The Object of Desire
by Heather Pringle
March 20, 2009
Most of us have a pretty good idea of how Wall Street’s big spenders lived in an era of multimillion-dollar bonuses. Thanks to Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, and Vogue, we have all seen their excesses—the houses in the Hamptons, private jets, art collections and closets full of Armani and Prada. The wealthy are seldom able to resist such luxuries, and their conspicuous consumption acts like a billboard for their net worth. You simply can’t miss it.
This kind of over-the-top display is not new, of course. The ancient Romans were masters of the art, as I discovered not so long ago while walking through some of Pompeii’s finest villas with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School at Rome. One of city’s architectural masterpieces, the House of Fabius Rufus, sprawls over a whopping 32,000 square feet and commands a view of the Bay of Naples that many would kill for today. In this great villa, Fabius Rufus walked on floors of the finest Egyptian and Tunisian stone, and entertained his guests in three spectacular salons painted in frescoes of the richest pigments.
But what gave the House of Fabius Rufus even more cachet was its plentiful supply of water. While most of Pompeii’s citizens obtained their drinking water by hauling heavy bucketfuls from rain-filled cisterns or public fountains, the household of Fabius Rufus possessed a splendid convenience: piped-in water. To acquire this luxury, the owner had wielded considerable political clout and paid through the nose. And he subsequently made the most of it. He possessed a private, heated bath suite, where he almost certainly invited impressionable guests. And he received supplicants in a magnificent atrium whose centerpiece was a spraying fountain. Running water was one of the most coveted status symbols in Rome—so much so that the wealthy allowed rivulets from their fountains to flow out onto the city streets, where it could be seen by passersby.
I was reminded of all this by a recent article in Der Spiegel on the ancient world’s longest underground aqueduct— 66 miles of subterranean waterways hewn out of stone in Jordan. According to Mathias Döring, an expert on hydromechanics at the Technical University of Darmstadt who is currently studying this aqueduct, Roman engineers embarked on the system in A.D. 90 to bring yet more water to cities along the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Jordan’s aqueduct took 120 back-breaking years to build. Clearly high-ranking Roman officials in the Middle East had no intention of giving up their watery excesses—even in a desert.
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