Luxury – the new ‘four letter word’

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I am currently working on two new documentaries for the BBC about luxury. Luxury is a hot topic at the moment given the modern-world’s current economic crisis. It has, as one expert recently commented to me, become ‘a four letter word’. Yet when you think about it, our response to luxury is actually far more complex: we both love it and hate it, we all have our own sense of luxury (one person’s luxury is another person’s hell) and even the basic criteria for luxury are in constant flux.

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Which makes going back to the ancient world a useful exercise. By exploring how luxury worked in other cultures, not only can we understand those cultures better, but hopefully illuminate our own better as well. The past gives us a good vantage point from which to view and understand the present.

Luxury in the Roman world has long been a topic of investigation. A great ancient text by the writer Petronius is a satiric account of a nouveau-riche man’s attempt to have a luxurious dinner party, in which he goes totally over the top in every possible way (Cena Trimalchionis). Equally the Roman emperors were often accused of overtly luxurious behaviour. But what about luxury in the Greek world?

On the one hand, we need look no further than the Kings of Macedon (the treasures from the tombs at Vergina for example) to see the typically luxurious accoutrements of monarchy: art and luxury as symbols of wealth and power. But more than that, luxury permeates through every layer of Greek social discourse. Indeed the Greeks did not have one word for luxury, but a whole range of terms that each had their own particular connotations of luxurious behaviour.

These terms – over the course of Greek history – shifted their meaning as they were applied to particular social and historical circumstances. So at the time of the Persian invasion, the Greeks defined the Persians as ‘habros’ (effeminately luxurious), but later writers like Herodotus confused that distinction by making such luxury not entirely un-admirable. Particular Athenians like Alcibiades were labeled as ‘truphe’ (soft rather than battle hardened), yet he also was a pin-up role model for the same community. Nouveau-riche Greeks, became, for Cynic philosophers ‘poluteles’ (financially luxurious), but all Athenians were luxurious compared to the Spartans, whose very name gives us a modern-day anti-luxury connotation.

Most important of all, however, was that luxury did not necessarily always divide social groups from one another: it could also bring groups together. For example, when Greeks came together to eat sacrificial meet in religious ritual, the meat was a luxury given its rarity in their diet. In coming together to consume a luxury, the luxury had helped unite them rather than divide them.

Luxury was, it seems, a topic that the ancient Greeks themselves found good to think with in order to understand their own culture. In doing so, they were just as complex in their responses to luxury as we are today. That is some comfort!

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com