Luxury and Power in the British Museum

By Owain Williams

I recently had the privilege of being invited to visit the exhibit Luxury and Power: Greece to Persia, which examines the relationship between luxury and power in the Middle East and southeast Europe. The exhibit was divided into three sections, each concerning a different region or a different period, from the Persian empire to Classical Athens, and the Hellenistic kingdoms.

Throughout Greek literature, the Persians were associated with great wealth. Perhaps the most famous example of this association is the possibly apocryphal story of the Greeks seeing a wealthy Persian dinner after the battle of Plataea (Herodotus, 9.82). Herodotus uses this moment to encapsulate the differences between the Greek and Persians, the former being austere, the latter decadent. It is this dichotomy that the exhibition sought to explore and how the Greeks’ relationship with wealth and luxury developed as they interacted with the Persians in the Greco-Persian Wars and as they ruled the Near East after Alexander.

An armband from the Oxus Treasure hoard.

The exhibition began with ancient Persia, offering a diverse array of objects of wealth and luxury. From silver rhyta to glass bowls, each and every object was beautifully crafted, evoking the sense of decadence described in Greek sources. The exhibit also made sure to note that the Persian empire was not a monolithic cultural entity, describing the various cultural influences used in Persian goods, as evidenced by various syncretic styles.

A notable example was the Nereid monument, a fourth-century tomb from Xanthus in Lycia, southwestern Anatolia, a part of the Persian empire. The tomb, which was designed to resemble a Greek-style temple, blended elements of both Greek and Persian art styles in its decoration. Specifically, the scene where Arbinas, the Lycian ruler for whom the tomb was built, receives emissaries, perfectly demonstrates how neighbouring cultures were in dialogue with one another, ever exchanging, adopting, and evolving. Arbinas, dressed in Persian clothing, is seated beneath a parasol, a typical attribute of Near Eastern royalty, while the emissaries are dressed in Greek clothing. 

Arbinas on the Nereid Monument.

The influence of Dr Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, who has published several works on the Persians concerning the royal court and clothing, is evident throughout. Reconstructions of Persian clothing, designed by Dr Llewellyn-Jones, both a courtly robe and riding dress, were on display. These items, though reconstructions, coupled with the many gold, silver, and glass items, brought the world of the Persian empire to life in vivid colour.

While the objects on display in the section concerning Classical Athens were beautiful, effectively demonstrating the Greeks’ attitudes to luxury, the accompanying descriptions were somewhat lacking. The Persian display was more concerned with familiarizing viewers with Persian culture generally, but there was a clear desire to demonstrate the historical developments in Athens in the sixth and fifth centuries. The exhibit was simply too short for a such an attempt, with only one third dedicated to Classical Athens. A single vase was used to represent pre-Periclean Athens, for example. The section would have benefitted from greater contextualization, perhaps referring to the laws attributed to Solon that restricted conspicuous displays of wealth (Plutarch, Solon 21.4-5). The core of the Athens display, though, is very detailed. It discusses Athenian representations of Persians, the Athenian relationship between food and luxury, and how luxury was feminized, with women adopting Eastern styles, such as parasols.

An Attic black-figure olpe showing a hunter in elite clothing.

The Hellenistic display suffered similar issues. By attempting to show the entirety of the Hellenistic East, which is broad both chronologically and culturally, the result felt rather shallow. For example, the display featured a mention of Ai Khanoum, a Hellenistic city in Bactria, yet there were no associated artefacts on display, as far as I could tell. There were, however, plenty of beautiful artefacts on display that perfectly encapsulated the Greeks’ changing relationship with luxury over the centuries.

A Hellenistic glass bowl.

Throughout the exhibit, I had the feeling that the aim had been overly ambitious. By choosing to display three cultures – Achaemenid Persian, Classical Athens, and the Hellenistic kingdoms – the exhibit had set itself the high bar of introducing each culture, the historical context of each, and how they viewed luxury in a limited space. Consequently, the display descriptions felt somewhat shallow. That said, the breadth of artefacts on display in this exhibit from such a wide range of locations and cultures, achieve what the descriptions tried to do, making a visit well worth it. While there were moments when the displays felt lacking, the overall experience was certainly a success. 

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