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British Museum show to explore luxury in Persian Empire

Updated: May 3, 2023

The British Museum's new exhibition transports visitors back 2,500 years to show how luxury objects were used to wield power in one of the world's most influential ancient empires.

Luxury and power: Persia to Greece promises a "dazzling array" of objects of exquisite luxury on display, highlighting how the First Persian Empire used them as markers of authority.

The exhibition covers the Middle East and southeast Europe between 550-30 BC, when the Persian Empire of ancient Iran battled with the cities and kingdoms of Greece — before it

was conquered by Alexander the Great.

Composite image of the nine golden pieces, with the vessels on a black background
Panagyurishte Treasure (c) National Museum of History Bulgaria

One of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition is the exceptional loan of the extraordinary Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria. Accidentally discovered by three brothers in 1949, these precious items are outstanding examples of ancient metalworking and consist of nine richly decorated gold vessels used for pouring and drinking wine. They come to the UK from the National Museum of History in Sofia. The treasure is seen alongside ancient Greek drinking vessels, which were influenced by their Persian contemporaries.

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The tension between Greece and Persia is at the heart of the show. The royal Persian court used objects of exquisite luxury as markers of authority, defining a distinct style that was copied by different social classes throughout the empire. Yet Athens rejected Persian culture as decadent, but would soon embrace intriguing aspects of this luxury in their culture.

Alexander the Great's defeat of the Persian empire ushered in a new age in which eastern and western styles of luxury across the region were fused. This is highlighted by objects such as a gold wreath from Turkey from the British Museum's collection, similar to those found in elite tombs in the kingdom of Macedonia. The gold oak wreath showcases the spread of luxury across the region and how styles evolved after the death of Alexander in 323 BC.

The exhibition's curator Jamie Fraser says that “Traditionally, we have viewed the Persians and their apparently “decadent” love of luxury through the eyes of their enemies, the Greeks. This exhibition is a chance to explore beyond these biased accounts and understand how Persians wielded luxury as a political tool across a vast and complex empire.”

A golden armlet featuring two horned griffin-like beasts facing each other
Gold armlet (part of the Oxus Treasure), Tajikistan, 499 – 300 BC. Photo: Trustees of the British Museum

But what do the critics say about Luxury and Power? Well, there's mixed feelings. Many agree that the treasures on show are breathtaking and beautiful. But many of the reviews think the opposite of the exhibition's physical design. "The naffest of exhibition set-dressings” said one.

Luxury and power: Persia to Greece runs from 4 May until 13 August 2023 at the British Museum.


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