Pearls and Status in the Roman Empire

Egyptian Portrait Mask

Egyptian Portrait Mask

Before the advent of cultured pearls, the world’s supply of this ancient symbol of wealth, wisdom, purity and prestige depended on the vagaries of natural fisheries.  The Egyptians and Romans fed their insatiable appetite for saltwater pearls with treasures harvested from the waters of the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

~Matthew 13:45-46

Pliny the Elder

Fanciful Portrait of Pliny the Elder

In ancient Rome, a pearl was a “unio,” for unique, as no two were exactly alike.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) noted that pearls occupied “the very highest position among valuables.”  He criticized the conspicuous consumption of his status-seeking compatriots.  In his Naturalis Historia (translated by Bostock and Riley 1855), he complained bitterly of the profligate lifestyles of his fellow citizens.  Pliny gives us details of women’s taste for pearls at the time:

Mosaic from Pompeii

Mosaic from Pompeii

“Our ladies quite glory in having these suspended from their fingers, or two or three of them dangling from their ears.  For the purpose of ministering to these luxurious tastes, there are various names and wearisome refinements which have been devised by profuseness and prodigality; for after inventing these ear-rings, they have given them the name of ‘crotalia,’ or castanet pendants, as though quite delighted even with the rattling of the pearls as they knock against each other; and now, at the present day, the poorer classes are even affecting them, as people are in the habit of saying, that ‘a pearl worn by a woman in public, is as good as a lictor walking before her.’  Nay, even more than this, they put them on their feet, and that, not only on the laces of their sandals, but all over the shoes; it is not enough to wear pearls, but they must tread upon them, and walk with them under foot as well.”

But the worst offenders, according to Pliny, were the ruling classes.  He relates two stories in which pearls were consumed for no better reason than to advertise wealth and “glorify the palate.”  One of these stories detailed the famous wager Cleopatra made to Anthony that she would be able to host the most expensive banquet in history.  According to Pliny, Cleopatra won the bet by removing one of her prized pearl earrings, dissolving it in vinegar, and dispatching it down her gullet.

Cleopatra

Detail of Le Repas de Cléopâtre et de Marc-Antoine by Natoire

pearl earring

Pearl Earring c. AD 1st-3rd Century

Pliny also complains of Lollia Pauline, the wife of Caligula, who appeared on an ordinary occasion with hair, ears, neck, arms and fingers festooned with pearls and emeralds.  To make matters worse, the lady apparently bragged about their worth and the fact that they were spoils of conquest.  Pliny opines:

“Now let a person only picture to himself,…let him think upon this Lollia, this one bit of a woman, the head of an empire, taking her place at table, thus attired; would he not much rather that the conquerors had been torn from their very chariots, than that they had conquered for such a result as this?”

Pompey

Pompeius Magnus

Women were not the only offenders when it came to pearls and extravagance.  According to Pliny, on the occasion of the third triumph of Pompeius Magnus—which celebrated his victories “over pirates and over kings and nations of Asia”—among the articles publicly displayed was a pearl portrait of Pompeius himself.  Pliny refers to the portrait as a “downright ignominy and disgrace” adding:

“Yes, I say, those frank features, so venerated throughout all nations, were here displayed in pearls!  The severity of our ancient manners being thus subdued, and the display being more the triumph of luxury than the triumph of conquest.  Never, most assuredly, would Pompeius have so long maintained his surname of ‘Magnus’ among the men of that day, if on the occasion of his first [African] conquest his triumph had been such as this.  Thy portrait in pearls, O Magnus!  Those resources of prodigality, that have been discovered for the sake of females only!  Thy portrait in pearls, refinements in luxury, which the Roman laws would not have allowed thee to wear even!  And was it in this way that thy value must be appreciated?”

Pearls

Pliny is one of several authors who comment on Roman sumptuary laws.  The Sumptuariae Leges of Ancient Rome were enacted to prevent inordinate expense and luxury in banqueting, dress, and ornamentation.  The laws were frequently flouted and eventually repealed, but at the height of Empire, so much of Rome’s wealth was lavished on imported pearls and other luxuries, that its silver reserves were nearly exhausted.

three pearlsNeither money nor worldly possessions, neither science nor authority, will bring to you the sweet rest of paradise, at which you can arrive only by the noble knowledge of self.  In that you may clothe your soul; it is the pearl which is not eaten by moths, and which no thief takes away.  Seek it, and you will find a noble treasure.

~Jacob Boehme

Three Principles (1618)

sumptuary law attribution