Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.50

Emanuela Zanda, Fighting Hydra-like Luxury: Sumptuary Regulation in the Roman Republic.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 172.  ISBN 9780715637074.  $80.00.  



Reviewed by David Hollander, Iowa State University (dbh8@iastate.edu)

[The Table of Contents is listed at end of the review.]

Hankering for a tasty dormouse? If you were a Roman living in 115 BCE, you’d be out of luck. The lex Aemilia, passed in that year, banned dormice along with shellfish and imported birds from Roman banquets (Pliny HN 8.82.223). It was just one of at least a dozen laws passed or proposed in the late Republic to stop newly wealthy Romans from indulging in expensive tastes and exotic dishes. Rome was not alone in struggling with conspicuous consumption; many other cultures have legislated against luxury. Emanuela Zanda’s monograph makes an important contribution to the understudied topic of Roman sumptuary legislation by deploying the rich comparative evidence for the practice from England, Italy, and Japan. Her goal is “to understand the reasons and purposes behind the enactment” of such laws (x) and she argues that Rome’s ruling class used them primarily to (try to) protect itself from destructive political competition rather than to fight luxury per se.

After a brief introduction in which Zanda discusses but declines to define the “explicitly relative” (1) concept of luxury, Chapter 1 turns to “The Roman Response to Luxury.” Extravagance took many forms – games, buildings, clothing – but the Romans focused heavily on the regulation of banquets. In the second century BCE alone, the Romans introduced at least five new laws regulating dining. Zanda suggests that games and houses did not become major targets of sumptuary law in part because the Romans considered games “as acts of generosity offered to the totality of the Roman citizenry” (15) and viewed elite houses as “public space” (18). Chapter 2 looks at earlier and alternate attempts to rein in luxury, beginning with the provisions of the Twelve Tables regulating funerals as well as Greek funerary laws. Zanda then considers the activities of Roman censors who at times also fought against luxury. Cato the Elder provides the most well-known example of this phenomenon: as censor in 184 BCE he assessed expensive clothes, vehicles, articles and slaves at ten times their market value for tax purposes (Livy 39.44). Zanda suggests that the “erratic, discontinuous” and idiosyncratic nature of censorial actions against luxury led the Roman elite to pass sumptuary laws as additional measures (47).

In Chapter 3 Zanda turns to the Roman sumptuary laws themselves, beginning with the lex Metilia of 217 BCE and the lex Oppia of 215 BCE. She regards these as “war measures” rather than true sumptuary laws but suggests they were “a sort of precedent to the enactment of sumptuary laws in a strict sense” (51). Zanda concludes this chapter with a discussion of the lex Iulia of 18 BCE and the lex Papia Poppaea of 9 CE which likewise were not “strictly speaking sumptuary laws” but bore some similarity to these, since they also interfered with “the disposal of personal wealth” (69). In between, she sketches out the genuine sumptuary enactments of the late Republic, many of which, like the aforementioned lex Aemilia, sought to regulate banquets. Together with the book’s appendix, a catalogue of sumptuary laws and the evidence for them, this chapter should prove tremendously useful to those working on related topics. Finally, in Chapter 4, Zanda looks at the comparative evidence from late medieval and early modern England, seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Japan, and late medieval Italy. English sumptuary laws tended to focus on clothing rather than banquets and often had a more explicitly protectionist quality, but Zanda argues that, like the Roman laws, they primarily sought to protect “the political and social order” from luxury (83). The Japanese produced a great number of sumptuary laws during the Tokugawa period and these laws could be extraordinarily thorough. Regulations governed the production and consumption of food, gift-giving, the design and furnishings of houses, and even whether or not one could carry an umbrella (86). Nevertheless, Zanda finds the basic motivation to be the same: the “social preservation of the ruling class” (90). In Italy there was also a broad range of “targets” for sumptuary laws including funerals, weddings, and other celebrations, but women’s clothing and dowries tended to dominate (92-3). Protectionism motivated some laws but Zanda argues that the Italians focused on women’s clothing in order to allow husbands to “re-establish their power inside the family and… prevent women from wasting their personal patrimonies that often constituted the base of the family’s wealth” (98). There follows a brief discussion of Roman dowries, which, Zanda argues, were not as “extravagant” as later Italian ones and so did not represent “a threat to the patrimony of the ruling class” (104) nor prompt a similar raft of legislation. Chapter 4 ends with a summary of the features common to all the sumptuary regimes discussed: rhetoric highlighting the threat posed to the state by luxury, a secondary but significant interest in “defending the local economy,” a desire to “defend the patrimonies of the ruling class,” and an attempt to maintain or impose a social structure (106). Here, and in her short concluding section, Zanda argues that sumptuary legislation “was about limiting and controlling the display of luxury rather than the actual luxury and wealth itself” (107) in order to limit competition (110).

Zanda’s admirable concision, sensible analysis of complex problems, and fresh comparative perspective make Fighting Hydra-Like Luxury well worth reading, but the book is not without its flaws. There are a few typos (e.g., on pages 35, 45, 57, 60, 75, 96, and 147, n. 80), some inconsistent italicization (e.g., on pages 41-2), instances of unnecessary repetition (e.g., on page 38), and M. Aemilius Porcina was consul in 137, not 183 BCE (44- 5). The decision no doubt on the part of the press to use endnotes rather than footnotes is also lamentable. It is understandable but disappointing that Zanda repeatedly declines to explore intriguing sidelights, declaring them to be “beyond the scope of this book” (e.g., pages 37-8, 42, 58, 77, 98). I would have welcomed further discussion (or at least a sizable endnote) on many of these topics. Further engagement with the economic history of the late Republic would also have strengthened the work even if, as Zanda argues, the ultimate causes of sumptuary legislation were primarily social and political rather than the high price of dormice.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments [vii]
Preface [ix]
Introduction: The Evil of Luxury [1]
1. The Roman Response to Luxury [7]
2. Previous Measures Against Extravagance [27]
3. Sumptuary Laws [49]
4. Sumptuary Legislation in Comparative Perspective [73]
Conclusion [109]
Appendix: Catalogue of Sumptuary Laws [113]
Notes [129]
Bibliography [157]
Index [167]
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