On a dark December day in 1949, three brothers – Pavel, Petko and Michail Deikov – were sifting through clay to make bricks. It was arduous work, day after day of it, in a town in southern Bulgaria. Then the thoroughly unexpected happened. Beneath the clay shone an aureate glow, for buried ten feet deep in the earth were golden antiquities. On taking their discovery to the authorities, the brothers would learn they had unwittingly found what would come to be known as the Panagyurishte Treasure—priceless relics now thought to have belonged to Thracian King Seuthes III.
“It’s incredibly exciting to display the Panagyurishte Treasure, a once-in-a-generation loan,” said Dr. Henry Bishop-Wright, project curator at the British Museum, in a statement. He co-curated the museum’s newest major exhibition, Luxury & Power: Persia to Greece, which explores the relationship between luxury and power in the Middle East and southeast Europe between 550 and 30 BC.
Reverence for the ancient Greeks is palpable everywhere in the modern Western world. Contemporary statues inspired by Aphrodite of Knidos are displayed in corporate lobbies. We praise characteristics in others using terms relating to the ancient Greek world… ‘he made a Herculean effort’… ‘I admired her stoic attitude.’ Despite this, if you could ask a citizen of a Greek city-state what they considered to be the greatest civilization, you might be surprised by the answer. The Greeks were looking eastwards, in thrall to what was then the greatest power in the world: the Achaemenid Empire of Persia.
I spoke with Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani, Iranian historian of Central and West Asia in late antiquity, who emphasized the need to divorce ourselves from modern, Western-oriented thinking when considering the politics of the ancient world. Empires defined themselves more by military prowess and landmass than by other metrics of power such as technological or artistic progress, running contrary to what we in the modern age may assume.
“Geographically, mainland Greece was an extremely small concern to Persian kings compared to the vast Achaemenid Empire,” he elaborated. Irrespective of this, empires needed a way of showing to the world their might. Art became crucial as a way of disseminating news of their developments and strengths.
The exhibition at the British Museum charts the spread of the idea of luxury from Persia to Greece. Luxury & Power: Persia to Greece notes that while Greek writers may have denounced Persian displays of luxury, equating them with decadence following the Greco-Persian wars, those in positions of authority across Greek city-states were only too keen to emulate Achaemenid exotica, adapting pieces to be compatible with Greek culture in order to enhance the prestige of their cities. In this sense, Persian luxury acted as an early form of what we might consider soft power.
Artisans from across the Achaemenid Empire and through to the Greek city-states were, in that case, driven by tough competition. Not only was it a case of using the finest materials available, but sculptors, metalworkers, potters and jewelers also developed their practice through imitation. When the best and most precious materials were beyond the budget, artists would create copies of luxury works using cheaper materials. Innovative Athenian potter Sotades made bowls from clay in a style recalling the shape and decoration of Persian silverware.
“In the ancient world, certain craftsmen were celebrated as individuals of note and for their technical accomplishments,” Dr. Jamie Fraser, archaeologist and Lead Curator of Luxury & Power, explained to me. “For many objects where individual artisans’ names have been lost to history, we can look at the wider context. The craftsman would usually have belonged to an area highly reputed for its technical ability in making a certain luxury good. The Phoenician artisans of the coast of Lebanon, within the Persian Empire, for example, were renowned for making purple dye through a laborious process; this process was a closely-guarded secret.”
Purple pigment was more expensive than gold, and fabrics dyed with this material were a symbol of power not only in Achaemenid Persia but later across other ancient cultures.
From the context of a modern age of mass production, to see these ancient treasures not only makes the viewer wonder at the feats of human craftsmanship but also invites reflections on the nature of how luxury is still a potent and irrepressible form of power.
Luxury and power: Persia to Greece runs through August 13 in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. To coincide with the exhibition, a lavishly illustrated catalog, Luxury and power: Persia to Greece, written by James Fraser with Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Henry Cosmo Bishop-Wright, will be published by the British Museum Press this month.