For those historians attempting to locate Roman wall painting purely within social and economic frameworks governed by ‘luxury’ the word appears to take on an elastic meaning, as indeed it does for the study of antiquity in general. For example, not only is it used to characterise the aspirations and values of a single family, but also, on a much larger scale, it is used to underscore xenophobic attitudes between nations that become the catalyst for acts of aggression leading to eventual conquest. The television programme Lost Worlds – Persepolis (Discovery Communications Inc., Released: 24 February, 2009) in its build up to Alexander’s destruction of Persepolis it emphasises Greek hatred of the ‘luxury’ loving ‘effete’ Persians. In order to illustrate this point the narrator visits a contemporary Iranian market in order to show the viewer the type of luxury goods that the Persians ‘lusted’ after. Somewhat unconvincingly, gaudy modern synthetic fabrics are chosen to represent luxury items symptomatic of Persian hedonistic desire. A dramatised re-enactment of the destruction of Persepolis by Alexander’s troops follows this sequence and as the conflagration devours the city a voice over informs the viewer that the Macedonian-Greeks were in the process of destroying not only one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world, but also one of its greatest cultural centres that hosted all that was best in the arts, music, literature and scholarship. In the wars between the Greeks and Romans the roles are reversed and Greek luxury is the cause célèbre provoking the ‘pious’ Romans to wage war. Ironically, this conquest also led to the downfall of the Roman Empire, as it too, like Greek civilisation, was supposedly corrupted by the decadence that it vanquished (and looted).

Luxury, Culture and Conflict

The conflation of luxury and culture, which underpins the social historians attempt to make ownership of domestically located wall-painting a form of social posturing, invariably turned cultural consumption into a pejorative pursuit. To a large extent the evidence for this conflation has its origins in ancient polemical texts on luxury and culture, most of which are critical in substance and moralising in tone. Despite the vested interests underpinning these texts, they nevertheless influenced modern perceptions of ancient Roman society, most likely based upon the adage there’s no smoke without fire. Perhaps one should not be too surprised by the fact that land, family and property were at the centre of many of the accusations of misplaced luxury. After all these are the paradigms that now define Romanness, in contrast to the physical and mental perfection that epitomises Greek culture at its zenith. At the heart of the Roman paradigm was the fact that the Italic tribes transformed themselves from a loose conglomerate of warrior farmers to the most powerful nation on earth within an extremely short period of time and consequently their attachment to ancestral land and property remained strong. Hence it is hardly surprising that land, family and property were essential ingredients in vitriolic debates concerning the way in which wealth changed farming tribes from a group of producers to a nation of cultural consumers. Republican traditionalists equated this transition with moral decline and in polemical debates blamed it upon the conspicuous consummation of luxury items.




Wall-Painting and the House as Palace
Alexander mosaic
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Mosaic (detail) depicting the battle between Alexander and the Persian King Darius, originally located in the Casa del Fauno, Pompeii, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum