Documentary looking at the concept of luxury in ancient Greece, from its role in democracy's origins in Athens to its denial in Sparta.
Browse content similar to Ancient Greece. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Look at this. It's almost 2,500 years old,
made of solid gold, 80 individual leaves, 112 individual flowers,
each painstakingly produced by some of the most talented craftsmen the world has ever seen.
It's a wreath for a queen from Macedon in Northern Greece,
made in the 4th century BC.
It's a classic case of royal extravagance,
part of a collection of some of the most wondrous luxuries
the world has ever seen.
But luxury isn't always just a question of the expensive and the beautiful
for the rich and the powerful.
It's always been much more and much more important than that.
This story of luxury is about an idea that touches on democracy
on social harmony, and epic courage.
And even on the divine.
And because it's so important,
there's always been more than one definition of what luxury actually is.
But one thing we can agree on. Luxury is a rare thing.
And that's why it causes so much anxiety with us today.
Particularly those luxuries that are rare, exotic, expensive.
They divide us into the haves and the have nots.
So, do we love luxury or hate it?
For my money, the best way to understand our anxious response to luxury
is to think about how luxury operated in our past,
and how that past continues to affect us today.
To do that, one of the key periods we need to focus on
is just a few short centuries in Ancient Greece.
Our story of luxury begins not with the exotic,
but what might at first appear to be the mundane.
But from the beginning of human history, meat has actually been a prime luxury.
For millennia, the staples of human diet have been fruits, cereals or vegetables.
Meat was rare for most people in the past.
And rarity is the mother of luxury.
Ancient Greece was no exception.
Here in the meat market in modern Athens
you get what you want, as long as you can pay for it.
THEY CONVERSE IN GREEK
In ancient Athens, it was very different.
Most people got their meat in sacrifices,
when animals were killed in religious ceremonies as gifts to the gods.
And the most important of those ceremony here in ancient Athens was the Panathenaia,
where people came from all over Attica to pay worship
to the city's patron deity, Athena Polias.
The Panathenaia was the biggest civic festival in democratic Athens.
It lasted more than a week.
After musical and athletic competitions,
on the sixth day of festivities, a great procession climbed up a winding route
to the Acropolis for the sacrifice.
The procession began on the edge of the city.
We can get a sense of what it looked like
because many scholars argue that it was depicted in the frieze of the Parthenon,
Athena's famous temple on the Acropolis.
We have to imagine the clank of the Athenian soldiers' armour,
the smell of the incense burners carried by the maidens,
the gossipy tribute-bearers bearing gifts from the allied states,
the Athenian elders carrying their olive branches,
priestesses from noble families.
In amongst all that was a wheeled model ship carrying, as a sail,
a new cloak for the goddess Athena,
and, in front, 100 sacrificial cows,
all being herded up to the Acropolis.
Like the other objects taken up to the Acropolis,
cattle were very valuable.
Most of the gifts ended up being dedicated as offerings.
But the cows were for sacrificing. And for eating.
There and then.
Each animal was led up to the altar and when the moment was propitious, its throat was cut.
Can you imagine the noise of the crowd as the animal thudded to the floor.
The smell, the sight of the blood as it gushed from its throat, covering the altar.
For the Greeks, this was the ultimate moment of ritual communication with the divine.
But it was also a moment of intense, luxurious expectation.
At this sacrifice,
the meat was shared out to those who took part in the ceremony.
The priests gave the gods their portion,
usually just the bones wrapped in fat
which, happily, the gods were said to prefer.
Then they then divided the rest out amongst the crowd,
And the eating began.
The most important thing about this meal was that it was a civic affair
that unified the whole community. And here's why.
One cow will provide half-pound steaks for about 160 people,
and lesser meat for another 400.
Up here, they sacrificed 100 cows.
That's meat enough for 56,000 people. The entire population of Athens, and then some.
People weren't just coming from the city but from miles around.
It's as if the entire population of Kent descended on Canterbury
for a giant public barbecue.
And all of this was at public expense.
Meat was a luxury, to be sure, but it was a luxury that could be enjoyed by everyone,
not just a privileged elite. Athens had taken a luxury
and turned it into something to unify an entire community together.
And how that came about is a story that still echoes for us today
as we think about how we understand luxury.
The tale begins in a time of real trouble in Greece,
a bit like today. And we're going back to the days before Athens became a democracy.
In the 7th century BC,
power here in Athens lay with the rich,
the elite, the aristocracy.
These noble families competed incessantly for power.
Each aimed to dominate the city.
The struggle was not only political, but cultural,
fuelled by the conspicuous public display of private luxury.
By the late 7th century BC, rich aristocrats in ancient Athens
seem to have been spending more and more.
These aristocrats had little qualm about their wealth or power.
They were, after all, the "eupatridae", the well-born.
And this showing off wasn't simply a PR exercise.
It was a fundamental part of their armoury of strategies
for competing with one another.
So they wore rich clothes and expensive armour,
feasted on fine food and wine, served by companies of slaves.
We can't experience these things today.
But what we can find are their graves.
In ancient times,
the burial ground of Athens lay outside the main gates of the city.
In an area called the Kerameikos.
And in those days, the funeral of an aristocrat was a showy, expensive affair.
It celebrated wealth and status.
So much so, that it was itself a form of luxury.
Here you can find monuments from many periods of Athenian history.
But if you know what you're looking for, you can find what impressed in the late 7th century BC -
Walking through the Kerameikos is like walking through
a history of the Athenians' relationship with the luxury funeral.
Over here, we have the old aristocratic grand family tumulus,
huge, personalized, once capped by a beautiful statue.
A burial mound was a dramatic way of establishing status.
Everyone saw it on their way in and out of the city.
Luxury as political propaganda.
I think that's about political power.
In almost all societies,
funerals can be very easily politicised.
Just think about, for example, the IRA funerals of the past
or Palestinian funerals.
It's a very good public opportunity for a family or a kin group
to make a big noise publicly.
But for the other Athenians, those left out of the competition
and out of the luxuries, it was a very different story.
Large numbers of them were in debt and in those days,
the consequences were grim.
Some Athenians even found themselves forced into slavery
to clear their debts.
The situation has parallels today.
This is one of four shelters for the homeless set up by Father Ignatius.
More and more people have started coming here to be fed
since the global financial crisis hit.
They are in debt, and suffering
and naturally, some of them blame the lenders.
Feelings back in the 7th century BC were not much different
and they were explosive.
Then, as now, there was a serious danger of civil unrest.
Or even revolution.
And displays of private luxury at funerals and elsewhere
seemed to have been fast becoming a dangerous provocation.
In 600 BC here in Athens, the rich aristocrats were getting richer
while the poor increasingly being sold into debt bondage,
debts owed to the very people called eupatridi,
well-born, the aristocrats.
Even amongst the aristocrats,
competition it seems had broken out into murder on the streets.
Everyone realised the tension was building, possibly to the scale of civil war.
In that apprehension, the Athenians turns to a man called Solon
to help them with their problems
and because luxury was such a vital part of that problem,
what was needed was a new approach to luxury itself.
Solon was an aristocrat but a very unusual one.
He believed that worth and happiness were not only to be measured
in gold and silver and now perhaps for the first time
in the political arena, we find the appearance of the idea
that private luxury can be a dangerous and divisive thing.
This was a radical step.
Solon believed in non-material methods of judging happiness,
but that every level of society should have appropriate rights and powers.
So he set about reforming Athens,
particularly outlawing debt bondage for the poor.
But he did something more.
Luxurious expenditure had been part of the problem from the beginning.
Perhaps Solon had Delphi's motto, "Nothing in excess"
in mind when he went about attacking that luxurious expenditure.
Particularly, banning that associated with funeral processions and burials.
There's a problem really of extreme economic distress on the part of
most Athenians, coupled with an extreme desire by a few
to better themselves politically.
In other words, to get their hands on a bit of political power.
So in this crisis,
Solon was thought to be the person to turn to to bring about...
he was actually called an arbitrator,
so somehow keep the warring parties apart.
Did Solon do what he set out to do?
Well, he did insofar as he cancelled debts,
which was wonderful for the mass of the poor.
He did redistribute power
insofar as organs of government were able to function securely.
And he is a republican in the sense, he's not a democrat, but he is a republican,
he believes in organs of self government
which are at least stable.
-And Solon wasn't even aiming for democracy?
-No, no, no. Not at all.
He couldn't possibly have been aiming for democracy...
Because he didn't know about it.
Neither the word nor the thing existed but what he was aiming for was stability
and what he didn't achieve was stability.
Solon has attempted to control luxury to create social harmony
but instead the political jockeying got even worse
and it even spilled on to the Acropolis itself.
Through to the late 6th century, it became a veritable forest of sculpture
as the aristocrats competed with each other
by making magnificent and luxurious offerings to the gods.
This display was public all right, but it was intended to serve
the personal glory of private individuals.
Nothing seemed to have changed, so crisis loomed again.
The climax came towards the end of the 6th century BC
and incredibly it led to the birth of democracy
and a new role for luxury.
Athenian society had once again ignited into complicated violence
and then one faction, led by a man called Cleisthenes,
invoked the mass of the people to break the power of its enemies.
And the eventual result was, for the first time in human history,
a democratic constitution.
The rule of the people. One man, one vote.
Up here was the assembly place where the new democratic Athenian citizens came together.
Democracy was established in Athens in 508 BC
and it had a dramatic impact on Athenian attitudes to luxury.
Solon's reforms had been a compromise between rich and poor
but now the watchword was "isonomia",
absolute equality and egalitarian rights for every citizen.
It was a radical idea then
and in some parts of the world today it's still a radical idea.
But the problem for the Athenians was this - democracy had come about
as the result of competition between rich aristocratic families.
As a result, there was this fear that democracy might still be at risk
from those same machinations, so if luxury was to be acceptable
in the democracy, it had to be public, not private, in origin.
In particular, that had a dramatic impact on dedications and temples.
Any visitor would have noticed something special
happening in Athens at this time.
Under the democracy in the 5th century BC,
the Acropolis was rebuilt with a steady insistence
on the primacy of public monuments over private ones.
The democracy was consciously trying to outdo and build over
the earlier efforts of the aristocratic clans.
The final scheme was the brainchild of the Athenian democratic leader, Pericles.
On it, he spent a huge proportion of the revenues of both the state
and the empire which Athens had gained
and it was put up at phenomenal speed.
Pericles's later biographer puts it like this.
"For this reason are the works of Pericles all the more amazing.
"They were created in a short time for all time."
The new public buildings on the Acropolis
became the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower of their day.
Icons of the city and its new democracy.
The project involved some of the greatest artists
in the whole of Greek history.
The architecture of the Parthenon takes into account
subtle optical illusions that ensure its massive proportions look perfect.
The temple looks rectilinear,
but there's not a straight line anywhere.
Likewise, the sculpture which decorated it
was some of the finest the Greek world ever produced.
It was all further enhanced with paint and precious metals.
The whole complex was truly dazzling.
Now these luxurious democratic monuments defined Athens
and of course the temples were surrounded by statue dedications
but now they were being put up by ordinary citizens,
not just rich aristocrats.
But that didn't mean that there wasn't still huge inequality in Athenian society.
You have rich citizens and poor citizens but politically,
they're one-man, one-vote.
They're all theoretically equal in the assembly.
This comes out in all sorts of interesting ways. Dress is one.
Athenian gentleman dress down, you can't tell who's a citizen
and who's a slave in Athens, they all look the same and dress alike.
Not just their dress, the slaves are acting with a sense of liberty you wouldn't expect.
It's like American presidents who eat hot dogs and wear baseball caps
even though they're multi-millionaires. You dress down
and if you dress up too much, it's the kind of thing
that in the assembly or in the law courts,
people will pick you off for.
What's interesting to me, as I'm interested in power,
is that the masses actually compelled the rich
to spend their money not on themselves but on public services.
But Athens feeds back on itself into this whole personal behaviour
-which makes it a tightrope for the Athenian wealthy.
-It is dialectical.
It's strategies of management, isn't it?
But the accusation then is always if you're spending money
on personal adornment and personal luxury, you can't be spending it
on the city, which is where you should be spending it.
Quite. There's a balance.
For democratic Athenians, luxury wasn't just a political problem.
It was a moral one too.
A taste for private luxury had become a moral failing.
And it wasn't just through fine art and architecture
that these ideas were publicised.
Perhaps even more important was another Athenian institution -
Athens was the home of Greek tragedy.
The plays were performed in the Theatre of Dionysus
just beneath the Acropolis.
Today we think about going to the theatre as something of a luxury,
a night out.
But back then it was very different. For the Athenians
it was almost the duty of a citizen to go to the theatre.
But putting on plays was an expensive business
so the Athenians allowed rich individuals to sponsor those productions
and in return, the rich individuals got a chance to show off.
Those two columns behind me? They're just that.
A rich individual who'd sponsored the winning play was allowed to show off his success.
As a result, the Athenians had found a way of channelling
the wealth of rich individuals towards the public benefit.
And it was here in the theatre that we can see
something of the Athenians' attitudes towards luxury.
In 472 BC when he was still a young man,
Pericles paid for a new play by the playwright Aeschylus.
It was called The Persians.
Persia was no democracy, it was the most powerful monarchy
in the ancient world with its capital in today's Iran.
Just eight years before, Athens had gone to war against Persia
for the city's very survival...
Pericles' play describes how the news of their defeat
was received back in Persia and in it, Athens' enemies are portrayed
not only as autocratic but as immensely rich and sunk in luxury.
It's a culture and civilisation that counts
on quantity, on wealth, exhibits of wealth, exhibits of emotions
up to an extreme quantity and size.
Huge army, big, gold weapons and the grandeur of the emperors.
Whereas the Greeks had one virtue which is "metron",
balance in things, not to go to the extremes.
I don't think that Aeschylus says which is right and which is wrong
because he's not at all didactic.
All he says is that we're different.
I think he wrote this play warning the people
in the midst of this happiness and joy,
be careful because you may make the same mistakes later.
In the play, the Persians aren't just rich lovers of luxury,
they are soft and over-emotional.
Here was the danger.
Luxury was attractive but it could corrupt, not just Persians
but Athenian democrats too.
And they knew it. In fact, the Greeks had a word for it.
Not "hubris", but "habros".
The key word here is habros which suggests softness, luxury,
delicacy, refinement, sometimes a bit of effeminacy.
And this characterises the Persians,
some of them are habro goy, they lament in a habros fashion.
It's their clothing, their manners, their ways and quite different
from respectable Greeks who, after all, have just beaten this enormous army.
So again it's this notion of the polluting aspect of luxury
but it's very two-sided even with the Athenians, isn't it?
Because you have this distrust of the luxury.
On the other hand you also have Athenians adopting Persian fashions,
adopting Persian dress in a very positive way
and this shows up on the images, on the vase painting quite a lot.
How much does the concept of luxury become the mainstay
of the Greek conception of the foreign, of Oriental, of Persia?
First there's a big difference between the foreign and the Oriental.
So habros isn't for the foreigners, it remains very much
a keynote of the eastern foreigners,
the people from Ionia and points east
so Persians, Medes, that sort of person.
So according to Pericles and his playwright, Aeschylus,
to be luxurious was not just to be undemocratic,
it was to be Persian, it was to be like the enemy.
But it was even more than that,
this play was about helping the Greeks find themselves.
The Greeks were everything the Persians were not,
the Greeks were austere, masculine, egalitarian, restrained.
The Persians were fearful, feminine and totally over the top.
Thinking about luxury had helped the Athenians not just to find who the enemy were,
but who they were as a community.
The question was, would that Greek versus Persian attitude to luxury,
which built on Solon's attitude to luxury 100 years before,
be able to survive against not just the natural tendency
for the good things in life
but the perennial Greek devotion to competition and display?
The Persians includes a dramatically emotional scene of mourning
for their defeat in war, habros incarnate.
That too must have struck a chord in Pericles' Athens.
Over-the-top funeral processions and burials
was exactly the kind of thing Solon had tried to outlaw
in Athens 100 years before.
Back then, he's said to have banned the amount of fine cloth you could be buried with
and made sure that all processions took place before daybreak
so that no-one could see them.
The whole idea was to try and mitigate
the public display of private luxury.
And did it work?
Well, yes...and no.
In the 5th century, it seems that any monument
that took more than three workmen 10 days to build was banned.
But that prohibition didn't last very long.
By the beginning of the 4th century, rich individuals had returned
with some of the flashiest monuments to date. This is one of the first,
Dexilaos who died in battle,
to be seen on his horse in one of his more successful cavalry charges.
As far as luxury went, fine sculpture was just the start of it.
On this tombstone, which commemorates a lady called Hegeso,
you can still see
where they attached a costly piece of real jewellery,
a real trinket she had chosen from her dressing table
that she remembered from life.
a family monument commemorates a man called Koroibos and his descendants.
These were substantial individuals and they didn't stint.
Many of the same artists whose skills continued
to make Athens a treasure-box of public democratic luxury
were also working here for private citizens.
This explosion of luxury couldn't last forever
and, eventually, the law clamped down again.
And up here, you can see the result.
Just a stumpy identikit cylinder with only a name written on it.
From now on, however rich you were,
cylinders like this were all you got.
But here in the Kerameikos,
there was another grave which was perhaps the most important of all.
As we saw, most of the 5th century was a time of democratic restraint.
But for Athens, it was also a time of war,
first against the Persians, then against the city of Sparta.
Those who sacrificed themselves for their city were buried in an ultimate show of equality.
For them, there was what the Athenians called the people's grave,
a mass public burial area without any luxurious markings at all.
And even today, we don't know exactly where it lay.
Wherever it was,
the mass grave played the same kind of role as in our society The Tomb Of The Unknown Warrior.
But much more important was this.
It was here in this cemetery that Pericles,
after the end of the first year of the devastating war with Sparta,
gave a funeral speech in which he tried to justify
why the Athenian men had given up their lives for their city.
And in that speech, he said that Athens
was, "An education for all of Greece."
But what had Athens taught Greece?
Well, in terms of luxury, here was incredible luxury.
But it was democratic luxury, luxury in the service of all,
luxury that didn't divide people as much as brought them together.
Now that worked for meat, it worked for public buildings,
it worked, to some extent, for funerals.
But other luxuries were not quite so easily managed.
And some were downright disruptive.
Amazingly, what caused a lot of difficulty in democratic Athens
was something as simple as fish.
Many Greek cities were just a stone's throw from the sea.
The ancient Greeks were famous sailors,
and fishing was a big industry.
Everyone knew their fishes, their rarity and their cost.
That made fish the ultimate vehicle for luxurious consumption.
Meat was a luxury which all Athenians could share in at big public sacrifices.
But with fish, you could really indulge yourself.
And a whole literature grew up to celebrate that.
This is one of the most famous texts about fish.
It's by a fanatical fish-fancier called Archestratus.
from the city of Gela in Sicily, a notoriously luxurious part of the Greek world.
In fact, so luxurious that a city not far away, Sybaris,
has given us our own word "sybaritic" for ultimate luxury today.
It's not surprising that Archestratus had some pretty strong views.
Let's try them out.
"A conger eel is as much superior to any other dish
"as the fattest tuna is to the utterly worthless raven fish."
THEY SPEAK GREEK
OK, no eel. Let's try something else.
"If you see the boar fish, buy it!
"Even if it costs its weight in gold, don't leave without it,
"but treat all small fry with contempt - awful."
THEY SPEAK GREEK
He's never even heard of it. Um...
Tsipoura, striped bream. What does Arkistratis say about it? Um...
Oh. "The shore-hugging striped bream is an awful fish,
"worthy of nothing".
Times have clearly changed.
But this was no joke.
People cared enormously about the kind of fish
they bought or were offered.
A class system developed around fish,
which made a very clear statement about the people who devoured them.
Fish threw into sharp relief the divisions
that still lay at every level of the community.
Meat brought people together.
But fish divided them.
You even start to get insults. "Opsophagos!"
which eventually means "fish lover",
someone consumed by their greed for fish.
What's more, being a fish lover became a political issue,
at the highest level.
It was like this.
For Athenian democrats, the real danger was people
with uncontrolled appetites or desires.
It didn't matter what you desired.
It could be sex or money, fish or power.
But it shouldn't take over.
That was why Delphi proclaimed "Nothing in excess".
Fish became political because Athenians believed
that if you showed yourself out of control in one area,
you were out of control everywhere.
So if you couldn't control your desire for fish,
or if you had a particular liking for very expensive fish,
then the implication was you were most probably morally corrupt
and, indeed, even possibly a tyrant in the making.
Aristophanes, the comedian, says that the Athenian fish markets were constantly patrolled
by worried Athenians on the look-out for such things.
"If someone buys a grouper and turns his nose up at the sprats",
Aristophanes says, "..straightaway the man next to him declares,
"'Seems like he's on a spree for Tyranny.'"
The implication was that such a man was full of avarice and greed.
And potentially a tyrant.
By regulating funerals and worrying about things like fish,
democratic Athens found itself able to manage
the mismatch between egalitarian ideals and social reality.
But the debate about luxury never stopped,
because Athenians knew they could never abolish the taste for it.
Even the language of luxury becomes more sophisticated.
"Habros" gains a sense of stylish Parisian delicacy,
while the new no-word is "poluteles" which has a very brashy Las Vegas show-off feel.
If anyone sums up the complicated Athenian attitude to luxury
then it's a younger relative of Pericles' called Alcibiades.
Alcibiades had grown up with Pericles and he would have been a familiar figure
in the ancient harbour of Athens because he was a great naval commander
and a very astute politician.
But he was also given to extraordinary bouts of luxurious self-indulgence
and aggressive displays of ambition.
So the Athenians didn't know how to respond to him.
Luxury bad, skills at commanding good,
and the story of Athens becomes the story of Alcibiades' career,
as the people turned to him and against him.
Alcibiades dominated Athens during the second half of the war against Sparta in the late 5th century BC.
He was an aristocrat,
from the legendary family which had helped found the democracy
a century before. He was a friend of the philosopher Socrates,
who was even said to have saved his life in battle.
Even today, amongst my Athenian friends, he's a bit of a star.
But a flawed one.
In a way, he was the ultimate sex magnet in Greece, I mean...
A sex magnet?
Yeah, Alcibiades was like the wonder of Athens.
You hear these hilarious stories.
His dress sense was very effeminate, you know...
He was wearing these long robes.
Can we call him, um...metrosexual?
-Would it be...?
-Well, he tried to provoke people.
But I think he didn't actually care.
He got into trouble as well, didn't he?
I mean, as an individual, he went too far,
-I mean he got it wrong, you know, he was...
-Of course, it was not a very...
..typical character of all the Athenians,
but it was somehow the exception
but the kind and the type of character that the Athenians would like to be like.
-The hero Alkiviades.
There's all this potential there but somehow it all goes bad.
-So Alcibiades was more Athens than perhaps Athens would like to recognise?
Despite his attractions, Alcibiades' career in Athens came unstuck.
Just as he was about to take command of Athens's most ambitious expedition,
an attack on Sicily, the city suffered an outrage.
In the middle of the night, someone deliberately mutilated a series of sacred statues.
An accusation was made that it was Alcibiades and his friends.
They were accused of betraying religious secrets, too.
Yet, in Athens, he still had his defenders.
In the end, Alcibiades decided to skip trial.
His destination was Sparta,
Athens' bitterest rival.
The two cities had been at war on and off for almost two decades.
But, even so,
when he bolted, the Athenians must have chuckled somewhat,
for their epitome of luxurious cool was now off to a...
..Well, very Spartan world.
Now the story of luxury takes what seems a surprising turn.
We're off to Sparta
because luxury was an issue there too.
If democratic Athens was one of the most outgoing of the Greek cities,
then Sparta, hidden in the depths of the Peloponnese,
was one of the most opaque.
Most Greeks thought Spartans were very odd,
and that's the problem because almost everything we know about Sparta
comes not from the Spartans themselves, but from outsiders.
And in terms of luxury,
it's fascinating that most Greeks just didn't get where the Spartans were at.
For example, the Spartans were famous for their long luxuriant hair.
Anywhere else, that might be thought soft, weak or effeminate.
But they thought it made them look taller, tougher and more terrifying.
I'm on my way to get at the truth about Spartan luxury.
And the hair is a clue because it turns out that the Spartan luxury par excellence,
was their image.
And it was the unyielding pursuit of that image that eventually brought them down.
Despite his reputation,
when he got here, Alcibiades took to Sparta rather well.
But the sniggering Athenians had a point.
Sparta was very different from Athens.
I've come to the peak of the Spartan Acropolis,
where, just as in Athens, there was a temple to Athena.
And this is it.
It's not exactly the Parthenon, is it, but then it was never intended to be.
Sparta was not Athens.
This Acropolis is a low hill, not a rocky crag dominating the city.
Sparta had no city walls, like the stout city walls of Athens.
The ancient historian Thucydides put it like this. He said,
"Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted,
"and nothing left but the shrines and the private houses,
"then distant ages would be very unwilling to believe
"that the power of the Spartans was at all equal to their fame."
And coming here...
..I can see what he meant.
So what did Spartan luxury amount to?
Well, Sparta had no city walls, they said,
because the Spartans themselves were its defence.
And they were, and are, famous for their martial glory.
In story, song, and even in Hollywood
the tale of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans,
defying thousands of decadent Persians at Thermopylae
is one of the West's great legends.
Quite simply, Sparta was organized for war.
War and death were their luxuries. Initially, at least.
Citizens had to serve as soldiers in every Greek city.
But Spartans took that much further.
They got rid of weak children at birth.
Military school was compulsory.
As adults, all male Spartans dined together every day,
in a military mess to which each had to contribute oil,
grain and wine from his own farm.
And all this resulted in a ferocious image
which terrified other Greeks for centuries.
A famous Spartan marching poem went like this,
"No man is good in war unless first he can endure the sight of bloody slaughter."
That military prowess went hand in hand with a system of social equality
and a denial of luxury unheard of in Athens.
Clothes had to be the same, gold and silver were banned,
the currency was so big it was pointless to carry it around with you.
No extravagant architecture!
And all that came with a convenient oracle that said
that love of individual wealth would destroy Sparta.
But you know, the story's much more interesting than that.
By the end of the 5th century,
the Spartan military machine dominated mainland Greece.
But as we found, the remains of ancient Sparta are not impressive.
What has been recovered is here in the local museum.
Paul Cartledge is a leading expert on ancient Sparta,
and he has come with me to see what's left,
and what it tells us about the Spartan approach to luxury.
This guy here, as soon as he was excavated,
the workman who uncovered him said, "Leonidas".
Well, it may be.
It's around about the right time
but what's significant is the subject is of a warrior.
So you can't get much more Spartan than that.
And, actually, the sculptor has captured one very striking feature.
-Round the back, you can see bits of his hair.
-So he does have his long hair as well?
He does have his hair just creeping a little bit below the helmet.
He's slightly smiling, but that's partly because of the style of the piece,
but it partly also, I think, emphasises his cheerfulness.
-A smiling at death?
-Exactly. In the face of potential death.
This Spartan stoicism even extended beyond death.
-Let's see what we can bring up.
Well, this reads "Olbiadas",
which is the name of the dead man, and then it says...
"In polemari", "In war".
And that's it. It doesn't tell you who his dad was.
-Doesn't tell you where he's from.
-No nice relief.
-No nice relief.
-Him on a cavalry charge.
This is Spartan austerity in death.
It's not always terrifically heroic public statues.
It is a private and very severe two liner.
And what message this gives you is egalitarianism,
but only Spartan men who died in battle got their names.
If you can imagine, there's no gravestone other than the marker.
There's no inscription for any male Spartan who dies.
-Only those who die in war.
-So this looks like ultra minimalism, but...
-This is their luxury.
Very nice way of putting it. And how luxurious is that?
Inverted minimalist luxury like this created a myth about Sparta,
a story which convinced the entire ancient world.
But there are other things in this very same museum
which suggest that the myth may be just that. A myth.
We actually have here some archaeological evidence which comes from the sanctuary of Orthia.
-I was going to say, there isn't too much gold
naturally produced in Sparta, so it has to be imported.
Secondly, this is jewellery. This is womenswear.
-Some of the jewellery's quite finely styled, isn't it?
So, that suggests a certain sort of finery.
And do you notice little double axes?
Well, that's a male implement, so even the men are dedicating in gold.
Imaginary versions of utilitarian objects,
so this is quite a bit of a worry about...
So, the Spartan myth is perhaps more of a myth?
The Spartan myth is a bit fragile.
The jewellery in this museum raises a really important question.
The Spartan military machine continued to win victories.
Those victories brought with them plunder, booty, economic power,
yet Spartan laws forbade any kind of truck with luxuries of those sorts.
So the question was this -
could the Spartans find a way to square the circle?
Or would that contradiction tear their society apart?
Sparta's military dominance began in the 6th century BC
and continued until the 4th.
And underpinning it all was the Spartan militaristic image,
the Spartan myth.
The myth mainly applies to the male part of the Spartan citizen body.
And that lasted for a very long time, in other words,
it was unrivalled. The Spartans didn't have anybody to puncture it.
But when they start coming into conflict
and contact with other Greeks,
then the word gets out that actually some Spartans are a hell of a lot richer than other Spartans.
One had a hint that this was going on.
Imports start to flow in and silver starts to stick to fingers.
The Spartans acquired a reputation of being notoriously bribable
-Do we start to see examples of that inequality
-becoming more apparent to Spartans themselves?
And one very obvious way which is the ownership of land.
It's clear that more and more,
there's a huge division between the majority, who owned very little, and the minority, who owned quite a lot.
By the early 4th century BC, this had become one of the richest parts of Greece.
But private wealth was still technically forbidden.
Spartans couldn't wear their gold and silver in public.
So all the corrupting luxury was kept out of sight.
In sanctuaries like Delphi and Olympia,
the Spartans were showing off just as much as any other city.
But now here at home, in places like this,
they were beginning to show off as individuals.
And even the Spartan admirer Xenophon complained that Spartans
were not living now according to their own rules.
This influx of wealth was creating a disparity between rich and poor in Spartan society
and that was going to have a huge impact on Spartan power.
Poorer Spartans found themselves without enough land to supply their military messes.
As a result, they could no longer be Spartan citizens or soldiers.
Worse, nearly a century of solid fighting
had devastated Spartan numbers.
The army declined from nearly 5,000 in the 5th century BC
to just 1,500 who fought in battle at Leuctra in 371.
The very next year, having killed 400 more Spartans,
a foreign enemy, led by the city of Thebes, invaded Spartan territory.
The game was up.
The historian Xenophon describes the scene as they marched through the valley, plundering as they went.
"keeping the Eurotas on their right as they passed,
"burning and pillaging houses
"full of many agathoi, many valuable things.
"In the city, the women could not endure seeing the smoke,
"as they had never laid eyes on an enemy before."
It was the end to an astonishing career.
After two centuries of military success,
Sparta had been brought down
by the insidious attractions of wealth and luxury.
This is the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia,
where the telltale gold jewellery was found.
Here, Spartan legend said that Spartan boys were bloodily whipped
on the altar to test their courage.
Actually, we now think it may not have happened quite like that,
at least during Sparta's heyday.
But the story got around,
and by Roman times, it certainly was going on.
It was an entertainment.
Crowds of tourists would come to watch.
So many, that they had to build this amphitheatre around the altar.
I find this a very emotive symbol of how later generations of Spartans
became slaves to the image their own ancestors had created.
An image that has had a vast variety of admirers across time,
from the Romans, to the Nazis,
and even today, the US Marines.
It was their rigidity about luxury, just as much as anything else,
that in large part caused Spartan downfall.
Athens had been able to contain and adapt ideas
about luxury within the context of a city-state.
Athens had been able to successfully "manage" luxury.
But not Sparta.
And now, in the late 4th century BC,
a new power was emerging in Greece, that would eclipse them both.
Its rulers had a totally different attitude to the morality of luxury.
Its name was Macedon.
In Athens, democrats had struggled to control the urge for luxury.
In Sparta, luxury had brought them down.
But Macedon begins a new chapter in the story.
In 1977, Greek archaeologists made one of the most spectacular discoveries of modern times.
Beneath a giant mound they found a tomb...
It was built by Alexander the Great,
for his father Philip, King of Macedon.
And inside, perhaps the richest, the most luxurious burial
ever found in Greece.
It was the aftermath of an enormous funeral pyre.
This wreath was found in the antechamber of the tomb of Philip II
who was killed in the theatre of his capital at Aegae.
The wreath was worn by his Thracian bride Meda on Philip's funeral pyre
and she might have even still been alive at the time
for Thracian custom was that the wife was expected
to follow her husband into the afterlife.
And it's only because gold survives at very high temperatures
that this is still with us today.
A few years before, buried beneath the grand terrace at Vergina,
the archaeologists had already found a palace of the same date.
Now recent excavation has confirmed that it was commissioned by Philip II.
The main block was a vast banqueting complex for the King and his companions.
Like the grave goods, the extraordinary mosaics
speak of a luxury rarely equalled at any time in the ancient world.
The message was clear - there was a new master in Greece.
He wasn't a democrat in any way
and conspicuous display was an essential part of his policy.
Luxury was off the leash.
I believe that arts and culture and intelligentsia
play a very important role in the way
Philip was thinking about his hegemony.
Philip was a high educated person and he knew
how important is the power of art,
the power of culture to support his aims, his political aims.
The artists have been really revolutionary
because we have actually another political system,
another ideological system and the opening of a new ruling system.
The things we see here aren't unusual as objects in themselves.
You can find more modest examples of things like this
all over Ancient Greece.
But here everything is transformed.
Clay into metal, bronze and iron into gold and silver.
It's all sending a message.
Philip II and his family were using this stuff
to communicate their power, authority and relationship
not only to their subjects, but also to other rulers.
We, they are saying, are members of The Royal Club.
That's why they're using not just precious metals
but fine craftsmanship and indeed imported, exotic items
like these ostrich eggs.
It's a monarchical use of luxury that can be paralleled in any ruling house,
indeed like our own, with our Crown Jewels.
Across the world and across time, from that day to this.
But everything we see here was also
a dramatic intervention in the debates about luxury
that had been going on in Ancient Greece for centuries.
All these beautiful artefacts a characterised by one thing.
A total confidence in what they are.
Excess is no longer a problem.
There is no self-consciousness about power or wealth.
No democratic anxiety about luxury or Spartan attempt to hide it.
Instead there is a new focus on ego.
For centuries, Greece had been dominated by places
in which luxury was really only valid and safe
if it celebrated the state or the gods.
Now one man, a king, was well on his way to representing both.
The richness in Athens culminated in the Acropolis.
It is collected in the temple of the goddess.
Here, the richness, it is gathered in the palace of the king
because the king is somehow the living god
so it is like in England, the king has to be rich
because this richness of the king
indicates the wealth of the whole state
and so therefore it is more in private
but it is actually not private
because the king is not a private person,
he's an absolutely public person.
In Athens, democracy had enlisted the glories of the Acropolis
and of public ceremony to manage and temper the excesses of the rich.
In Sparta, they had hoped that luxury could be suppressed
in the service of military pre-eminence.
Now in the ancient world the Macedonian Kings
seemed to have had the final word about luxury, public or private.
"Nothing in excess" seemed a dead letter.
Eventually the Romans came to dominate Greece and the Mediterranean.
They too had their anxieties about how to deal with luxury,
but ultimately their emperors would follow,
and even outdo, the Macedonian model.
Not even the Roman Emperor Hadrian escaped,
a man apparently devoted to Athenian philosophy.
In 132 AD he put up this enormous library complex in Athens,
echoing the Macedonian approach to luxury.
Not much had changed.
However, the anxieties about luxury never really went away.
And the debates about luxury that went on in the ancient world
What constitutes good or bad luxury?
Can luxury bring us together as well as it divides us?
How do we best manage luxury within a democratic world
where everyone is supposed to be equal, but can't possibly be so?
And can luxury ever support a system of political equality
as well as it does a system of monarchical rule?
But today, for us,
luxury is even more complicated than it was for the Ancients.
Because just as the classical world reached its peak,
another tradition was born which would change everything,
a point of view the Ancient Greeks had never had to reckon with.
Hadrian built a refreshing pool here in the midst of his library.
But it didn't last long.
Just a couple of hundred years later, this was built right on top.
It's a church and this is one of the apses.
It's a perfect symbol of what happened to the classical world - Christianity.
And Christian ideas about luxury were very different
to those of ancient world.
The Greeks, and the Romans after them, had thought about luxury
as a social problem, a question of balance, of "nothing in excess".
But now, it was to become a deadly sin.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Luxury isn't just a question of expensive and the beautiful objects for the rich and the powerful. It has always been much more, and much more important, than that, especially in the ancient and medieval worlds.
This first episode follows the debate about luxury which convulsed ancient Greece from the beginning of the classical era. In Athens, it explores the role of luxury in the beginnings of democracy - how certain kinds of luxury came to be forbidden, and others embraced. A simple luxury like meat could unite the democracy, and yet a taste for fish could divide it. Some luxuries were associated with effeminacy and foreigners. Others with the very idea of democracy.
Yet in Sparta there was a determined attempt to deny luxury, and the guilty contradictions of this eventually brought what had been the most powerful state in Greece to its downfall. When Sparta was replaced by the Macedon of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, the absolute luxury of his court set new standards for luxury as political propaganda. Yet the guilty anxiety of ancient Greece could not be suppressed and still affects our ideas of luxury today.