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date: 10 April 2021

luxury (luxuria)free

  • Catharine Edwards


While the definition of luxury might be contested, high-value goods played a crucial role in articulating social distinction and political power in Greece and Rome. Particularly in ancient Rome, where imperial expansion brought increased wealth and access to a wider range of goods, luxury was often the object of moralizing criticism, both as a personal vice and as a general threat to the well-being of the state.

Originally a term to characterize the exuberant growth of plants (see OLD 1), the Roman word luxuria (cf. luxus, luxuries), applied to human behaviour, is regularly associated with the desire for and consumption of high value ephemeral items, such as food, drink, and perfume, costly fabrics and accessories, precious artworks and furnishings, beautiful slaves, and private residences constructed on a large scale and/or out of precious materials.1 The pursuit of luxury is often presented as inimical to manliness and (particularly in the historical discourse of the late Roman republic and early principate) features as a causal factor in accounts of political crisis and moral decline.

Archaic and Classical Greece

High-value goods played a significant role in social differentiation in the Archaic period.2 Some rulers attempted to impose controls through sumptuary legislation.3 The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes denounced the “useless luxuries” (habrosunai) the inhabitants of Colophon had allegedly picked up from the Lydians (fr. 3 DK). Yet the term habrosunē, while associated with the refined lifestyle of the east, particularly Lydia, has a positive sense in Archaic Greek lyric poetry.4 Herodotus associates the Ionians of Asia Minor with soft living and connects this with their vulnerability to domination (e.g. 6.11–12; cf. 1.155 on the Lydians). However, while noting the Persians’ taste for luxury (1.135), he does not explicitly associate this with their eventual military defeat, which is attributed rather to their form of government (cf. Isoc. Paneg. 150–153).5 Indeed Heracleides of Pontus celebrated the Persians for enjoying luxury without compromising their manly courage (fr. 55 Wehrli ap. Ath. 12.512a–d), though other later writers did connect the Persians’ defeat with their luxurious living (Strabo 15.3.22, Plut. Artax. 20.1).

In Athens, following the Persian wars and with an increased emphasis on isonomia, there was a move away from visible markers of social distinction (Thuc. 1.6.3–5). Athenian orators criticize the flaunted luxury (truphē, a term which starts to appear in the late 5th century) of individuals who ought rather to spend their wealth on public liturgies (e.g., Dem. Meid. 21.158–159). The perceived social exclusivity of the symposium was associated with spending on drink and entertainment, as well as pleasure (though it is now recognized that gold and silver vessels were used rarely, if at all).6 The complex gastronomic discourse of the Classical Greek world is preserved particularly through Athenaeus’s late 2nd century ce Deipnosophistae and reflects a culture of social distinction articulated through consumption practices.7 At the same time Athenians criticize one another for susceptibility to the pleasures of the table, often linking a taste for expensive fish, for instance, with financial ruin.8 Thucydides attributes to Alcibiades “desires greater than his property could sustain,” which his critics associated with an aspiration to tyranny (6.15.3–4).9

The virtue of sōphrosunē, self-restraint, plays a critical role in the ethics of Plato. When Callicles (Pl., Grg. 491e–492a) provocatively associates luxury and licentiousness with freedom, his position is rapidly dismantled by Socrates. In Plato’s Republic (373d–e), Socrates contrasts a community focused on meeting basic needs with one which caters to the desire for unnecessary pleasures (such as refined foods). The latter community is described as both luxurious, truphōsa, and diseased; its limitless acquisitiveness inevitably leads to conflict with its neighbours. The capacity to control desires characterizes both the well-ordered state and the virtuous individual; luxury, associated with cowardice, undermines masculinity (590b).

Luxury and Historical Causation

Following the conquests of Alexander (3) the Great, the monarchs of the Hellenistic world adopted an increasingly lavish mode of self-presentation to communicate their power, status, and capacity for gift-giving. Callixeinos of Rhodes (ap.Ath. 5.196a–203b) describes the sumptuous procession and banquet of Ptolemy (1) II Philadelphus (r. 283–246 bce) as the apogee of this aesthetic of excess. One of his successors, Ptolemy VIII, boasted the epithet Tryphōn “the luxurious,” while another was Cleopatra V Tryphaena.10 The Seleucid ruler Diodotus (142–138 bce) also bore the epithet Tryphōn (Livy, Per. 55.11).

Polybius (1) in the 2nd century bce, perhaps reflecting the concerns of his elite Roman associates, sees the arrival of riches following the Romans’ defeat of Macedonia in 168 bce as leading to dissoluteness and extravagance on the part of Roman youth, though not all were susceptible (31.25). Similar concerns seem to inform the (fragmentary) work of his contemporary Posidonius (2) (e.g., Edelstein-Kidd F 265–267). But it is in Roman history-writing that the connection is systematically made between luxury and the moral decline of the state. In a brief overview of Rome’s history, Sallust (Cat. 11.5–6; cf. 5.8) highlights the role of luxury and avarice in undermining Roman manhood, in the aftermath of Sulla’s successful campaign in Asia Minor in 83 bce, when Roman armies pillaged conquered territories without restraint. Luxury is blamed for undermining Roman social cohesion. Livy (39.6.7–9) associates the arrival of luxury with Cn. Manlius Vulso’s triumphal return from Asia Minor in 187 bce. For Livy, a key indicator of Rome’s great moral strength is that traditional frugality flourished for so long (1. Pr. 11–12). Yet, though luxury arrived relatively late, its destructive force, on his model an inevitable concomitant of imperial power, has brought universal ruin. Other critics, too, while identifying different starting points (Pliny HN 33.148–50 points the finger at Scipio’s conquest of Asia in 189 bce), highlight luxury’s corrosive effect.11

Famed particularly for its luxurious food and drink, Sybaris (in Magna Graecia), which fell to its neighbour Croton in 510 bce, serves in later historiography (e.g., Strabo 6.1.13) as the paradigmatic example of the power of luxury and excess to bring about the downfall of states. While colourful stories about Sybarite luxury were evidently in circulation earlier, it is perhaps Athenaeus (1) himself, rather than the Hellenistic sources he invokes, who, influenced by the Roman historiographical tradition, invokes luxury as a historical explanation of Sybaris’s fall (12.518c–522a).12

Censorship and Sumptuary Legislation

The volume of high-value goods which were brought to Rome in the aftermath of eastern conquests of the middle and late republic certainly stimulated (and was stimulated by) competitive displays of consumption on the part of the Roman elite, offering a whole new language for self-expression and self-promotion (see also Roman attitudes towards wealth).13 At the same time, this development was repeatedly challenged as an affront to traditional Roman values through the medium of moralizing criticism and, in some cases, legislation. Scholarship in recent decades has moved away from taking Roman attacks on luxury at face value, analysing them rather as part of a complex moral and political discourse.14 The Elder Cato, known for his severity as Censor (184 bce), was celebrated for his campaign to eradicate “hydra-like luxury and effeminacy” (Plut., Cat. Mai. 16.5). A series of sumptuary laws was enacted from the late 3rd century bce to the time of Augustus (Gell. 2.24, Macrob. Sat. 3.17). Primarily concerned to impose limits on banqueting, these measures seem to reflect anxieties over the improper contribution such entertainments might make to election campaigns, while demonstrating their proponents’ commitment to traditional Roman frugality.15 Livy reports (34.1–8) a debate in 195 bce over whether the lex Oppia (passed 215 bce and imposing limits on women’s clothing, jewellery, and transport) should be repealed. The debate (as imagined by Livy) acknowledges the role of luxury objects as markers of status and connects women’s reprehensible taste for luxury with their resistance to male control. Other authors too suggest that women were especially susceptible to luxury (e.g., Pliny, HN 12.41). Tacitus (1) (Ann. 3.52–55) claims the Emperor Tiberius baulked at trying to restrain luxury through legislation but goes on to comment that, though conspicuous consumption of various kinds had become ever more intense (to the ruin of many families), the principate of Vespasian made old-fashioned frugality fashionable. For Tacitus, luxury does not play a central role in Rome’s decline.

Luxurious Building and the Decorative Arts

The profits of empire funded the construction of increasingly lavish homes for members of the Roman elite both in Rome and elsewhere in Italy (particularly the Bay of Naples). Archaeological evidence supports the claims made by, for instance, the Elder Pliny concerning the extraordinary increase in the grandeur of elite housing (HN 36.109–110).16 He and other moralists (such as the Younger Seneca, e.g., Ep. 86.6–7, 90.41–43) criticize the use of exotic marbles to adorn town houses and villas.17 Also a concern for critics were drastically reconfigured landscape gardens and dining rooms built out over the sea.18 In Horace’s poetry (e.g. Carm. 2.18), the luxurious villa is a perversion of nature.

The artworks that were brought to Rome particularly in the aftermath of Marcellus’s capture of Syracuse in 211 bce were held responsible for stimulating a new taste for statuary among the Roman elite (Livy 25.40.1–3, Plut. Marc. 21.5). That works wrought from precious materials such as gold (the focus of Pliny, HN 33) and gems (HN 37) were also highly valued is clear from surviving artefacts.19 Pliny laments the violation of the earth caused by human attempts to excavate for gold and gems beneath its surface (33.4).

Trade and Luxury

The expansion of the Roman Empire stimulated the development of a vast trade network, enabling the importation of goods from as far afield as the Baltic, India, and China. Particular areas of the city of Rome, notably the via Sacra and the Saepta Julia, were associated with luxury shopping.20 Archaeological evidence for imports is plentiful.21 Geographical branding characterized the trade in luxuries, though origins were often heavily mythologized.22 Goods from exotic locations (e.g. amber, pepper, and silk) brought social cachet and attracted premium prices. Commodities play a crucial role in the “cognitive geography” articulated in Pliny’s Naturalis historia.23 Pliny reports that perfumes were often named after their countries of origin (HN 13.4). So too were slaves (e.g., Hor. Sat. 2.8.14–15). Attacks on luxury highlight the profusion of imported goods (Sen. Prov. 3.6, Helv. 10.3, Pliny, HN 15.105).24

Imperial Luxury: Denunciation and Celebration

The luxurious tastes of several emperors, notably Caligula and Nero, serve as emblems of their lack of self-control in the political sphere. Their excesses in relation to housing (Pliny HN 36.111–112, Suet. Calig. 37.2–3, Ner. 31.1, Tac. Ann. 15.42) and banqueting (Suet. Ner. 27) are especially remarked upon; the short-lived reign of Vitellius (Aulus) was also associated with spectacular gastronomic indulgence (Suet. Vit. 13.2). Some of the most detailed and insistent attacks on luxury as a personal vice stem from the Julio-Claudian period, notably the philosophical works of Seneca (adviser to Nero), who links, for instance, luxury and susceptibility to anger (De ira 2.25.4).

Detailed denunciations of imported marble or exotic foodstuffs themselves served to parade the extraordinary wealth, power, and diversity of the Roman Empire. Moralists might take issue with food that was excessively fussy or clever, for instance, but the gastronomic refinement of Roman cuisine was, it seems, a source of pride for erudite gourmets (e.g. Sen. Ep. 95.26). Indeed attacks on luxury in their concern to highlight novelty, variety, and recherché detail perhaps constitute a mirror image of the discourse of connoisseurship. At least some texts of the Flavian period, rejecting the traditional association of luxury and social disintegration, appropriate the topoi of moralizing criticism to celebrate luxury as a force for cultural cohesion (e.g., Stat., Silv. 2.2).25 The opulence of marble is savoured and technology is a source of delight (Stat., Silv. 1.3), while the exquisite gems adorning a poet’s hand offer a dazzling analogy for his own art (Martial 5.11).26 Only in the 18th century, in the works particularly of Mandeville, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and David Hume, would a taste for luxury come to be celebrated precisely for the stimulus it offered to industry and trade.27


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