3. Glitterati Romani
In his work, On Duties, Cicero relates the following story about stern politician Cato the Elder:
One day, Cato was asked what the most profitable aspect of property ownership is. Cato answered, “Raising livestock with great success.” He was then asked about the second most profitable aspect of ownership. “Raising livestock with some success,” he answered. And what about the third most profitable aspect? “Raising livestock with little success.” And the fourth? “Raising crops.” Then his questioner asked, “What about money lending?” Cato replied, “What about murder?”
It was not considered a very seemly occupation for a Roman citizen, especially a senator, to be engaged in commerce and money-lending. Of course, plenty of them were. Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was engaged in trade (including the Mediterranean slave trade), amassed a fine real estate profile following Sulla’s proscriptions, and possessed an additional income from silver mines owned by his family. A skilled general, he was nevertheless as famous for his fortune and was reported to have said, ‘you’re not truly rich unless you can buy your own army’ (probably apocryphal). He can certainly be dubbed an ancient celebrity.
Grand parties that were the place to be seen, beautiful houses, and designer clothes. Well the ancients might not have had designer clothes, but the rich certainly had vestments that marked out their fortune, for example, certain dyes, materials, and adornments.
Widow of the great consul of 62 BC, Metellus Celer, Clodia, was famed for her parties, where the favoured rich of Rome would converge. She also owned three properties, one of which was stiuated on the prestigious Palatine Hill, and one of the others in the fashionable, luxurious, if somewhat dubiously reputed Baiae.
Julius Caesar could also be considered an ancient celebrity. He was rich, beloved of the plebs, and his profile appeared on several coins confirming his fame in Roman society.
There are plenty of other reasons people become celebrities, both then and now. But, I think these three short article are sufficient to demonstrate that whilst the term may be new, the parallels show that celebrities were very much part of ancient society.