Luxury in Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws
Legal Roots, Vol. 1, 2012
27 Pages Posted: 28 May 2010 Last revised: 29 Feb 2012
Date Written: November 22, 2010
Between 182 BC and 18 BC, Roman lawmakers enacted a series of sumptuary laws regulating banquets (including the number of guests and the consumption of specific foods). Enforcement was hardly successful and these regulations had to be reiterated over time. Traditional explanations based on morals, protection of patrimonies and electoral competition do not fully account for the scope, timing and enforcement patterns of such laws. We advance and formalize a novel hypothesis holding that sumptuary legislation originated from the misalignment between political and economic power following the military and economic expansion of Rome in the last two centuries of the Republic. During this period, the senatorial class holding political power lost part of its economic power to the emerging class of the equestrians. This unbalance was resolved at the beginning of the Empire as the senatorial class also lost its political power to the princeps. This hypothesis is discussed against the historical and legal background and presented in a formal model.
Keywords: Luxury, Sumptuary Laws, Roman Law, Signaling
JEL Classification: D70, K00, N00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation