Silver Cartagena Dishes
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70. Silver Cartagena Dishes
Revelation 18.11-17a

"The earth's merchants will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more - cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves. They will say, 'Your longed for fruit is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.' The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn and cry out, 'Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones, and pearls! In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!'" (Revelation 18.11-17a)✞

Wrought Dishes

Silver Serving DishesThis list of various merchandise includes the valuable and sought after silver dishes from Cartagena and illustrates the enormous degree of materialism in Roman society. Few of the goods listed are necessities, and most were luxuries. Roman society had become thoroughly self-indulgent. Human beings have become commodities, and men, women, and children are regularly bought and sold as slaves. The mourning of the merchants in this passage is purely selfish because their sources of profit have disappeared. The market from which they drew so much wealth has gone. Their only concern is the luxury and the trade it brings to them, which has now failed. At the time John of Patmos was writing, there was in Rome a passion for silver. The best silver came from Cartagena in Spain, where 40,000 men toiled in the "silver mines." The Romans desired dishes, bowls, jugs, fruit baskets, figurines, complete dinner services made of solid silver. Marcus Licinius Crassus (BC 115-53), the Roman general and politician, amassed an enormous fortune during his life. He was considered the wealthiest man in Rome and among the richest men in all history. He owned wrought silver dishes, which had cost $100 for each pound of silver in them. Others were equally wealthy. Even a fighting general and Prefect of the Provisions in the First Century like Pompeius Paullinus carried with him on his campaigns wrought silver dishes which weighed 12,000 pounds, the most significant part of which eventually fell into the hands of the invading German tribes as spoils of war.

Baths and Anklets

PlinyPliny (61-113 AD) reported that women would bathe only in silver baths, soldiers had swords with silver hilts and scabbards with silver chains, even poor women had silver anklets, and slaves had silver mirrors. At the same time as the Christian Christmas, at the Saturnalia, people gave presents, and often the gifts were little silver spoons. The wealthier a person, the more likely to expect a flashy gift.

The Fascination of a Gem

Alexandrian Ships In the Roman world, the wealthy elite highly valued the luxurious textiles and precious stones cargoes transported in Alexandrian ships. The Roman Empire was an age that passionately loved "precious stone cargoes and pearls." It was mainly through the conquests of Alexander the Great that precious stones came to the West. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher, wrote, "The fascination of a gem was that the majestic might of nature presented itself in a limited space."

Diamonds and Emeralds

Large EmeraldRomans sought after all the precious stones, and especially diamonds, along with emeralds from Scythia. Beryl and opals made women's ornaments. Sardonyx, a red form of the onyx stone, became the seals of rings. One of the strangest of ancient beliefs was that precious stones had medicinal qualities. Amethyst cured drunkenness and protection, for cleansing and to help intuition! The word "amethyst" meant "not to make drunk." Diamonds indicated initiation, purpose, and clarity, whereas emeralds showed love, compassion, and abundance. Opals released attachments and caused emotional amplification, while pearls created self-care, nurturing, and emotional healing. The Romans were as superstitious as many folks are today. The modern book, "The Book of Stones" by Robert Simmons and Naisha Ahsian, urges that when choosing a gemstone or crystal for healing, "Start in a calm state of mind. Gaze at the images of the stones and feel your energetic link to them. Look for crystals that 'call' to you, and confirm your intuition by reading the description." Despite the apparent beauty of gemstones, Christians look only to the Lord God and Jesus Christ for healing and guidance!

Costly Gemstone Cures

Jasper Precious StonesCostly gemstone cures were much valued for ailments in the Roman world, and gems were indicators of their high status. Gemstone cures for various illnesses and diseases using precious stones were widespread in the ancient Roman world. The gemstone jasper, or bloodstone, was thought to stop bleeding. The green jasper was said to be a cure for infertility. The diamond neutralized poison and cured delirium, and amber worn around the neck was a cure for fever and other troubles.

Precious Stones Cures

String of PearlsOf all the cures from gemstones, the Romans loved pearls more than any other. They were drunk dissolved in wine vinegar. According to Pliny (23-79 AD), Emperor Julius Caesar (BC 100-44) gave Servilia Caepionis (BC 104-42) his mistress, a pearl which cost $130,000. Lollia Paulina (15-49 AD), one of Emperor Caligula's wives, at a betrothal feast, wore an ornament of emeralds and pearls worth $800,000.

Purple Cloth

Purple Cloth being ProducedBeautiful purple and red linen were the precious clothes of priests and kings and came from Egypt. "Purple" or "precious scarlet cloth" originated in Phoenicia. The very word "Phoenicia" probably came from "phoinos," which meant "blood-red." The Romans called the Phoenicians "the purple men" because they dealt in purple clothing. Ancient purple was much redder than modern purple. It was the royal color and the garment of the wealthy and very important.

Scarlet Silk

Gold coinPurple cloth and scarlet materials of silk were as precious as gold in the Roman world. Purple silk cloth came from the expensive dye called "Tekhelet," which originated from a specific type of cuttlefish. Each animal generated only a few drops as soon as the shellfish died, for the purple came from a little vein, which quickly dried up. The High Priest's clothing used the dye on the tassels on the corners of prayer garments. A pound of double-dyed purple cloth cost almost $100, and a short purple coat more than $200. Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) told us that at this time, there was in Rome, "a frantic passion for purple." Like purple cloth, scarlet was also a much sought after dye, though "scarlet" could mean any color from orange to purple in Roman times.

Tiberias Law

Scarlet ClothSilk cloth may be commonplace in today's society, but it came from China in Revelation times and was almost beyond price. So costly was silk that a pound of fabric cost a pound weight of gold. Silk was a natural fiber woven produced by moth caterpillars of the mulberry silkworm. The smooth, silky appearance of the cloth was due to the fiber's prism-like structure, which refracted the light. The Tacitus Annals 2.23 explained that under Emperor Tiberius (BC 42-37 AD), legislated against the use of gold for the serving of meals and "against men disgracing themselves with silken garments." These were considered too flashy outside the royal family!

Citrus Wood

Citrus woodCitrus wood or citron was highly valued in the Roman world and sought after for tables and furniture in the early centuries. The most interesting of the woods mentioned in this Revelation passage is "every sort of citron wood" or "costly wood." The citrus tree grew into a sizeable fragrant fruit tree in the same family as the orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit. The lemony fruit came with a thick rind, and in Latin, it was called "citrus medica." Coming from North Africa, from the Atlas region, it was sweet-smelling and beautifully grained. It was therefore prized, especially for table tops in the Ancient Roman world. But since the citrus tree was seldom huge, wood large enough to make tabletops were scarce. Tables made of this wood could cost anything from $8,000 to $30,000 in today's money. Seneca the Elder (BC 54-c39 AD), Nero's prime minister, was said to have three hundred such tables with marble legs. Citrus wood was also used from ancient to medieval times for medical purposes, to combat seasickness, breathing problems, intestine treatments, scurvy, and other ailments. Juice from the citrus tree mixed with wine was an effective antidote to poison. In Leviticus 23.40, we read, "On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees — from palms, willows and other leafy trees — and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days." The "fruit of the tree 'hadar'" or the "citron tree" was required in Jewish ritual during the Feast of Tabernacles.✞

Ivory Articles

IvoryIn the Roman Empire, ivory articles, marble, and bronze were greatly valued by citizens for ornamentation and decoration. Ancient ivory from "carved animal tooth or tusk articles" in Rome was used widely for decorative purposes, especially by those who wished to make a flashy display. Since prehistoric times, ivory had been used in sculpture, statues, sword hilts, inlaying furniture, ceremonial chairs and doors, and even household furniture. The Roman poet Juvenal (50-? AD) wrote, "Nowadays, a rich man takes no pleasure in his dinner. His venison has no taste. His roses seem to smell rotten unless the broad slabs of his dinner table rest upon a ramping, gaping leopard of solid ivory." Statuettes of Corinthian brass or bronze were also world-famous and fabulously expensive. Iron was equally in demand and came from the Black Sea and Spain. Babylon had, for a long time, used marble in buildings, but not ancient Rome. Emperor Augustus boasted that he had found Rome of brick and left it of marble. In the end, there was an official whose task was to search for beautiful marbles to decorate the buildings of Rome. In my experience as a young trainee site engineer on a 20 story building in Birmingham, I was personally amazed to discover that the bank atrium used no fewer than five different types of marble sourced from all around the world!

Ancient Cinnamon

CinnamonIn ancient times, cinnamon, fine wine, incense, and perfumes from the spice trade meant great wealth for Roman merchants. Cinnamon was a luxury spice for sweet and savory foods, transported by boat and overland from Northern India, China, and Arabia to Ancient Rome. "True cinnamon" is a spice obtained from the bark of perhaps a dozen species of trees. The name "cinnamon" from the Greek word "kinnamomon" refers to its mid-brown color. The English word comes from the 15th century. In Ancient Rome, it was very costly and commanded a price of about $130 per pound! The sweet-smelling Cinnamon balsam provided ancient Romans with a dressing for their hair and oil for funeral rites. According to the Roman author Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), a pound weight of cinnamon cost up to 400 denarii, a full year's wages for a working man in Rome. Usually, cinnamon was too expensive for ordinary people to use for funeral rites, but Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) was said to have burned a year's worth at his wife's funeral in 65 AD. Cinnamon was a perfume with which to greet guests at banquets and to scent rooms after meals. Another similar spice called "cassia" came from Arabia and Ethiopia. The word "cassia" was first recorded in 1000 BC and derived from the Hebrew meaning "to strip off the bark." Spice and the spice trade are misleading terms here, for they also include other products such as cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric.✞

Temple Incense

Incense AltarIn the Old Testament, incense had a religious use as an accompaniment to sacrifice in the Temple. According to the Talmud, Cinnamon, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, and other ingredients added to pleasant smelling gums or balsams perfumed the Temple incense ceremonies. Aside from cinnamon and other spices, Revelation also mentions carriages traded by the Roman merchants. The wagons mentioned are not racing or military chariots but four-wheeled private silver-plated chariots for wealthy aristocrats to ride around Rome. The wine was universally drunk in the ancient world, although it was a grave disgrace to get drunk. Users diluted in the proportion of two parts of wine to five of water. Even slaves received abundant wine supplies as part of their daily ration since it was cheap and replaced water, often dirty and germ-ridden.

Roman Slaves

Slaves in ChainsTraders of Roman slaves bought and sold up to 20 million or forty percent of the Roman Empire population. The traders wept and mourned over declining profits when Rome fell. The list in Revelation of lost business items for the Roman merchants closes with the sad mention of "human beings sold as slaves." The word used for Roman "slave" is "soma," which means "a body." The Roman slave market was literally "the place where merchants sell bodies." Traders followed the armies, and they bought the rights to obtain fit and healthy captives. They then sell these slaves into their masters' possession, and these people become their owners. Signs hang around a slave's neck in the slave market, listing the qualities the slave has. Those slaves considered "secondary goods" are sold separately and forced to wear a cap to indicate it!

Sixty Million Slaves

Slave IronsIt is almost impossible for us to understand how much Roman civilization depended on slaves and the slave traders who bought and sold them. There were possibly 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire, although some scholars question this number. It is not unusual for a Roman gentleman to own four hundred slaves himself, bought from the slave traders. One Roman writer says, "Use your slaves like the limbs of your body, each for its end."

Sedan Chair Slaves

Prison BarsTraders sell men, women, and children to do menial work and other, more sophisticated tasks like writing, reading, or teaching children. Each particular service has a slave. There are torch-bearers, lantern-bearers, sedan-chair carriers, street attendants, keepers of outdoor garments, and even slaves to stand at a feast as a kind of ornamentation for the guests to view. Some secretaries read letters aloud, and some research for a man writing a book or a treatise. Roman slaves even do a man's thinking for him, reminding him when to eat and what to discuss with his neighbor at a banquet when he ran out of things to say!

Roman Slave Merchants

Ancient Roman slave merchants gain their wealth from slaves they trade, including the 'Flower of Asia' slaves. The Roman slave merchants play an important part in Roman society by providing slaves for various services to their masters. Slaves are considered property and have no rights under Roman law. Over time some slaves are allowed to own property. Eventually, they are allowed even to earn, save, and to buy back their freedom. Merchants sell slaves for a great variety of functions. Some whisper in their owner's ear and remind them of his clients' names and dependents! "We remember using others," says one Roman writer about a slave who whispers an acquaintance's name in his ear. "People were too weary even to know that they were hungry." Merchants have slaves walk in front of their master to return friends' greetings, which the master is too tired or too disdainful to answer.

Intelligent Slaves

FlowersCertain ignorant persons, unable to learn or remember anything, buy themselves slaves from the Roman merchants. One memorizes Homer (c700 BC) and another the lyrical poets. Some slaves stand behind their owner as he dines and prompts him with suitable quotations and helpful things to his neighbors. Some slaves are handsome youths called "the Flowers of Asia," who, like the footmen in large English mansions on the TV special "Downton Abbey" in more recent times, stand around the room at banquets to delight the eye of those attending! Some slaves are cup-bearers. The guests often choose to wipe their greasy hands on the slaves' hair. This action reminds us of the woman in Luke 7.37-38, who brings a vessel of aromatic oil and pours it on Jesus' feet just like a slave might. We read, "A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them." She dries his feet with her hair, we were told, just like a Roman slave. The merchants sell some slaves as oddities like dwarfs or giants. There is a market for "men with short arms, with three eyes or pointed heads." Sometimes dwarfs are artificially produced for sale. It is a grim picture of Roman slave merchants manipulating humans for the few's service and entertainment.

Merchant Wealth

When the ancient Roman merchant wealth failed, business people mourned the loss, especially from the lucrative slave trade, from fine linen and purple. The merchants' markets, which were the Roman Empire's economic basis, had failed, and the dealers were grieving. They were mourning the loss of both the markets and their profits, counted on a Roman hand abacus. It was the first portable calculating device for engineers, merchants, and presumably tax collectors. It significantly reduced the time needed to perform the basic operations of arithmetic using Roman numerals. This Roman counting board, which slipped into a shirt pocket, was called in Latin a "calculi," no doubt the source of our modern word "calculator." The Latin word "calx" meant gravel stone, little stone, or pebble as a counter in the Roman hand abacus. The Roman market collapse was the end that John of Patmos was anticipating. And he was right, for "a society built on wealth, on wantonness, on pride, on callousness to human life and personality is necessarily doomed, even from the human point of view."

"Silver Cartagena Dishes"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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