Useless Beauty: Luxury and Rome

June 2016 to May 2017

"What will a woman do with no fear for safeguard, when there is Rome to teach its luxury?"

Propertius, Elegies, 3.12

Luxuria (extravagance, luxury, excess) was a problematic concept for the Romans: it undermined traditional ancestral customs. Proper Roman behaviour was supposed to be dictated, not by foreign imports and extravagant lifestyles, but by one's virtus (moral excellence), gravitas (seriousness conveying dignity), continentia (self-control) and frugalitas (frugality). From the third century BC, the Romans attemtpted to legislate against its corrupting effects, often in vain.

Useless Beauty examines a stunning range of artefacts including Roman jewellery, perfume vases, and table wares, in conjunction with contemporary comment from Roman moralists and poets. It explores how and why the desire for luxury goods, and love of the foreign and exotic, quickly became a part of Roman elite culture.

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