Nothing in excess?
Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece at The British Museum, 4th May – 13th August 2023.
‘Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon’
So begins Robert Graves’ poem The Persian Version, written during the Second World War. Despite their defeat in the 490 BC Battle of Marathon, Graves insists that the vanquished Persians were dismissive of their adversary’s victorious crowing: such braying was mere theatrical tradition. Why indeed should the great Achaemenid Empire lament too grievously their losing to Athens, part of a confederacy of city states some two thousand miles away from gilded Persepolis, heart of the realm – why shed bitter tears over marginal Hellas – small, impoverished island – whose soldiers were forever arriving on Persian soil in the form of mercenaries hungry for gold?
These questions are explored in the British Museum’s exhibition Luxury & power: Persia to Greece. Cabinets swell with antiquities, boasting the treasures of a vast geographical region ranging from the Oxus river to the Ionian Sea. It’s a feast for the eyes: take, for example, a spectacular Macedonian gold oak wreath thought to date from the middle of the fourth century BC, around the decade in which Aristotle was making the case for a spherical world and in which sculptor Praxiteles chiselled lofty Aphrodite of Knidos from Parian marble. The naturalistic oak leaves of the wreath are devotedly articulated; nestling among them are golden bees and cicadas, and the label tells us that the material – sheet gold – is wrapped around a copper core. ‘The copper core gave strength to the fragile structure, helping it keep its shape’, Dr Jamie Fraser, archaeologist and Lead Curator of Luxury & Power: Persia to Greece explained to me, before elaborating that wreaths like this had a multitude of purposes: ‘some of them were prizes in sporting or oratory competitions; others were funerary wreaths.’ It is the work of a master craftsman; the fruit of an artisan capable of gracefully imitating the delicacy of the natural world. While undiminished by its museum setting, you can imagine wreaths like this in their golden splendour when awarded as a prize: under the fiery sun, gloriously gleaming gold.
Gloriously, or garishly? Objects made ostentatiously of gold were, while feted at large, mocked by Greek critics. Luxurious objects were surely the mark of decadence; of skewed values: such things were stereotyped; were held up as examples of extravagance and hence, hubris – the pathway to inevitable decline. Fabled Persian luxury certainly had its vociferous detractors, notably including Herodotus and Ctesias, the latter having held the role of personal physician to King Artaxerxes II and whose written work has survived only in fragments. In spite of this, Persian wealth came in very handy on occasion, and there was no denying it. Greek city states, vying with each other, had a habit of turning to Persian coffers for funds when needed. Greek writer Plutarch’s Life of Lysander details how the titular Spartan military leader asked Achaemenid prince Cyrus, second son of King Darius II, to help bankroll his naval campaign against the Athenians (the Spartans’ erstwhile allies against the Persians during the Greco-Persian wars): ‘thou art so very kind, I beg and entreat thee, Cyrus, to add an obol to the pay of my sailors, that they may get four obols instead of three’. The request was granted: every oarsman was paid, roughly, an extra £10. This enabled the Spartans under Lysander to buy up all the oarsmen in the Aegean, leaving the Athenian navy powerless, and bringing the Spartans one major step closer to winning the Peloponnesian War.
It is profoundly misleading to view the ancient world through modern eyes. It’s even more misleading to look through modern lenses steeped in Western Classical tradition. Those who see Greece as the centre of the ancient world are indulging in historically inaccurate conceit. I spoke to Dr Khodadad Rezakhani, Iranian historian of Central and West Asia in late antiquity, who said that in relation to the Achaemenid Empire, in the ancient world ‘mainland Greece was never that important in terms of world power; despite the magnificent technological and cultural advances emerging from Greek cities. It was never a great economic power’.
It’s also a pitfall to assume that everyone in the ancient world had equal access to information. ‘Literacy levels were low’, curator Dr Kelly Accetta Crowe said; ‘Herodotus’ Histories would have been delivered through recitations’. In oral cultures, if you weren’t within earshot, you missed out.
Objects, then, could act as emissaries. In a world in which money talked, objects silently played the ambassadorial role of signposting power. Loaned to the British Museum for the exhibition is the Panagyurishte Treasure: to see the pieces is to experience awe. Discovered accidentally by clay-shifting, brick-laying brothers in the town of Panagyurishte in southern Bulgaria in 1949, it is thought that they belonged to Thracian King Seuthes III: the treasure is, as well as being a prime example of the technical mastery of ancient metalworking, essentially a window into the recreational activities of kings. The Panagyurishte Treasure consists of a nine-piece wine serving set, made almost entirely of 24-carat gold: an amphora, a phiale and seven rhytons. The rhytons – the word is of Proto-Indo-European origin, rey-, ‘to flow’ – would have been held by the handle by longsuffering courtiers or enslaved persons for the duration of the feast: wine is poured from the amphora through the top of the rhytons, from whence it flows through the bottom, into the phiale. Libations aplenty. ‘‘We’re looking at a period of reclining and dining’, Jamie Fraser quipped, ‘this very ostentatious way of drinking was in itself a signifier of luxury.’ I peer through the glass cabinet to look more closely at the rhytons, and wonder aloud if there was some kind of mechanism to stop the flow of wine when needed. ‘Your thumb’.
To those curious as to whether weaponry would feature largely in the exhibition, Jamie Fraser explained that ‘ceremonial weaponry didn’t really filter as ‘luxuries’ down the social scale, at least not in the same way that feasting paraphernalia did’. A Persian gold scabbard found by the Oxus river (modern Tajikistan) is included in the exhibition; also included are bronze weapons buried with soldiers, discovered centuries later by T. E. Laurence.
Luxury & Power: Persia to Greece wrestles with questions that have been asked for millennia. What is the nature of power? Why do we distrust that which is luxurious? See this exhibition to engage in conversations that have spanned centuries and traversed the globe. What would you, a civilian, have said to ancient peoples born to warrior cultures? Robert Graves, veteran of the First World War, looked in 1943 at the casualties of Marathon and wrote with trenchant irony ‘All arms combined magnificently together’. ‘And at what cost?’ sighs the exhibition, in response.
Frances Forbes-Carbines is an essayist with an MA in Classics from the University of Bristol, and has written for publications including Antigone Journal, City AM, The Art Newspaper, UnHerd and the Telegraph.
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