New York University
Norman Underwood is a recent PhD from UC Berkeley, where his research focused on the economics and human-capital needs of the early Christian Church in the late Roman Empire. His research on these topics has now moved towards the larger history of religious professionals in antiquity including ordained physicians, lawyers, and food workers.
「 Buying Silk and Frankincense in Late Roman Egypt 」
The late Roman economy has become a cause célèbre among Classical historians recently, as the collection and digitization of papyrus evidence from Roman Egypt has elucidated that a period typically labelled under “Decline and Fall” had a more robust monetized economy than the heyday of the so-called Pax Romana(ca. 31 BCE-235 CE). As a consequence of the new wealth and prosperous wage-labor economy of the late empire, Romans were very much willing to spend their new cash on luxury goods from India and China at a rate far beyond their predecessors. This paper will explore how the movement of acquired “Eastern” luxuries such as silk, pepper, and frankincense transitioned in the Roman imagination from exotic rarities to standard “bought” goods of fashionable consumption. Foreignness, in ways only very recently demonstrable, was how middling and elite Romans chose to display their cosmopolitan shared tastes with what they perceived as their analogues in the East. The paper will conclude on the ramifications of what it meant to purchase “Eastern” exotics in a Christianizing and rapidly changing social landscape that mandated the ostentatious purchase of goods from Serica (China) and India as a minimum for modish living.