Fabulous artefacts present the complex link between war and wealth

Figure of a goddess & baby
Armlet with leaping lion-griffin tips
The Panagyurishte treasure
Darius I as pharaoh
Feminising luxury footbath
Head of a bearded male worshipper
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Greek-Persian War

Long before the universal impact of Greek political structures, the Greek-Persian war was a turning point in Greek history.

Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece

The British Museum’s special exhibition Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece explores this part of history by shifting the focus from accounts of bloody battles to the study of less hostile materials of the cultures. The Persian court used luxury as an expression of prestige and power. However, Greeks who won the Greek-Persian wars condemned their barbarous enemy as weakened by luxury, proudly attributing their victory to a simple lifestyle. Despite the political defeat, the distinctive Persian style culturally influenced democratic Athens and later the Hellenistic kingdoms. The magnificent ancient objects in the exhibition, some original Persian artefacts alongside a myriad of Greek imitations of the Persian style, bear this out.

Persian Achaemenid Empire

The exhibition space is like a time capsule, whilst three distinct sections perform a comparative study: depicting opulent royalty in the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the ambivalent attitude of democratic Athens towards Eastern luxury, and Alexander the Great’s embrace of luxury after conquering Persia. Chronically, the first two sections focus on the fifth century BC including the half-century of the Greek-Persian wars, and the last section on the Hellenistic kingdoms since the third century BC.

Anubis and Isis Deities

The Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire, was founded by Cyrus II “the Great” in 550 BC. At its height, around 500 BC, the empire was centred in modern Iran and stretched from Libya to Pakistan. The Achaemenid kings, therefore, adopted local titles and traditions to maintain their authority over a culturally diverse and vast empire. This included Egypt, which they ruled from 525 to 404 BC. A wooden door shows Darius I (c.550–486 BC) as an Egyptian pharaoh making offerings to Anubis and Isis deities.

Luxury goods poured into the court as tribute, including textiles, precious metal vessels, jewellery, and exotic animals. Governors, officials, and foreign envoys also brought gifts when they requested a royal audience. Persian courtiers were also known for their dazzling appearance, seated in chariots associated with authority and prestige.

Luxury in Athens

Competitive displays of wealth by wealthy Athenians contributed to tensions and violence. In response to growing social conflict, Cleisthenes introduced reforms in 508 BC to develop a democratic government, while displays of personal wealth were curtailed to contain social conflict.

Many of the precious metal drinking vessels captured from the Persians were kept in the sacred treasuries of Athens as the property of heroes and gods, but they also inspired the production of clay cups in the shape of animal heads for ordinary Greek citizens. The humorous donkey cup, for example, transformed the drinker into a donkey. Donkeys were rare in Persian art but were closely associated with Dionysus, the god of wine in Greece.

On the flip side of this democratic system, women had no formal political status and could indulge in luxurious displays without threatening the social order. The parasol, a symbol of the Persian king’s authority, became a feminine accessory, whilst Athenian women adopted Persian men’s eyeliner and jewellery styles. Meanwhile, up to 100,000 enslaved people lived in Athens, many from the Persian Empire.

Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon (356-322 BC), commonly known as Alexander the Great, defeated the highly organised, centralised Achaemenid Empire that once ruled south-eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia and adopted the existing system of provinces. He also disregarded the notion that Persia was weakened by luxury and instead used it to project authority across this diverse world and win the loyalty of local elites.

Carried east by Alexander’s armies and the Hellenistic kingdoms, local elites adopted Greek customs and adapted to local cultures. A gold figure from Pakistan resembling the Greek goddess Aphrodite may represent the Buddhist protector Hariti. Hellenistic goddesses such as Fortuna and Tyche are also known to have served as prototypes for early images of Hariti.

Panagyurishte Treasure

Nine gold Panagyurishte drinking vessels from Bulgaria are highlighted in this section. Bulgaria was once known as Thrace and was controlled by Persia from 513 to 511 BC. Thrace acted as a bridge between Europe and Asia, and later Greeks settled in cities along the Black Sea coast of Thrace. The Panagyurishte treasure is a mixture of Persian, Greek, Anatolian, and possibly Thracian styles. These treasures may have been a diplomatic gift to a Thracian king, illustrating the political role of luxury in the Hellenistic period.

“Whilst these objects were once symbols of power and decadence,
their legacy persists despite the changes in political landscapes throughout history

Hellenistic era

The opulence and luxury of ancient Persia, Greece, and the Hellenistic era continue to impact our modern attitudes towards prestige and wealth. Whilst these objects were once symbols of power and decadence, their legacy persists despite the changes in political landscapes throughout history. This exhibition presents thought-provoking arguments for the links between luxury and power and provides an opportunity to appreciate these artefacts’ beauty and their undeniable influence on our culture.

Text by Yang Jiang / Photo by Yang Jiang & The British Museum