If you win the lottery, it’s best to keep schtum. No one likes a show off, and flaunting your wealth is always in poor taste. Think about terms like ‘nouveau riche’, ‘yuppy’, ‘nepo baby’ – we see wealth as a bad thing, something to be hidden.
But in ancient Persia, extravagant displays of wealth weren't just accepted, they were a means of exerting dominance and conferring status. The Persians were an opulent bunch. So when the Greeks repelled the Persian invasion between 490 and 479BC, they saw it as a victory for simple, downhome, good living in the face of bloated luxury
The British Museum tells that story through gold and silver drinking vessels and intricate jewellery. Persian leaders used these objects to show their wealth and power, but also gifted them to local governors in order to buy their loyalty. These aren’t just bull- and griffon-shaped wine cups, they’re political symbols of power being exercised and spread.
The story being told is that valuable goods have an implied power
Athens was supposed to be its opposite: the moderate, discrete, austere antithesis of all that luxury. ‘Nothing in excess’ it says on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Except, obviously, that was bollocks. The rich can’t help themselves, they’ll always want to show off their wealth. The Greeks just did it a little more subtly. Athenian potters used black gloss to emulate expensive Persian metal, they copied Persian wine jugs in clay, they worked in marble and stone, they kept it lowkey. Even the maidens carrying fancy items in the chunk of Parthenon frieze shown here aren’t doing so because they love luxury, they’re just displaying the spoils of war after defeating the Persians.
All that subtlety went out the window with Alexander the Great and his conquering of Persia. That’s when the Greeks started indulging in luxury on a massive scale. There are mounds of shimmering jugs, heaps of glistening jewellery, stacks of fragile glass bowls and a stunning, wobbly, delicate gold wreath that somehow survived millennia.
There are plenty of gorgeous objects here, though I can’t figure out why they’ve draped the whole place in silk sheets, making it all look like an Essex swingers’ party.
But the real issue is a bit more fundamental: the story being told is that valuable goods have an implied power. You can flaunt your status and wealth with them, control your society, manipulate your subjects and exert power through them. So what does that say about the British Museum's possession, and refusal to return in the face of constant requests, of the Parthenon Marbles? Is having them, and showing them off in their galleries and in this show, not a display of power and dominance? Regardless of where you stand on the restitution debate, you can't deny that the British Museum has made itself look complicit in the exact same acts of soft power as ancient Persia and Greece, and that’s not the best look, is it?
What all this shows is that nothing's really changed since 500 BC. Donald Trump still has an office lined with gold, millionaires still post about their watches and cars on instagram, and the British Museum still shows off its colonial loot. Luxury is power, and there’s plenty of both on display.