Roman Passions

Peter Jones enjoys the corrupting excess, but isn’t so sure about the sex, in a new book on Roman pleasures

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Ray Laurence
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £25

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Given the storms over MPs’ enthusiasm for the taxpayer to fund their helipads and ornamental gardens, the wide-ranging book Roman Passions: A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome is a timely one.

As Laurence argues, pleasure, by which he usually seems to mean the consumption of material luxuries, was dependent on a flourishing economy in Rome, and the first century AD may well have seen “the greatest economic expansion in Europe prior to the industrial revolution”. But as that economy declined in the late Roman empire, so the evidence for luxury – or at least for the public display of it – declined with it. One wonders whether the public’s sense of belt-tightening during recession has inflamed their fury at MPs’ merry-making with our money.

It is all here: emperors’ luxurious lifestyles, magnificent urban architecture, grand country villas, baths, sex, food, drink, the theatre, games (especially violent ones) and collecting and displaying rarities. Throughout, Laurence rightly reminds us of the strong strand of disapproval of such “corrupting excess” that runs through Roman literature (especially from Stoic thinkers), but also of the need for the rich from the emperor down to give the struggling plebs a taste of luxury too.

Hence, for example, public buildings like the Colosseum, baths, theatres and racetracks, all paid for by the wealthy to give the poor a sense that they too shared in the riches of the Rome world. Meanwhile, as Pliny says, the ‘good’ emperor, like Trajan, will find his pleasures in healthy, outdoor pursuits like hunting, and will share his dinners with guests, engaging them in agreeable conversation and inviting them too to enjoy the pleasures of the imperial table.

But there are problems with the book. First, ‘pleasure’ is a notoriously tricky and personal concept. Can it, for example, be defined purely in terms of luxurious material goods? Where does it intersect (say) with ‘happiness’? Second, there is little by way of sustained argument about the legitimate interpretation of the sources for pleasure. For example, Laurence regularly treats art as a source. So when he claims that Romans had sex only in private and therefore did not do orgies (“a modern fixation”), one wonders what he makes of murals of threesomes and foursomes hard at it.

Finally, while it is clear that Laurence has read widely on the topic, he does not seem to have thought it through. Assertion follows assertion, often without any sense of logical argument. So, with only a ‘perhaps’ to modify it, he asserts that the purpose of brothels was to fulfil slaves’ need for sex.

He then goes on to say that slaves’ need for prostitution can be understood only if we understand Roman views of the orgasm, that (i) men were in favour of mutual pleasure between copulating couples, (ii) “women were defined as achieving pleasure through sex” and (iii) Romans thought orgasms essential for health.

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But I cannot see what mutual orgasms have to do with slaves, or why slaves need prostitutes to have orgasms. And what about female slaves (kept happy being raped by their masters?). So, commendably detailed as this is, I can recommend it only as a rather shaky starting point for serious thinking about the meaning of pleasure in the ancient world.