The city of Caesarea has been in the news recently, for the lavish lifestyle of certain contemporary residents. Yet the people of the seaside city also seem to have lived high on the hog in ancient history. Archaeologists have found surprisingly detailed records of sumptuous eating, drinking, dressing and housing customs of the wealthy – though it seems women only got to partake of the luxury within the home.
Rich then was like rich now – a matter of means. In a discussion on “who is rich” in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat (25b), Rabbi Meir simply said a truly wealthy person is satisfied with whatever he has. Unarguable, that. The famous Rabbi Akiva said wealth was having a pleasant wife (and he should know). But the more prosaic Rabbi Tarfon defined wealth as “100 vineyards, 100 fields and 100 servants.”
The practical Rabbi Yosi defined a rich person a “whoever has a toilet near his table.” At Sepphoris in the Galilee, archaeologists discovered just such a toilet near the dining hall of a wealthy Roman villa.
In fact the Jewish sages themselves were usually wealthy, which allowed them to ponder the fine points of Jewish law all day long.
A private olive press
Like that Sepphoris villa sporting sanitation, Roman wealthy homes were spacious – the historian Josephus describes them as “like a large castle.”
Such homes have been found, among other places, most recently in the Givati Parking lot dig in Jerusalem, where a gold earring inlaid with pearls and precious stones was unearthed last year. Sizable homes were also found at Bethsaida; one was complete with a wine cellar, near the Sea of Galilee. And let us not forget Herod’s frescoed palaces at Masada.
The homes of the rural rich had spacious grounds on which were often an olive press, grape press, and a family tomb. The taxman cameth to the ancient wealthy, too – in Roman times, experts calculate that landowners handed over some 2/3 of their profits to local governors and the Romans.
And whatever was left, they locked up tight. A parable in the New Testament mentions the doorkeeper of a wealthy country gentleman – a kind of estate security guard.
Wealthy women in the window
In the old days, custom required wealthy women to keep to their fine homes. Thus, women looking out of windows became a common motif in ancient literature.
The Roman-era commentary Genesis Rabbah pictures Joseph as so handsome that women peering down at him through lattices would “throw bracelets, necklaces, earrings and finger rings to him so he might lift up his eyes to look at them.”
Going back to Bible times, David’s wife Michal disparagingly watched him cavort through a window (2 Sam. 6:16) and there is a poignant reference to the mother of Israel’s Canaanite enemy, Sisera, looking in vain for his return from battle through a window lattice (Judges 5:28).
Servants, of course were a necessity – some wealthy country landlords could have had at least 50 living on their premises. According to the Mishnah (Ketuboth 5:5) – the more servants a woman had, the less she had to do herself. One servant liberated her from baking, two from cooking and breast-feeding. Four allowed her to “sit all day in a chair.”
But even if she had 100 servants, she still was still required to weave, so she would not become “idle,” the sages decreed.
Among the pagan Romans, tombstones, which only the wealthy could afford, portray the women spinning.
Purple-blooded and coiffed
While the poor had to make do with natural earth tones in their clothing, the rich could afford dyed textiles. Purple dye, made from the murex snail, was particularly costly: thus in Roman times, by wearing purple, the wealthy advertised their supposedly enviable bloodlines. In those days, “purple-blooded” meant what blue-blood means today.
In Bible days, Queen Athalia had a colorful robe and so did Joseph, to his detriment.
One’s hairdo was another sign of wealth. Only the pampered could afford the hair care to wear it long. So Hollywood notwithstanding, Jesus, for example, probably had more of a crew-cut.
The wealthy, both men and women, oiled their hair. Psalm 133 compares the pleasantness of brotherly love to “oil running down the beard of Aaron.” That was one expensive custom in Roman times, where in the New Testament a woman famously pours costly oil on Jesus’ head – amounting to “more than a year’s wages” (Mark 14:3).
Much like today's salons, the air of the bathhouse, where wealthy Roman-era people spent free time relaxing – women in the morning and men in the afternoon – would have been redolent with costly fragrances. Those could have included the worth-its-weight-in-gold balsam that made King Herod’s annual income the equivalent of $1.6 million, according to one estimate.
In the rags-to-riches love story of Rachel and Rabbi Akiva, Rachel sells her hair to buy lamp oil to study by as her once-illiterate husband worked his way up to scholarly immortality (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 6:1). Eventually Akiva purchased his wife a magnificent tiara of the type wealthy Jewish women wore, called a “Jerusalem of Gold.”
As the story goes, when Rabbi Gamaliel’s wife saw Rachel wearing the crown she became jealous and complained to her husband, who informed her unceremoniously that she had done nothing to deserve it.
In discussion of permitted activities on Shabbat (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 94a), women’s hairdos were apparently so intricately braided that they contravened the laws of building on the Sabbath day!
Killing the fatted calf
Then, as now, diet differentiated the haves from the have-nots. Rabbi Eleazer ben Azaria said only the wealthy could eat meat every day. The brother of the famous “prodigal son” of the New Testament jealously accuses his father of going overboard and killing the “fatted calf” (Luke 15:29-30) when his brother returned.
To show special honor to her surprise houseguest King Saul, the medium of Endor butchered her fatted calf to serve (I Sam 28:24).
In contrast, the recipe for a simple peasant’s meal is to be found in Ruth 2:14 – bread dipped in vinegar, with toasted grain – food that could easily be wrapped in a cloth and taken to the field.
While ordinary people ate off of plain pottery dishes, according to the Mishnah the aristocratic Sadducees ate from silver and gold ware.
The diet of the rich was the target of a particularly venomous barb by the prophet Amos. He excoriated the “cows of Bashan” who “oppress the poor, crush the needy and say unto their lords [husbands] ‘Bring, that we may feast.” (Amos 4:1). That sentiment hasn't changed much either.
The writer is the author, among other books, of Women at the Time of the Bible, Food at the Time of the Bible, Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days, and The Scroll.
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