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

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

Today's Standard

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." One famous scholar says that in modern times we are babes in enjoyment compared with the ancient world. Another suggests that our most extravagant "luxury" is poverty compared with Ancient Rome's abundance and magnificence.

Go To Ancient Rome

Alexandrian ShipIn this first-century picture, the world is pouring its "luxury" and riches into Rome's lap. 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." "Every land and sea brought merchandise, everything that every season and every country produced, the products of rivers and lakes, the arts of the Greeks and the Barbarians. If anyone were to wish to see all these things, he would either have to visit the whole inhabited world 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 massive 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, freight, 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" was colossal. One of Nero's freedmen regarded a man with $1,252,000 as a pauper compared to other Romans. Apicius (BC 25-37 AD), a Roman connoisseur of good food and lover of luxury in the first century AD, 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 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, the three provinces' revenues. 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 Roman Emperors' extravagant banquets led to society's corruption, and it eventually collapsed. 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 loaves and meats of gold before his guests." He even built galleys with sterns studded with pearls. Suetonius also tells us that Nero (54-68 AD) compelled 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 made 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

CleopatraIn this ancient Roman society, people 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) 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 pearl's calcium carbonate, releasing carbon dioxide and dissolving it. The exact time needed to dissolve the pearl depends on several factors, including the vinegar's acidity, the temperature, and the pearl surface area exposed to the reaction. Vinegar provides the best way to authenticate a pearl. A small drop of vinegar poured on a pearl causes it to fizz, and we know 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. Dr. William Barclay in "The New Study Bible" informs us that, "Valerius Maximus (14-37 AD) at one feast set a pearl to drink before every guest. Horace (BC 65-8) tells us he 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 great gluttony and luxury, hosts served dishes of peacock's brains and nightingale's tongues at many of the banquets.

Extraordinary Gluttony

Emperor Vitellius"Gluttony" is derived from the Latin "gluttire," meaning "to gulp down or to swallow." Gluttony means over-indulgence and over-consumption of food, drink, or wealth items, particularly as status symbols. Vitellius (15-69 AD), who was Emperor for less than a year, succeeded in spending $14,000,000, mainly on food. Emperor Suetonius (70-130 AD) tells us 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 was the great gluttony of the Emperors and the ruling elite in the Roman Empire!

Trimalchio Banquet Dinner

BanquetPetronius tells us about a sizeable 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 ruling elite's worst excesses. "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 massive 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 meal's end, strange sounds in the ceiling and a quaking of the whole apartment startle 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. When John of Patmos was writing, and poverty was widespread, this kind of insanity of wanton extravagance and luxury such as Trimalchio's dinner invaded Rome and eventually contributed to its downfall.

"Ancient Roman Luxury"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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