The Shapur Plate: From Sasanian Iran to the Freer Gallery of Art

Court Culture: Feasting & Food

The Shapur hunting plate was meant for display, but many Sasanian silver vessels were used in conjunction with banquets. Feasting vessels were ornately decorated on the exterior so they could be admired while in use. The motifs often had multilayered religious and secular meanings, ranging from scenes of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) or figures associated with the ancient Zoroastrian religion to views of nature with birds and trees.

The Sasanians were known throughout the ancient world for their elaborate and sumptuous feasts. They were one of the first societies to serve meals in multiple courses, along with a variety of rich desserts. Banquets could go on for days and included a time for drinking wine and listening to music after eating.

Feasts were more than a time for celebration and consuming food and wine: they could also serve as deeply religious ceremonies. Meals began with a blessing (baj), and food was eaten in silence. In their writings, Greek visitors to the Persian court expressed their surprise in the lavishness of the feast and its strange silence. 

Herodotus: "Of all days in the year a Persian most distinguishes his birthday and celebrates it with a dinner of special magnificence. A rich Persian on his birthday will have an ox or a horse or a camel or a donkey baked whole in the oven and served up at table, and the poor, some smaller beast. The main dishes at their meals are few, but they have many sorts of dessert, the various courses being served separately. It is this custom that has made them say that the Greeks leave the table hungry, because we never have anything worth mentioning after the first course: they think that if we did, we should go on eating."

Aristophanes, The Acharnians, 72–3: "And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and glass cups."

Agesilaus IX.3: "The Persian king has vintners scouring every land to find some drink that will tickle his palate; an army of cooks contrives dishes for his delight."


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Feasting & Food
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Wine horns, such as this drinking vessel in the shape of a gazelle, were used for pouring wine during feasting ceremonies.

Wine horn with gazelle protome; Iran, Sasanian period, 4th century CE; Silver and gilt; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler; Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1987.33

Evidence for how feasting vessels were used in the Sasanian world comes in part from preserved works in Iran and Central Asia. This painting from a Sogdian palace depicts a feasting scene in which attendees use a drinking horn to pour wine.

Feasting Scene; Tajikistan, Panjikent; Sogdian period, 5th–8th century CE; Wall painting.

Scenes of the distillation of wine and the different serving dishes used in a feasting ceremony decorate this bowl. Such motifs provide insight into ancient rituals.

Hemispherical bowl; Iran, Sasanian period or later,  7th–8th century CE; Silver and gilt; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler; Arthur M. Sacklery Gallery S1987.105







The Freer|Sackler is closed for renovation and reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Join us for our reopening celebration on October 14–15, 2017.