British Museum Exhibition:
4th May – 13th August 2023

‘Treasure there was in plenty – tents full of gold and silver furniture… bowls, goblets, and cups, all made of gold.’

The story of the Greek-Persian wars was told by the victors – the Greeks – as a triumph of discipline and liberty over the “tyrannous, decadent, effeminate Persians.”
When Greek soldiers captured the royal command tent of the Persian king during the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 BC), they were confronted suddenly and spectacularly by luxury on an unimaginable scale. To many Greek writers, the Victoria of the small Greek forces against the mighty Persians were a triumph of discipline and restraint over an empire weakened by decadence and excess.
Drawing on dazzling objects from Afghanistan to Greece, this exhibition moves beyond the ancient Greek spin to explore a more complex story about luxury as a political tool in the middle East and southeast Europe from 550-30 BC. It explores how the royal Achaemenid court of Persia used precious objects as markers of authority, defining a style of luxury that resonated across the empire from Egypt to India. It considers how eastern luxuries were received in early democratic Athens, self-styled as Persias arch-enemy, and how they were adapted in innovative ways to make them socially and politically acceptable. Finally, it explores how Alexander the Great swept aside the Persian empire to usher in a new Hellenistic age in which eastern and western styles of luxury were fused as part of an increasingly interconnected world.
Featuring star loans as well as objects from the British Museum collection, the exhibition together exquisitely crafted objects in gold, silver and glass, including the extraordinary Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria. Whether coveted as objects of prestige or disparaged as signs of decadence, the beauty of these Persian, Greek and Hellenistic luxuries shaped the political landscape of Europe and Asia in the first millennium BC – and their legacy persists in our attitudes to luxury today.

The Greco – Persian Wars

These were a series of conflicts between Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, beginning in 502 BC and running some 50 years, until 449 BC.
The seeds for the wars were planted in 547 BC when the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, conquered Greek Ionia. Before this, the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire, centred in what is now modern-day Iran, had maintained an uneasy coexistence, but this expansion by the Persians would eventually lead to war.

Timeline and Summary

502 BC – Naxos: An unsuccessful attack by the Persians on the large island of Naxos, midway between Crete and the current Greek mainland, paved the way to revolts by Ionian settlements occupied by the Persians in Asia Minor. The Persian Empire had gradually expanded to occupy Greek settlements in Asia Minor, and the success of Naxos at repelling the Persians encouraged the Greek settlements to consider rebellion.

c. 500 BC – Asia Minor: The first revolts by Greek Ionian regions of Asia Minor began, in reaction to oppressive tyrants appointed by the Persians to oversee the territories.

498 BC – Sardis: Persians, led by Aristagoras with Athenian and Eritrean allies, occupied Sardis, located along what is now the western coast of Turkey. The city was burned, and the Greeks met and were defeated by a Persian force. This was the end of the Athenian involvement in the Ionian revolts.

492 BC – Naxos: When the Persians invaded, the inhabitants of the island fled. The Persians burned settlements, but the nearby island of Delos was spared. This marked the first invasion of Greece by the Persians, led by Mardonius.

490 BC – Marathon: The first Persian invasion of Greece ended with Athens decisive victory over the Persians at Marathon, in the Attica region, north of Athens.

480 BC – Thermopylae, Salamis: Led by Xerxes, the Persians in their second invasion of Greece defeated the combined Greek forces at the Battle of Thermopylae (Gates of Fire). Athens soon falls, and the Persians overrun most of Greece. However, at the Battle of Salamis, a large island west of Athens, the combined Greek navy decisively beat the Persians. Xerxes retreated to Asia.

479 BC – Plataea: Persians retreating from their loss at Salamis encamped at Plataea, a small town northwest of Athens, where combined Greek forces badly defeated the Persian army, led by Mardonius. This defeat effectively ended the second Persian invasion. Later that year, combined Greek forces went on the offensive to expel Persian forces from Ionian settlements in Sestos and Byzantium.

478 BC – Delian League: A joint effort of Greek city-states, the Delian League formed to combine efforts against the Persians. When Sparta’s actions alienated many of the Greek city-states, they united under the leadership of Athens, thereby beginning what many historians view as the start of the Athenian Empire. Systematic expulsion of the Persians from settlements in Asia now began, continuing for 20 years.

476 to 475 BC – Eion: Athenian general Cimon captured this important Persian stronghold, where Persian armies stored huge stores of supplies. Eion was located west of the island of Thasos and south of what is now the border of Bulgaria, at the mouth of the Strymon River.

468 BC – Caria: General Cimon freed the coastal towns of Caria from the Persians in a series of land and sea battles. Southern Asia Minor from Cari to Pamphylia (the region of what is now Turkey between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean) soon became part of the Athenian Federation.

456 BC – Prosopitis: To support a local Egyptian rebellion in the Nile River Delta, Greek forces were besieged by remaining Persian forces and were badly defeated. This marked the beginning of the end of Delian League expansionism under Athenian leadership.

449 BC – Peace of Callias: Persia and Athens signed a peace treaty, although, to all intents and purposes, hostilities had ended several years earlier. Soon, Athens would find itself in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars as Sparta, and other city-states rebelled against Athenian supremacy.

Burning of Persepolis

In the year 330 BC Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered the Achaemenid Persian Empire following his victory over the Persian Emperor Darius III (r. 336-330 BC) at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. After Darius III’s defeat, Alexander marched to the Persian capital city of Persepolis and, after looting its treasures, burned the great palace and surrounding city to the ground, destroying hundreds of years’ worth of religious writings and art along with the magnificent palaces and audience halls which had made Persepolis the jewel of the empire.
Xerxes I had invaded Greece in 480 BC, burning villages, cities and temples (including the Parthenon of Athens) until defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis and later at the Battle of Platea. The 480 BC invasion of the Persian wars was long remembered by the Greeks and is given as the primary motivation for why Alexander burned Persepolis, although every account also notes that Alexander and his men were drunk when they decided to destroy the city. When Alexander arrived at Persepolis, it was among the most impressive in the world, and when he left, it was a ruin whose spot would be known for generations only as ‘the place of the forty columns’ for the remaining palace columns left standing in the sand among the ruins.
Exactly why Alexander would burn the great city which, as conqueror, he now owned (and especially considering his well-known interest in the arts and sciences and love of Persian culture) is a question which historians have tried to answer for centuries, most of them agreeing that the fire was started at the instigation of Thais, the hetaira (courtesan) from Athens. Thais was at this time the lover of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals, bodyguards, and one of his oldest friends (possibly also his half-brother). She may also have been among Alexander’s lovers as the historian Athenaeus claims that Alexander liked to “keep Thaïs with him” though this could simply mean that she, like many women, was simply someone whose company he enjoyed. One evening after a drinking party – Thaïs was present and gave a speech which persuaded Alexander to burn the palace.
Another explanation for Alexander’s actions is suggested, though never explicitly stated, by ancient historian Diodorus. He notes that, as Alexander and his army approached Persepolis, they were met by a crowd of 800 Greek artisans who had been held captive at Persepolis. These people – elderly men and women – had been taken prisoner years before and, as skilled workers, were set to various tasks at the city. They were mutilated, however – some losing a hand or a foot – so they could not escape. Alexander and his senior staff, Diodorus reports, were greatly moved by this encounter with the artisans, and this may have motivated Alexander to treat Persepolis as poorly as he did. After Gaugamela, Alexander had marched to the city of Susa – which surrendered without contest – and he prohibited his troops from damaging it or harming any of the citizens. By contrast, when he arrived at Persepolis, he let his troops loose, encouraging them to sack the city and doing nothing to stop them from raping and killing anyone they found within the walls.
Whatever Alexander’s motivation may have been, he is said to have regretted his actions the very next morning and for the rest of his short life. The destruction of Persepolis was an immense loss of the accumulated learning, art, and culture of ancient Persia. The religious works of early Zoroastrianism, written on goat-skin parchment, were destroyed along with artworks, tapestries, and other priceless cultural artifacts. The administrative records of the city, written in cuneiform tablets of clay, were hard-baked by the fire and buried under rubble, surviving to the present day and providing archaeologists with vital information on how the Persian Empire operated and what the people valued. Even so, what was lost in the fire has long been recognised as irreplaceable, and whatever motivated the destruction of Persepolis cannot finally matter.

The Panagyurishte Treasure

The treasure is Thracian that consists of a phiale, an amphora, three oinochoai and four rhytons with total weight of 6.164 kg of 24-karat gold. All nine vessels are richly and skillfully decorated. It is dated from the turn of the 4th-3rd centuries BC. It is thought to have been used as a royal ceremonial set by the Thracian king Seuthes III.
The items may have been buried to hide them during 4th century BC invasions of the area by the Celts or Macedonians. The phiale carries inscriptions giving its weight in Greek drahma and Persian darics.
It was accidentally discovered on 8th December 1949 by three brothers, Pavel, Petko, and Michail Deikov, who worked together at the region of Merul tile factory near the railway station of the town of Panagyurishte, Bulgaria. At the time of its discovery it was considered the richest treasure to have been unearthed in Europe since World War II.
As one of the best known surviving artefacts of Thracian culture, the treasure has been displayed at various museums around the world. The treasure is the centrepiece of the Thracian art collection of the Plovdiv Regional Historical Museum, the National Museum of History in Sofia, and the History Museum in Panagyurishte. There are three replica sets, which are displayed in the museums in Panagyurishte, Sofia and Plovdiv, when the authentic treasure is lent for exhibitions abroad.

Who were the Thracians?

Homer provides the first written account of the Thracians in The Iliad where they are depicted as powerful soldiers fighting on the side of Troy. The ancient historian Herodotus describes the Thracians as the most populous people along with the Indians and claims that if not for their constant fighting, the Thracians would be invincible when united.
The Thracians were a mysterious group of tribes who occupied the southeastern part of the Balkan Peninsula. They spoke an Indo-European language, but numerous theories about their appearance on the European cultural map and later extinction/assimilation exist. One theory indicates that they were the original inhabitants of this area, another relates them to the tribes in West Asia and still others claim that the Thracians formed through the mixing of the original population in southeastern Europe and migrant tribes from Asia. One thing is for certain – the Thracians left a deep mark on the cultural development of the European civilisation. They influenced both the Greek and Roman cultures and it is even believed that a great share of the Greek and Roman gods and mythology is impacted by the Thracian beliefs and rituals.

Image: The Panagyurishte Treasure
Source:,, and worldhistory.

Leave a Reply