A new exhibition opened this week at the British Museum that aims to explore how a sense of personal luxurious living permeated from Persian culture into other parts of the world in the period 550-30BC, and was adopted by subsequent rulers as a form of civic ‘soft power’. Opening in the coronaton week for King Charles III, accompained by all the flamboyancy of royal pageantry for which Britain is well-known, this concept is a familiar one.
The exhibition is split into three sections beginning with the period during the Greco-Persian Wars (499–449 BC) when the opulent Persia empire of ancient Iran came into conflict with the cities of Ancient Greece. Subsequently Greece, followed by Persia, fell to the kingdom of Macedonia, led by Philip II and Alexander III (known as Alexander the Great), his son.
The first section, explores the traditional opinion that the Ancient Greeks lived lives of modest restraint and self-discipline and their derision of the ‘barbarians” lives of excess is a not uncommon attitude from a conquering army. This came about in part through the story of an occasion when the Greek army defeated a Persian king and were stunned at the display of luxury within the royal tent.
Traditional opinions have been drawn mainly from surviving Greek texts: including the historian, Herodotus (484-425BC), whose published his history of the Persian Wars around 425BC, some 24 years after they ended. Born into a wealthy merchant family in Halicarnassus, later part of the Persian empire and ruled by a tyrant, it’s hard to believe that his account was unbiased; and playwright, Aristophanes (446-386BC), whose popular comedic works often evoke a Monty Python sketch.
‘Treasure there was in plenty – tents full of gold and silver furniture… bowls, goblets, and cups, all made of gold‘. A ‘golden crown’ featuring 15 acorns, as well as two cicadas and a bee hidden in the foliage. The slightest movement near the glass case makes the leaves shimmer. L and centre: a photograph taken at the exhibition, with filters added to illustrate the dazzle. R: the official photograph of the Hellenistic circl. Courtesy the British Musuem. [Click image to enlarge].
The second and third sections are concerned with the proposal that the Persian individual lifestyle of opulence was gradually adopted and reinvented by successive rulers as a means of displaying civic status, rather than personal. Highlighted are similarities in terms of design, purpose, materials used etc. between a select collection of Persian artefacts; glass, jewellery, clothing, and pottery, and those of subequent periods.
Complex glassware as opposed to the simpler items used by soldiers in the field. L to R: a handmade ‘network’ spiral glass bowl, using highly advanced technical skills to twist thin strands of coloured glass around a mould; intricate gold inlay between two clear glass bowls found at Canosa di Puglia, Italy. About 250-200BC; a simple drinking vessel called a rhyton, depicting a rodent of some species, made from hand-blown glass, and used to pour wine straight into the mouth. [Click image to enlarge].
The concept that ostentatious living bestows a sense of power resonates throughout the centuries, in social, religious and political, arenas, and one that remains very much alive in the 21st century.
The personal and the civic. L to R: Unpopular now but ivory was once considered a luxury material. This little satyr head is beautifuly carved and once adorned the headrest of a couch. About 200-100BC; Persian forces destroyed the Acropolis temples in 479BC and a new version was built using wealth received by Athens as a tribute from its allies. This section depicts five maidens carrying various objects as part of the annual procession to honor Athena. Marble, block from the East frieze of the Parthenon, Athens. 438-432BC. [Click image to enlarge].
THe power of imaghery. L to R: A coin showing Alexander the Great on horseback attacking a war elephant; an Armenian bear resembling a species native to the Caucasus Mountains, made around 100BC but recalling an older tradition of animal shaped vessels, probably used to pour ritual libations from a hole in the mouth as an offering. [Click image to enlarge].
In addition to objects from the Museum collection, the exhibition brings together objects on loan in gold, silver and glass, including the extraordinary Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria.
Feminising luxury. L to R: vase depicting a woman shaded by a parasol by her servant; a section from a freize from the Nereid Monument showing Arbinas receiving the surrender of a city, seated on a throne like a king while a sunshade offers protection. Marble, Xanthose, Turkey. 390-380BC. [Click image to enlarge].
Women in ancient Greek society were second-class citizens and masculinity as a concept was widely celebrated. This is a culture where the phallic symbol abounded in imagery in architecture, paintings and sculpture as well as everyday objects, and most certainly as a meme in theatre. So it is not surprising that these cliches were used by the Greeks to denigate the Persians by feminising their luxurious lifestyle.
The grand finale of the exhibition The Panagyurishte treasure of nine gold drinking vessels found in Bulgaria, a region once known as Thrace. The total weight of gold is 6.2kg and dates to turn of the 4th-3rd centuries BC. [Click image to enlarge].
The exhibition design consists of Grecian-style pillars stencilled onto walls and some generic swags of light fabrics. It is possible that the design was deliberately kept simple to offset the richness of the objects but I felt a little cheated when I recalled the thrilling Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi a few years back that set the sumptuous displays off to perfection.
Does Luxury and power: Persia to Greece add anything new to the concept of portraying a luxury lifestyle to give the illusion of power? It is something we are only too familiar with in today’s troubled times. A predilection for luxurious living continues to be ‘adapted in innovative ways to make them socially and politically acceptable’, for instance, the practice of ‘greenwashing’ used by profiles and brands. Likewise, the idea that subsequent societies adopted and developed these early ‘PR’ ideas for their own political and social purposes is entirely natural.
What I really took away from this exhibition was an increasing sense of just how sophisticated past cultures actually were. The more I explore heritage sites, documents and so on, the more I question previous notions about the past. And if early cultures created such outstanding, innovative and exquisite objects, what more were they capable of that we simply have no knowledge about? Are we kidding ourselves that 21st technology (that double-edged sword), medicine and other contemporary practices are really that advanced, or superior? Conclusions can only be drawn from the remaining artefacts and texts from early times and this involves an enormous amount of highly subjective conjecture, as mentioned earlier with Herodotus’ own bias. Often, too, a historian or other professional concentates on their own area of expertise, rather than a wider picture.
Apart from this slight nit-picking the objects are delightful and, as always it is a prividelge to have the opportunity to explore such magnificent treasure up close and in detail.
Luxury and power: Persia to Greece. To make up your own mind visit or pick up a copy of the book to accompany the exhibition by James Fraser (Author), and Contributors Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Henry Bishop-Wright. The exhibition runs until 13 August 2023. www.britishmuseum.org.
Footnote: Irene Caswell, BA (Hons) read English Literature with Classical Studies at University of Reading. My tutor was Dr Gill Knight, Lecturer in Classical and Medieval language and literature and Senior Tutor for the School of Humanities and lecRene Catures in the Graduate School of Medieval Studies; and lecturers Dr Wallace Hadrill, OBE, FBA, FSA, Professor of Roman Studies and Director of Research in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge; and Dr Edith Hall, FBA, a British scholar of classics, specialising in ancient Greek literature and cultural history, and professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College, London.