The Last Word | Out of Sight

Luxuria is one of those hard words for beginning Latin students to get their heads around. It does and doesn’t mean what we mean by “luxury.” Maybe the best explanation is that in the modern world we have a very shallow understanding of luxury. The term is used mainly in advertising, and mainly for quite ordinary goods: “luxury” dinnerware or bubble bath, or mid-price cars touted as “the ultimate in luxury.”

But for the Romans, luxuria was the near-equivalent of Greek hubris. Both have behind them the imagery of material excess leading—and this is what’s important—to a diminished sense of cause and effect, and consequently to bad character. The fruit tree that goes unpruned is useless. The overfed ox is spoiled, mean, or just too frisky, and endangers its driver.

In Greek tragedy, tyrants who no longer understand life’s ordinary conditions bring down destruction on themselves, their families, and their nations. Roman literature condemns, under the name of luxuria, the drunkenness, promiscuity, and general mischief produced by the great wealth sluicing into the imperial capital. Epicureans, with their stress on inner peace and loving friendship, disapproved of luxury as much as the lofty Stoics did, and both kinds of philosophical moralists contributed to Christian doctrine.

The evils of luxuria seem more or less a no-brainer. Unless you happen to be right in the...

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About the Author

Sarah Ruden is a poet, essayist, and translator, and a visiting scholar at Brown University. She is the author of Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, and her new translation of Augustine’s Confessions is forthcoming from Penguin/Random House.