BMCR 2004.07.30

Luxus im alten Rom: Die Schwelgerei, das süsse Gift

, Die Schwelgerei, das süsse Gift-- : Luxus im alten Rom. Darmstadt: Primus, 2003. 176 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm. ISBN 3896782398 €34.90.

Early in our study of Latin we learn that some words are best left untranslated. “Piety” is a mere stopgap for pietas. “Authority” and “dignity” are so different from auctoritas and dignitas as to be faux amis. Lengthy studies have been devoted to dissecting officium and otium. These are among the distinctive “culture-words” for which correspondences in English are unsatisfactory, misleading, or simply non-existent. We therefore use awkward and apologetic periphrases to translate these concepts, or we simply make do with Latin. Our list of untranslatable words should include luxuria. As Karl-Wilhelm Weeber (henceforward W.) notes in the preface to this lively and learned introduction to the lifestyles of rich and famous Romans, the modern German “Luxus” — and we can safely say this about its English cousin “luxury” — is a positive word (“positiv besetzt,” p. 7): it has little of the condemnation or complexity of luxuria. “Luxury” is bland and innocuous. Luxuria is calorie-rich and packed with guilt. The subtitle to the book, “Die Schwelgerei, das süsse Gift,” inspired by Valerius Maximus, well expresses the sinister feel of the Latin word.1

Writers from Cato the Elder onward considered luxuria a major threat to Rome’s dominance. Roman historians took pains to pinpoint the stages in which it began to seep insidiously into Roman culture. Satirists and philosophers enumerated its varieties and saw in it the hypocrisy and vanity of an elite class in perpetual decline. Although frequently encountered in Roman literature, luxuria is difficult to put into perspective because of its broad application. The realia in question range from antique bronzes to high-priced courtesans. The word is also linked to a number of important topoi, including suspicions of novelty and invention, fear of the foreign, misogyny, and anxiety about cultural decline.2 A good introduction to luxuria will deal with both the realia and these broader themes. W. has nicely integrated both realms, commenting on literary topoi and social attitudes as he surveys the various categories of extravagance. Despite its outwardly “coffee-table book” appearance, this book is packed with information. W. is an erudite scholar immersed in the study of daily life in the ancient world.3 By my count, the endnotes contain over a thousand references to ancient texts, including inscriptions, scholia and fragments of lost works.

The brief opening chapter, “‘Hoffe nicht auf Platons Staat!’ — Armut und Reichtum in der römischen Gesellschaft,” makes deft use of statistics in putting Rome’s economy and its social classes in perspective. The discussion of the rich and super-rich is nicely complemented by an appendix at the end of the volume that gives brief biographical and financial data on the twenty-five wealthiest Romans of the late Republic and early Empire.

“Lucullus und die Folgen — Tischkultur und Tafelluxus” is a useful introduction to food and dining. W. exploits the relevant anecdotes and ironies. We find that the connotation of the name Lucullus (pp. 16-19) parallels the change in the meaning of luxury itself. Lucullus’ descent into an oblivion of luxurious living was considered by his contemporaries to be an abhorrent aberration by an otherwise talented general. Today, the adjective “Lucullan” signifies Epicurean elegance. The wildly prodigal gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius (pp. 20-1) was famous in his own time for inventing extravagant new dishes and for committing suicide when he discovered he had only ten million sesterces left. His cognomen became synonymous with gastronomic expertise, as the cookbook that has come down to us attests. Outside of antiquarian studies he is now all but forgotten.

The third chapter deals with fishponds, beginning with Cicero’s bitter and satirical complaints to Atticus that the Republic was being destroyed while the aristocracy, a bunch of piscinarii, “fishpond owners,” did nothing.4 W. brings to life the preoccupations of these aficionados. The piscinae form a nice bridge from food to the lengthy fourth chapter, “Herrschaftliche Paläste und Parks — Vom ‘Wettstreit um die prächtigste Villa,'” which deals with the mania for covering the countryside with sprawling villas.

As W. points out in the fifth chapter, devoted to “Das Wellness-Dorado der Oberschicht,” everyone who was anyone went to Baiae, not just alleged debauchees like Clodia and Caelius, be it for health, for pleasure, to be seen, or to be close to the powerful — Cicero himself had a nearby villa, and the list of his eminent neighbors there supports W.’s observation that the Roman aristocracy could be called, without much exaggeration, a “mächtige Campania-Fraktion” (pp. 64-5). W. supplies a nice map of the region around Baiae (p. 65) that appears to incorporate Paget’s theory that Cumae had a harbor just south of the acropolis.5

“Luxus der Ausschweifung? — Erotik und Sexualität der Noblen Welt” is a succinct overview of Roman attitudes toward various sexual practices, and has a good discussion of the topos of moral decline and the laudator temporis acti (pp. 76-9).

The seventh chapter, “Statussymbole als Gradmesser gesellschaftlicher Exklusivität,” uses the theme of luxury as status symbol to unite the topics of purple dye, “die kostbarste Flüssigkeit der alten Welt” (pp. 91-5), the demeaning and ostentatious nature of patron-client relationships (pp. 95-99), and art collecting (pp. 99-104).

The next three chapters continue the themes of ostentation and collecting. The chapters entitled “‘Drei Vermögen an den Ohren’ — Frauenliebling Perle” and “Wahnsinn in Holz — Männerliebling Tisch” form a natural pair in light of the elder Pliny’s observation ( NH 13.91) that when men accused women of wasting money on pearls, women could counter with the men’s insania mensarum, an uncontrolled passion for tables made of citron wood. Cicero allegedly bought one for a half-million sesterces, more than the property qualification for the Roman knight. As for pearls, most will recall the anecdote about Cleopatra dissolving a precious pearl in vinegar (pp. 109-10). W. points out that she had been preceded in this stunt by another “Perlenschlürfer,” the wastrel son of the actor Aesopus (Val. Max. 9.1.2). My own image of Pompey has been forever altered by the knowledge that in the triumphal procession celebrating his victory over Mithridates he displayed a portrait of himself made of pearls (p. 106, Pliny NH 37.15). “Millionmärkte der Eitelkeit — Parfum und Schmuck,” like all of the other chapters, is packed with interesting details. Without reading the elder Pliny, Martial or Justinian cover-to-cover, one might not otherwise encounter dactyliothecae, the cases in which wealthy men kept their ring collections.6

“Sklavenluxus, Luxussklaven” deals with the varieties of specialized slaves kept in wealthy households, including the turba cocorum, the hairless ministri of the dining room, the armies of slaves accompanying the master in public (the nomenclatores, lecticarii, and lampadarii), and the intellectuals who were purchased to show off the master’s pretensions of culture. Here, as throughout the book, W. is generous in providing and translating Latin technical terms and phrases.

“Angemessen in die Ewigkei — Bestattungspracht und Gräberluxus” is an appropriate chapter to round out the survey. Beginning with the legislation against funeral luxury in the Twelve Tables, W. takes us on a tour of funerary practices among the wealthy in the late Republic and early Empire. Each stage of the aristocratic funeral is discussed in detail, from the anointing of the body to the construction of massive grave monuments along suburban roads.

The concluding chapter, “‘Symptom einer kranken Gesellschaft?’ — Luxusschelte in luxuriösem Ambiente” deals with the moralism inherent in luxuria. Roman intellectuals seem to have had a foreboding about the proliferation of fish ponds, marble villas, and collections of Corinthian bronze that was akin, at least in intensity, to what the modern environmentalist might experience when driving through a cul-de-sac neighborhood or sitting at an intersection next to a massive SUV. Such horror filled the diatribes to which we owe a great deal of our knowledge of Roman social history, but had little practical effect. Sumptuary laws were repeatedly passed and circumvented. W. offers some interesting meditations on the tension between conscience and practice among the Roman elite — one cannot help but think this topic can tell us something about our own times.

In general, W. is careful to put his material in context. Some points, however, need elaboration or clarification. In delineating Cicero’s sources of income, W. mentions “Einnahmen aus seiner Anwaltstätigkeit” (p. 13). This casual reference might raise the eyebrows of those who assume that the aristocratic ethic kept Cicero from taking fees. When Cicero began his career, orators had been forbidden for well over a century from taking payment from their clients by the lex Cincia. The law was a lex imperfecta : violating it carried no penalty, with the exception that one could not sue for a promised gift in court. It is not certain whether Cicero directly accepted honoraria; on the other hand, he received substantial favors in return for speaking, and some of these were financial, e.g., loans and legacies.7 In these indirect ways Cicero’s work at the bar generated “income.”

W. is overconfident in attributing three hundred recipes of the De re coquinaria to Marcus Gavius Apicius (p. 20). We simply have no way of knowing whether any of the recipes, many of which are obviously late, originated with the deviser of extravagant dishes who lived during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius.8 On the other hand, W. may be too certain that Nasidienus, the main character of Horace’s Satires 2.8, is a fictional personage (p. 23).

In his discussion of the strictures of the Twelve Tables against funeral luxury, W. says the following about the prohibition against adding gold items to the burial: “Das wird ausdrücklich auch auf Zahngold bezogen. Grosszügigerweise aber ist die Übertretung des Gesetzes in diesem Falle nicht strafbewehrt” (p. 139). To say that leaving gold dentalwork in the mouth was an unpenalized “Übertretung” of the law is a slight overinterpretation of the fragments: the tenth table simply forbids adding gold, i.e., ornamentation, to the body, and then clarifies the status of gold dentures, which may be left in place without penalty.9 Furthermore, in a section entitled “Abwehr eines Etruskischen ‘Bazillus,'” W. explains restrictions of the Twelve Tables on funeral expenditure as a reaction of the Roman elite to the funerary excesses of the Etruscans (p. 141). This is a plausible but purely speculative explanation presented as fact.10

W. has done an admirable job of uniting many facets of luxuria. A few categories have been omitted. W. tells us how the orator Licinius Crassus put earrings and necklaces on his pet fish and taught her to feed from his hand (pp. 41-2; Aelian NA 8.4), but he does not touch on horses and dogs, the youth culture’s equivalent of our fast cars — Catiline allegedly purchased horses and dogs for the young dandies he drew into his conspiracy (Sall. Cat. 14.6). The closest W. comes to this topic is in his discussion of funeral luxury: when the prodigal son of the notorious informer Marcus Aquilius Regulus died, Regulus slaughtered the boy’s extensive collection of pets on the funeral pyre (p. 147; Plin. Ep. 4.2.3). One also misses the topic of gambling, but W. has dealt with it elsewhere.11 “Verschwendungssucht” is frequently mentioned, but not the peculiar Roman legal remedy for it, the guardianship known as the cura prodigi.

The book is very attractive overall. The accompanying pictures and illustrations complement rather than dominate the text, which is nearly free of misprints.12 A bit more care should have been taken with the bibliography, however.13 My only complaints about this book arise from some of the coffee-table aspects of its design. Although very erudite, the book is too thin on scholarly apparatus. The chapters are not numbered. The bibliography is wide-ranging and contains up-to-date items, but citation of this literature in the notes is sparse and haphazard.14 There are no indices. Though the endnotes have ample citations of ancient texts, there is no index locorum. The absence of the latter is particularly regrettable, for W. has carefully sifted a large number of important and out-of-the-way texts. With indices the book could provide useful comparanda for studying the many passages on luxuria in commonly read authors. I think this book wants to be something more. With a few pages of indices and more generous notes in a second edition, it can. For now, however, it works well as an entertaining and in many ways admirable introduction to a crucial and fascinating topic of Roman history and literature.


1. p. 7; cf. Val. Max. 9 pref.: blandum etiam malum Luxuria, quam accusare aliquando facilius est quam vitare.

2. In his extensive chapter on “Luxus” in Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms (cf. Wissowa’s edition, Leipzig, 1920 vol. 2, pp. 263-379), Friedlaender chose to give proportion to his subject by assembling comparative materials from later European history showing that Roman luxury was not as “fabelhaft” as moderns have tended to believe. More recently, Dalby’s Empire of Luxury (Routledge, 2000) has reconstructed the geographical associations of the luxuries flowing into the city from its distant reaches. W.’s survey nicely complements these studies.

3. Weeber, a professor of classical philology and ancient history at the universities of Wuppertal and Bochum, has been compiling an encyclopaedic lexicon of daily life in the Roman world with the title Alltag im alten Rom, published by Artemis & Winkler Verlag. The first volume, subtitled Das Leben in der Stadt, first appeared in 1995 and is now in its seventh printing (2003). The second volume, Das Landleben, appeared in 2000. Volume three, Das Leben beim Militär, is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2004.

4. W. lists the relevant passages in the endnotes, e.g. Cic. Att. 1.18.6. The definitive study of fishponds is Higginbotham’s Piscinae: Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (Chapel Hill, 1997), which W. lists in his bibliography.

5. See R. F. Paget “The ancient ports of Cumae.” JRS 58 (1968): 152-69.

6. See p. 126, with references to NH 37.11, Mart. 14.123, Just. Dig. 32.1.53. In the passage of Pliny cited by W. one finds that Pompey placed in the Capitolium a dactyliotheca that had belonged to Mithridates, that Julius Caesar followed this example and dedicated six of them in the Temple of Venus Genetrix, and that Octavia’s son Marcellus likewise set one up in the shrine of Apollo on the Palatine.

7. There are various opinions on the extent to which Cicero violated the lex Cincia. The most egregious example would be the loan Cicero allegedly received from P. Cornelius Sulla, nephew of the dictator, for defending him against charges of participating in the Catilinarian conspiracy. Cicero used the loan to buy an expensive house on the Palatine hill (Aul. Gell. 12.12). For the view that Cicero and his contemporaries paid little heed to the lex Cincia, see L. A. Churchin “The lex Cincia and lawyers’ fees under the Republic” EMC 27 (1983): 38-45. On the suspicion that Cicero received legacies in exchange for his services, see (cited in W.’s bibliography) M. Raskolnikoff “La richesse et les riches chez Cicéron” Ktema 2 (1977): 357-72 (esp. 366-7), and R. J. Smutny “The sources of Cicero’s income” CW 45 no. 4 (1951): 49-56 (esp. 51-3).

8. In an extensive philological study Brandt detected a common source (Hauptquelle) for about three hundred recipes, and conjectures that Marcus Gavius Apicius was that source (cf. pp. 87 ff. of Untersuchungen zum römischen Kochbuche: Versuch einer lösung der Apicius-Frage. Philologus Suppl. 19 no. 3; Leipzig, 1927). But see the doubts of Matthias Bode in Apicius: Anmerkungen zum römischen Kochbuch (Scripta Mercaturae Verlag, 1999), pp. 28-9. Bode concludes: “Jeder Versuch, definitiv kaiserzeitliche Textteile zu identifizieren, muss von vornherein scheitern” (p. 138).

9. Table 10 F 8 (Cic. leg. 2.60): neve aurum addito; at cui auro dentes iuncti escunt, ast im cum illo sepeliet uretve, se fraude esto. For the text cf. D. Flach Die Gesetze der frühen römischen Republik. WBG, 1994, p. 196.

10. Compare the more hesitant tone of David Daube ( Roman Law: Linguistic, Social and Philosophical Aspects. Edinburgh, 1969, p. 124): “Those early provisions may have been inspired by religious beliefs, and in particular by hostility to Etruscan ritual.” W. says that the Roman nobility “disziplinierte sich mit einem rigiden Anti-Grabluxus-Gesetz, das im historischen Umfeld — nicht nur im Vergleich mit Etrurien, sondern auch dem süditalischen ‘Grossgriechenland’ — seinesgleichen suchte.” Here the similarity to Solon’s restrictions of funeral luxury should be noted — some have speculated that the idea reached the Romans through the mediation of the Greeks of southern Italy. For references cf. Dyck’s commentary on Cicero’s De legibus (Michigan, 2004, pp. 402-3 ad 2.59).

11. On luxury and Roman youth, see Eyben’s Restless Youth (Routledge 1993), esp. 98-107. W. has treated gambling in volume one of his Alltag im Alten Rom, op. cit., s.v. “Gesellschaftsspiel,” “Glücksspiel,” “Saturnalien,” “Wette,” and “Würfelspiel.”

12. p. 126: Scipio Africanus, born in 236 B.C., is placed “im frühen 3. Jahrhundert v. Chr.”; p. 133, second paragraph: read “Maultiertreibern” [not Maultierteibern]; p. 167 s.v. “Tiberius Claudius Atticus Herodes,” read “Quellen seines [not seine] Reichtums.”

13. Clarke, J. R., Looking at lovemaking. Constructions [not Constitutions] of sexuality; Donato, G. (Hg.), The fragrant [not flagrant] past; Higginbotham, J., Piscinae. Artificial fishponds [not fishpounds]; Raskolnikoff [not Raslolnikoff], M. Several items have the name of the author italicized instead of the title of the book (see entries under Frederiksen, Jashemski, McKay, Toynbee, and Veyne). In some cases italics have been extended to data beyond the title (entries for Jacques and Los)

14. The bibliography is representative of a good deal of the recent scholarship (through 2002) on Roman luxury in English, French, and Italian as well as German. In addition to Bode’s study of Apicius, mentioned above, Catharine Edwards’s Politics of Immorality (Cambridge, 1993) and Toner’s Leisure and Ancient Rome (Polity Press, 1995) should be added. Since there is a discussion of ancestor masks (pp. 144-5), Harriet Flower’s Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford, 1996) should also be listed.