Luxury and Power

Fraser, James, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones & Henry Bishop-Wright. 2023. Luxury and power: Persia to Greece. London: British Museum Press.

Luxurious objects are celebrated for their exoticism, rarity and style, but also disparaged as indulgent, extravagant and corrupt. The ancient origins of these attitudes emerged at the boundary between the imperial Persian and democratic Athenian Greek worlds.

Luxury was at the centre of the royal Persian court and behaviours of ostentatious display rippled through the imperial provinces, whose elite classes emulated luxury objects in lesser materials. But luxury is contrastingly depicted through Athenian eyes – within the philosophical context of early democratic codes and the historical context of the Greco-Persian Wars, which suddenly and spectacularly brought eastern luxuries into the imagination of the Athenian populace for the first time. While Athenian writers rejected luxury as eastern, despotic and corrupt, the elite adopted Persian luxuries in imaginative ways to signal status, distinction and prestige.

Under the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great and its subsequent kingdoms, royal Achaemenid luxury culture would be adopted and displayed by the Macedonian and local elite across the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds: behaviours of ostentatious display were a means to seek advantage in the new Hellenistic world order.

Ultimately, this publication demonstrates how competing political spins woven around 2,500 years ago still continue to shape the modern perceptions of luxury today.