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Forbidden pleasures: sumptuary laws and the ideology of moral decline in Ancient Rome

Miles, D.P.; (1987) Forbidden pleasures: sumptuary laws and the ideology of moral decline in Ancient Rome. Doctoral thesis , University of London. Green open access

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This thesis investigates two important and related aspects of Roman history during the period 217 B.C. - A.D. 70. Salient types of social legislation, in particular the leges sumptuariae, funerariae, aleariae, marital and sexual laws and magisterial edicts, form one element of the inquiry. The reasons for, and the extent of, the public regulation of the personal expenditure and private behaviour of citizens are explored under the changing political circumstances of the period. Another concern is to analyse the development of a prominent theme in the classical writers and historians, namely, the perspective of moral decline. The deep-rooted and pervasive pessimism evident in the historiographical tradition during a period of exceptional prosperity and imperial expansion is critically examined. The interaction between law and morality is a principal focus of this thesis. In chapter 1 (10-30), the general themes of the work are introduced. A review of the relevant scholarly literature is followed by a brief exposition of my methodology and objectives (11-13). Then a chronological survey of the important social regulations passed during the Republic and early Principate is provided (13-17). Chapter 2 (31-72) probes the ways in which legal enactments were presented both within governing circles and to the populace at large. The public interest was frequently invoked. Paternalistic concern, it is argued, was often advanced for that which was essentially self-regarding (31-36). A succinct account of the debate on decline in classical authors leads to a consideration of the mos maiorum (ancestral custom) and the role of myth in Roman historiography (36-46). The contemporary dispute between liberal and radical scholarship on the nature and function of law in society is summarized (46-50). In Ancient Rome, it is contended, the governing order's preferential access to the channels of public discussion was of decisive importance. It facilitated the expression of an ideological perspective which served to promote widespread acceptance of its legislative needs, as is exemplified by the passage of sumptuary controls so necessary for the well-being of the senatorial aristocracy in the second century B.C. (50-52). The socio-economic significance of Roman sumptuary laws is examined in chapter 3 (73-163). The main discussion is prefaced by a typology of sumptuary laws, designed to account for the existence of expenditure restraint in widely differing political systems (73-75). The inquiry proceeds, firstly, to investigate those regulations (esp. the iura and 1eges theatrales) which had a direct bearing on the structure of Roman society and, then, to explore the complexity of problems that the maintenance of this formal framework entailed for the authorities in periods of rapid social and economic change. A consideration of powerful social pressures and forces such as envy, emulative consumption and mobility, is complemented by a discussion of the diverse strategies employed by the Roman authorities to uphold hierarchical distinctions (75-107). Profit-capping, price-fixing, monopolies and rationing form diverse topics of an inquiry into the economic objectives of sumptuary restraint (108-119), Status requirements and the spiralling cost of political competition are held to account tor the divorce between the attitudes and practice of the members of the governing order with regard to luxus and Hellenistic practices (119-128). A detailed inspection of the sumptuary legislation passed during the Republic provides the core or chapter (164-210). The laws are assessed under separate categories, e.g.. leges de sumptibus et de luxu mensae, funerariae, de habitu et tuitu, viariae (164-182). The techniques by which the aristocracy endeavoured to preserve cohesion amongst its ranks and thus to uphold its collective rule are scrutinized 182-2. In chapter 5 (211-259), attention is focused on how the Roman authorities attempted to compel obedience to these measures. The operation of extra-legal constraints is discussed c 211-2l4). A hypothesis of the development of Roman criminal law from its origins through to the early Principate is advanced with particular emphasis on the significance of senatorial participation in the juridical process and on the need to define accurately the competency of individual magistracies (214-239). The use of private informers (quadruplatores in the Republic, delatores in the Empire) is critically assessed (239-243). In chapter 6 (260-288), opinions and actions at variance with the conservative orthodoxy on historical development are evaluated. Resistance to sumptuary restraint surfaced in a variety of ways: in the formal abrogation of a measure; in technical dodges; in outright defiance (260-268). The ambivalences between publicly expressed ideals of conduct and actual practice came to a head in the adjudicative processes of the court. The mechanisms of forensic practice served to provoke maturer reflections on social change (269-273). Roman attitudes towards change are surveyed. It is argued that divergent opinions on ancestral tradition and on the propriety of innovation were often advanced in opposition to overzealous attempts at sumptuary restraint or in pursuit of specific political goals (269-279). Chapter 7 (289-329) concludes the work with a historical appraisal of the coincidence between the passage of sumptuary legislation and the debate on moral decline. Three major developments in the functioning of this coincidence are outlined: (1), its use as a regulatory device by the senatorial aristocracy from the early 2nd century B.C. onwards; (2), its use as a crucial source of legitimation by the aspiring politician-generals of the 1st century B.C.; (3), its use as a key disciplinary tactic by the imperial regimes from Augustus onwards (289-307). Finally, serious governmental incursions into central areas of social life during the early Principate - the suppression of criticism, legal scrutiny of knowledge and belief, restrictions on assemblage - are examined, and interpreted as evidencing the autocratic tendencies of the period (308-315). Four short appendices follow (330-361): the first outlines the major theories of decline (330-333): the second explores the terminology of inequality (334-339; the third surveys the major perspectives on social change (340-342); the fourth documents the manifestations of luxury in Roman society (343-361).

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Forbidden pleasures: sumptuary laws and the ideology of moral decline in Ancient Rome
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: EThOS ID: 284016
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of History
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1141131
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