Useless Beauty: Luxury and Rome

“Nothing can please luxury unless it is expensive.”
Seneca, Natural Questions, 4b.13.4

Luxuria (extravagance, luxury, excess) was a problematic concept for the Romans: it undermined ancestral customs and encouraged ‘un-Roman’ practices. In Roman moral discourse, luxuria destabilised the social order by encouraging behaviour that directed attention away from civic and familial duties.

Roman men, through their actions and attire, were supposed to strive for virtus (moral excellence), gravitas (seriousness conveying dignity), continentia (self-control) and frugalitas (frugality). Roman women were expected to demonstrate munditia (elegance of appearance) by wearing respectable clothing and modest amounts of jewellery and make up. Their pudicitia (modesty and chastity) and fides (trustworthiness and honesty) was linked to their domestic roles within the household. Extravagant lifestyles built around foreign imports, Roman moralists claimed, provided only fleeting pleasures. Those who indulged themselves were likely to suffer personal demise, and at the same time destabilise the Roman state.

Useless Beauty explores the tension which arose in Rome, between the appeal of a lifestyle based on a new culture of consumption, and the importance of maintaining an austere set of traditional Roman values. Roman writers often reflect this conflict through both criticism and parody of extravagance. However, despite the condemnation of Roman moralists, and attempts by Roman leaders to curb the display of luxuria, it is clear that many Romans had no desire to return to the frugal lifestyle once advocated by Cato the Elder.

Exhibition Partners: John Elliott Classics Museum, Hobart Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, Caboolture.

Designed by: Mr James Donaldson.


Curated by: Dr Janette McWilliam, Mr James Donaldson, Dr Shushma Malik, and Mr David Andersen