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Luxury and power of ancient empires on display in new show at British Museum

Opulence and style of Persia and Greece laid out in fabulous new exhibition

Panagyurishte Treasure (Photo: National Museum of History, Bulgaria)

By: Amit Roy

At the British Museum’s fabulous new exhibition, Luxury and power: Persia to Greece, which explores the relationship between luxury and power in the Middle East and southeast Europe between 550-30 BC, I came across an old friend – Alexander III of Macedon, better known, of course, as Alexander the Great.

I learned that “this was a period when the Persian empire of ancient Iran clashed with the cities and kingdoms of Greece before it was conquered by Alexander”.

The museum added: “Luxury and power: Persia to Greece moves beyond ancient Greek spin to delve into a more complex story of luxury and power in ancient Iran, Athens, and the world of Alexander. Drawing on exquisite objects from Afghanistan to Italy, it explores how 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. Early democratic Athens rejected Persian culture as decadent yet adopted luxury in intriguing ways. Alexander then swept aside the Persian empire and ushered in a new age in which eastern and western styles of luxury were fused.

Alexander the Great marble, a Macedonian golden wreath and a Persian riding costume (Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

“Among the exceptional loans to the exhibition is the extraordinary Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria. Accidentally discovered by three brothers in 1949, these treasures are outstanding examples of ancient metalworking and demonstrate the influence of Persian and Greek luxury across the Balkans. The Treasure consists of nine richly decorated gold vessels: eight rhyta used to pour wine and one bowl to drink it.”

The exhibition also features “objects from the British Museum collection, bringing together astonishing artefacts of gold, silver and glass. A gilt silver rhyton shaped as a griffin is a remarkable example of Persian craft.

“Alongside these stunning Persian vessels sit Athenian examples of drinking vessels, influenced by their Persian contemporaries. A pottery rhyton, crafted in the form of a lion’s head, demonstrates how ancient Greece emulated and incorporated styles of preciousmetal luxury from the Persian court. Also from the Museum’s collection will be a gold wreath from Turkey, similar to those found in elite tombs in the kingdom of Macedonia. The gold oak wreath, consisting of two branches with a bee with two cicadas, showcases the spread of luxury across the region and how styles evolved into the period after the death of Alexander in 323 BC.”

A gilt silver rhyton (Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

We first learnt about Alexander the Great as children at St Xavier’s School in Patna. We thought he was a hell of a guy and went round reciting, “Alexander the Great, Was Born near the long bathroom gate.” We were told that in Indian, he was called “Sikander”, meaning “defender” or “warrior”, the name bestowed on him by the vanquished Persians.

To accompany the exhibition, there is a lavishly illustrated catalogue, in which the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fisher has written: “Luxury and power have long been entwined.”

This is certainly something we are aware of at Eastern Eye, where we publish the Asian Rich List and the GG2 Power List every year.

I also bought a copy of the biography, Alexander the Great: The truth behind the myth, by Paul Cartledge, who was a professor of Greek history at Cambridge.

The book more or less confirms the tale we were told as children. In 326 BC, Alexander’s Indian campaign took him to Punjab where he clashed with Porus, as the Greeks called the Rajah of the Pauravas, who held his kingdom to the east of the Indus and never owed allegiance to Darius III of Persia. Porus himself was 6ft 6in in stature. But his army on elephants was defeated by the nimbler Macedonians on horseback.

“Alexander lost perhaps 200 cavalry and 700 infantry,” according to the biography. “But Porus suffered some 12,000 dead, and 9,000 men and almost all his elephants were captured. Prudently, he surrendered unconditionally. Rather than executing him, Alexander decided to use him as a servant of his empire. Not only was he reinstated as Rajah of the Pauravas, but Alexander even added further territory to his control. Nor was his trust in Porus’s loyalty misplaced.”

Alexander did not venture any further into India. Back in Babylon, he fell seriously ill and died on June 11, 323 BC.

James Fraser

We were given a guided tour of the exhibition by James Fraser, curator, Ancient Levant and Anatolia, at the British Museum. He explained that the exhibition is structured into three galleries. The first deals with ancient Iran (which I saw a great deal of during my years covering Khomeini and other ayatollahs who, at first, wanted to destroy all that was royal before realising this wasn’t a good idea).

“Now, according to our Greek sources, opulence and sumptuous living could reflect decadence, and a moral corruption leading to softness and decline,” said Fraser. “What this section is doing is looking at how the luxury of the Persian court – whose opulence was undeniable – also operated as a highly sophisticated tool of imperial statecraft.”

The second gallery looks at how “the Persian style of luxury is refracted through the lens of early democratic Athens in the fifth century BC”. Here, “ostentatious displays of wealth for the glory of an individual are anathema to an early democratic system”. But “wealth and luxury was okay, if it was there for the glory of the city, and not for the individual”.

The third gallery shows how Persian and Greek styles fused. This section “ties both together, as we move back into the world of the Persian Empire, but in a Persian empire that was conquered by the armies of Alexander the Great. We are back into autocratic rulership. And, of course, Alexander and the generals who succeeded him, as the empire fractured into various kingdoms, recognised and valued the political role that Persian styles of luxury offered, both to explain and to legitimise their rule. What we see in the objects is a hybridisation of luxury styles, Persian forms of luxury, blended with Greek and Macedonian and local forms of luxury, to create new styles of luxury, and new styles of rulership that are neither Eastern nor Western, but are a hybrid of both.”

Macedonian golden wreath in Turkey (Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum)

I was taken to the world of Agatha Christie by “an amphora a jar with two handles. It had a twin spout along the bottom through which would flow not one, but two streams of wine. Imagine a Thracian king who has celebrated a peace treaty or a commercial transaction with a neighbouring king, each holding one of the handles of that vessel, each filling and drinking wine from the same vessel in a period in which poisoning was a very real tool in the toolkit of statecraft. It’s an ostentatious, very public display of trust in your political colleagues/adversaries.”

As to whether Alexander brought the hybrid culture to India, Fraser replied: “Well, you certainly get in the Gandharan culture of north-western India and the frontier zones, a new form of visual culture emerging. One of the most spectacular objects we have in the British Museum – it’s not in the exhibition – is a sculptured relief of the Trojan horse. So Greek myths are being used and twisted and reinvented in new styles. So, certainly, Iskandaran culture is as much a culture responding and absorbing western Macedonian Greek traits, as it is local traits as well. And it’s kind of mixing them all up together.”

  •  Luxury and power: Persia to Greece runs until August 13, 2023. Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum
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