Margaret C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv + 331, incl. 150 black- and-white illustrations and 2 maps. ISBN 0-521- 49598-9. $AUS 160.00.
University of Auckland
Margaret C. Miller has written a very interesting and rewarding book. She shows that Athenian hatred of the Persians and resistance to Persian control did not preclude significant Persian cultural influence upon the Athenians.[] Yet Athens did not become a satellite of Persia in cultural terms. As Miller argues cogently (pp. 243-48), the Athenian response to Persian goods and luxury culture in the fifth century BC does not easily fit the centre-periphery model of acculturation. Instead of joining a Persian periphery, Athens itself became an imperial centre, with elements of Persian culture being employed by its citizens to enhance social standing through luxury display.
The first chapter, 'Relations between Athenians and Persians to the late fifth century' (pp. 3- 28), gives an overview of Athenian-Persian relations. Next Miller seeks to determine how the Athenians might have come into contact with Persian goods (chapter 2, 'Infusion and diffusion of alien goods: spoils of the Persian Wars', pp. 29-62). Miller believes that the Athenians must have won substantial spoils from the Battle of Marathon because Persian officers and officials took vast treasures with them on campaign as an expected way of displaying their rank. Herodotus doesn't mention such spoils because, in Miller's view, this would have detracted from the impact of his description of the spoils of Plataea (pp. 30-32). The latter argument is perhaps debatable, but the point about Marathon booty can be conceded. Indeed, Miller maintains a strong position that it was the Persian Wars, especially the invasions of the Greek mainland, which played the most significant role in influencing 'Athenian taste and desires' (p. 146). She collects evidence for Iranian objects found in Greece, examines evidence for the division of spoils, and evokes successfully the large and richly adorned tents which must have served the Persians on campaign (and at other times too).
Moreover, there were other means besides battle through which Persian goods and structures could have become known in the Greek mainland. Miller shows that there was significant contact between the two cultures, beyond what I had previously thought. Trade could have been guessed at (chapter 3, 'Cultural exchange through trade', pp. 63-88), but diplomatic gifts were likewise significant (chapter 5, 'Diplomatic exchange: visions of splendour', pp. 109-33). We have tended to think of Asia Minor as a Greek area ruled by Persians. Miller shows that Persians physically came to settle in this wealthy region (pp. 91f.) and surrounded themselves with artifacts and structures reminiscent of the Persian heartland and in particular the royal court (chapter 4, 'Zones of contact between Greeks and the western empire', pp. 89-108). Emphasis is placed upon clothing and embroidered textiles, which were valuable enough to serve as diplomatic gifts and to be traded widely. Chinese silk, obviously a product of trade with the east, was found in the fifth-century Kerameikos Grave HTR 73 (cf. pp. 77f. and n. 101).
When investigating Athenian use of Persian luxury items (chapter 6, 'Persian gold and Attic clay', pp. 135-52, chapter 7, 'Incorporation of foreign items of dress', pp. 153-87, and chapter 8, 'Metamorphosis of a luxury culture', pp. 188-217), Miller gleans a lot of information from red figure pottery, which tends to show women enjoying the benefits of exotic slaves, luxury clothing, animal-head cups, fans, parasols and flywhisks. Peacocks and eunuchs appear too. These were items used by men in Persian and earlier contexts, and so Miller's conclusion is that Athenian men avoided these Persian trappings for patriotic and political reasons, whereas (non-political, non-military) women could exploit them as status symbols without the offending connotations of disloyalty (pp. 188-217, 250). It may be so, but two things worry me. Firstly, just how 'Persian' and offensive were these items? Standards of consistency differ between the ancient and the modern world, and a man's position much depended on the circumstances in which he found himself (and isn't this so today?). Assuming that men denied themselves the use of such items in (say) public settings, did they have to do so at all times and in all settings? And if the items under consideration were unequivocally 'Persian' in their evocations, shouldn't there have been a problem for society's acceptance of their use even by women? Is it unreasonable to think that there was a dimension in which they represented a higher 'civilisation' that could transcend the degree to which they were simply 'Persian'? Ramsay MacMullen has made this point about the 'hellenization' process at Rome.[] Secondly, there is a 'boudoir' feel to many vases of the latter half of the fifth century, especially the last few decades (e.g. the work of the Eretria Painter or the Meidias Painter). They concentrate upon women and women's concerns. Miller is well aware of this, arguing that it shows growth in 'the role of elite women in the expression of social standing through luxury' (p. 217). Again, it might be so; but it might also have something to do with the decline in production of pots for male, aristocratic, politically-motivated symposia under the influence of developing democracy in the fifth century. In consequence of all this, I'd like to keep an open mind about the possibility of men employing Persian luxury items in the way that Athenian women seem to have done.
Athenian architecture, too, could be motivated by the luxury display factor, as Miller shows for the Odeion of Pericles (chapter 9, 'The Odeion of Perikles and imperial expression', pp. 218-42). Pausanias (1.20.4) claims that the Odeion was built to resemble Xerxes' tent, but Miller argues that it imitated Apadana architecture, especially the Hall of the Hundred Columns at Persepolis (pp. 235-37). Noting that musical performances took place in the open air everywhere else, Miller states that its 'purpose appears to have been purely semiotic and so its function must have been symbolic' (p. 240). As Perserie permeated Athenian society more deeply, Miller sees this 'democratisation of Perserie' as provoking a certain Lakonism among the elite in the late fifth century (pp. 255f.).
Miller's work is both innovative and persuasive, and her book has been beautifully produced. It combines literary and visual evidence to a greater degree and with more skill than usual. Perhaps the reception of 'Persian' culture at Athens is still not quite settled, but any further investigation will have to start from Miller's study and will undoubtedly benefit from its thoroughness and sophistication.
[] The term 'Perserie', on the analogy of Chinoiserie and Turkerei, is coined for the use and adaptation of Persian objects and styles at Athens (p. 1).
[] R. MacMullen, 'Hellenizing the Romans (2nd Century BC)', Historia 40 (1991) 419-38.