Exhibition Review by Parshati Dutta

Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece at the British Museum, London

Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece
May 4, 2023—August 12, 2023
Lead Curator: Dr James Fraser.

Figure 1. Photograph of a 500-400 BCE Achaemenid silver and gold rhyton with forepart of a winged griffin found in Altıntepe, displayed in the Persian section of the exhibition © The Trustees of the British Museum

The definition of luxury has routinely been negotiated in scholarship by highlighting its conceptual multivalence, and explored as an idea contingent on what is expected by a society from material objects that can then enable the identification of those exceeding such expectations.[1] Further, as an idea indulging in excesses, celebrating exclusivity, and instigating the creation of material objects that reject pure functionality that are often acquired under suspect circumstances, luxury also remains politically and morally difficult to navigate. These problems are only exacerbated when luxury is discussed at a time marked by a cost of living crisis and within an institution that has been at the centre of many controversies regarding its collections in the recent past.  Understandably then, the British Museum’s ambitious new exhibition, Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece, refrains from adopting a definitive position and focuses instead on posing thought-provoking questions. 

Organised in a linear sequence along three geo-political entities – Achaemenid Persia, Classical Greece, Hellenistic Macedon and Thrace –  the exhibition examines changing attitudes towards luxury as a practice, a problem, and finally, in parley. In the Persian section, luxury is established as a serious imperial undertaking where power, luxury, and kingship operated in a cyclical manner linked by ritualised political enactments such as ceremonial processions, diplomatic gift-giving, sartorial performance, and lavish feasting that would have been assisted by the objects on display (Fig. 1 and 2). The next section examines the response to this luxury in democratic Greece (Fig. 3 and 4), specifically in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian wars and coloured by the accounts of Herodotus. Greek reception and emulation of Persian objects of luxury was problematised by its simultaneous vilification of these objects as symptomatic of tyrannical eastern autocracies with their languor and lax morals. In the final space, military Macedon provides a balancing act, where the high contrast between the predominance of precious metal artefacts from Persia and their relatively subdued ceramic counterparts from Greece is mediated. In addition to an array of objects demonstrating the innovative, syncretic, and localised crafts of faience, millefiori, and ivory carving, additional evolutions in statuary leading to the creation of the familiar sculptures of Alexander and Aphrodite (Fig. 5) are also revealed in this section. 

Figure 2: Photograph of a 500-330 BCE Achaemenid armlet with leaping lion-griffin terminals from Takht-i Kuwad © The Trustees of the British Museum

The narrative of the exhibition is coherent, concise, and persuasive, with the Greek ambivalence towards luxury resulting in a slight lull in the middle gallery. The largely linear narrative across time and geography, and grouping of objects by culture and material, also contribute to making this exhibition easily comprehensible. However, some of the most interesting moments, as the curators are clearly aware, occur in the overlaps and ambiguities. This is demonstrated in the display of two carved heads facing each other at the entrance, one rendered in limestone and the other in bronze, where stylistically the former appears to be Persian and the latter Greek. The conversation between the two disparately styled figures found kilometres apart and dated to the fifth century BCE is significant as it conveys, through the Greek wreath on the Persian head and the identity of Phoenician Reshef recognized in the Greek individual, the stylistic synthesis of the Cypriot sculptural tradition as a result of extended cultural encounter. Similarly, unlike the numerous zoomorphic rhyta and amphorae (Fig. 6) that at times tend to make the exhibition more convincing as one exploring the arts of wine-drinking alone, it is the rare architectural fragments, such as the frieze from the Nereid monument, that add nuance and balance to the narrative. Representing the Hellenisation of Persian Lycia, it is an important material evidence of the shared phenomenon of cultural exchange, the bidirectional nature of which is often overlooked given the silence surrounding it in Persian sources. The uncontested star of the show, however, is the Thracian Panagyurishte Treasure on loan from Sofia (Fig. 7), an exquisitely crafted and immaculately preserved nine-piece gold banqueting set that creates a dazzling climax for the show, in which the majority of artefacts on display can otherwise be traced back to the British Museum’s owncollection. 

The only deficiency of the exhibition is its design. The lengths of shimmering fabric festooned around the space, presumably with the intention of recreating the awe experienced by Greek soldiers within the splendid encampments of their defeated enemies as chronicled by Herodotus and quoted in the display, is a tenuous connection and only serves to distract from the wealth of artefacts displayed (Fig. 8). Similarly, the sparse architectural rendering against lighter backdrops–freestanding columns of Achaemenid, Ionic, and Corinthian orders flagging the three stages of the exhibition–are also unsuccessful in their attempt to utilise the height of the space and its large expanses of blank panelling. With the exception of Hafez and Herodotus, quotes scattered across some panels seem to have been included as afterthoughts. Towards the very end of the exhibition, Juvenal’s criticism of luxury as a calamitous and corrupting result of lasting peace  particularly destabilises and contradicts a narrative that otherwise appears willing to accept luxury as an indispensable political instrument which, in spite of their mutual distrust, unites Persia and Greece by virtue of their shared desire for its practice and consumption.

Arguably, as an institution that admits its “history and collection are shaped by empire and the colonial exploitation of people and resources,” the British Museum need not have gone so far, either in time or in terms of geographic reach, to demonstrate Western attitudes of moral superiority preceding the eventual occupation of proverbial eastern luxuries.[2] The risk remains of the exhibition being perceived as one framing the Greco-Persian encounters as the origin story shaping the materially fraught relationship between the Eastern and Western worlds even today, thereby granting the museum intellectual distance and plausible deniability regarding the part it has played in the persistence of the luxury-decadence dichotomy. Seeming solely focussed on the construction of a compelling historic narrative with some remarkable objects, the curatorial team has positioned itself at a studied distance away from such inevitable responses, but the irony remains inescapable enough to make its confrontation appear deliberate, intelligent, and courageously crafted to initiate some uncomfortable dialogues, and ultimately push the British Museum one more step towards assuming greater institutional accountability.

Figure 3: Photograph of a c. 470-450 BCE Classical Greek pottery rhyton in the form of a seated sphinx attributed to the Sotades Painter © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 4: Photograph of a c. 400-380 BCE Apulian Hydria pottery with red-figure decoration © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 5: Visitor looking at the c. 100-30 BCE bronze Satala Aphrodite or Anahita © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 6: Installation shot of a 460-450 BCE Classical Greek pottery drinking mug in the form of a boar’s head © The Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 7: The Panagyurishte Treasure – a c.300 BCE Hellenistic gold banqueting set on loan from the National Museum of History, Sofia  © National Museum of History, Bulgaria R

Figure 8: Fabric drapes and renders of columns framing the exhibition display © The Trustees of the British Museum

Parshati Dutta is a doctoral candidate at the Department of History of Art, University of York, UK. She has an undergraduate degree in architecture and a postgraduate degree in Architectural Theory and Design. Her thesis examines matronage in Mughal architecture and is funded by the YGRS Overseas PhD Scholarship and the British Institute of Persian Studies. 


Article Information
Parshati Dutta, "Exhibition Review: Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece at the British Museum, London,Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 8490. DOI: 10.15124/yao-hddj-cs17