Episode Luxury in Ancient Greece – Host Cambridge University academic Dr Michael Scott asks the question “Do we love luxury or hate it or both?” He presents the view that the best way to understand our anxious response toward luxury is to think about how it operated in the past and to understand how that past continues to impact society today. This is done by looking at one of the key periods of just a few short centuries in ancient Greece. The story of luxury begins not with the exotic, but what today seems the mundane meat. The debate about luxury convulsed ancient Greece from the beginning of the classical era. In Athens, it explores the role of luxury in the beginnings of democracy – how certain kinds of luxury came to be forbidden and others embraced. A simple luxury like meat could unite the democracy, and yet a taste for fish could divide it. Some luxuries were associated with effeminacy and foreigners, others with the very idea of democracy. Yet in Sparta, there was a determined attempt to deny luxury, and the guilty contradictions of this eventually brought its downfall. When Sparta was replaced by Macedon, Phillip II’s court set new standards for luxury as political propaganda.
Episode Luxury in the Middle Ages – follows the clash between luxury and Christianity which convulsed medieval Europe. Luxury was a roadblock on the road to heaven, so the church was quick to condemn the jewellery and gorgeous weapons of the early medieval world. Yet the church also had its own form of luxury, in the form of manuscripts designed to do the work of God through astonishment and display. And to some extent it worked, as by 1200 medieval boys’ toys like warhorses and tournaments were suffused with Christian ideas of chivalry and gentility. But trade growth brought new luxuries to Europe, condemned in turn by the church, like exotic spices from the East, spicy food led to spicy conduct and to the sin of lechery, said the preachers. But soon the Black Death paradoxically liberated luxury from the church by initiating a new world of relative luxury and consumerism, the luxury world we inhabit today.