BMCR 2007.09.65

Luxus im alten Rom. Die öffentliche Pracht

, Luxus im alten Rom : die öffentliche Pracht. Darmstadt: Primus, 2006. 184 pages : illustrations, map ; 28 cm. ISBN 9783896782960 SFR 66.70 / € 39.90.

This is the second volume dedicated to luxury in the Roman world by Karl-Wilhelm Weeber (hereafter KWW). The first (reviewed by Kevin Muse at BMCR 2004.07.30) covered the private aspects of this crucial and fascinating topic of Roman history and literature, particularly appealing to our global culture, which equates not only high social status and prosperity but even happiness with the power to spend on luxurious clothes, residences, holidays and so on. This time KWW deals with the public face of luxury ( publica magnificentia) in nine chapters, again without numeration. Most have an important piece of literary evidence as their starting point.

For instance, the first chapter, a concise introduction to the concept of public extravagance, starts with a quotation by Cato the Elder, presenting himself as a doctor willing and able to administer the most powerful antidote to (private) luxury’s sweet poison.1 KWW goes on to argue that public magnificence was promoted as a display of the power and control exercised by domina Roma (the quotation is from Horace Odes 4.14.44) not only over lands and nations but also on wild nature. Two further points of great importance are made. First, contrary to what Velleius Paterculus (2.1.2) thought, the Romans became obsessed with private luxury before those in office started to embellish the city and entice the citizens with thrilling spectacles and magnificent surroundings. Second, public luxury aimed at being practical, representative and monumental.

Naturally, the games and dramatic performances take up one third of the book’s total length and constitute the subject of the next two chapters. Aqueducts, baths and public lavatories come next. Porticoes, marble decorations and roads conclude the presentation.

Every kind of games is covered in the chapter on Ludi. Hunting shows, in particular, which are described as extermination machinery (p. 51), are discussed in great detail with respect to the number of animals involved, the means of their provision (mainly from wildlife and to a lesser extent from zoos of some sort), their cost and the army’s role in finding animals and moving them wherever shows were put up.2 Even secondary aspects of the games per se, but important indicators of luxury, like the distribution of free goods and vouchers, or public dinners, receive due attention. The final pages of the chapter are reserved for games à la grecque, i.e. athletics, with emphasis on the Romans’ apprehension towards nudity, their most important characteristic as spectacles.

The chapter on Spectacula focuses on architectural splendor. Pompey’s theatre itself was a most fascinating spectacle and a major breakthrough in Roman public architecture. The Flavian amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum, is discussed with many technical details, as a miracle of massive proportions. And finally, the largest and most popular of them all: the Circus Maximus. Again, appropriate attention is given to elements of luxury: the use of marble and roof-curtains ( vela).

Aqueducts were a combination of beauty and stability, quintessentially Roman, being practical and monumental at the same time. All eleven aqueducts which provided Rome with the everyday luxury of fresh and practically clean water ( Appia, Anio Vetus, Marcia, Tepula, Iulia, Virgo, Alsietina/Augusta, Claudia, Anio Novus, Traiana and Alexandrina) are presented in chronological order, with remarks on technical developments and water quality. Provincial aqueducts, on the other hand, are under-represented. A discussion of magnificent public fountains as symbols of Roman global power, and a rough calculation of the relevant costs for construction and maintenance conclude the chapter. If running water is no longer considered a luxury in modern developed countries, we have only recently re-discovered the luxury of spas or thermae, the subject of the fifth chapter. After an introduction focused on the lavish decorations of Roman baths (marbles, mosaics, statues etc), these symbols of Roman urban lifestyle are presented again in chronological order: the baths of Agrippa, Nero, Titus, Trajan, Caracalla, Decius and Diocletian are all mentioned. How they fit in the average Roman’s daily schedule and how they actually functioned are the issues addressed next with important observations on sex segregation and class distinction. Efforts were made to control, i.e. banish the presence of women, although exactly how this was done and the extent to which they were successful are far from clear, while the upper classes managed to impress with their retinue of slaves and precious bath accessories.

Given the Romans’ uneasiness with public nudity, it is surprising that they should have big public lavatories or latrinae. KWW adopts Neudecker’s view that in archaic Roman mentality defecation was not connected with sexual activity. Although this attitude changed in classical times, with Catullus and Horace in the forefront, public lavatories continued to be built opulently and used regularly, as people became more conscious of taking care of themselves and their bowels. Exactly how the elite managed to keep out the masses from their deluxe defecating clubs or regulate who was sitting right next to them without any sort of screen in public lavatories is not clear in our sources, concludes KWW.

The obvious starting points for a discussion of Roman porticoes and other places where people could take a walk or ambulationes are Ovid and Augustus. Two of the best-known porticoes, Livia’s and Octavia’s, are named after members of Augustus’ family: the princeps took very seriously his role as patronus plebis, making accessible to the masses the magnificence of private palaces. The Porticus Metelli, Vipsaniae and Europae are also mentioned and their function as instruments of urban planning is persuasively presented.

Augustus also appears to be a trendsetter in the use of marble for monumental public architecture, combining traditional pietas with suspect luxuria. The great variety of marbles employed by the Romans is an obvious symbol for the extent of their global empire. Marble was not only ideologically charged but also particularly costly: it was rare, should be treated by expert hands and was transported from faraway places.

The final chapter is reserved for something every European considers an important aspect of Roman heritage: public highways or viae publicae. KWW provides all the essential information on their construction, cost, measurement and mapping. They were far from luxurious by modern standards and traveling long distances was not always comfortable or carefree. Yet, the huge network of Roman roads offered a new standard for ancient travellers, marking the boundaries of the Roman world and laying the foundations for the free circulation of people and goods in a common European market.

The publication is lavishly illustrated with sumptuous photographs of admirable clarity and splendid color. Descriptions of the pictures are generally accurate and include provenance and date.3 Numerous endnotes with references mainly to primary sources are followed by a bibliography of reasonable length, marred by several typographical errors, although most are innocuous.4 The book is neither primarily nor exclusively addressed to scholars of Roman daily life; it is unlikely they will find anything new.5 Its ideal reader is someone with a keen interest in luxury and/or the Roman world, prepared to learn several words in Latin or brush up the Latin (s)he learned at school.6 Whether numbers, texts or images are one’s key to learning enjoyably, KWW provides a copious abundance in a luxurious yet affordable package.


1. To be precise, however, according to Plutarch Cato maior 16,7 (KWW’s source) Cato did not present himself as the one and only doctor ( mit ihm allein), but together with the patrician Flaccus Valerius.

2. Compare e.g. with Alison Futrell’s cursory treatment in three paragraphs ( The Roman Games, Oxford 2006, p. 89).

3. Delete ‘v.Chr.’ from the date of the diptych opposite the title-page. The cameo on p. 13 should be dated to the 1st century. The abbreviation ‘n.Chr.’ first appears on p. 89 while previous dates CE are left unqualified.

4. Endnote 2 to Publica Magnificentia : the author of Cato the Censor is Astin not Austin. Endnote 60 to Marmora: Galinsky’s article is, of course, about the Ara Pacis not ‘Pcis’. Bibliography: Beacham’s book is entitled Spectacle Entertainments; J. Bonnin not Bonin; A. Cameron’s 1974 lecture was delivered at King’s College London, not Oxford; K. Coleman’s article appeared in volume 83 (not 80) of JRS, beginning at page 48 (not 44); Cunliffe’s book is about Roman Bath, not Baths, and was published in London; the subtitle of Heinz’s book is Badewesen und Badeluxus, not Badekultur; replace ‘in’ with a semicolon in the title of Klodt’s book; the title of Kolb’s book ends in der Stadt Rom, not in Rom; A. Lintott’s book is entitled Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration, not Imperial Roman…; Mähl wrote on Gymnastik and Athletik, not Agonistik; Rathmann’s book appears to have been published in 2003, not 2002; Rawson’s article begins on page 83, not 508; Spannagel’s title is Exemplaria principis, not principum. In the main text misprints appear on the right column of page 80 ‘oderirdisch’ instead of ‘oberirdisch’, and on page 85 ‘Alsietana’ instead of ‘Alsietina’. One further item that deserved a place in the bibliography is F. Yegül, Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity, New York and Boston 1992.

5. See Muse’s complaints in the final paragraph of his BMCR 2004.07.30.

6. What is told about the etymological meaning of luxus in the right column of page 9 is, strictly speaking, true only of luxuria according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary.