Silver Cartagena Dishes
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Silver Cartagena Dishes
(Revelation 18.11-17a)
Page 254-263

"The merchants of the earth 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, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves. They (the slave merchants) will say, 'The fruit you longed for 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. 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, most were luxuries. Roman society has 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 been taken away. 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.

Cartagena

Cartagena SilverAt 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." Dishes, bowls, jugs, fruit baskets, statuettes, whole dinner services, were made of solid silver. Marcus Licinius Crassus (BC 115-53) the Roman general and politician amassed an enormous fortune during his life and 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 AD like Pompeius Paullinus carried with him on his campaigns wrought silver dishes which weighed 12,000 pounds, the greater part of which eventually fell into the hands of the invading Germans tribes as spoils of war.

Baths and Anklets

PlinyAlso, Pliny (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 Saturnalia, the festival which fell at the same time as the Christian Christmas and at which presents were given, often the gifts were little silver spoons. The wealthier the giver, the more ostentatious the gift was expected to be.

The Fascination of a Gem

Alexandrian ShipsThe transport of rich textiles and precious stones cargoes in Alexandrian ships were greatly valued by the wealthy elite in the Roman world. The Roman Empire was an age that passionately loved "precious stone cargoes and pearls." It was largely 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 EmeraldOf all the precious stones, diamonds were most sought after along with emeralds from Scythia. Beryl and opals were used for women's ornaments and sardonyx a red form of the onyx stone was used for the seals of rings. One of the strangest of ancient beliefs was that precious stones had medicinal qualities. The amethyst was said to be a cure for drunkenness and as a protection, for cleansing and to help intuition! It was wine-red and the word "amethyst" meant "not to make drunk." Diamonds were said to bring initiation, purpose, and clarity. Emeralds brought love, compassion, and abundance. Opal was said to release attachments and cause emotional amplification. Pearls brought about 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 urged 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 obvious beauty of gemstones, Christians do not look anywhere else but to the Lord God and Jesus Christ for any and every kind of healing and guidance!

Costly Gemstone Cures

Jasper Precious StonesCostly gemstone cures were greatly valued for ailments in the Roman world and possession of gems was an indicator of one's high status. Gemstone cures for various ailments and diseases using precious stones were widely practiced 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 was believed to neutralize poison and to cure 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 the Emperor Caligula's wives, at a betrothal feast, wore an ornament of emeralds and pearls worth $800,000.

Purple Cloth

Purple Cloth being ProducedFine 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" was probably derived from "phoinos," which meant "blood-red." The Phoenicians may also have been known as "the purple men," because they dealt in purple. 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 extremely valuable in the Roman world and worth their weight in gold. Purple silk cloth was produced from the very precious dye called "Tekhelet" which came from a certain type of cuttlefish. Only a few drops were produced by each animal, and the shell had to be opened as soon as the shellfish died, for the purple came from a little vein which dried up soon after death. It was used in the clothing of the High Priest and the tassels on the corners of garments worn during prayer. 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." Scarlet, like purple cloth, 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 in today's society be commonplace, but in the Rome of Revelation times, silk cloth was almost beyond price, for it had to be imported from China. Silk was a natural protein fiber woven into textiles. It was produced by moth caterpillars of the mulberry silkworm. The smooth silky appearance of the cloth was due to the prism-like structure of the fiber which refracted the light. So costly was silk that a pound of cloth was sold for a pound weight of gold. The Tacitus Annals 2.23 explained that under Emperor Tiberius (BC 42-37 AD), a law was passed against the use of solid gold vessels for the serving of meals and "against men disgracing themselves with silken garments." These were considered too ostentatious outside of 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 from which this wood was obtained grew into a large fragrant fruit tree. It was in the same family as the orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit. The lemony fruit came with a thick rind. 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 very large, wood large enough to make tabletops was very scarce. Tables made of this wood could cost anything from $8,000 to $30,000 each 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 thought to have been 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." Thus the "fruit of the tree 'hadar'" or the "citron tree" was required for ritual use by Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles.✞

Ancient Ivory Articles

IvoryAncient ivory articles, as well as marble and bronze, were greatly valued by Ancient Roman citizens for ornamentation and decoration. Ancient Ivory that is to say "carved animal tooth or tusk articles" in Rome were used widely for decorative purposes, especially by those who wished to make an ostentatious display. Since prehistoric times, ivory had been used in sculpture, for statues, for sword hilts, for inlaying furniture, for ceremonial chairs and doors, and even for household furniture. Juvenal (50-? AD) a Roman poet active in the late first and early second centuries 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." As well as ivory articles, statuettes of Corinthian brass or bronze were world-famous and fabulously expensive. Iron was equally in demand and came from the Black Sea and Spain. For a long time, marble had been used in Babylon for building, but not in ancient Rome. Emperor Augustus boasted that he had found Rome of brick and left it of marble. In the end, there was an office whose task was to search the world for fine marbles with which to decorate the buildings of ancient 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 atrium which was to be used as a bank was lined with no fewer than five different types of marble sourced from all around the world!

Ancient Cinnamon

CinnamonAncient cinnamon, fine wine, incense and perfumes from the spice trade were the sources of great wealth for Roman merchants. Ancient cinnamon was a luxury spice for both sweet and savory foods which was 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 can be traced back to the 15th century. In Ancient Rome, it was very expensive and commanded a price of about $130 per pound! The sweet-smelling Cinnamon balsam was used in ancient Rome as a dressing for the hair and as an 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 which were a full year's wage for a working man in Rome. Normally 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 also used as 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 were added to perfumed gums or balsams for the Temple incense ceremonies. Aside from cinnamon and other spices, Revelation also mentions carriages traded by the Roman merchants. The carriages mentioned are not racing or military chariots but four-wheeled private chariots, in which wealthy aristocrats rode around Rome. They were often silver-plated! In the ancient world, the wine was also universally drunk although drunkenness was regarded as a grave disgrace. The Wine was usually diluted in the proportion of two parts of wine to five parts of water. Even slaves were provided with abundant supplies of wine as part of their daily ration since it was very cheap and replaced the water which was often dirty and germ-ridden.

Roman Slaves

Slaves in ChainsTraders of Roman slaves buy and sell up to 20 million or forty percent of the population in the Roman Empire. The traders weep and mourn over their declining profits when Rome falls. 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 is literally "the place where bodies are sold." The traders followed the armies and when an enemy is defeated buy the rights from the Romans to obtain the fit and healthy captives. They then sell on these slaves into the possession of their masters and these people then became their owners. Signs are often hung 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 is based on slaves and the slave traders who buy and sell them. There are possibly 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire although this number is questioned by some scholars. It is not unusual however for a Roman gentleman to own four hundred slaves himself which are 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 the menial work as well as other more sophisticated tasks like writing, reading or teaching one's 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 look at. Some are sold as secretaries or people to read letters aloud, and some to do the necessary 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 say to his neighbor at a banquet when he ran out of conversation!

Roman Slave Merchants

Group of SlavesAncient 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 a variety of services to their masters. Slaves are considered property and have no rights under Roman law. This slowly changes over time and slaves are allowed to own property. Eventually, they are allowed to even earn, save and to buy back their freedom. Merchants sell slaves for a great variety of functions. For some, they have to whisper in their owner's ear and remind him or her of the names of his clients and dependents! "We remember using others," says one Roman writer about a slave who whispers the name of an acquaintance in his ear. The merchants even sell slaves who remind their owners when to eat and go to bed! It is said that "People were too weary even to know that they were hungry." The merchants have slaves to walk in front of their master and to return the greetings of friends, which the master is too tired or too disdainful to return himself. It is said that many Romans citizens have four hundred or more slaves at his or her bidding.

Intelligent Slaves

FlowersA certain ignorant person, unable to learn or remember anything, buys himself a set of 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 nice things to say 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, simply 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 soiled hands on the hair of some of the slaves. This reminds us of the woman in Luke 7.37-38 who brings a vessel of perfumed 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. Some slaves are sold by the merchants as oddities like dwarfs or giants. There is a market for "men with short arms, with three eyes or with pointed heads." Sometimes dwarfs are artificially produced for sale. It is a grim picture of people being manipulated for the service and entertainment of the few by the Roman slave merchants.✞

Merchant Wealth

Roman Hand AbacusWhen the ancient Roman merchant wealth failed businesspeople mourned the loss especially from the lucrative slave trade, from fine linen and purple. The merchants' markets which were the economic basis of the Roman empire had failed and the dealers were grieving. They were bewailing the loss of both the markets and their profits which they counted on a Roman hand abacus. It was the first portable calculating device for engineers, merchants and presumably tax collectors. It greatly reduced the time needed to perform the basic operations of arithmetic using Roman numerals. This Roman counting board which was slipped into a shirt pocket was called in Latin a "calculi" no doubt the originator of our modern word "calculator." The Latin word "calx" meant gravel stone, little stone or pebble and was used 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 © 2019

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