- Luxury in ancient Rome: scope, timing and enforcement of sumptuary laws
- Number of pages
- Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Wirtschaftspolitische Abteilung
- Document type
- Working paper
- Interfacultary Research Institutes
Faculty of Law (FdR)
Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB)
- Amsterdam Center for Law & Economics (ACLE)
Amsterdam Business School Research Institute (ABS-RI)
Between 182 BC and 18 BC, Roman lawmakers enacted a series of sumptuary laws regulating banquet expenditures. These regulations included a maximum for the number of guests and restrictions on specific foods; moreover, they were reiterated over time but were rarely enforced. Traditional explanations based on morals, protection of patrimonies and political competition do not fully account for the scope, timing and enforcement patterns of such laws. We advance a novel hypothesis, which is based on three elements: (1) luxury is a signal of wealth, (2) the senatorial class holding political power enacts sumptuary laws to restrict signaling when individuals coming from an emerging class (the equestrians) become wealthier than them, and (3) enforcement of such laws would facilitate
signalling of wealth and hence would be counterproductive. The rise of sumptuary legislation occurred when the senatorial class lost economic power to the equestrians, its fall when they also lost political power to the emperor. These arguments are discussed against the historical and legal background and presented formally.
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