In the lap of luxury: decadence in the ancient Persian and Greek worlds

A new exhibition at the British Museum delves into drinking and decadence in the ancient Persian and Greek worlds. Henry Bishop-Wright tells Lucia Marchini how elements of luxury could be adopted and adapted to express power across cultures.


In 1949, three brothers were digging for clay near the town of Panagyurishte in Bulgaria when they made a spectacular discovery: an ornate gold rhyton, an ancient drinking vessel, buried some 2 metres down. This was just the first object Pavel, Petko, and Mikhail Deykovi uncovered from the Panagyurishte Treasure: seven more golden vessels stacked over a large, shallow gold bowl soon followed.

By the time the hoard was buried, in a period of unrest around 300 BC, ancient Thrace – where Panagyurishte is sited – had seen Greek colonies founded; been annexed by the Achaemenid king Darius I in 513 BC; played host to the rise of a local Odrysian kingdom; and been absorbed by Philip II of Macedon in 350 BC, then beset by internal rivalries in the wake of the death of his son, Alexander the Great, in 323 BC.

The amphora-rhyton decorated with a Greek mythical scene from the Panagyurishte Treasure, found in Bulgaria. Gold, c.300 BC. Hellenistic. Size (body): 29cm high; 14cm in diameter. IMAGE: © National Museum of History, Bulgaria

The striking set of vessels employs Achaemenid Persian and Greek forms and is replete with Greek imagery, pointing to the influences and changes in power that shaped Thrace, and to the importance of wine among its elite. All the pieces were made from hammered gold sheet-metal, possibly in a Greek workshop in what is now Turkey, and are presumed to have belonged to a Thracian ruler. In May, the hoard goes on view in a newly refurbished space at the British Museum in the exhibition Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece, curated by James Fraser and Henry Bishop-Wright.

The phiale, the large bowl, may have been used for drinking, pouring libations, or even as a serving platter. It is decorated with four concentric rings: the innermost of acorns, and the other three of male heads following Greek stereotypical depictions of people from Africa. The other eight vessels are all rhyta, of four different types. Three are shaped like animal heads (two stags and one ram) and are decorated with scenes from Greek myth. Three are jugs in the shape of women’s heads. One wears a helmet with two lion-griffins (the creatures are common motif in Persian art); she may be Athena, and the other two Hera and Aphrodite, or perhaps all three are Amazons. These three jugs are essentially Greek, but they have been transformed into Achaemenid-style rhyta in function by the addition of a spout at the base of their necks. Another vessel is a horn-shaped rhyton that ends in a representation of a goat. It is an Achaemenid type of object, with its spout at the bottom and no handle, but the style is Greek, as is the decoration at the top, which depicts Hera, Artemis, Apollo, and Nike.

All nine vessels of the Panagyurishte Treasure: the phiale and the amphora-rhyton, one horn-shaped rhyton, three rhyta terminating in animal heads, and three jug-rhyta shaped like goddesses or Amazons. IMAGE: © National Museum of History, Bulgaria

Perhaps the most intriguing object in the hoard is the amphora rhyton, so called for its amphora-like shape, with two handles in the form of centaurs. It also has two spouts on the base, which would have been able to fill two drinking cups at the same time. With such an extravagant vessel, it is tempting to think that this double spout was not just about efficient consumption. ‘It is very unusual to have a vessel with two spouts like that,’ Henry Bishop-Wright says. ‘It has been suggested that this could possibly have been made as a ritual vessel used to seal a pact between two rulers, and the idea is that you can communally drink from the same vessel. It’s certainly possible. I’m not sure I totally buy it myself, but it is an attractive idea.

‘It relates to a wider question of whether these vessels were actually ever used. That’s a really tricky question with ancient history when you have fantastic gold and silver stuff. Was this just made as a gift and not really intended to be used? Maybe it’s for display; probably it could have been used for bullion.’

Rhyton with forepart of a winged griffin. Silver and gold, 500-400 BC. Achaemenid, found at Altıntepe, Turkey. Size: 25 x 14.7 x 17cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

The amphora-rhyton’s elaborate decoration, featuring a scene with a man looking through a gate, is similarly open for interpretation. Four figures with weapons drawn approach the gate, while another sounds a trumpet. Two others seem to be speaking to another, one with what looks like a sheep’s liver of the type used in divination. One suggestion is that this is the Greek myth of the Seven Against Thebes, in which one of Oedipus’ twin sons (who alternate years on the throne) refuses to give up his position, and seven warriors (only five on this vessel) attack Thebes on behalf of the other son. It is far from certain, as Bishop-Wright explains. ‘Because the treasure was found in Bulgaria and because it is a huge symbol of ancient Thrace, this has influenced interpretations. And one interpretation of that amphora-rhyton, where you have those revellers and there seems to be a fortune-telling event going on, is that this could be a depiction of a Thracian warrior dance, perhaps in connection with a death or a funeral.

One of a pair of earrings with rhyton pendants. Gold and amazonite, 300-50 BC. Hellenistic. Size: 4.8 x 1.1 x 0.6cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘That’s a published and a reasoned interpretation of it. It’s not as popular as the Seven Against Thebes interpretation, because it is slightly abstracted from where and who made this amphora-rhyton. It’s clear from all the rest of the rhyta that someone with excellent knowledge of Greek mythology made them.’

As intwined with Greek style and mythology as the Panagyurishte vessels may be, the rhyton was first a distinctive Persian vessel, with examples made of sparkling silver, but also gold, bronze, and even faience. Achaemenid kings and courtiers would recline holding aloft the shining horn, which often ended in the forepart of an animal, like lions, panthers, winged griffins, and gazelles. Wine would flow from the spout and could be paused by the simple placing of a thumb over the hole.

The rhyton itself and depictions of it acted as signifiers of power and prestige across the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from Egypt to India. Later, in the Hellenistic period, it also served as a high-end design element, as seen in an intricate pair of earrings, each with a dangling miniature gold rhyton. These rhyta have handles, and deer-head protomes, evoking Anatolian-Greek or Thracian versions of the Achaemenid vessels.

On a frieze of the lavish marble tomb known as the Nereid Monument, we see a local ruler of Xanthos, in Lycia in what is now south-west Turkey, drinking just like a Persian king. He is reclining, rhyton in one hand, bowl in the other. This is thought to be Erbinna (or Arbinas) who ruled Xanthos in the 380s BC, when it was under the Achaemenid Empire but still a highly Hellenised environment. The Greek influence is clearly seen in the Ionic temple-like architecture of the famous tomb, and the three sculptures identified as sea nymphs (Nereids).

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Persians had a predilection for wine. This was something they seemingly shared with the Greeks who adopted the rhyton, but also made adaptations to it. Surviving examples are not of precious metal, like the luxury rhyta of the Achaemenids, but pottery. Some do have spouts, making them true rhyta, but such a vessel could also have a flat base, losing the theatricality of having to deftly hold them at all times. Handles were added too and the spout lost from the design, turning them into drinking cups. And though these cups also featured animals, they would make fun of the drinker as they lifted a donkey’s head to their lips, essentially temporarily turning them into the creature depicted.

Rhyton in the form of a seated sphinx. Pottery, c.470-450 BC. Classical Greek, made in Athens and attributed to Sotades; found in Capua, Italy. Size: 29.2 x 7.5 x 19cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the 5th century BC, when the Achaemenid Empire launched failed invasion attempts (by Darius I in 490 and Xerxes I in 480), Athens had undergone a series of reforms, developing it into a democratic city-state. A liking for ostentatious luxury now carried with it the threat of ostracism, the expulsion of citizens, a practice that endured for several decades between 486 and 416 BC.

According to Greek authors, luxury was particularly associated with Persian royalty. As Heracleides of Pontus wrote in the 4th century BC: ‘Kings, being in control of the good things of life, and having had experience of them all, rank pleasure above all else, since pleasure makes men’s natures kingly. All persons, at any rate, who seek pleasure and choose a life of luxury are lordly and magnificent, like the Persians. For more than any other people in the world, the Persians seek pleasure through luxury, and yet they are still the bravest and most noble of the barbarians. Indeed, leading a life of luxury is an indication of power; luxury intensifies kingliness.’

Erbinna as a dynast in Persian style, shaded by a parasol, on the second frieze of the Nereid Monument. Marble, c.390-380 BC. Lycian, from Xanthos, modern Turkey. Size (complete frieze block): 13m wide. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

But this Persian luxury was considered a corrupting force that weakened the great empire, too. Bishop-Wright elaborates, ‘A lot of our thinking on this comes from the Greek sources and they have an agenda to pursue. You have the Greek city-states, which are fundamentally much poorer than the Achaemenid Empire, and they’ve somehow defeated the Persian army. After the Persian Wars in 481-480, Athenian generals captured the Persian command tent and they were literally witness to the luxury of the Persians. Yet these were a people they’d defeated. So how do you conceptualise that?

‘Well, what Herodotus and later Greek sources would say is that the Persians were a once great nation that had been softened by decadence, by luxury. They wear trousers, their kings have to have artificial shade with a parasol, and these are things that are too decadent and that have led to their decline.’

Hydria showing a woman shaded by a parasol. Pottery with red-figure decoration, c.400-380 BC. Apulian, attributed to the Tarporley Painter. Size: 36.8 x 32.5cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Such accounts suggest that Greeks shunned luxury on these grounds, a way of affirming their superiority over the forces they defeated. ‘But then we know that, after the Persian Wars, the Parthenon on the Acropolis was used basically as the treasury of Athens. It was absolutely filled to the brim with captured booty, including Persian gold and silver vessels,’ says Bishop-Wright.

‘So luxury and, in fact, Persian luxury did have a function in Athens. It was conceptually and materially morphed in a way that would be more palatable to a democratic culture, but not entirely rejected – and I think that’s the important point. They were just a little bit clever in the ways they did use it.’

One object in which we can see Greek ways of adapting Persian trappings of luxury is the parasol, which a servant would hold above the head of the king. ‘This was not a man who should be allowed to go outside unshaded,’ says Bishop-Wright. ‘This was a motif associated with power, associated with masculinity, associated with being the king of the Achaemenid Empire.’

Pear-shaped pendant or seal stone engraved with Persian characters. Banded stone, 500-330 BC. Anatolian, probably found in Kourion, Cyprus. Size: 2.6 x 1.8 x 0.9cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the Nereid Monument, too, Erbinna is shaded by a parasol, similarly using it as a symbol of power as he sits on a throne with a footstool to receive subjects wearing Greek dress, like the royal examples of the audience scenes of Darius I and Xerxes I at Persepolis. But in 5th- and 4th-century Athens, the parasol became something else. It was no longer an accessory for rulers and kings, but considered somewhat effeminate and decadent, and – as vase-paintings suggest – it seems to have found favour with women.

It was not just a case of Achaemenid courtly culture influencing Greeks. A small pear-shaped seal-stone pendant in a beautiful pinkish red banded stone, probably from Cyprus, is like numerous others from Achaemenid-period Anatolia. Many of these ‘Graeco-Persian’ seals feature engraved images of Persian women. In a tiny scene on one side of the pear-shaped stone, a seated woman in Persian dress holds a flower and a bird, with a child before her. This is reminiscent of Athenian red-figure vase-paintings in which women appear with pets, like birds, in domestic settings. The reverse also shows the influence of red-figure vases: here a warrior leans on his spear in intimate proximity to a woman, probably his wife. It is a tender, domestic scene unusual in the Achaemenid artistic repertoire, and, as Lloyd Llewelyn-Jones observes in the book accompanying the exhibition, must have been inspired by the familiar Athenian motif of the ‘departure of the warrior’.

Plate showing a banqueting scene based on the triumph of Dionysus. Silver and gold, AD 100-300. Parthian or early Sasanian, made in Iran or Afghanistan, found in Afghanistan. Size: 3.5cm high; 22.3cm in diameter. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

A sense of flexibility and fluidity runs through much of the material in the exhibition. This hybridity enabled people in power, like Erbinna, to pick and choose elements to appeal to different audiences. ‘Rulers sort of hedged their bets about self-presentation,’ Bishop-Wright explains. ‘That really kicks off again in the Hellenistic period. All the rulers are doing that. It’s about adjusting your mode of presentation to whatever your audience is. Rulers like the Ptolemies in Egypt had absolutely no qualms about being presented as an Egyptian pharaoh in Egypt and a Greek king in other areas – no problem at all. They can be Greek on their coins, but they can have calcite busts of them looking like a Fourth- Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh.’

Sometime between AD 100 and 300, a spectacular gilded silver Parthian or early Sasanian plate was made in Iran or Afghanistan and decorated with a complex scene that shows how imagery could be adapted from its more usual iterations to suit new audiences, just like in the Hellenistic period centuries earlier. It is a banqueting scene based on the popular Greek motif of the triumph of Dionysus, as the god processes with his bride Ariadne in a chariot pulled by panthers or centaurs. On the plate, however, we have a couch. And in front of the couch is a vestige of the chariot’s wheels in the form of a rosette, a symbol of Achaemenid rule (which was ended by Alexander the Great centuries before). ‘Dionysus himself has been transformed – just like Arbinas on the Nereid Monument,’ remarks Bishop-Wright. ‘He’s a reclining satrap now, with his drinking bowl.’ Ariadne is suggested by the much smaller female figure perched on the couch. There are Dionysiac revellers, too, and bunches of grapes. ‘And right at the bottom – this could be taking it a little bit far – you’ve got a panther-like creature drinking from an Eastern bowl, and you do wonder if that’s a deliberate allusion to the panthers that are often shown pulling Dionysus and Ariadne’s chariot,’ he adds.

Cinerary urn with lion-griffin protomes. Terracotta and gold, c.330 BC. Hellenistic, probably found in Athens. Size: 42 x 40 x 40cm IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

With spectacular plates like this, the question of whether they were ever meant to be used or were just pieces for astonishing display remains, as it does with the Panagyurishte Treasure. Some versions of prestigious artefacts in cheaper materials also raise the question of purpose: are these simply more affordable options? For example, gilded terracotta pendants and reef knots, known as Heracles knots, offered an alternative to solid gold jewellery. Yet it is possible, as Bishop-Wright explains, that these were not fakes for everyday wear, but rather deliberate pieces for sacrifice or to place in a tomb, perhaps to reduce the amount of the precious metal that would be taken out of circulation. ‘To dedicate a solid gold Heracles knot, even though it’s relatively small, that’s quite a statement of wealth. Even the wealthy, how often can they be getting rid of their best gold jewellery? Is it not a case that instead you’d make it out of terracotta, just apply a bit of gold leaf, and dedicate that? It is a question that is very difficult to answer, because we don’t have them in the condition they were in in antiquity.’ Unlike these uncertain adornments, an urn decorated with gilded lion-griffins was actually used in a funerary context, for it contained human remains, and so suggests that at least some gilded material was intended for deposition.

Clearer examples of lower-end luxury come from the site of Deve Hüyük, in Achaemenid Syria. There, the graves of soldiers (themselves players in the acquisition and maintenance of power) contained bronze or pottery imitations of the luxurious silver vessels used in the Achaemenid court. This is about not just looking the part, but acting the part. ‘Those objects are status-endowing, but also the act of using them and showing the knowledge of using them is a way of presenting your power and wealth,’ Bishop-Wright says. ‘By imitating those objects in a cheaper material, the person that has them is able to use them in the same way.’

With these prestigious Persian objects being emulated by soldiers, morphed into Athenian ceramics, and combining with Greek designs as in the Panagyurishte Treasure, they tell of a widespread and lasting desirability that surely adds to luxury’s own power.


Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece opens at the British Museum on 4 May and runs until 13 August 2023. Tickets are available from

A beautiful hardback book accompanies the exhibition: Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece by James Fraser with Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and Henry Cosmo Bishop-Wright is published by the British Museum Press (ISBN 978-0714111964; £35). It will be available in bookshops and can also be purchased as an add-on when buying exhibition tickets online.