Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Sumptuary Asses and the WSJ

Cynthia Crossen writes about the history of sumptuary laws -- laws that tried to control excessive expenditures on friviolities like clothes and feasts -- in today's Wall Street Journal. She starts out with

The rich are very rich in America these days, and even the merely affluent can afford silk underwear and diamond dog collars. In earlier eras, the reaction to such conspicuous consumption might have been sumptuary laws.
So far so good. History is good! But in the next paragraph we get,
For a time in ancient Rome, people weren't allowed to spend more than 100 asses -- animals being the common currency then -- to celebrate certain festivals. On nonfestival days, Roman citizens could invest only 10 donkeys in a party and serve no fowl except one hen -- "and that not fattened for the purpose."
Whoa. Animals being the common currency then? 10 donkeys? Where did that idea come from? Hmmm. Maybe it was from this or this or this. After all, they all mention "asses" in the context of the Fannian law, a Roman sumptuary law of 161 B.C.

But of course you'd have to be almost totally ignorant of ancient history to think that the Romans were still using animals for currency in the second century B.C. And you'd have to not bother looking up the Latin word asses, or its singular form, as, in order to find out that it's the name of a Roman coin, not an animal.


Update (June 19): Ms. Crossen e-mailed me saying, "I made an ass of myself," and informing me that the WSJ will run a correction June 20. To err is human, to admit error is good journalism. Now I'm just feeling kind of petty and snarky . . .


Jim Rosenberg said...

Too funny. You are the man, David. Me, I'd have been completely unable not to go for the "assumption makes an ass of you and me" angle, but that's why you're Professor Wharton and I'm Mr. Sun.

The Traveler said...

Great post! It just goes to show that studying history pays off.

"If we do not understand history, we are doomed to repeat it's mistakes"

David Wharton said...

Thank you, Sam. But you still have to mow the lawn this weekend.

Mr. Sun, your angle shows why you, Mr. Sun, are funny, and I, the professor, am . . . a classics professor.

Darkmoon said...

And Cynthia Crossen... is an "ass" of a reporter. Oh man... I gotta quit. Might lose a kidney.

Okay.. I'll shut up now.

Lex said...

Actually, Crossen is pretty well thought-of as a reporter (unlike, say, The New York Times, you don't stay at the Journal long making many mistakes of this type) and the author of "Tainted Truth," a very readable book about how research, polling, etc., can be bent and twisted and how laypeople can tell when that's the case.

But nobody's perfect. Clearly.

Joe Killian said...

HA! That's terrific - the author is also the author of a book on faulty research? You couldn't write it better than that. This is the kind of thing a professor keeps his teeth in for years.

David Wharton said...

I don't mean to pick out Crossen, particularly. She's a much more accomplished person than I in most ways.

I guess I was just venting my spleen at how little even well-educated people know any more about the ancient world.

100 years ago, no college-educated person would have made Crossen's mistake, because they would have read Roman history in Latin.

Today, most faculty outside the College of Arts and Sciences don't know what a Classics department does ("Oh, do you teach, like, Mozart and Shakespeare?")

Billy Jones said...

Perhaps you should contact Cynthia and invite her to take your class?