What Was It Like to Dine with the Persian Kings?
For the 25th anniversary of the Sackler Gallery, elaborately crafted Iranian metalwork from Arthur Sackler’s original gift are now on display
In his play, The Acharnians, Aristophanes complained, ”And those pitiless Persian hosts! They compelled us to drink sweet wine, wine without water, from gold and glass cups.” Now, gold and glass cups like the ones that bothered the peevish Aristophanes are on display at the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition “Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran,” which showcases selections from founder Arthur M. Sackler’s original gift to the museum. Just in time for Nowruz, the Persian New Year on March 20, the exhibition looks at the roots of Iran’s traditions of celebration and feasting through luxury vessels from the 5th century BC to the 10th century AD.
“The written sources are relatively limited,” curator Massumeh Farhad explains. “As a result, these objects play an even more important role because they offer us insight into the history. We’re trying to really look at what these objects were, what they tell us about the culture, the people. Everything starts with the objects.”
As one of the earliest civilizations to start eating multi-course meals, Persians became renowned throughout the ancient world for their decadence and love of material wealth. Meals could sometimes last for days, with time set aside for drinking wine and listening to music after the dessert courses. During the feast itself, everyone ate in complete silence. “No conversation. It’s so contrary to our idea of eating,” Farhad says.
Kings would commission finely wrought gold and silver plates, wine horns, vases and bowls that would either be used at feasts or sent as gifts to other rulers. The abundance of gold and silver mines in the region paired with the intricate craftsmanship, technically and artistically sophisticated even by modern standards, created a distinct reputation for Iranian royalty. The point was to broadcast wealth and power to the entire world; some of these Iranian decorative plates have been found as far away as China.
“The ruler needs to project a certain image not only to his people but also beyond the borders,” Farhad says. “He makes the most lavish types of vessels, so when he invites people he can take these out, and everyone’s astounded. It’s seen as an extension of the king’s identity.”
For many years, the ancient Greeks were the most common of the kings’ guests. “The Greeks give us detailed descriptions of these royal banquets,” Farhad says. Often they would, as Aristophanes did, complain about the sumptuousness and excess. The philosopher Herodotus seemed taken aback at the differences between his hosts’ way of life and his own: “The main dishes at their meals are few, but they have many sorts of dessert, the various courses being served separately. It is this custom that has made them say that the Greeks leave the table hungry, because we never have anything worth mentioning after the first course: they think that if we did, we should go on eating.”
Using the Greek histories and the vessels themselves, according to Farhad, we can start to put together a picture of what life was like in the ancient Iranian courts. “They are some of the most remarkable objects even if you don’t know much about the history,” shed says. “I really like it when people look closely. You may not have the detailed information, but you can let the objects tell you the story.”
“Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran” is on view indefinitely at the Sackler Gallery.