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«Roderick Thirkell White1 University College London Luxury at Rome: avaritia, aemulatio and the mos maiorum This article sets out to put into ...»

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Ex Historia

Roderick Thirkell White 117

Roderick Thirkell White1

University College London

Luxury at Rome: avaritia, aemulatio and the mos maiorum

This article sets out to put into perspective the ancient Roman discourse about luxury, which our

extant literary sources almost universally condemn, on moral grounds. In it, I aim to define the

scope and character of Roman luxury, and how it became an issue for the Romans, from the end of the third century BC to the beginning of the second century AD. With the aid of modern thinking about luxury and the diffusion of ideas in a society, I shed light on the reasons for the upsurge in luxurious living and, in particular, on how luxuries spread through the elite population, an issue that has been largely neglected by modern scholars. Books and articles on Roman luxury have been primarily concerned with examining the discourse of contemporary writers who criticised luxury;2 analysing the nature of Roman luxury;3 analysing the nature and impact of sumptuary legislation;4 or comparing the luxury of the Romans with that of other cultures.5 The only significant article dealing specifically with the diffusion of luxury is a provocative piece by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the focus of which is, however, limited and specific.6 For a series of moralising Roman authors, the second century BC saw the beginning of the corruption of the traditional stern moral fibre, as they saw it, of the Republic by an influx of Roderick Thirkell White’s academic interests are concerned with aspects of the economy of the ancient world, primarily the late Roman Republic and Early Empire, with a focus on consumer and material culture. He holds a BA (Hons) in ‘Greats’ (1961) from the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (1996). He retired in 2008 from a career in advertising and marketing consultancy, and is presently undertaking a part-time PhD at University College London, with a thesis entitled ‘Locus Classicus: Origin Branding in Roman Luxury Markets, c.100BC to c. AD 130’.

2 Andrew W. Lintott, ‘Imperial Expansion and Moral Decline in the Roman Republic’, Historia, 21:4 (1972), 626-38;

Barbara Levick, ‘Morals, Politics, and the Fall of the Roman Republic’, Greece & Rome, 2nd ser., 29 (1982), 53-62.

3 Eva Dubois-Pelerin, Le Luxe Privé à Rome et en Italie au 1er Siècle après J.-C. (Naples: Centre Jean Bérard, 2008);

Andrew Dalby, Empire of Pleasures: Luxury and Indulgence in the Roman World (London: Routledge, 2000).

4 Ewoud Slob, Luxuria: Regelgeving en maatregelen van censoren ten tijde van de Romeinse Republiek (Zutphen: De Walburg, 1986); Alan E. Astin, ‘Regimen morum’, JRS, 78 (1988), 14-34; Marianne Coudry, ‘Loi et société: la singularité des lois somptuaires de Rome’, Cahiers Gustav Glotz, 15 (2004), 135-71; Giuseppe Dari-Mattiacci and Anna E. Plisecka, ‘Luxury in Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws’, Legal Roots, 1 (2010), Amsterdam Centre for Law & Economics Working Paper No. 2010-03, http://ssrn.acle.nl [accessed 12 July 2010]; Emanuela Zanda, Fighting Hydra-like Luxury: Sumptuary Regulation in the Roman Republic (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011).

5 Notably, Ludwig H. Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms in der Zeit von August bis zum Ausgang der Antonine, 7th edn, 4 vols (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1889-90), trans. by Leonard A. Magnus, J.H. Freese and A.B. Gough, as, Roman Life and Manners under the Early Empire, 4 vols (London: Routledge, 1908-13), II, passim.

6 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, ‘The Social Spread of Roman Luxury: Sampling Pompeii and Herculaneum’, PBSR, 58 (1990), 145-92.

Ex Historia Roderick Thirkell White 118 luxuries from the east.7 Although the many Roman authors who comment on the rise of luxury differ as to precisely which military victory and subsequent triumph was the trigger for the decadence that the import of luxuries and luxurious habits entailed, none of them voiced any significant doubts about the effect. Luxury was linked in the rhetoric of the day, both in court and in writings, with greed (avaritia), drunkenness (ebrietas), debauchery (stuprum, flagitium), adultery (adulteria), lust (libido, voluptas), obscene feats of gourmandise (gula, ganea), vulgar ostentation (extra modum sumptu et magnificentia [prodere]), corruption (licentia), extravagant wastefulness (sumptus) often leading to bankruptcy, and – a general catch-all form of Roman abuse – effeminacy (mollitia). All this and more can be found, for example, liberally scattered through Cicero’s speeches; are a constant undercurrent in Sallust’s history; and, Seneca’s Epistles are full of it.8 It is generally the luxurious lifestyle that is criticised, rather than specific luxury products, as the list above makes clear.

This is, of course, a classic topos, and Andrew Lintott provided an excellent overview and historiographical critique of it in 1972.9 But, however we approach it, there is no doubt that the Romans were alert to, and wary of, the idea of luxuria, just as the Greeks were suspicious of tryphe.10 Luxury, however, was there to stay, and most of the elite indulged in some form of it, to the extent that charges of excess became the common currency of both political abuse and forensic attacks, from which few senior politicians could entirely escape.11 Roman luxury is, however, somewhat problematic. While it was regularly used by politicians and writers as a focus of abuse and it seriously concerned an elite group of backward-focused moralists,12 with a more or less utopian view of the mos maiorum,13 we know relatively little about Greece, or simply ‘the east’. See especially Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.101, 12.84. All ancient texts are Oxford editions, unless otherwise stated. See Erich S. Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, 2 vols.





(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), I. The theme can be found in Polybius, Cicero, Sallust, Diodorus, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Valerius Maximus, Seneca, the elder Pliny, Tacitus, Plutarch, Dio Cassius, etc.

8 See, e.g., Cicero, De officiis, 1.140 (vulgar ostentation and extravagance); Cicero, In Verrem, 2.2.115.9; Cicero, Pro Murena, 13.15 (lust); Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.137.13 (greed); Cicero, In Pisonem 6 (gluttony, drunkenness), 10 (debauchery); Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, 11.1 (greed), 13.3 (gluttony, lewdness), 52 (effeminacy); Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, 15.5 (corruption), 70 (effeminacy); Seneca the Younger, Epistulae, 47.2, 78.23-4 (gourmandise), 51.4 (drunkenness), 78.13.6 (greed), 86.6-7 (vulgar ostentation), 95.42, 123.7(extravagance), 114.3 (effeminacy).

9 See especially, Lintott, passim, also Levick.

10 See Coudry, p. 1, n. 1 and references there.

11 Catharine Edwards, The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993). Cicero’s speech against Piso and his Philippics are prime examples. Cf. Caelius’s speech against C. Antonius, quoted in Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, 4.2.123-4.

12 Characterised by what Coudry calls ‘l’idéologie passéiste’, see Coudry, p. 14.

13 ‘Ancestral tradition’: a standard shorthand for the (simpler and more constrained) customs of an earlier time,

–  –  –

the motivations that inspired wealthy Roman citizens to indulge in luxurious behaviour, and about how, and how far, specific luxuries became diffused among the elite, let alone a wider population. As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill observed over 20 years ago, ‘Roman luxury as a social phenomenon still awaits proper treatment’.14 We do not often hear the voice of Roman luxurylovers: there is little in the contemporary literature in favour of luxury, though some of Statius’s Silvae and elements of Martial’s epigrams can be read in this way, while Horace’s Satire 2.4 can be construed as praising a tasteful and refined luxury.15

Understanding luxury

In order to understand Roman luxury, we need to place it in its context, and to recognise how luxury markets work. Context is essential, because, as scholars such as Mary Douglas have made clear, luxury is a labile concept: today’s luxuries may be tomorrow’s day-to-day necessities; and what is luxurious in one society may be ordinary in another – think of furs in London and among the Inuit.16 Ludwig Friedländer discussed luxury at length in Volume 2 of his substantial analysis of Roman life, and dismissed the vaunted luxury of rich Romans as insignificant compared with nineteenth century European princelings’ extravagance.17 He suggested that in Rome we hear only of a minority of egregious examples which can safely be assumed to be exceptional, and that the vast majority of the population had no access to such things. His first point may carry some weight; the second underplays the close similarity of the structure of Roman society to that of the European statelets he compares Rome with – in both cases, a tiny proportion of the population accounted for the vast majority of wealth and surplus income, and hence of luxury consumption.

Luxury is also a concept that economists have trouble with. In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith argued that the distinction between luxuries and necessities was meaningless for economic analysis, since one man’s luxury might be another’s necessity.18 As Neville Morley has pointed out, the distinction between luxuries and staples has been adopted more or less unthinkingly by ancient historians interested in the development of trade, but it is virtually impossible to slipperiness of the concept, see Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2008), p. 217; Edwards, pp. 1-4.

14 Wallace-Hadrill, ‘The Social Spread of Roman Luxury’, p. 146, n. 2. But see now Dubois-Pelerin, Dalby.

15 For the latter, see Zanda, pp. 20-21. See also Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 3.121-128.

16 Mary Douglas & Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (London: Allen Lane, 1979).

17 Friedländer, II, passim.

18 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. by R.H. Campbell, A.S. Skinner, and

–  –  –

operationalize the distinction in the economic analysis of trade.19 The fact remains, however, as Morley readily admits, that luxury clearly had meaning for the Romans, and it is necessary to take note of this in any overview of elite Roman society.20 Modern marketing analysts have a clear idea of what a luxury market looks like and how people behave within it – though in recent years practitioners have divided luxury markets into a variety of sub-categories (super-luxury, mass luxury, sub-luxury, and now ‘meta-luxury’).21 To apply these sub-divisions to the Roman world in detail would be difficult: they reflect the fact that luxury is a labile and relative concept.22 By way of illustration, in Book 9 of the Natural History, Pliny says that by his day women of all sorts wore pearls, as a matter of course; but he makes clear that there were grades of pearls, some larger and more lustrous, and therefore more valuable, than others, and that when they were first introduced to Rome they were an exclusive luxury – by his time they had become, in effect, a mass luxury.23 As a marketer working in luxury markets for companies such as de Beers, Rolex, and Ferragamo, I have seen the development of a set of criteria that are widely agreed to define luxury brands in general (the order may vary in different people’s formulations):24 Neville Morley, Trade in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007), pp.41-43.

Morley, p. 43.

21 Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins, Meta-Luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). The term is used to define a special level of excellence above and beyond what the authors regard as the by now over-used and excessively loose term ‘luxury’.

22 See n. 15.

23 Pliny the Elder, 9.106 ff. As he says (9.114), even ‘the poor’ (pauperes) want pearls. See Wallace-Hadrill, Rome’s Cultural Revolution, pp. 347-66 for indications of the extent of diffusion of luxury down the socio-economic scale.

24 For a good modern overview, see Franck Vigneron and Lester W. Johnson, ‘A Review and a Conceptual

–  –  –

Characteristics of luxury markets and brands

- High quality, well-designed, and crafted by experts. Both well-made and aesthetically pleasing

- Rare, special, unusual, exotic: possibly obtained only by great or risky effort

- Reflecting authentic heritage or history: ideally with a good, credible, and even slightly ‘magical’ story behind them

- Highly-priced – too expensive for most people, but not for the true connoisseur – hence, exclusive

- Recognizably used by high-status/wealthy people: seen in the ‘right’ places

- Indulgent – to be experienced and enjoyed with enthusiasm.

Source: Red Cell Advertising. Cf. Dubois, p. 241; Vigneron & Johnson, p. 3, Table 1; Kapferer & Bastien, pp. 21, 53.25 Within this, I would argue that some luxuries are in a sense ‘absolute’: for example, precious jewellery, ivory, and fine art. Others are more relative: fine wines and rich clothing materials, for example, which are more accessible in terms of absolute cost and availability. Nonetheless, at any given time in history, in a given society, it should be relatively easy to recognise what can be defined as luxuries, by applying the criteria in the above table. In seventeenth century Europe, tea, for example, was an absolute luxury.26 Today, though connoisseurs can identify some rare varieties of tea that are sufficiently obscure and costly to come into a luxury category, tea is an everyday product, at least in the UK. In modern consumer markets, generally, the extreme ‘top of the range’ is usually in some sense luxury. In ancient Rome, as we shall see, the above criteria apply.

Roman Luxury and Conspicuous Consumption For the Romans, the key to luxury and the discourse surrounding it was the way in which elite citizens used certain commodities to make statements about themselves.27 Traditionally, and with Jean-Noel Kapferer & Vincent Bastien, The Luxury Strategy (London: Kogan Page, 2011).



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