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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Object of Desire
by Heather Pringle
March 20, 2009

800px-fishesMost 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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4 comments for "The Object of Desire"

  • Reply posted by Christopher Ecclestone (March 20, 2009, 4:12 am):

    running water was a luxury depending on where you were. In ancient Antioch it was somewhat more humdrum, with Libanius in the 4th century claiming that there was running water in every household.. maybe, then again, that was only every household he frequented!


  • Reply posted by livius (March 20, 2009, 7:24 pm):

    I was stunned by the statistic cited in the Der Spiegel article that the average per capita consumption of water in the ancient city of Rome was 500 liters, whereas in contemporary Berlin it’s a mere 125 liters. The wastage must have been enormous.


  • Reply posted by toni (March 23, 2009, 8:28 am):

    the class envy angle at the beginning wasn’t necessary. Who wouldn’t want to live with the finest luxuries. Only a Buddhist monk would have the strength to deny luxuries and even the Dalai Lama himself is treated to the finest hotels in the world when he travels. Wealth is not a bad thing and most work hard to get it.


  • Reply posted by Dan Hilborn (March 26, 2009, 9:03 am):

    That is a fascinating article in Der Speigel.

    Water and wealth do indeed go together. And when the water engineers start to make mistakes, like they did in Jordanian case, the result is not a very happy one. Let’s hope the water engineers of today are paying attention!


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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