Roman Silver Dishes
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67. Roman Silver Dishes
Revelation 18.11-17a

"The earth's merchants will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore. They were cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, and scarlet cloth. They included many kinds of citron wood and ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble. Fragrant perfumes arrived like cinnamon and spice cargoes, incense, myrrh, and frankincense, wine and olive oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and carriages. Finally, they carried 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 Rome 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 items includes valuable silver and sought-after Roman silver dishes. It 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." Romans wanted dishes, bowls, jugs, fruit baskets, figurines, and complete dinner services made of solid silver. One Roman general and politician, Marcus Licinius Crassus (BC 115-53), amassed an enormous fortune in silver dishes during his lifetime. He became Rome's wealthiest man and among the richest men in all history. His silver plates cost $100 per pound of silver.

Purple Cloth

In the First Century, Pompeius Paullinus, a fighting general and "Prefect of the Provisions," carried silver dishes that weighed 12,000 pounds on his campaigns, the most significant part of which eventually became spoils of war for invading German tribes. Pliny (61-113 AD) reported that women would only bathe 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 often gave little silver spoons presents. Few of the listed goods were necessities, and most were luxuries. Roman society had become thoroughly self-indulgent. Human beings were commodities, and men, women, and children were bought and sold as slaves. The merchants' mourning in this passage is purely self-centered because their profit sources had disappeared. Their only concern was the luxury and the trade which had now failed.

Gemstone Cures

Large EmeraldThe wealthy elite passionately loved "precious stone cargoes and pearls." One of the strangest beliefs was that precious stones had medicinal qualities and that 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. Gemstone 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 treatment. 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.

Pearl and Stone Cures

Opals caused the expansion of emotions beyond their true importance, 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 gemstone. They were often dissolved and drunk in wine vinegar. According to Pliny, Emperor Julius Caesar (BC 100-44) gave his mistress Servilia Caepionis (BC 104-42) a pearl worth $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 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 weight of fabric equaled a pound weight 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 refracts light. The purple silk cloth color came from the costly dye "Tekhelet," from the blood of a specific type of cuttlefish. As the shellfish died, it generated just a few drops from a tiny vein, which quickly dried up. The High Priest's clothing used the dye on their prayer garments' tassels and corners. A pound of double-dyed purple cloth cost $100, and a short purple coat more than $200. 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's essential garments of choice. Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) tells us of "a frantic purple passion in Rome."

Scarlet Cloth

Scarlet ClothScarlet, like purple cloth, was also highly sought after. The Latin term for "scarlet" used in the Bible comes from "coccus," meaning a "tiny grain." They were so small they were thought to be a kind of "grain, seed or berry." "Coccus" has also become the name of a bacteria type with a spherical shape, from which we get the more familiar term, "streptococcus," or a throat infection. In ancient times, the tiny scaled insects gave their scarlet red color to fabrics. The insects fed on oak trees in Turkey, Persia, Armenia, and other parts of the Middle East.

Died in the Wool

The dead coccus produced a very permanent color giving rise to the phrase "died in the wool," describing someone who had steadfast beliefs and would not change them! "Beautiful expensive purple" and "precious scarlet cloth" for priests' and kings' attire originated in Phoenicia. The word "Phoenicia" probably came from "phoinos," meaning "blood-red." Tacitus' Annals 2.23 explains that Emperor Tiberius (BC 42-37 AD) legislated "against men disgracing themselves with silken garments," which were considered too showy 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 unusual wood mentioned in this Revelation 18 passage is "every sort of citron wood" called "costly wood." In Latin, "citrus medica," the citrus tree grew into a sizeable and fragrant fruit tree in the orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit family. Coming from the North African Atlas region, it was sweet-smelling and beautifully grained. It was therefore prized, especially for tabletops.

Table Tops

Since the citrus tree was seldom large, timber big enough for tabletops was scarce. Tables could cost anything from $8,000 to $30,000. Nero's prime minister, Seneca the Elder (BC 54-c39 AD), had three hundred 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. The Romans believed that citrus tree juice mixed with wine was an effective antidote for poison. In Leviticus 23.40, we read, "On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees, 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 teeth or tusks" was used widely for decorative purposes. Since prehistoric times, people had created sculptures, statues, sword hilts, furniture, ceremonial chairs, and doors from ivory. 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 commented insightfully, "Generally, common sense is rare in the higher ranks."

Beautiful Marbles

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 (BC 27-14 AD) boasted that he had found Rome of brick and left it of marble. The government explicitly tasked an official to search out beautiful marbles to decorate Rome's buildings. As a trainee site engineer on a 20 story building project in Birmingham, I was surprised to discover that the bank atrium in the building used no fewer than five different types of marble from all over the world. ✞

Luxury Spices

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 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 hairdressing and a funeral rites oil.

Very Costly Perfume

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 perfume greeted guests at banquets and scented 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. 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. The 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, and even slaves received an ample daily ration of wine since it often replaced dirty and germ-ridden water.

Roman Slaves

Slaves in ChainsIt is almost impossible to understand how civilization depended on slaves and the slave traders who bought and sold them. Although some scholars question this number as too low, 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 became 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!

Slave Merchants

Prison BarsSlave merchants played an essential role in society by providing slaves for various functions. Slaves were considered things 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 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.

A Slave for Every Need

"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 more sophisticated tasks like writing, reading, or teaching children. Each particular service had a slave. There were 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 researched a treatise for a man writing a book. Slaves even did a person's thinking for him, reminding him what to say to his neighbor at a banquet when he ran out of things to discuss!

Downton Abbey Footmen

FlowersCertain persons, unable to learn or remember anything, bought learned slaves from merchants. One servant 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. 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! ✞

Hair Care

Wiping one's hands on someone's hair throws new light on Luke 7.37-38, where a woman 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 also 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 merchants artificially produced dwarfs for sale. It was a grim picture of slave merchants manipulating human beings for other's entertainment.

Failed Markets

When the merchant's wealth failed, they mourned losing the lucrative slave trade, 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, and dealers grieved when the empire's economic motor failed. 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 pocket. The Latin word "calx," meaning little stone, counted 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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