Theses Doctoral

The Value of Luxury: Precious Metal Tableware in the Roman World

Sharpless, Alice

This dissertation assesses the significance of luxury dining ware within Roman society by analyzing the economic and socio-cultural value of these objects. Specifically, I focus on silver and gold tableware from the Roman Republic through the third century CE. Precious metal vessels are particularly well-suited to a study of socio-economical value because they are somewhere between an art object and a commodity. Because these objects are made from silver and gold, they have material value, but they are also valuable for their functionality within the dining context, particularly for hosting guests at the convivium. Their utility is, therefore, expressly social in nature. In the Roman world, silver and gold vessels were also highly decorative and as such served as display pieces and objects of attention. Their ability to communicate was not limited only to their material or their functionality; they were neither mere utilitarian commodities, nor simple stores of wealth.

Scholars often note that precious metal vessels were status symbols and stores of wealth, but they rarely analyze the way that these objects functioned within those roles. I seek to address this issue by considering the different forms of attention and the processes of valuation which were applied to luxury products in the Roman period. I will ask how social and cultural contexts affected the value of precious metal tableware and how the monetary value of these items determined the social contexts in which they were used. Additionally, this dissertation includes a study of the epigraphic habits on surviving silver and gold tableware in order to better understand how these vessels were used and exchanged. The inscriptions give a sense of the kinds of attention that was given to these objects and the way in which owners or makers might use them to communicate. I will approach these questions through an analysis of four primary types of value: economic, cultural, social, and aesthetic value. Value can be an economic measure achieved by quantifying the significance of an object and expressing this as price. But value can also be applied through cognitive processes via the attention paid to objects and the attitudes of people towards them. By looking at the significance of tableware as a luxury product, utility object, and display piece, I take account of the different ways in which these vessels could be used to communicate within social contexts.

I will show that the value of precious metal tableware, in both an economic and cultural sense, provided its owners with opportunities to convey particular messages aimed at navigating the fraught networks of status that existed in Roman society. Gold and silver dining ware could be a store of wealth, but not one which produced financial returns like other assets. Rather, the benefits of storing wealth as luxury dining products were social in nature. The use of precious metal dining ware at communal dinners, or for display, could project an image of wealth, taste, and, most of all, generosity. The return on assets of silver and gold dining ware was social rather than financial capital. Luxury commodities like silver and gold plate were enmeshed in the social interactions and behaviors of elite Romans and so become agents in defining the social personas of their owners.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
De Angelis, Francesco
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2022