Roman Silver Dishes
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70. Roman Silver 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 every kind of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon and spice cargoes, incense, myrrh and frankincense, wine and olive oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep; horses and carriages, and human beings sold as slaves. They will say, 'Your 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 comes to ruin!'" (Revelation 18.11-17a)✞

Roman Silver Dishes

Roman Silver DishesThis list of various merchandise includes the valuable and sought-after Roman silver dishes and illustrates society's enormous materialism. 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 wanted dishes, bowls, jugs, fruit baskets, figurines, and complete dinner services made of solid silver. Marcus Licinius Crassus (BC 115-53), a Roman general and politician, amassed an enormous fortune during his lifetime. He was considered Rome's wealthiest man and among the richest men in all history. He owned Roman silver dishes, which cost $100 for each pound of silver. Even a fighting general and "Prefect of the Provisions" in the First Century like Pompeius Paullinus carried with him on his campaigns Roman silver dishes which weighed 12,000 pounds, the most significant part of which were eventually spoils of war of the invading German tribes. 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 same time as the Christian Christmas, people gave presents which were often little silver spoons. Few of the listed goods are necessities, and most are luxuries. Roman society had become thoroughly self-indulgent. Human beings had become commodities, and men, women, and children were bought and sold as slaves. The merchants' mourning in this passage is purely selfish because their profit sources have disappeared. The market from which they drew so much wealth has gone. Their only concern was the luxury and the trade it brought to them, which has now failed.

Gemstone Cures

Large EmeraldGemstone cures were much valued for Roman ailments, and gems were indicators of high status. The jasper, or bloodstone, was thought to stop bleeding. Green jasper was said to be an infertility cure. Diamonds neutralized poison and cured delirium, and amber worn around the neck was a fever cure. Romans sought after silver dishes and this was an age when the wealthy elite passionately loved "precious stone cargoes and pearls." It was mainly through Alexander the Great's conquests that precious stones came to the West. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the Roman author, wrote, "A gem's fascination was that the majestic might of nature presented itself in a limited space." Beryl and opals appeared in women's ornaments and sardonyx in men's ring seals. One of the strangest beliefs was that precious stones had medicinal qualities. It was believed amethysts cured drunkenness and helped intuition! The word "amethyst" meant "not to make drunk." Diamonds indicated purpose, and clarity, whereas emeralds showed love, compassion, and abundance.

Pearl and Stone Cures

Opals caused emotional amplification, while pearls created self-care, nurturing, and emotional healing. The Romans were as superstitious as many folks are today. Robert Simmons and Naisha Ahsian's "The Book of Stones" urges that when choosing a healing gemstone or crystal, "start in a calm state of mind. Gaze at the stones' images and feel your energetic link to them. Look for crystals that 'call' to you, and confirm your intuition by reading the description." Despite the beauty of gemstones, Christians look only to the Lord God and Jesus Christ for healing and guidance! The rest is superstition. The Romans loved pearls more than any gemstones. They were often dissolved and drunk in wine vinegar. According to Pliny (23-79 AD), Emperor Julius Caesar (BC 100-44) gave his mistress Servilia Caepionis (BC 104-42), a pearl that cost $130,000. At a betrothal feast, Lollia Paulina (15-49 AD), one of Emperor Caligula's wives, wore an emerald and pearl ornament worth $800,000!

Purple Cloth

Producing Purple ClothPurple cloth and scarlet silk materials were as precious as gold in the Roman world. The color in Purple silk cloth came from the expensive dye called "Tekhelet," which originated from the blood of a specific cuttlefish type. As the shellfish died, each animal generated just a few drops from a tiny vein, which quickly dried up. The High Priest's clothing used the dye on the prayer garments' tassels and corners. A pound of double-dyed purple cloth cost $100, and a short purple coat more than $200. Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) tells us that there was in Rome "a frantic purple passion." Scarlet, like purple cloth, was also highly sought after. "scarlet" could mean any color from orange to purple in Roman times."Beautiful expensive Purple" and "precious scarlet cloth" originated in Phoenicia to become priests' and kings' attire. The word "Phoenicia" probably came from "phoinos," meaning "blood-red." The Romans called the Phoenicians "the purple men" because they sold purple clothing. Ancient purple was much redder than modern purple. It was the royal color and became the wealthy and essential garments of choice.

Tiberias' Law

Scarlet ClothSilk cloth may be commonplace in today's society, but in Revelation times, it came from China and was almost beyond price. So costly was silk that a pound of fabric equaled a pound of gold! Silk is a natural woven fiber produced by mulberry silkworm caterpillars. The cloth's smooth, silky appearance is due to the fiber's prism-like structure, which refracted light. Tacitus' Annals 2.23 explains that Emperor Tiberius (BC 42-37 AD), legislated against gold's use for serving dishes. It was "against men disgracing themselves with silken garments," which 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. The most interesting wood mentioned in this Revelation 18 passage is "every sort of citron wood" called "costly wood." The citrus tree grew into a sizeable and fragrant fruit tree in the orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit family. The lemony fruit was called in Latin "citrus medica." Coming from the North African Atlas region, it was sweet-smelling and beautifully grained. It was therefore prized, especially for tabletops. But since the citrus tree was seldom huge, timber large enough for tabletops was scarce. Tables could cost anything from $8,000 to $30,000. Seneca the Elder (BC 54-c39 AD), Nero's prime minister, had three hundred such tables with marble legs. Citrus wood was also used from ancient to medieval times for medicinal purposes to combat seasickness, breathing problems, intestine treatments, scurvy, and other ailments. Citrus tree juice mixed with wine was an effective poison antidote. 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 for seven days before the Lord your God." The "fruit of the tree 'hadar'" or the "citron tree" was required in Jewish rituals during the Tabernacles' Feast.✞

Ivory Articles

IvoryIn the Empire, citizens greatly valued ivory articles, marble, and bronze for decoration. Ancient ivory from "carved animal tooth or tusk" was used widely for decorative purposes. Sculptures, statues, sword hilts, inlaying furniture, ceremonial chairs and doors, and even household furniture was made from ivory since prehistoric times. The poet Juvenal otherwise called Decimus Junius Juvenalis (c50-c100 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." He also wrote insightfully, "Generally common sense is rare in the higher ranks." and "Pray that the mind is sound and the body sound. Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death." Statuettes of Corinthian brass or bronze were also world-famous and fabulously expensive. Iron from the Black Sea and Spain were equally in demand. Babylon had used marble in buildings, but not ancient Rome. Emperor Augustus boasted that he had found Rome of brick and left it of marble. An official searched for beautiful marbles to decorate Rome's buildings. In my experience as a trainee site engineer on a 20 story building project in Birmingham, I was surprised to discover that the bank atrium there used no fewer than five different types of marble from all around the world!

Ancient Cinnamon

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

Temple Incense

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

Roman Slaves

Slaves in ChainsIt is almost impossible to understand how much civilization depended on slaves and the slave traders who bought and sold them. Although some scholars question this number as being too low, there were possibly 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. It was not unusual for a gentleman to own four hundred slaves himself. One writer said, "Use your slaves like your body's limbs, each for its end." Slave traders bought and sold 20 million slaves or forty percent of the Empire's population. The traders wept and mourned over declining profits when Rome fell. The Revelation list of lost business items for the merchants closes with the sad mention of "human beings sold as slaves." The word used for "slave" is "soma," which means "a body." The slave market was literally "where merchants sell bodies." Traders followed the armies, and they bought the rights to take fit and healthy captives. They then sold these slaves into their masters' possession, and these people become their owners. Signs were hung around a slave's neck in the market, listing the slave's qualities. Those slaves considered "secondary goods" were sold separately and forced to wear a cap to indicate it!

Roman Slave Merchants

Prison BarsSlave merchants played an essential role in society by providing slaves for various services. Slaves were considered property and had no rights under the law. Over time some slaves were allowed to own property. Eventually, they were permitted even to earn, save, and to buy back their freedom. Merchants sold slaves for a great variety of functions. Some whispered in their owner's ear and reminded them of their clients' names and dependents! "We remember using others," said one writer about a slave who whispered an acquaintance's name in his ear. "People were too weary even to know that they were hungry" and had a slave for that. Merchants had slaves walk in front of their master on the road to return others' greetings, when the master was too tired or disdainful to answer. Traders sold men, women, and children to do menial work and other, more sophisticated tasks like writing, reading, or teaching children. Each particular service had a slave. There were torch-bearers, lantern-bearers, sedan-chair carriers, street attendants, outdoor garment keepers, and even slaves to stand at a feast as ornamentation for the guests. Some slave secretaries read letters aloud, and research for a man writing a book or a treatise. Slaves even did a person'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!

Downton Abbey Footmen

FlowersCertain ignorant persons, unable to learn or remember anything, bought learned slaves from merchants. One memorized Homer (c700 BC) and another the lyrical poets. Some slaves stood behind their owner as he dined and prompted him with suitable quotations and helpful things to say. Some servants were handsome youths called "Flowers of Asia," who, like the TV special "Downton Abbey's" footmen, stood around at banquets to delight the eye of those attending! Some slaves were cup-bearers but the guests often chose to wipe their greasy hands on the slaves' hair! This action reminds me of the Luke 7.37-38, woman who brought an aromatic oil vessel and poured perfume on Jesus' feet 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 dried his feet with her hair, we were told, just like a slave. The merchants sold some slaves as oddities like dwarfs or giants. There was a demand for "men with short arms, with three eyes or pointed heads." Sometimes dwarfs were artificially produced for sale. It was a grim picture of slave merchants manipulating human beings for other's entertainment.

Merchant Wealth

When the merchant's wealth failed, they mourned the loss of the lucrative slave trade and the commerce in fine linen and purple. "They will say, 'Your fruit is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.'" The merchants' markets, which were the Empire's economic basis, failed, and dealers grieved. They counted their losses on a hand abacus, the first portable calculating device for merchants, engineers, and presumably tax collectors. It significantly reduced the time needed to perform basic arithmetic. This counting board was called in Latin a "calculi," no doubt the source of our modern "calculator" and slipped into a shirt pocket. The Latin word "calx" meant little stone used as a counter on the hand abacus. The market's collapse was the end that John of Patmos was anticipating, for "a society built on wealth, wantonness, pride, callousness to human life and personality is necessarily doomed, even from the human point of view."

"Roman Silver Dishes"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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