And how they valued fashion and entertainment above all else
Jhe Roman civilization was incredibly privileged. It was a time when ordinary citizens could get goods from all over the world. Whale oil from the North Sea, ivory from Africa, spices from India and silks from the Far East; whatever their heart desired they could get if they had the means and the wealth.
But of all the possessions they had, what did the wealthy Romans consider the most valuable? While it might seem obvious that the further an item came from, the more expensive it was, that wasn’t always the case.
For the Romans, anything fashionable or entertaining was highly prized. The more sumptuous and flamboyant it was, the more it was sought after. Thanks to the maximum price edict, we know how much some of these luxuries cost, and the numbers are tantalizing.
Silk was a very popular material. Hailing from China, getting him to Rome was no easy task. Navigating the ancient Silk Road was dangerous enough, but transporting it by sea, especially during war, made it even harder.
It is therefore not surprising that the starting price of 450 g of unprocessed white silk is 12,000 denarii. Considering that the average daily income of most ordinary Romans was only 25 denarii, access to this material was reserved only for the elite.
But what really made silk precious was when it was dyed, and a color above all else made a statement. Purple.
Violet was one of the most difficult dyes to produce because it was made by collecting mucus from snails. The process was extremely long, laborious and nauseating, with some historians claiming that it took 8,000 molluscs to produce a single gram of dye!
If that same unprocessed white silk was dyed purple, the price would go up to 150,000 denarii!
To get an idea of the price, a sharecropper would need twenty years of uninterrupted work and saving up to the last penny just to be able to afford the equipment.
But what about clothes? Wouldn’t that be expensive too?
A dalmaticomafortium, a hooded garment with silken sleeves and purple stripes, the cost of which varies depending on the richness of purple. The price would start at 44,000 and, depending on the weight and vitality of the groups, could go up to 135,000 denarii for a single garment.
These would be elaborately designed with gold embroidery and have fine patterns symbolizing whatever the customer wanted. It was a way of displaying status and wealth, and it was for this reason that this type of clothing was so popular.
Throughout history, slaves have always been considered extremely valuable. But unlike the Atlantic or Arab slave trade, where race and religion were factors, the Romans had no such concept. You were either civilized or barbarian and only non-Roman citizens could be sold as slaves.
But even the wealthiest could only afford a handful of them. Their price fluctuated over the years, but a male slave between the ages of sixteen and forty could fetch as much as 30,000 denarii, which could increase further if he had a particular skill.
What made them so expensive was that, unlike in previous centuries, the Romans no longer conquered large swaths of territory. By the fourth century AD, the number of war captives was dwindling, leading to one thing: higher prices.
As with the purple clothes, owning a slave or two meant you were well off. The only problem for the owner was that they were hard to replace, but what if everyone around you could see your status?
The unusual price of a racehorse compared to a warhorse showed how much the Romans valued entertainment. Although it is considered a warrior civilization, the historian Juvenal thought otherwise:
“Two things only the people really want: bread and games” – Juvenal
To really prove how far this claim goes, a first-class warhorse would cost around 36,000 denarii, which is by no means a small number. A racehorse, however, would cost more than double at 100,000 denarii. Why?
Because they were much loved. Mosaics with inscriptions like “Win or lose, we love you, Polidoxus” were prevalent, and even Emperor Caligula sheltered his horse in a marble stable draped in purple blankets. It was considered “glorious” to own an expensive horse, and many owners sent them to the races, where they could win large sums.
But the price difference didn’t stop there. The best Arabian camels would cost around 12,000 denarii, but a two-humped camel would be worth much more, at 60,000. Perhaps it was the exotic factor that made them more prized, or perhaps it was the fact that they came from much further away?
Either way, it shows that the Romans valued entertainment much more than war.
Entertainment was not limited to horses and camels. In fact, one of the most famous examples of the use of animals in performances comes from their use in Collesium games.
We’ve all heard stories of gladiator fights or prisoners being sent into the arena to be killed by wild beasts, but one question people often forget to ask is how would these animals be captured and transported to Rome?
This is what made lions and leopards so valuable. Hunting them was all well and good, but capturing them alive was no small feat. And with the ever-increasing demand for games involving bigger and more dangerous animals, their price has continued to climb. But how much are we talking about?
Well, a first-class lion could sell for 150,000 denarii, a lioness for 125,000. Even leopards could sell for 100,000 denarii, and that was just the price of buying them. Imagine the cost of their housing, food and care?
In comparison though, herbivores were much cheaper. An ostrich, for example, cost only 5,000 denarii, and wealthy individuals even brought some for their gardens. The task of capturing these animals, while difficult, would not have been as deadly as capturing a lion, so there were always people ready to do the job.
We may think that was barbaric, but if we ever manage to create a futuristic Jurassic Park, what dinosaurs do you think people would be more likely to see? My bet would be on carnivores like the T-Rex rather than docile herbivores.
When we really look at ourselves and our habits, we are not that different from what the Romans were.
The Romans’ love of food was perhaps unsurprising, and the wealthy took extraordinary measures to ensure that only the most exotic dishes were served on their tables. Think giant red mullet, whole roasted peacock and delicacies like camel’s feet.
But of course, what dish would be good without the right seasoning? Simply opting for local ingredients was not always enough, and to make an impression, hosts made sure that guests left imagining they had tasted the food of the gods.
Because many of these ingredients came from India and further afield, their prices were rather exorbitant. Ginger, for example, would cost 400 denarii, while pepper was double that at 800 denarii. The spices we take for granted today were once markers of the highest echelons of society.
Throughout human history, we have always been fascinated by the world around us. But what makes our story interesting is that each civilization and society had its own tastes.
While the Romans loved silks and spices for their rarity and exoticism, other cultures differed. The Chinese, for example, were so enamored with jade that they buried their emperors in it, while the ancient Indians valued their high-quality muslin.
Not all societies are the same, but rather than find disagreements, why not come together instead? Cultures today still hold luxuries like gold, silver, and saffron in high regard, just as the Romans once did. Rather than having hatred for otherness, let’s celebrate what makes us unique and what brings us together.