Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece ★★★★ The British Museum | May 4 - Aug 13, 2023


This small, compact exhibition tells a big story. Three galleries trace the rivalry of the Greek and Persian states from 499 to 449 BC and the subsequent conquest of the empire by Alexander the Great. This history is recounted through a series of beautiful objects which offer an interesting counterpoint to the written narrative. The use of luxury items to assert power and to reflect the prestige of their owners is explored as is the differing attitudes towards such pieces in the Persian court and the Greek democracy. While publicly eschewing such treasures and decrying them as decadent and indulgent, the Greeks are actually considerably influenced by the beauty of these creations and Alexander the Great later marries the two traditions. The highlight of the show has to be the Panagyurishte treasure which consists of nine gold drinking vessels discovered in Bulgaria in 1949, but there are also a variety of other gorgeous and amusing items. The delicate gold oak leaf wreath from Turkey is absolutely breathtaking and the animal drinking cups are wonderfully whimsical. The donkey head mug which would have covered the drinker's face gives a glimpse into the everyday life and humour of the ancient world. The show also demonstrates how the common man emulated those who enjoyed the luxury goods on display here. From purple dye to peacocks and parasols this is a fascinating insight into the luxuries of the ancient world and how attitudes towards them reflect the cultural realities and nuance the history of relations between the two great powers.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Panagyurishte Treasure, gold, Bulgaria, about 300 BC. Photo © Todor Dimitrov, National Museum of History, Bulgaria.

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