BMCR 2016.01.23

Corrupting Luxury in Ancient Greek Literature

, , Corrupting Luxury in Ancient Greek Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014. viii, 484. ISBN 9780472052295. $60.00 (pb).


Professors Gorman and Gorman have with this volume provided the most extensive treatment to my knowledge of the decadence of luxury in Greek thought. The point of departure is the traditional and still current belief that truphē, according to the ancient Greeks, breeds an effeminating corruption of spirit and precipitates moral collapse. The work attempts a detailed refutation of this view, arguing that the term signified an attitude of entitlement conducive rather to hubristic violence than to depletion of virility. Thus while luxury could presage ruin, it did not soften or enervate its victims. The book has a strong philological orientation and a great portion of it consists of Greek and Latin passages accompanied by translations and painstaking footnotes. It is not for the idle; a reader attentive to all the original texts is in for a grueling 443 pages. The work begins with Sybaris as a case study of decadence and downfall, a stigma that the city did not acquire before the first century BC. The implications of this fact are gradually revealed through the remainder of the work. The authors then present an overview of the vocabulary of luxury centered on truphē and its moral connotations in the scholarly consensus described above. Chapter 2 considers Herodotus and the historiographic topos of “soft lands and soft peoples” (p. 80), challenging some well-worn conventions concerning the effect of riches and indulgence on the Persian character, as epitomized by Artembares’ advice and Cyrus’ response in the closing anecdote of the Histories (9.122). The Gormans demonstrate that the account can hardly pass as a retrospective prophecy of Persian moral decline, as it simply does not match the historical facts; there was in the event no change from harder to richer land, nor did the Persians become slaves to others. Nor is there any clear reference in Herodotus to a deficiency of valor on the part of the Medes or Persians themselves; lack of martial spirit rather is attributed to the subject peoples and results from loss of freedom, not from the corrosive effects of pleasure. Thus one of the major texts adduced as evidence for the Greek belief in corrupting luxury does not withstand scrutiny.

By far the greatest number of citations regarding truphē appear in fragments cited by Athenaeus, and in Chapter 3 the Gormans develop a methodology for evaluating these references, which they hope will be a valuable contribution to subsequent scholarship (page 240). Noting that scholars have seldom paid sufficient attention to the context of the fragments in their cover text, they undertake a synchronic and diachronic comparative reading of the relevant passages, measuring them where possible against known originals or alternate versions. In this way they are able to show that most of the framing language for the fragments on corrupting truphē probably originate with Athenaeus himself rather than with the original text and that Athenaeus presents virtually no reliable evidence for the existence of the concept in earlier authors. To Athenaeus is largely owed the status of Sybaris as a moral case history.

The significance of this observation becomes clear when the authors turn to the Latin and Greco-Roman sources in Chapter 5. According to their argument, the topos was first engendered by the specific circumstances of the late Republic, from which point it diffused widely and became a literary commonplace. Romans attributed their unexampled rise of power to the virtues of frugality and strenuous effort in contrast with the opulence of the Eastern lands. But after becoming poisoned by the wealth of the subjugated peoples, they turned either to the torpor of luxury or, more commonly, to criminal madness in pursuit of gain and power. The theme is taken up by Greek writers, in whose vocabulary the word truphē loses its original connotations and becomes a more general term for lack of moderation in pleasure-seeking.

The Gormans may have proved their contention, but to do so, they have had to attenuate the definition of corrupting luxury to the point where the concept loses some of its significance. By strictly isolating the effeminizing effects of truphē, they are able to show that many often-quoted passages fail to attest such an idea. While they make a good case in the individual sections, when these are taken in sum one wonders if they are forcing their point somewhat. The evidence for a more general Greek suspicion of luxury and its insidious potential remains strong; some portions of Xenophon’s Hellenica that they do not mention (e.g. 3.4.19) come to mind. There are other oversights: they claim that, since Polybius’ work predates the full emergence of the theme, ‘the idea of pernicious luxury has no place in his Histories ’ (345), but 20.4.7 on the Thebans affords an obvious counterexample.

This limitation of the thesis also affects the significance of their final conclusion. The authors maintain that it matters whether the Greeks held the beliefs about truphē so often imputed to them because these beliefs have entered popular wisdom as unquestioned truisms, relevant to all contemporary circumstances. They reference a New York Times op-ed that states: “wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to corruption, decadence, and decline” (page 443). If this idea does not represent a Greek observation on the universal laws of history but rather a Roman response to particular conditions of the late Republic, we should be cautious when applying it to affairs of our own era. While I agree with them in principle, the New York Times writer is not necessarily following their own restricted definition of truphē, and it is not clear that their work entirely refutes his point. Still, Corrupting Luxury is a work of great value by virtue of the compendium of source material the authors have collected, the attention they bring to the problem of quoted fragments, and the challenges to a scholarly consensus too long unexamined. It has a conscientious bibliography and indices locorum, verborum Graecorum, and nominum et rerum. While perhaps too strenuous for the general reader, it should prove obligatory for all serious students of luxury as a historical force.