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Sumptuariae Leges

Laws intended to limit and control the expenditure of the individual citizen.

1. Greek

The sumptuary legislation of Greece was contained for the most part in the codes of the great lawgivers. A rhetra of Lycurgus is said to have forbidden the Spartans to have their houses made by any more elaborate implements than the axe and the saw; simplicity of food and clothing was enjoined on the male members of the population; iron money was originally the only coinage in use (Apophth. Lac. Lys. 3), and private possession of gold and silver was forbidden even after these metals were employed for public purposes (Plut. Lys. 17). By the laws of Zaleucus of Locri, we are told, the citizens of that State were forbidden to drink undiluted wine, except on the order of a physician, under pain of death (Athen. p. 429); while simplicity of dress and a limitation of the number of personal attendants were also enjoined. The Solonian legislation at Athens contained enactments against expensive feminine apparel and ornaments, particularly those given in the dowry (φερνή) of a bride, and against expensive funerals; there were also laws in force at Athens which limited the number of guests at entertainments (Athen. p. 245). Funeral regulations similar to those of Solon, we are told by Plutarch, existed in his native town of Chaeronea (Plut. Sol. 21).

2. Roman

Roman sumptuary legislation was progressive; it did not originate until a comparatively late period in the history of the State, and each law aimed at eradicating some definite and growing evil. The inefficiency of these laws and the extreme difficulty of enforcing them are amply attested (Tac. Ann. ii. 55; Gell. ii.24.3; Tertull. Apol. 6), but, even when recognized, were not sufficient to check further attempts in this direction. The fact that most of these laws dealt with the same subject--namely, the expenses of the table--and enjoined very similar restrictions, shows how quickly each of them must have sunk into desuetude.

The earliest sumptuary regulations were those contained in the Twelve Tables limiting the expenses of funerals (De Leg. ii. 23). They were possibly copied from the similar regulations of Solon.

The Lex Oppia, passed in B.C. 215, provided that no woman should possess more than half an ounce of gold, or wear a dress of different colours, or ride in a carriage in the city or within a mile of it except during public religious ceremonies. This law, which was dictated by the necessities of the Second Punic War, was repealed twenty years later, in B.C. 195 (Livy, xxxiv. 1-8).

The Lex Orchia, passed three years after Cato 's censorship, and therefore in B.C. 181, was the first law that restricted the expenses of the table. It prescribed a limit to the number of guests that might be invited to entertainments. Cato is said to have opposed its introduction.

Next followed the Lex Fannia, whose date is fixed by Pliny (Pliny H. N. x. 71) as B.C. 161. It grew out of a senatusconsultum, which enjoined that the principes civitatis should swear before the consuls that they would not exceed a certain limit of expense in the banquets given at the Ludi Megalenses. Afterwards a consular law was promulgated, which went further than the Lex Orchia, in that it prescribed the nature and value of the eatables which were allowed to be consumed. It permitted the expenditure of 100 asses on the Ludi Romani, the Ludi Plebeii, and the Saturnalia, and of thirty on some other festival occasions; but on all other days of the year it allowed only ten asses to be spent. It further forbade the serving of any fowl but a single hen, and that not fattened. One of its clauses was of a protective character, since it enjoined that only native wines should be consumed (Gell. ii. 24; Macrob. iii. 17; Plin. H. N. x. 71; Tertull. Apol. vi.).

The Lex Didia was passed eighteen years later, in B.C. 143. It was practically a re-enactment of the Lex Fannia.

The Lex Licinia, of uncertain date, marks the next attempt at sumptuary legislation. It allowed 100 asses to be spent on the table on certain days, 200 on marriage feasts, and on certain other festivals (such as the Kalends, Nones, and Nundinae) thirty asses; it fixed a limit to the amount of meat and fish that was to be consumed on ordinary days, and encouraged the consumption of gardenproduce.

The general neglect of the preceding laws caused the Leges Corneliae of the dictator Sulla to be passed in B.C. 81, restricting the expenses on sepulchral monuments, and regulating the cost of funerals, which he himself violated on the death of his wife Metella (Sulla, 35). Another law restricted the luxury of the table, allowing thirty sesterces to be spent on the Kalends, Ides, Nones, the dies ludorum, and certain feriae, and three on all other days.

A Lex Aemilia, which probably belongs to B.C. 78, did not fix a fresh limit to expenses, but laid down regulations as to the kinds and quantities of food.

The Lex Antia, which was subsequent to the last-named law but cannot be dated precisely, besides limiting the expenditure on banquets, also limited the class of persons with whom a magistrate might dine out during his time of office.

Next came the Leges Iuliae. The dictator Caesar enforced the former sumptuary laws respecting entertainments, which had fallen into disuse (Dio Cass. xliii. 25). They were not attended to during his absence, but during his presence in Rome the enforcement of them was rigorous; guards were placed round the market to seize forbidden luxuries, and sometimes dishes were taken from the tables of private individuals (Iul. 43). He also passed a law prohibiting the use of litters, of purple garments, and of pearls, except in the case of persons of a certain rank or age, or on certain days ( Suet. l. c.).

The emperor Augustus, in B.C. 22, passed laws regulating the expenses to be incurred on ordinary and festal days (Suet. Aug. 34). On the former an expenditure of 200 sesterces was permitted, on the latter an expenditure of 300, and on marriage festivals of 1000 sesterces; an edict of Augustus or Tiberius allowed expenses on various festivals to range from 300 to 2000 sesterces, the increase in the permitted expenditure being allowed in the hope that this concession would secure obedience to the law.

Tiberius, in spite of his distrust of the efficacy of sumptuary legislation (Tac. Ann. iii. 53, 54), was forced into making regulations to check the inordinate expenses on banquets (Suet. Tib. 34). To his reign also belongs a senatusconsultum prohibiting the use of gold plate except in sacred rites, and preventing men from wearing silk. Further sumptuary regulations checking the expenditure on food were made by Nero; among later emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius regulated the expenses of gladiatorial shows; and the emperor Tacitus again prohibited men from wearing silk, and forbade the wearing of gold-embroidered garments. It was during the later Republic and the early Empire that luxury especially flourished, although the studied simplicity of the courts of Augustus and Tiberius must have had some influence in restraining it. After Galba, began a new era of moderation, an effect which Tacitus traces to the decline of private fortunes, to the dangers attending the display of wealth, to the introduction of novi homines into the Senate and into the best society of Rome, but principally to the influence of Vespasian, a prince antiquo cultu victuque (Tac. Ann. iii. 55). Other emperors whose simplicity of life exercised an influence on the society of their times were Alexander Severus and Aurelian.

See Platner, De Legibus Sumptuariis Romanis (Leipzig, 1752); and Baudrillart, Histoire du Luxe Privé et Public, 4 vols. (Paris, 1878-80).

hide References (11 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (11):
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 34
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.55
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.53
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.55
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 34
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 10.71
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 1
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 2.24.3
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 2.24
    • Plutarch, Solon, 21
    • Plutarch, Lysander, 17
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