Ahen the year 215 BC dawned, the women of Rome actually had no reason to celebrate, on the contrary: After the 2nd Punic War, the empire was doing badly, Hannibal had crushed the Roman army at Cannae, 50,000 Roman men were at died at the front. Nevertheless, many Roman women publicly demonstrated their prosperity: they drove back and forth through the city in expensive open carriages, wore elaborate purple robes, and precious gold jewelry hung from their necks and arms. As the historian Titus Livius later reported, this behavior greatly angered the tribune Oppius, who demanded moderation, seriousness and modesty at the moment of military losses and the crisis of the Roman Empire; the behavior of the wealthy Roman women was inappropriate and would also deepen the rifts between the patricians and the plebeians, many of whom were impoverished by the loss of breadwinners at the front. Finally, the Lex Oppia was enacted, a law that massively restricted the freedoms and self-expression of Roman women.
As Livy writes, no woman was allowed to carry more than half an ounce of gold on her body in public, and pleasure rides in open carriages were forbidden. Only 20 years later, after massive protests by Roman women, was the law repealed, although Cato the Elder warned against it.
More than two millennia later, nothing has changed in the core of the fundamental discussion about luxury: where rappers and rock stars get out of the Ferrari in Gucci outfits, the old Oppius question arises: Is that tasteless and just creates envy – or is it Expression of new self-confidence in difficult times? Were Roman women irresponsible and irreverent – or were their excesses of luxury a way of dealing with grief, of not letting it get you down, of insisting that you have the right to a beautiful life?
When all else has gone wrong, formally unreasonable purchases—an outrageously expensive cashmere quilt, a sleek convertible car, a fancy meal at a starred restaurant—can help maintain self-respect and the joy of one’s existence.
But what is “luxury” anyway? The encyclopedia defines luxury as an effort that goes far beyond what is considered an appropriate and usual means of securing the standard of living for things that are rare or very difficult to produce – which is why you have to look carefully at how the term has historically, regionally and socially has changed.