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p1077 Sumtuariae Leges

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp1077‑1078 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SUMTUA′RIAE LEGES, the name of various laws passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumtus) in banquets, dress, &c. (Gellius, II.24, XX.1). In the states of antiquity it was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons, and among the Romans in particular we find traces of this in the laws attributed to the kings and in the Twelve Tables. The censors, to whom was entrusted the disciplina or cura morum, punished by the nota censoria all persons guilty of what was then regarded as a luxurious mode of living: a great many instances of this kind are recorded [Censor, p264, a.] But as the love of luxury greatly increased with the foreign conquests of the republic and the growing wealth of the nations, various Leges Sumtuariae were passed at different times with the object of restraining it. These however, as may be supposed, rarely accomplished their object, and in the latter times of the republic they were virtually repealed. The following is a list of the most important of them arranged in chronological order.

Oppia, proposed by the tribune C. Oppius in the consulship of Q. Fabius and Ti. Sempronius in the middle of the second Punic war B.C. 213, enacted that no woman should have above half an ounce of gold, nor wear a dress of different colours, nor ride in a carriage in the city or in any town, or within a mile of it, unless on account of public sacrifices. This law was repealed twenty years afterwards (Liv. XXIV.1, 8; Val. Max. IX.1 §3), whence we frequently find the Lex Orchia mentioned as the first Lex Sumtuaria. Tacitus (Tac. Ann. III.33, 34) speaks of Oppiae Leges.

Orchia, proposed by the tribune C. Orchius in the third year after the censorship of Cato B.C. 181, limited the number of guests to be present at entertainments. When attempts were afterwards made to repeal the law, Cato offered the strongest opposition, and delivered a speech in defence of the law, which is referred to by the grammarians (Macrob. Sat. III.17.3º; Festus, s.vv. Obsonitavere, Percunctatum; Schol. Bob. in Cic. pro Sest. p310, ed. Orelli; Meyer, Orat. Roman. Fragm. p91, &c., 2d ed.).

Fannia, proposed by the consul C. Fannius B.C. 161, limited the sums which were to be spent on entertainments, and enacted that not more than 100 asses should be spent on certain festivals named in the lex, whence it is called Centussis by Lucilius, that on ten other days in each month not more than 30 asses, and that on all other days not more than 10 asses should be expended: also that no other fowl but one hen should be served up, and that not fattened for the purpose (Gell. II.24; Macrob. Sat. III.17.5º; Plin. H. N. X.50 s.71).a

Didia, passed B.C. 143, extended the Lex Fannia to the whole of Italy, and enacted that not only those who gave entertainments which exceeded in expense what the law had prescribed, but also all who were present at such entertainments, should be liable to the penalties of the law. We are not however told in what these consisted (Macrob. Sat. III.17.6).º

Licinia agreed in its chief provisions with the Lex Fannia, and was brought forward, we are told, that there might be the authority of a new law upon the subject, inasmuch as the Lex Fannia was beginning to be neglected. It allowed 200 asses to be spent on entertainments upon marriage days and on other days the same as the Lex Fannia: also, that on ordinary days there should not be served up more than three pounds of fresh and one pound of salt meat (Gell. Macrob. ll. cc.). Gellius (l.c.) states, that this law was brought forward by P. Licinius Crassus, but we do not know at what time, probably however in his praetorship B.C. 103. Gellius relates elsewhere (XV.8) that a Latin orator of the name of Favorinus spoke in support of this law (see Dict. of Biog. art. Favorinus).

Cornelia, a law of the dictator Sulla B.C. 81, was enacted on account of the neglect of the Fannian and Licinian Laws. Like these it regulated the expenses of entertainments (Gell. II.24; Macrob. l.c.). Extravagance in funerals, which had been forbidden even in the Twelve Tables (Cic. de Leg. II.23‑25), was also restrained by a law of Sulla (Plut. Sull. 35). It was probably the same law which determined how much might be spent upon monuments (Cic. ad Att. XII.35, 36).

Aemilia, proposed by the consul Aemilius Lepidus B.C. 78, did not limit the expenses of entertainments, but the kind and quantity of food that was to be used (Gell. Macrob. ll. cc.). Pliny (H.N. VIII.57 s.82) and Aurelius Victor (de Vir. Ill. 72) ascribe the law to the consulship of M. Aemilius Scaurus B.C. 115. It is not impossible that there may have been two Aemilian Leges on the subject.

Antia, of uncertain date, proposed by Antius Restio, besides limiting the expenses of entertainments, enacted that no actual magistrate, or magistrate elect, should dine abroad anywhere except at the houses of certain persons. This law however was little observed; and we are told that Antius never dined out afterwards, that he might not see his own law violated (Gell. Macrob. ll. cc.).

p1078 Julia, proposed by the dictator C. Julius Caesar, enforced the former sumptuary laws respecting entertainments, which had fallen into disuse (Dion Cass. XLIII.25). Julius Caesar adopted strong measures to carry this law into execution, but it was violated when he was absent from Rome (Cic. ad Att. XIII.7). He stationed officers in the provision market to seize all eatables forbidden by the law, and sometimes sent lictors and soldiers to banquets to take away every thing which was not allowed by the law (Suet. Jul. 43). Cicero seems to refer to this law in two of his epistles (ad Fam. VII.26, IX.15).

Julia, a lex of Augustus, allowed 200 sesterces to be expended upon festivals on dies profesti, 300 upon those on the Calends, Ides, Nones, and some other festive days, and 1000 upon marriage feasts. There was also an edict of Augustus or Tiberius by which as much as from 300 to 2000 sesterces were allowed to be expended upon entertainments, the increase being made with the hope of securing thereby the observance of the law (Gell. l.c.; Sueton. Octav. 34).

Tiberius attempted to check extravagance in banquets (Suet. Tib. 34); and a senatusconsultum was passed in his reign for the purpose of restraining luxury, which forbade gold vases to be employed, except for sacred purposes, and which also prohibited the use of silk garments to men (Tac. Ann. II.33; Dion Cass. LVII.15). This sumptuary law, however, was but little observed (Tac. Ann. III.52, 53). Some regulations on the subject were also made by Nero (Suet. Ner. 16), and by succeeding emperors, but they appear to have been of little or no avail in checking the increasing love of luxury in dress and food (Platner, Exercit. II de Legibus Sumtuariis Rom. Lips. 1752; Boxmann, Dissert. antiquario-juridica de Leg. Rom. Sumtuariis, Lugd. Batav. 1816).

Sumptuary laws were not peculiar to antiquity. "Our own legislation, which in its absurd as well as its best parts has generally some parallel in that of the Romans, contains many instances of Sumptuary Laws, which prescribed what kind of dress, and of what quality, should be worn by particular classes, and so forth. The English Sumptuary Statutes relating to apparel commenced with the 37th of Edward III. This statute, after declaring that the outrageous and excessive apparel of divers people against their estate and degree is the destruction and impoverishment of land, prescribes the apparel of the various classes into which it distributes the people; but it goes no higher than knights. The clothing of the women and children is also regulated. The next statute, 3rd of Edward IV., is very minute. This kind of statute-making went on at intervals to the 1st of Philip and Mary, when an act was passed for the Reformation of Excessive Apparel. These Apparel statutes were repealed by the 1st of James I." (Long's Translation of Plutarch's Life of Sulla, c. 2.)


Thayer's Note:

a Dommers Vehling, a professional chef, has an interesting take on the Lex Fannia in his footnote to his translation of Apicius, Book IV.


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