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SUMPTUA´RIAE LEGES Sumptuary laws are those by which a state attempts to [p. 2.724]restrict the expenditure of its individual members. Occasionally regulations of this kind were inherent in the very structure of states of the ancient world, as was the case at Sparta; but more often their necessity was first felt in the later period of a nation's history, when conquest or commercial contact with the outer world had raised the standard of comfort of the people and had created new wants and desires. This is a necessary consequence of advancing civilisation; but, as Roscher says, “There is a limit at which new or intensified wants cease to be an element of higher civilisation, and become elements of demoralisation” (Roscher, Polit. Econ. ii. p. 221, E. T.), and this was the standpoint on which the ancient world based its sumptuary legislation. The main object of it was to effect an equalisation, regulated by some standard, in individual life; and although the definite aim at preserving a normal life amongst the citizens was most marked in Greek politics (Arist. Pol. 2.9, 6; 5.11, 8;--Thuc. 1.6, 4), yet this attempt at exaequatio was also an element in sumptuary legislation at Rome (Liv. 34.4). Other objects were to preserve the financial resources of the state, mainly in accordance with the mercantile theory of ancient economic legislation (Tac. Ann. 2.54), to prevent the aggressions of the rich against the poor from the avaritia which was a necessary consequence of luxuria (Liv. 34.4), and to banish the jealousies and consequent dangers which the glaring contrast between the lives of rich and poor inevitably fostered in a city state (Arist. Pol. 4.11, 6 and 7; 5.9, 13;--Liv. l.c.). Sometimes this legislation attempted to remove definite moral evils, such as drunkenness and other forms of sensuality, from the community, in which they were felt to be growing up (Macrob. 3.17, 4). The censorship at Rome, and institutions with similar moral functions corresponding to it in the Greek states, were often employed for the restriction of luxury (Arist. Pol. 4.15, 13; Gel. 17.21, 39).

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 (Plut. Lyc. 13): simplicity of food and clothing was enjoined to the male members of the population (Plut. de San. 12; Arist. Pol. 4.9, 8): iron money was originally the only coinage in use (Plut. Apophth. Lac. Lys. 3), and private possession of gold and silver was forbidden even after these metals were employed for public purposes (Xen. de Rep. Lac. 7, 6; 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 (Diod. 12.21). The Solonian legislation at Athens contained enactments against expensive female apparel and ornaments, particularly those given in the dowry (φερνὴ) of a bride (Plut. Sol. 20), and against expensive funerals (Plut. Sol. 21; Demosth. in Macart. p. 1071); there were also laws in force at Athens which limited the number of guests at entertainments (Athen. 6.245). Funeral regulations similar to those of Solon, we are told by Plutarch, existed in his native town of Chaeronea (Plut. Sol. 21).

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. 2.55; Gel. 2.24, 3; Tertull. Apol. 6), but, even when recognised, 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 (Cic. de Leg. 2.2. 3). They were possibly copied from the similar regulations of Solon.

The LEX OPPIA passed in 215 B.C., provided that no woman should possess more than 1/2 oz. 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 Punic war, was repealed twenty years later, in 195 B.C. (Liv. 34.1-8; V. Max. 9.1, 3; Tac. Ann. 3.33).

The LEX ORCHIA passed three years after Cato's censorship, and therefore in 181 B.C., 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 (Festus, s. v. percemetatum), but he also opposed its repeal in a speech, fragments of which have been preserved (Macrob. 2.13, 3.17; Festus, s. v. obsonitavere; Schol. Bob. in Cic. pro Sest. p. 310; Meyer, Orat. Rom. Fragm. p. 91).

This was followed by the LEX FANNIA The date is fixed by Pliny (Plin. Nat. 10.71) as 161 B.C., although Macrobius places this law twenty-two years after the Lex Orchia, and therefore in 159 B.C. It was passed in the consulship of C. Fannius and M. Valerius Messala, and 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 (Sammonicus Serenus ap. Macrob. 3.17, 4, “ipsi consules pertulerunt” ), 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 30 on some other festival occasions; but on all other days of the year it allowed only 10 asses to be spent. Hence Lucilius speaks of the “Fanni centussis misellos.” 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 (Gel. 2.24; Macrob. 3.17; Plin. Nat. 10.71; Tertull. Apol. vi.).

The LEX DIDIA was passed eighteen years later, in 143 B.C. It was a re-enactment of the [p. 2.725]Lex Fannia with two alterations. It included in the penalties of the law not only the giver of the feast, which violated its regulations, but also the guests who were present at such a banquet. And it extended the provisions of the Lex Fannia to all the Italici, who had been under the impression that this law applied only to Rome (Macrob. l.c.).

The LEX LICINIA marks the next attempt at sumptuary legislation. It is impossible to assign any certain date to this law. It has been placed by some as late as the second consulship of Crassus and Pompey, 55 B.C. (Meyer, Orat. Rom. Fragm.); but Macrobius attributes it to P. Licinius Crassus Dives, and Gellius places it between the Lex Fannia and the laws of Sulla. It probably belongs either to the praetorship or to the consulship of P. Licinius Crassus, and therefore approximately either to the year 103 or to the year 97 B.C. 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 Calends, Nones, and Nundinae) 30 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. A senatusconsultum enjoined that the law should come into force as soon as it was promulgated and before it was confirmed. Lucilius and Laevius commemorated the law, and Gellius relates that a Latin orator Favorinus spoke in support of it (Gel. 2.24, 15.8; Macrob. l.c. On the question of the date see Dict. of Biog., arts. Favorinus and Lucilius).

The general neglect of the preceding laws ( “legibus istis situ atque senio obliteratis,” Gell. l.c.) caused the LEGES CORNELIAE of the dictator Sulla to be passed in 81 B.C. He carried a law restricting the expenses on sepulchral monuments (Cic. Att. 12.3. 5 and 36) and regulating the cost of funerals, which he violated on the death of his wife Metella (Plut. Sull. 35). Another law restricted the luxury of the table, allowing 30 sesterces to be spent on the Calends, Ides, Nones, the “dies Ludorum,” and certain “feriae,” three on all other days (Gell. l.c.; reading with Gronovius “tricenos” and “ternos.” Hertz reads “tricentenos” and “tricenos” ).

A LEX AEMILIA which probably belongs to the consulship of Aemilius Lepidus and Q. Lutatius Catulus, 78 B.C., did not fix a fresh limit to expenses, but laid down regulations as to the kinds and quantities of food. Pliny mentions certain regulations of this kind as being embodied in a sumptuary law which he refers to the consulship of M. Aemilius Scaurus, 115 B.C. (Plin. Nat. 8.82: cf. Aurel. Victor, de Vir. ill. 72); and it is possible that there may have been two Aemilian laws on the subject.

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 (Gell. l.c.).

Next came the LEGES JULIAE. The dictator Caesar enforced the former sumptuary laws respecting entertainments, which had fallen into disuse (D. C. 43.25; Cic. ad Farm. 9.1. 5, 5); they were not attended to during his absence (Cic. Att. 13.7), 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 (Suet. Jul. 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 (D. C. 54.2, 3; 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 2,000 sesterces, the increase in the permitted expenditure being allowed in the hope that this concession would secure obedience to the law (Gell. l.c.).

Tiberius, in spite of his distrust of the efficacy of sumptuary legislation (Tac. Ann. 3.53, 54), was forced into making regulations to check the inordinate expenses on banquets (Suet. Tib. 34; Plin. Nat. 33.8). To his reign also belongs a senatusconsultum prohibiting the use of gold plate, except in sacred rites, and preventing men from wearing silk (Tac. Ann. 2.33; D. C. 57.15, 1). Further sumptuary regulations checking the expenditure on food were made by Nero (Suet. Nero 16); amongst later emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius regulated the expenses of gladiatorial shows (Capitol. Vit. Antonin. 12; Vit. M. Ant. Phil. 27), and the Emperor Tacitus again prohibited men from wearing silk, and forbade the wearing of gold-embroidered garments (Vopisc. Vit. Tac. 10). It was during the later Republic and the early Empire that luxury specially 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. 3.55). Other princes whose simplicity of life exercised an influence on the society of their times were Alexander Severus and Aurelian (Lamprid. Vit. Sev. 4; Vit. Aurel. 49).

(The loci classici on Roman sumptuary laws are Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 2.24, and Macrobius, Saturnalia, 3.17. See also Platner, Exercit. II. de legibus sumptuariis Romanis, Lips. 1752. On the whole subject of sumptuary legislation, see Roscher's Political Economy, ii. p. 220 (E. T.), and his article Ueber den Luxus, republished in the Ansichten der Volkswirthschaft aus dem geschichtlichen Standpunkte.


hide References (34 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (34):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 13.7
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 12.21
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.6
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 7
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 43
    • Suetonius, Nero, 16
    • Suetonius, Tiberius, 34
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.33
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.54
    • Tacitus, Annales, 2.55
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.33
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.53
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.54
    • Tacitus, Annales, 3.55
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 34
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 10.71
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.8
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 8.82
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 1
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 34, 8
    • Cicero, De Legibus, 2.2
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 15.8
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 17.21
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 2.24
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 2.3
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 13
    • Plutarch, Lysander, 17
    • Plutarch, Solon, 20
    • Plutarch, Solon, 21
    • Plutarch, Sulla, 35
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 9.1
    • Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, 9.3
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