How Persian gold influenced Greek art

The exhibition “Luxury and Power: Persians and Greeks” opens its doors today at the British Museum.

When the Greeks captured the tent of Xerxes, which he had set up on Mount Aigaleo, after the naval battle in Salamis, they found themselves in front of a world of unimaginable luxury and extravagance.

A snapshot that could summarize the gap between the two worlds – the Greeks and the Persians -, whose confrontation has determined the evolution of world history. A struggle between the Greek city-states and the Achaemenid Empire. A struggle between the free, but frugal and disciplined West and the tyrannical, flacid East.

But all those golden ceremonial vessels (rhyta), jewels with emeralds and pearls and elegant wreaths from Greece and Cyprus, Bulgaria, Egypt and Afghanistan which bear the stamp of Persian art or the imprint of its influence on five centuries (550-30 BC) were they simple indications of a good time or did they also function as a necessary political tool that expressed the imposition of power? This aspect the British Museum’s new exhibition “Luxury and Power: Persians and Greeks” attempts to examine. The exhibition opens its doors to the public today  and will be on show until August 13 with a controversial aesthetic presentation, which according to several British publications is not far from the definition of kitsch.

Three sections

The wars between the Greeks and the Persians, although they are the most well-known chapter of this history, are not the ones that dominate the exhibition. It’s limited to a few weapons – among them a hoplite’s helmet – and a soundscape of battleships. The main part of the presentation is divided into three sections focusing on position, contrast and composition.

Visitors first get a glimpse of the Persian Empire dominated by an Egyptian-style relief in which Darius I is depicted worshiping Anubis. The Athenian Republic could not be present in a better way than with a part of the frieze of the Parthenon, which is the pinnacle of inexhaustible classical art.

In the last section comes the merger, as Alexander the Great conquered Persia and “embraced” its artistic ways, while the cultures within his vast empire entered a huge melting pot. This is where one of the most important loans of the exhibition is presented, the treasure of Panaghiouriste, from Bulgaria, a set of seven golden and richly decorated rhyta, an amphora and a bottle, with a total weight of 6.2 kg, which were discovered accidentally. The vases are decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, but bear incised inscriptions relating to their weight in drachmas and darics (gold Persian coins).


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