sed quid haec tam parva commemoro cum populatio morum atque luxuria non aliunde maior quam e concharum genere proveniat?
“But why am I talking about these really insignificant matters when it is a class of seashells that is a greater source than any other of the destruction of our morals and the rise of an indulgent lifestyle?”
Pliny Historia naturalis 9.104
In this way Pliny the Elder, writing in his ‘Natural History’ in mid-first century CE, segues from a descriptive account of seashells to a cautionary tale that maps human decadence onto the lowly mollusk. According to his account (9.1-6) it produces the most expensive items in the world: pearls. He goes on to recount a moralizing anecdote about that dissolute thug Anthony and dissolute beauty Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt and owner of the “two largest pearls that ever existed” (maximi uniones per omne aevum [9.119]). She had made a bet with Anthony that she could throw a banquet at which she herself, alone, would eat a meal of incalculable cost (10 million sesterces equals roughly [?] U.S. $300,000).
The first course was served. It proved to be merely the standard luxury fare of the day, and when Anthony mocked its pitiable pecuniary shortfall Cleopatra told him that that had just been a a lagniappe as it were, and the real bill was now coming up. She had a single goblet of strong vinegar placed in front of her, undid an earring containing one of the huge pearls, and dropped it in. As Pliny tells us, the pearl dissolved (liquefactum) before she drank down the contents, causing Anthony to lose the bet, and, shortly thereafter, Rome, when, after the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, he got the ax and Cleopatra got the asp.
This incident is not the only example of conspicuous consumption from antiquity. Indeed, antiquity appears to have felt about such grand gestures something of the scandalized frisson familiar to us from seedy weeklies that report on the outrageously expensive foibles of those whose wealth makes them so very different from you and me. Excoriating the unholy extravagances of the very rich was as popular in antiquity as it is today. In Greece, the genre began in earnest with the poet Hesiod, literary history’s first genuine “victim”. He lived unhappily in the late eighth century BCE, and wrote bitterly about the financial beating he’d taken from this peculating brother, who was in unseemly cahoots with the wealthy and crooked ‘gift-eating’ politicians of the day. Thus Hesiod whines – in clever if sour dactylic hexameters, it is true, but whines nevertheless – at having missed the golden age and now being forced to inhabit this worst of all possible worlds, the iron age, utterly devoid of decency and traditional family values (“fathers don’t treat children right [οὐδὲ πατὴρ παίδεσσιν ὁμοίιος] … brothers will not be friends, like in the good old days [οὐδὲ κασίγνητος φίλος ἔσσεται, ὡς τὸ πάρος περ] … aging parents are abused [αἶψα δὲ γηράσκοντας ἀτιμήσουσι τοκῆας] … people have no respect for religion [οὐδὲ θεῶν ὄπιν εἰδότες], etc. etc. (Works and Days 182-7). Well, that was almost 3.000 years ago, but it still sound astonishingly au courant, doesn’t it? I remember hearing the odd pol grinding on and on within very recent days about all that “family values” stuff as if he had really locked on to a gripping issue nobody had ever thought of before.
This archaic nostalgia for a roseate, sentimentalized past that never existed was an idea that held enormous appeal for the ancient Romans (as it still does for us today!), especially those of the first centuries BCE and CE, as it does for modern Americans, especially the so-called Tea Partiers. The Romans liked to talk about the complicated depravities of today while invoking the simple morality of yesterday. Their buzzword for that bygone edenic era was maiores nostri (“our ancestors”). In those days people didn’t build houses out over the water, sail the seas for gain, pillage the earth for her wealth, wear soft garments died in Tyrian purple, and so forth. How simple it all used to be – just about right up until the time I was born. How satisfying so to reconstruct the past – now that I’ve been born into this uniquely wicked world.
But back to Anthony and Cleopatra and conspicuous consumption. A few years back I recall that a group of affluent romantics celebrated Columbus’ journey to America by boarding a Concorde in Lisbon for a round-the-world jaunt at the cost of $23,800 per person. It was in the papers. It was on television. From the voice-over as the passengers embarked it was kind of hard to tell if the reporter was disgusted, envious, impressed — or some, or all of the preceding. Each age has its own idiosyncratic versions of the ultimate in self-coddling profligacy – drinking a pearl from the low depths of the Indian Ocean for dinner, flying a Concorde in the high stratosphere for a day and a half.
Like, man, Cicero really pegged it, once and for all: o tempora o mores!