on the top of the rim, appears to record a personal name, maybe the vessel’s owner. 

This inscription might read Fradāt or Frahāt, both common Parthian names.

Stag Rhyton (bottom view) (-0100/-0001) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

 A longer inscription is punched into the stag’s belly. 

Stag Rhyton (bottom view, detail) (-0100/0001) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

It records the vessel’s weight and again gives the owner’s name.  The formula of this inscription suggests that the rhyton may have been stored in a palatial treasury, given as payment of a debt, or dedicated in a temple treasury.

Bowl with Anchor and Dolphin Medallion (100–1 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Another vessel type commonly used to consume wine in elite banqueting was the shallow bowl. Some of these bowls revised older Iranian styles, while others incorporated new Greek elements in their shape and decorative motifs. 

Bowl with Anchor and Dolphin Medallion (100–1 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Hemispheric cups like this one were based on shapes popular in the Greek repertoire. The exteriors of this type of cup were usually left plain, but the interiors carried ornate designs. 

The tondo (interior circle) of this cup shows a dolphin entwined with an anchor against a gilded scale background. 

This motif was originally the emblem of the Seleucids, a Greek dynasty that ruled Iran for a time following the conquests of Alexander the Great in 334–330 BC. The Arsacid kings of Parthia regained Iranian territory from the Seleucids by the mid-second century BC and adapted this emblem. 

A wide inner band is chased with floral tendril ornaments, all gilt. 

There is a narrow band of gilding just below the lip. 

Net Pattern Bowl Net Pattern Bowl (1st century B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum



This richly embellished bowl, partially gilded and inlaid with gems, is also decorated with a mixture of Iranian and Greek motifs. 

A series of flowers are placed inside a pentagonal design, creating a Greek-style net pattern. 

The central calyx (the sepals of a flower) on the cup’s tondo is Near Eastern in style. 

Bowl with Tendril Frieze, Unknown, 1st century B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Bowl with Leaf Calyx Medallion, Unknown, 2nd–1st century B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Bowl with Scale Medallion and Tendril Frieze (Main View, 3/4 from above), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Shallow Bowl with Three Friezes of Rosettes (Main View, 3/4 from above), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Surviving examples of Parthian silver allow us a view of the power and refinement of ancient Iranian royal and aristocratic culture.

Their rich decoration presents a complex web of visual connections to Iranian and Greek influences, with artistic traditions linking the Parthians to an aristocratic common culture that extended from the Mediterranean to southern Asia.

Credits: Story

© 2022 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more resources:

Persia Exhibition Website

Persia Exhibition Catalogue

To cite this exhibition, please use: "Luxury Silver from Ancient Persia" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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