Forgotten Empire is an exhibition at the British Museum of artefacts from ancient Persia. They’ve got together with the National Museum of Iran, the Persepolis Museum and the Louvre, so it’s a rare opportunity to see a lot of the objects. The title and a lot of the hype emphasise how little most of us know about the Persians compared to their contemporaries in Greece; and by implication the exhibition is supposed to act as a corrective. The period covered is about 500-300 BC; i.e. about between the golden age of Athens and the conquest of Persia by Alexander.
I was certainly persuaded that the Persian empire was impressively rich and powerful. The palace at Persepolis had columns 20m tall, apparently. That’s about the height of a seven-storey building. But the stuff in the exhibition was all relentlessly about power and wealth. It was all decorated in macho emblems – bulls, lions, sphinxes, war chariots. All the palaces seem to have been covered in endless friezes of people bringing tributes to the Persian king; everything was ostentatious, in your face. Not an easy culture to warm to, even if individual objects were attractive.
The implied comparison with Greece didn’t really work in the Persian’s favour. I wouldn’t want to buy whole-heartedly into the Greeks’ assessment that they were civilised and the Persians were barbarians; even I know enough about Greek history to know they were capable of being aggressive, ruthless, power-hungry and greedy themselves. But I look at the Greek civilisation and my idea of it is tinted by Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Sappho and Sophocles. No doubt there were great ancient Persian poets and thinkers, but I don’t know about them, and without that knowledge all I can see is the physical evidence of a megalomaniac culture. And in fact, aesthetically the classical stuff is more pleasing. The Persian figures are all very stylised and stiff, repetitive in the way Egyptian or Assyrian figures are, and wandering from the exhibition to the Parthenon sculptures, I was struck anew by how much more naturalistic and varied and fluid they are. Classical sculpture has become a bit of a visual cliché over the past two thousand years, but it looks pretty remarkable compared to a lot of the earlier traditions.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that my lack of enthusiasm is purely based on an idea of the Persians as imperialist megalomaniacs compared to the (somewhat) democratic Greeks. I’ve been very impressed by work from other cultures which seem equally megalomaniac, like the Egyptians and the Aztecs. The Persians just seem to lack visual pizazz, somehow.