Power or decadence?

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Luxury under the Achaemenids, Athenians, and Alexander the Great

We all know that the finer things in life can transmit messages about wealth and status. In the epic struggles between the Persians and Greeks in the 1st millennium BC, though, luxury came to mean so much more, as Jamie Fraser told Matthew Symonds.

This gold armlet, decorated with lion-griffins, showcases the skills of Achaemenid goldsmiths. It was found in Tajikistan and can be dated to 500-330 BC. The armlet is 12.3cm in height, while the gaps in the lion-griffins would once have held colourful glass, faience, and stone. [IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum]

The ancient Greeks knew luxury when they saw it. And they certainly saw it in August 479 BC, during the closing stages of the Battle of Plataia. This was a clash between an alliance of Greek city-states and Persian forces sent by the Achaemenid empire to conquer mainland Greece. After a lengthy standoff, the Greeks decided to withdraw to more favourable ground. The Persians, thinking their foes were in flight, rushed to administer the coup de grâce. But their haste proved their undoing, and after hard fighting it was the Greeks who emerged triumphant. So crushing was the Persian defeat that Plataia marked the final land battle of the botched invasion. Greek victory was sealed when they captured the Persian campaign quarters, where they beheld riches on an almost unimaginable scale. The ancient historian Herodotus reports that gold was so plentiful it was mistaken for bronze. He also describes the scene when the Greek commander, Pausanias, beheld the opulence of the Persian command tent and ordered the captured servants to prepare a typical Persian feast:

when Pausanias saw gold and silver couches beautifully draped, and gold and silver tables… he could hardly believe his eyes… just for a joke, he ordered his own servants to get ready an ordinary Spartan dinner. The difference between the two meals was indeed remarkable and, when both were ready, Pausanias laughed and sent for the Greek commanding officers… he invited them to look at the two tables, saying, ‘Gentlemen, I asked you here to show you the folly of the Persians, who, living in this style, came to Greece to rob of us of our poverty.

Herodotus’ account sets up a stark difference in Greek and Persian approaches to luxury. Indeed, the Persian fondness for indulgent lifestyles – even during the serious business of a military campaign – came to be seen as a key reason why a superpower like Persia could be humbled by a group of Greek city-states. Numerous ancient Greek authors identify Persian luxury as a corrupting force that weakened their empire, hastening its decay. At the same time, Greek valour was seen to owe much to the shunning of such excesses. But just how reliable are these stereotypes? Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece, an enthralling new exhibition at the British Museum (see ‘Further information’ box), is examining Persian and Greek approaches to luxury from 550-30 BC. It reveals that there was far more to luxury in this period than the Greek historians would have us believe.

This frieze is from a tomb known as the Nereid Monument, which dates to 390-380 BC and was found in Turkey. The tomb is linked to a man called Erbinna, who was a local ruler. Although the tomb features many Greek influences, Erbinna was keen to be seen as a prince in the Persian tradition. Here, he is shown reclining on a couch, holding aloft a rhyton with his right hand, and balancing a bowl on his left hand. [IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum]

Haves and have-nots?

‘There are two main themes in this exhibition,’ says Jamie Fraser, exhibition curator at the British Museum. ‘One examines the role of luxury as a mechanism of power, and how that changed across different ancient cultures. The other looks at the biases of history, particularly for the Persians. We have a lot of Persian documents, mostly in the form of cuneiform documents, but these are generally administrative in nature. If you want to know how many sheep it’ll take to feed a workforce constructing a large civic building, we’ve got that information. When it comes to broad historical narratives – like the Greek and Persian wars – we don’t have that, probably because it was sung and performed, rather than written down. So when it comes to getting a sense of history, we are dependent on the Greek authors – the self-declared enemies of the Persians. I think that because of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when the apparent miracle of Classical Greece was rediscovered and Western Europe positioned itself as the inheritor of this tradition, the Greek pejorative dismissal of Persian luxury is still with us today. You can see it in the way that luxury is something we simultaneously aspire to, but are also suspicious and nervous about. That contradiction, I think, can be traced all the way back to this moment in history.’

‘The ancient Greek authors, though, aren’t telling us the whole story. Rather than viewing luxury as a weakening influence, it is possible to see it as a very effective tool. In the Achaemenid court, and in the Persian empire as a whole, luxury is all about hearts and minds. It can be seen as the sinews holding the empire together, both vertically through all layers of society, and horizontally, stretching out across Persian territory. That makes it a very effective way of binding people together to create a cohesive imperial world.’

‘We have an ancient Greek account of how the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great commanded all of his satraps – that is, the provincial officials sent out to rule on his behalf – to emulate the ways of the court. When it comes to court life, the Persian capital wasn’t in one particular place, and instead the king would travel between five different cities over the course of a year. Because the king’s tent and its trappings were moving, different local aristocrats would be able to come and dine with him. While there, the use of luxury bound them into the king’s authority and, after he was gone, they replicated it using gifts from him. This was the way that they showed they had power, because they were close to the power of the king. Scholars call these goods “court-style luxury”. It is very recognisable to us as archaeologists, and it was also recognisable to the hundreds of different cultures that were stitched together to create the Achaemenid empire: this was supreme luxury that was powerful because of its connection to the court. And while much of the Persian empire had been won at the edge of a sword, you can’t win people over with violence alone. You need ways to co-opt people into the programme you’re selling. Luxury was part of that.’

The objects used at court also provide a sense of the theatricality that accompanied elite dining. Being invited to eat with the king was a big deal, and required careful preparation. After all, putting a foot wrong could see an attendee plummet down the social scale, while a flawless performance presented a ticket to rising fortunes. Drinking was an important part of this delicate dance, and we can see that this was carried out in a very particular way thanks to vessels known as rhytons. These were decorated with the heads of animals or mythical creatures, and are sometimes thought of as cups to sip from. In reality, they were more like modern wine bottles, with the crucial exception that they had curved bases. This meant that once you were holding one, you could not put it down. Instead, you would recline on a couch, holding up the rhyton in one hand, using your thumb to stopper its spout. In your other hand, you would be dextrously balancing a drinking bowl on your fingertips. To fill your bowl, you moved your thumb away from the rhyton spout, allowing the wine to spurt out. Participating in such formal performances involved following social conventions that spelled out what it meant to be elite.

This magnificent silver and gold rhyton dates to 500-400 BC. It features a winged griffin with a spout between its legs, which wine would have been poured from. The rhyton is 25cm tall. [IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum]

‘The degree to which such dining penetrated the imperial system can be seen in some of the more nondescript artefacts in the exhibition,’ says Jamie. ‘One of the things that really excites me is the objects from several soldiers’ tombs from the graveyard associated with a Persian garrison at Deve Hüyük, on the border of Turkey and Syria. Back in the 1910s, T E Lawrence was excavating at a site nearby, and would stay at the dig house during the off-season. One night, there were reports of lights in the distance and tomb-robbing at this cemetery. Lawrence and his men cleared away the robbers, and then had to excavate the tombs fast, because the moment they left the robbers would be back. The materials that he recovered, from soldiers’ tombs in the boondocks of the empire, are the same – in style – as those in the royal court of the king. There’s a rhyton and drinking bowls, they just weren’t made in the same luxury materials. So, even in a military garrison on the edge of the empire, people were buying into that court ideal and being aspirational.’

The exhibition Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece will run until 13 August 2023 at the British Museum.
For further information and to book tickets, visit www.britishmuseum.org/luxuryandpower.
A fascinating, lavishly illustrated catalogue has been published to accompany the exhibition: J Fraser (2023) Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece (British Museum Press, £35, ISBN 978-0714111964).
CWA is grateful to Jamie Fraser and Barry O’Reilly.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 119. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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