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'Roman Passions' by Ray Laurence

Forget toga parties and orgies: Our view of ancient Rome is exaggerated to an extreme, a new book suggests.

July 03, 2009|Charles Solomon | Solomon's most recent book is "Disney Lost and Found: Exploring the Hidden Artwork From Never-Produced Animation."

In the popular image of ancient Rome, decadent patricians loll idly on couches, eating flamingos' tongues and peacocks' brains to prepare for the nightly orgy, while barbarians rally outside the gates. That well-beloved myth may have been burnished by Cecil B. DeMille and right-wing pundits comparing the current moral climate to the excesses that supposedly led to the fall of Rome -- but it contains very little truth, as Ray Laurence demonstrates in this slim study.

Rome enjoyed an economic boom that produced the first real consumer culture and, under the first emperors, wealth flowed into the city from the provinces and as a result of lucrative trade with India and China. Increasing numbers of Romans had money, which they cheerfully spent on luxury goods: silk clothing, gold and silver table vessels, ancient statuary, rare perfumes, fine wines, exotic spices and country villas.

Some of the practices that initially had been regarded as idle pleasures were incorporated into the idea of what made someone a Roman. A real citizen visited the public baths regularly and drank wine, vast quantities of which were produced in Italy and the provinces for an undiscriminating mass market. Enjoying sensual luxuries in moderation was part of a life well-lived, but to devote oneself entirely to pleasure, ignoring politics and civic duty, was frowned upon. The good citizen ate and drank cheerfully, but not to excess; even aged senators exercised regularly.

Orgies were another matter. Although erotic, explicitly sexual artwork existed in some villas, Laurence notes there is no archaeological evidence that anyone ever held an orgy. Romans enjoyed sex inside and outside of marriage; graffiti and other evidence suggest that men sampled the physical charms of both genders. But Roman sexual activity was largely confined to one-on-one encounters in the bedroom.

Given its interesting content, "Roman Passions" is more often pedestrian than entertaining. Laurence catalogs the exotic (and to the modern reader, bizarre) delicacies served in the "Dinner of Trimalchio" episode in Petronius' "Satyricon." But he loses sight of the fact that the dinner is a satire. Trimalchio is the ultimate parvenu, who punishes a slave for not throwing a silver tray into the river after it has touched the floor -- thereby detracting from the tone of the household. Many of the dishes involve elaborate (and virtually untranslatable) puns and wordplays. Though the dinner offers some insights into what wealthy Romans ate, it's a spoof, not a typical feast, and it should be taken cum grano salis (with a grain of salt).

Ironically, what Laurence's prose lacks is passion. He argues blandly that Nero's Golden House, the gargantuan palace he built after the fire of AD 64 destroyed much of the city, was an architectural innovation that enabled Nero to present himself to the Roman citizenry in a domestic setting: "Here, the emperor could entertain his people in person and display for them the spectacle of empire." Suetonius, whose "The Twelve Caesars" Laurence cites, describes the excesses of the Golden House in a far more entertaining style that alternates poses of calculated outrage with revelations of salacious tidbits. "When the palace had been decorated throughout . . . ," he concludes, "Nero dedicated it, and condescended to remark, 'Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!' " Hardly the comment of a sovereign concerned with entertaining the masses.

"Roman Passions" is weakest when Laurence discusses gladiator fights, executions and slaughter of wild animals that provided popular entertainment in Rome. He argues that these bloody spectacles arose from "a need to humiliate the enemy (slave, criminal or adversary)." But when he tries to relate them to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the photographs of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib and the execution of Saddam Hussein, his argument feels both strained and superficial -- despite 70 pages of footnotes, timelines, glossaries and sources.

The reader looks in vain here for the profundity of Marguerite Yourcenar, who saw the unimpressive biographies of the later emperors collected in "Writers of the Lives of the Caesars" as a prescient depiction of later 20th century politics. Yourcenar might have been writing the epitaph for the George W. Bush administration when she described a moribund culture as characterized by "that gigantism which is merely a morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt . . . those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives. . . . "

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