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Black Pepper’s Role as a Status Marker in the Roman World
vendredi 24 novembre 2017

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Exposé de Matthew Adam Cobb (University of Wales Trinity Saint David) dans le cadre du colloque "Le poivre, de l’Antiquité à l’époque moderne: un luxe populaire ?"  

“Haute cuisine” or staple fare? Black Pepper’s Role as a Status Marker in the Roman World

In the past few decades the notion that Indian Ocean imports largely consisted of luxuries for small groups of elites within the Roman Empire has been challenged. In  particular,  spices  and  aromatics,  like  black  pepper  and  incense, have been singled out as examples of widely consumed  commodities  that  were  integral  to  many  aspects  of  social  life.  By  and  large,  written  evidence  and  archaeobotanical  finds of peppercorns confirm this products’ wide availability and its comparative affordability. Black pepper was clearly not restricted to the elite. This then raises the question, did black pepper lose its status as a marker of distinction?
In attempting to address this question, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties faced in defining the status of a commodity. Fixed labels can often be problematic since  goods  only  acquire  meaning  in  the  social  contexts  in  which  they  are  used,  and  the  subjective  and  multifaceted  ways  in  which  they  might  be  interpreted.  Nevertheless,  perceptions  can  be  commonly  held,  and  collectively  groups  can  invest a good with meaning (albeit this is fluid and may shift over time). With these caveats  in  mind,  it  is  argued  here  that  in  certain  contexts  black  pepper  could  be  used  in  acts  of  conspicuous  consumption.  Its  Indian  origin  continued  to  imbue  it  with a sense of the exotic, and its price (during the Principate and Dominate), while affordable for many, was sufficiently high to make it not regularly purchased by those in the lowest spectrums of society. These factors made it the ideal commodity for aspirant individuals of “middling” status to distinguish themselves.
Section 1: a review of the debate as to whether black pepper should be classed as a luxury or non-luxury item.
Section 2:  the  challenges  of  defining  status,  and  whether  black  pepper constitutes a “luxury” item.
Section 3: the difficulties of determining living standards and the feasibility of the widespread consumption of black pepper.
Section 4: Black pepper as the ideal social marker for non-elites


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Matthew Adam Cobb
University of Wales Trinity Saint David

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Dernière mise à jour : 13/02/2018