Roman Sumptuary Laws

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History, Facts and Information about Roman Sumptuary Laws
The content of this article provides interesting history, facts and information about Roman Sumptuary Laws. The word sumptuary comes from the Latin word which means expenditure. Roman Sumptuary Laws were imposed by the rulers of Ancient Rome to curb the expenditure of the people.

Such laws applied to various items such as entertainment, food, beverages, jewelry and clothing. These Laws were used to control behaviour and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained in the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.

Clothes, Fashion and the Roman Sumptuary Laws
The Roman Sumptuary Laws ensured that the clothes that the Romans wore provided information about the status of the person wearing them. This was not just dictated by the wealth of the person, it also reflected their social standing. For instance, only Roman citizens were allowed to wear the Toga.

Roman Sumptuary Laws - Sumtuariae Leges
Sumtuariae Leges was the name of the various Roman Laws which were passed to prevent inordinate expense (sumtus) in banquets, dress, etc.  It was considered the duty of the Roman Government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons. Traces of these laws date back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic and the laws of the  Twelve Tables. The Greeks first enforced these laws followed by the Romans.

Roman Sumptuary Laws - Clothes and Status
The clothing materials and choice of colour was in part, dependant upon status and wealth, but in the main by the Roman Sumptuary Laws. Public display of status was a very important feature of Roman society. The Romans required that their status and rank was immediately recognized, in order to be meaningful. The clothing of wealthy and upper class Roman males made their rank immediately visible in terms of the materials used, the style of clothing and the color of their clothing. The color and width of the bands, or stripes of color, on tunics were called the clavus. The clavus, together with its style and color, were instantly recognisable as an indication of office or rank.

Roman Sumptuary Laws
In c213BC a Roman Sumptuary Law was enacted that stated that no woman should have above half an ounce of gold, nor wear a dress of different colours, nor ride in a carriage in the city or in any town, or within a mile of it, unless on account of public sacrifices. This particular Roman Sumptuary law was repealed some twenty years later. Some of the main Roman Sumptuary Laws in relation to clothing were as follows:

  • Roman Sumptuary Laws stipulated the following:
    • Only the Emperor was allowed to wear the 'trabea' which was a toga entirely colored in purple

      • Statues of gods were also dressed in the purple toga
    • Only the augurs were allowed to wear a saffron toga

    • Only Consuls on public festivals and Equites during a transvectio (parade) were allowed to wear a white with a purple band or stripe

      • Members of the Senate and their sons were also allowed the privilege of the latus clavus, the broad purple stripe on the tunic
    • Only Roman citizens were permitted to wear the toga but ordinary male citizens were allowed to wear the toga virilis only upon reaching the age of political majority (17)

    • The number of stripes on the tunic (clavus) were regulated according to social rank

    • Young men, until they were seventeen years of age were allowed to wear a toga bordered with purple, called the toga praetexta. Magistrates during official ceremonies were also permitted to wear this toga

    • The toga picta or toga palmata, which was a toga with a gold border, was permitted to be worn by generals in their triumphs

    • Only Roman matrons (married women) were allowed to wear a stola

    • Prostitutes and women condemned for adultery, were not permitted to wear the stola and therefore called togatae

    • Emperor Honorius (d. 423) issued a decree prohibiting men from wearing "barbarian" trousers in Rome

    • Emperor Augustus enforced the public wearing of the toga by males in the center of Rome and forbade wearers of dark-colored garments (i.e. NOT the toga) to sit in the media cavea of the theater

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