School of Arts

A Life of Luxury: Persia, Mesopotamia and Central Asia from Cyrus to Alexander

Key information

30 May – 02 June 2023
Start of programme
May 2023
Attendance mode
On campus, plus visit to the British Museum
SOAS, Russell Square, College Buildings

Course overview

“Treasure there was aplenty – tents full of gold and silver furniture; couches overlaid with the same precious metals; bowls, goblets, and cups, all made of gold.”  Herodotus describing Persian general Mardonius’s camp, 479 BCE, The Histories Book IX

The tremendous power and enormous wealth of the Persian kings of the Achaemenid empire (550-330 BCE) had an almost legendary status in antiquity. The empire’s heartland was in modern-day Iran, and it stretched from Afghanistan and northern India in the east to Thrace on the shores of the Black Sea in the west, encompassing Libya, Egypt and the Near East within its embrace. Much of our understanding of the great Persian kings – Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes – derives from Greek sources, whose experience of war against the Persians coloured their perceptions. The Greek gaze was disdainful of the ostentatious luxury of the Persian elite, their accounts disparaging the court as corrupt and decadent. Yet, the Greeks featured Persian culture in their art and in their theatre. After Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian ceremonial capital at Persepolis in 330 BCE, his successors emulated aspects of Persian courtly life, elements of which persisted into the Hellenistic age and beyond.

This course explores the luxurious world of the ancient Persians, where kings and noblemen expressed their power by means of opulent display and consumption. The lectures aim to reconstruct life in the great Achaemenid palaces in which banqueting and conviviality were at the core of political power, attested by spectacular gold and silver tableware, and extravagant consumables such as imported spices, incense and aromatics. Richly hued textiles glittering with golden appliqués, gold jewellery studded with gemstones, and parade weapons in elaborate scabbards all testify to the paramount importance of personal presentation. Despite their expressed distaste for such extravagances, from the 5th century BCE onwards the Greeks expended some of their burgeoning wealth on ‘Perseries’: wine jugs and drinking cups derived from Persian metal vessels in the more democratic medium of terracotta; while also craving eastern exotica such as peacocks and fighting cocks. Elite objects inspired by both Persia and Greece were also produced at the fringes of empires including, from around the 4th century BCE, spectacular gold vessels from Thrace, and remarkable jewellery from the 1st century CE graves at Tillya-tepe, Afghanistan.

This course coincides with the forthcoming major exhibition at the British Museum, Luxury and Power, Persia to Greece, 550–30 BCE, which runs 4 May 2023 - 13 Aug 2023. The course features a visit to the exhibition, led by Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones.

The course is convened by Dr Sara Peterson, with Prof Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, who has co-authored the exhibition catalogue.


The course runs Tuesday to Friday, starting at 10am and finishing before 5pm.

Lectures will take place in SOAS’ Russell Square, London campus. The course also features a visit to the British Museum.

Download the full schedule of lectures, speakers and times: Luxury course schedule (PDF).

For more information, please contact us:

Fees and funding



The fee includes entry to the British Museum exhibition.

Capacity for this course is strictly limited and places are confirmed on a first-come, first-served basis. Please refer to our registration terms and conditions before booking your space.

Book your place today!