A new exhibition at the British Museum seeks to highlight “bias” in longstanding western perceptions of ancient Greece and Persia and to provide a nuanced picture of highly-connected civilisations.
Luxury and power: Persia to Greece focuses on the period from 499-449BC when the Persian empire clashed with Greek city states, and on its later conquest by Alexander the Great in 331BC.
The curators say that most ancient texts describing the events were written by Greeks and westerners have seen Achaemenid Persia through the eyes of its adversaries ever since.
Speaking at a preview event, Dr Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, quoted Herodotus’ description of one Greek response to seeing inside the captured tent of the Persian King Xerxes after the Battle of Plataea, northwest of Athens, in 479BC. “When Pausanias [the general] saw it, with its embroidered hangings and gorgeous decorations in silver and gold… he could hardly believe his eyes.”
Fischer said: “While this evokes the splendour of the Persian court, it also leads to one of the exhibition’s underlying themes concerning the bias of history… When explaining their victories over the Persians, many Greek writers described a ‘barbarian’ east weakened by decadence and luxurious excess — contrasting this with Greek ideals of plain-living and self-discipline.
“Yet we do not know what ancient Persians thought of the Greeks. Perhaps Persian versions of the destruction of Athens in 480BC were sung as oral histories by voices that have long fallen silent. We do have, however, the objects that are left behind. And it is in this material world that we find a more nuanced version of the relationship between luxury and power in Persia and Greece.”
The exhibition describes how Persia’s rulers used prestigious objects from across their vast, highly organised and centralised empire as markers of authority and mechanisms of statecraft. Kings received diverse goods such as textiles, gold and silver drinking vessels and jewellery as tribute. They also dispensed such objects as largesse to satraps and provincial officials who replicated the customs of the capital at Persepolis as far afield as today’s Tajikistan and Turkish coastline.
For instance, drinking at a grand Persian feast was a test of courtly behaviour, requiring dexterity, skill and luxury paraphernalia. Reclining on a couch, the drinker raised a decorative rhyton pouring vessel in one hand and released a stream of wine that flowed theatrically into a drinking cup or bowl balanced on the fingertips of the other.
Such routines, and objects like rhyta and elegant drinking cups, weren’t only used by elites right across the empire, but also emulated far down the social scale.
Dr Jamie Fraser, the exhibition’s lead curator, said: “One of the most compelling cases we have in the exhibition deals with objects from the tomb of a Persian soldier who was stationed at a place we now call Deve Hüyük near the ancient site of Carchemish on the modern border between Turkey and Syria — the boondocks for the Persian Empire at this time. The materials, excavated by TE Lawrence just before the First World War, are the same sort of objects, almost identical, to the luxurious objects seen at the court of the king.
“And yet they [decorative drinking vessels] are not made in gold and silver. They’re made in ceramics and bronze. One is the Rolex watch that you would buy at a high class boutique, and the other is the Rolex watch you would buy outside Tottenham Court Road station. But you see that same aesthetic travelling vertically and horizontally through the empire.”
Unsurprisingly, given trade, diplomatic contacts and warfare, Persian fashions and objects also travelled beyond the empire’s frontiers. They influenced consumption and design trends across the Greek-speaking world and other neighbouring regions. This included the Greek production of fine ceramic vessels with a black gloss finish that recalled Persian originals in precious metals.
The curators say that Athens — Persia’s leading adversary during the Greco-Persian wars — ostensibly rejected Persian luxury as decadent. Nevertheless its citizens adopted eastern styles in intriguing ways that were acceptable within the city state’s fledgling democratic system.
Fraser explained: “Wealth and luxury was okay if it was there for the glory of the city and not for the individual… A sculpted relief from the Parthenon illustrates this point. It depicts five young women in procession. One carries a large silver incense burner [that] probably referenced a real object stored in the Parthenon’s treasury. Perhaps it was captured on the battlefield. Its depiction on the Parthenon frieze suggests that luxury goods such as this incense burner were paraded annually as trophies of the victory over the Persians, for the glory of Athens.”
Another interesting case is the parasol, which was adopted and co-opted by the Greeks. Parasols were viewed by Persians as symbols of rarefied kingly luxury, as depicted in their art. In democratic Athens, the use of parasols by men carried dangerous connotations as a result. Nevertheless, they were fashionable and safe when used by women and consequently appear in vases as exotic feminine accessories.
Fraser said: “Female [Athenian] citizens didn’t have political authority. So by feminising these objects of eastern luxury and power, parasols were neutered of their potentially disruptive force and made acceptable in a new context.”
Naturally, influence was not a one-way process. There was cultural cross-fertilisation, especially in places such as Cyprus and the Anatolian coast where Greek speakers were Persian subjects. In the exhibition, heads from two fifth-century BC Cypriot statues are displayed side by side. One is in stone and sports a Persian-style beard and ringlets but also a Greek-style wreath. The other is a characteristically Greek-style bronze head that probably represents the eastern god Reshef.
Fraser said: “Although the kings of the island swore fealty to the Persian Empire at the time, this was an island that comprised Greek-speaking, Persian-speaking, Phoenician-speaking, and local [language] speaking groups… The boundaries between these various cultures, drawn so deeply in the historical record, were far more blurred than we sometimes think.
“You could say we have the words from Greek accounts of conflict between Greece and Persia, but the sherds — the things that left behind — tell us a far more nuanced story.”
Cultural synergies weren’t confined to Cyprus. Fischer suggested that, rather than binaries of Persia and Greece, we should envisage an interconnected Greco-Persian world inhabited by a myriad of different peoples including Armenians and Thracians.
According to the curators, hybrid cultural forms proliferated after Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire. The Macedonian king’s own forebears had included Persian vassals and allies. Far from rejecting Persian “decadence”, he and his heirs blended Greek, Persian and other local styles of luxury as part of defining and legitimising the new regime.
For example, the exhibition features a digital reconstruction of the Hellenistic city of Ai Khanum in modern-day Afghanistan. It was probably founded by Seleukos I, one of Alexander’s generals and successors. Civic buildings such as a theatre and gymnasium were in the Greek style but the layout reflected old Central Asian traditions.
Fraser said the exhibition’s “climax or crescendo” was the 4th-3rd-century BC Panagyurishte treasure from Bulgaria, which is in the UK for the first time since 1976. It was discovered by three brothers digging clay in 1949 and consists of nine richly decorated gold vessels — eight rhyta used to pour wine and one bowl to drink it.
“The forms of these vessels looks very Persian and yet the decoration is Greek,” Fraser said. “It’s a mixture of both and these objects were probably used by a Thracian chieftain or king as a mechanism of power.
“I’m particularly taken by an amphora, or jar, with two handles. It has a twin spout on the bottom through which would flow not one but two streams of wine. Imagine a Thracian king who had celebrated a peace treaty or commercial transaction with a neighbouring king each holding one of the handles and filling a drinking bottle with wine from the same vessel, in a period in which poisoning was a very real tool in the toolkit of statecraft. It was an ostentatious, very public display of trust.”
Luxury objects with Persian or Persian-hybrid precedents later continued to evolve within the Roman empire, when they had an even greater geographical reach. As the curators’ exhibition notes state: “In Rome, exotic goods associated with the east continued to bestow status and prestige. Yet while some Romans revelled in the show of wealth, others regarded it as excessive and decadent.
“This uneasy combination of desire and distrust survives in our perception of luxury today.”
The exhibition runs from May 4 – August 13 in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery.