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LUXURY IS THE PUBLIC ENEMY

It comes as no surprise that in late Republican Rome luxury was perceived as a political issue because of its potential danger to the State. It was considered a symptom and a cause of decadence : a symptom of wealth in society and a cause of weakness of character for a society that ran the risk of not being able to defend itself.

Morality was politics and politics was morality. Only by keepinp this in mind can we fully appreciate the deep significance of the Roman discourse on luxury as the principal cause of immorality and corruption.

Morality is at the core of any self-definition of Roman identity, specifically of what it meant to be Roman and especially a member of the elite; so discourses on morality were deeply political and used on the political stage by the ruling class both to exercise control over its own members and at the same time to justify its privileged position. It was the perceived moral superiority of the Roman ruling class that endorsed not only its pre-eminent position within Roman society but also the power of Rome herself over other states.

Roman words were based on the customs of the ancestors : “The commonwealth of Rome is founded firm on ancient customs and on men of valour (moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque) writes Ennius, quoted by Cicero in the opening of the fifth book of De republica. Roman men (viri) and ancient customs (mores) in Cicero’s eyes formed the foundation of the Roman State (Romana res). So in origin Rome was virtuous and uncorrupted, but progressive separation from the mos maiorum led to the degeneration of society, and luxuria played an important part in this process.

Sallust gives the best-known account of this decline in the introduction to his monograph on Catiline. He represents the history of Rome down to 146 BC as characterized by concordia, virtus and boni mores. But in 146 the defeat of Carthage and the consequent lack of an external enemy caused the rise of corruption. It was the fear of the enemy (metus hostilis), which kept Rome in a state of virtue. “The fear of the enemy preserved the good morals of the State, stated Sallust. In wartime, Romans applied their ingenium in the right direction and to reach the right end but in the absence of war the same ingenium was directed towards the wrong targets. But “When Carthage , Rome’s contender in her quest for empire, had been annihilated…the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were the roots of all evils. For avarice destroyed honour, integrity and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything.

A common feature of Roman historiography is the belief that an external threat, forcing constant vigilance and discipline, produced beneficial effects on social and political behaviour, and that the removal of these and the possibility of enjoying the results of victory could lead to laxness and an undermining of the mos maiorum, the basis of Roman virtus. The need for an enemy to safeguard national integrity and strength is a common feature in all antiquity.

Luxury invaded Rome, and this invasion was described by ancient writers in several ways : the metaphor of the illness that corrupts the body of society is one of the most often used. Self-indulgence invaded Rome, and the vices derived from it spread into the city like a pestilence, as a result the civitas was sick from diseases that spread like an infection, wasting the entire body. In Pliny the illness is not of the body but of the mind, and luxury is a mental disorder, pure madness. Luxury is also compared to a hostile army that invades, assails and conquers the Roman mores. Other metaphors were used from time to time, but all highlighted the corrosive power of luxury and the almost irreversile process of degeneration and decline.

There was time when Rome was full of every virtue, as in Livy : “No State was ever greater, none more righteous or richer in good examples, none ever was where avarice and luxury came into the social order so late or where humble means and frugality were so highly esteemed and so long held in honour. Who were the “examples” Livy speaks about, and why were they considered heroes the Romans should have tried to emulate ? What made them models was the complete absence in them of any luxuria, ambitio and avaritia. The hero that left the plough to save Rome, M. Curius, was the perfect model of Roman frugality and bravery (Romanae frugalitatis idemque fortitudinis perfectissimum specimen) because he despised any form of wealth, considered cause of the ills of mankind. Writers extolled for centuries the incorruptibility of Cincinnatus and C. Fabricius Luscinus who, despite excelling in the community in office and authority, enjoyed a wealth that was equal to the poorest.

Labor, industria, parsimonia, frugalitas, disciplina, contentia and gravitas were the main values of Roman society before luxuria and avaritia transformed them into desidia, socordia, inertia, lubido, avaritia and superbia. In contrast to antiqua frugalitas, Romans went soft because their luxurious environment produced weak elements, and a society of weak citizens cannot defend itself from external and internal enemies because of the corrupting power of self-indulgence and the consequent effeminacy of successive generations. Therefore extravagence must be considered a public enemy and fought in the public interest.

Therefore EXTRAVAGENCE must be considered a PUBLIC ENEMY and fought in the PUBLIC INTEREST.

Fighting Hydra-like Luxury, Emanuela Zanda, 2013

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