Ancient Roman Luxury
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69. Ancient Roman Luxury
Revelation 18.9-10

"When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry, 'Woe! Woe to you, great city, you mighty city of Babylon! In one hour your doom has come!'" (Revelation 18.9-10)✞

Talmud Saying

Luxury of RomeThe kings of the earth from every land who share in the ancient Roman luxury will weep and mourn over Rome's collapse. Here we have the mourning song of the kings of the earth for Ancient Rome. Again and again, we hear of the greatness, wealth, and sheer extravagance of Rome. In Ancient Rome, luxury means not only excess or extravagance but also greed and lust. A Talmud proverb says, "ten measures of wealth came down into the world, ancient Rome received nine and all the rest of the world only one."

Today's Standard

Roman LuxuryOne famous scholar says that in modern times we are babes in the matter of enjoyment compared with the ancient world. Another suggests that our most extravagant "luxury" is poverty compared with the exuberance and magnificence of Ancient Rome.

Go To Ancient Rome

Alexandrian ShipIn this first-century picture, the world is pouring its "luxury" and riches into the lap of Rome. Aristides (BC 530-468), the ancient Athenian statesman writes, "The long peace, the safety of the seas, and the freedom of trade, had made Rome the entryway for the specialty products and delicacies of every land from the British Channel to the Ganges." "Merchandise was brought from every land and sea, everything that every season and every country produced, the products of rivers and lakes, the arts of the Greeks and the Barbarians, so that, if anyone were to wish to see all these things, he would either have to visit the whole inhabited world to see them or go to Ancient Rome."

Luxurious Cargoes

Roman MoneyMany great ships arrive in Rome from all around the world at every hour and every season. Rome is like some great factory for luxurious cargoes from the Indies and Arabia, with clothing from Babylon and ornaments from far flung-lands. Everything flows into ancient Rome. Wealth, merchandise, cargoes, the products of foreign lands, precious metals from mines, and the results of every art that is and has been ending up there. Everything produced and everything that grows comes to Rome.

Extravagant Cost

Roman SoldiersThe money spent on such "luxuries" is colossal. One of Nero's freedman regards a man with $1,252,000 as a pauper in comparison with other Romans. Apicius (BC 25-37 AD), a Roman connoisseur of good food and lover of luxury in the first century AD is said to have squandered $2,000,000, and committed suicide when he had only $200,000 left because he could not live on such a pittance! He compiled a cookery book called "The Art of Cooking." It is the oldest surviving collection of recipes from antiquity. Pliny (23-79 AD) wrote, "Apicius, the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, established the view that the flamingo's tongue has a specially fine flavor."

Emperors Squander

CaligulaThe Emperors, in particular, are renowned for their extravagance. In a single day, Emperor Caligula (12-41 AD) spends $200,000, which are the revenues from three provinces. In a single year, he runs through the equivalent of $40,000,000! Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) declares that the only use of money is to squander it, and in a few years, he wasted $36,000,000! At one of his banquets, the Egyptian roses alone cost $70,000. Emperor Caligula (12-41 AD) was a lover of horses and one particular one, which he named "Incitatus" meaning "swift" or "at full gallop." Incitatus had a marble stall, an ivory manger, a jeweled collar, and even a house. In the light of these excesses of Roman wealth by the Emperors, we need to re-examine as Christians our wealth and luxurious lifestyles in the Twenty-First Century. Dr. William Barclay (1907-1978), the eminent broadcaster, pointedly asks, "How do our lives reflect the holiness and righteousness of the poor carpenter of Nazareth?"

Eat Drink and be Merry

Luxury in PearlPearls, gold, and the extravagant banquets of the Roman Emperors lead to the corruption of society and eventually to its collapse. The Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 AD), who, as the director of the imperial libraries and private secretary to Emperor Hadrian, describes twelve successive emperors and their luxurious ways from Julius Caesar (BC 100-44) to Domitian (51-96 AD). He writes, "In reckless luxury, Caligula outdid the prodigals of all times in ingenuity, inventing a new sort of bath and unnatural varieties of food and feasts. He would bathe in hot or cold perfumed oils, drink pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold." He even built galleys with sterns studded with pearls. Suetonius also tells us that Nero (54-68 AD) compels people to set before him luxurious banquets costing $40,000 each time. "He never wore the same garment twice and played at dice for $4,000 a point. He fished with a golden net drawn by cords woven of purple and scarlet threads. He never makes a journey with less than a thousand carriages with his mules shod with silver." The leaders of the Roman Empire lived in sheer extravagance and luxury. Rome, however, is about to be ruined for its hour of destruction is come!

Dissolved Pearl Drink

CleopatraPeople in this ancient Roman society consume a dissolved Roman pearl drink worth thousands of dollars of crushed pearls immersed in vinegar. Dissolved pearl drinks are a sign of "luxury." Cleopatra (BC 69-30) is said to have drunk a dissolved pearl worth $160,000 in wine and vinegar. Every pearl consists of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form deposited in concentric layers. When pearls drop into white vinegar, the acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the calcium carbonate in the pearl, releasing carbon dioxide and dissolving the pearl. The exact time needed to dissolve the pearl depends on several factors, including the acidity level of the vinegar, the temperature, and the pearl surface area exposed to the reaction. Vinegar provides the best way to authenticate a pearl. If a small drop of vinegar is poured on the pearl, and if it fizzed, the pearl is real. Fake pearls don't react to vinegar. According to Pliny (61-113 AD), a first-century historian, Cleopatra once dissolved a large pearl in a goblet of wine vinegar and drank it to win a wager with Mark Antony. The eminent Bible commentator Dr. William Barclay (1907-1978 AD) in "The New Study Bible" informs us that, "Valerius Maximus (14-37 AD) at one feast set a pearl to drink before every guest, and he, Horace (BC 65-8) told us, swallowed dissolved pearls from Metalla's earring so that he might be able to say that he had swallowed a million sesterces (or approximately $1.35 million in today's money) at a gulp." In an age of extraordinary gluttony and luxury, serve the guests dishes of peacock's brains and nightingale's tongues at many of the banquets.

Extraordinary Gluttony

Emperor VitelliusVitellius (15-69 AD), who is emperor for less than a year, succeeds in spending $14,000,000 mainly on food. Emperor Suetonius (70-130 AD) tells of his favorite dish, "He mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingos, and the milk of lampreys, brought by his captains from the whole empire from Parthia to the Spanish strait." Such is the astonishing gluttony of the Emperors and ruling elite in the Roman Empire!

The Trimalchio Banquet Dinner

BanquetPetronius tells us about a huge bearded hunter at the Trimalchio dinner. Petronius is considered by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) "the judge of elegance" in Emperor Nero's court. He writes about a fictional dinner with Trimalchio, which has become shorthand for the worst excesses of the ruling elite. "Each course represented one of the twelve signs of the zodiac." They include chickpeas, beefsteak, kidneys, a crab, a sow's udder, different deserts, a sea scorpion, a fish, an African fig, a lobster, a goose and two mullets of fish! Another dish is a large boar, with baskets of sweetmeats hanging from its tusks. A huge bearded hunter pierces its side with his hunting knife, and from the wound, there appears a flight of thrushes that are captured in nets as they fly about the room.

Excessive Gluttony

Feast of FoodAt the end of the meal, strange sounds in the ceiling and a quaking of the whole apartment startles the guests. As they raise their eyes, the roof suddenly opens, and a large circular tray descends, with a figure of Priapus, a minor fertility god in Greek mythology, bearing all sorts of fruit and bonbons. In the time when John of Patmos is writing, and poverty is widespread, this kind of insanity of wanton extravagance and luxury such as Trimalchio's dinner invades Rome and eventually contributes to its downfall.

"Ancient Roman Luxury"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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