Friday, June 4, 2010

Dari-Mattiacci and Plisecka on Sumptuary Laws in Ancient Rome

Luxury in Ancient Rome: Scope, Timing and Enforcement of Sumptuary Laws has just been posted by Giuseppe Dari-Mattiacci and Anna E. Plisecka, both of the University of Amsterdam - Amsterdam Center for Law and Economics. Here's the abstract:
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 and formalize a novel hypothesis, which is based on four 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; (3) enforcement of such laws would facilitate signaling of wealth and hence would be counterproductive; finally (4), the reiteration of these laws can be explained as an attempt to leverage on the expressive function of the law. 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 princeps (and later the emperor). These points are discussed against the historical and legal background and presented formally.
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