Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Survey of Anti-Extravagance in the Roman Republic and Empire

Few empires in history controlled as much wealth or enjoyed as much luxury as Rome during its zenith. Fewer empires witnessed as much opposition to this wealth and luxury as did Rome. From the ending of the Second Punic War to the founding of the principate, the Roman senate passed no less than eight ordinances curtailing luxury. Censors stripped the status of senators who dined too lavishly. Emperors as diverse as Nero, Hadrian, and Aurelian passed laws combating extravagance. All the while, philosophies like stoicism and cynicism encouraged austerity among their converts. This essay will survey the history of the Roman anti-extravagance movement in an effort to understand the reasons behind its growth and popularity. Emphasis will be placed on the anti-extravagance attitudes embodied in sumptuary laws, censorships, and stoic and cynic philosophies.

The anti-extravagance movement began amidst the broad social changes that took place in the second century BC. The century had brought unprecedented prosperity to the Roman people, as victorious Roman armies imported into Rome plunder from Eastern campaigns. Often, this plunder consisted of luxuries unheard of by the average Roman, luxuries which the historian Livy cites as including "coaches of bronze, valuable robes for coverlets, tapestries and other products of the loom." But while this plunder from abroad enriched Rome, it impoverished its modesty. Rome soon found itself subsidizing greater affluence, excess, and splendor. Livy describes some of this extravagance in detail:

"Female players of the lute and the harp and other festal delights of entertainments were made adjunct to banquets; the banquets themselves, moreover, began to be planned with both greater care and greater expense. At that time the cook, to the ancient Romans the most worthless of slaves … began to have value, and what had been merely a necessary service came to be regarded as an art. Yet those things which were then looked upon as remarkable were hardly even the germs of the luxury to come."