Luxury – the new ‘four letter word’

Wed, 2011-03-09 09:48 Submitted by Michael Scott

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. 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.

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