Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue

Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue




In his Utopia, Thomas More wrote that in his perfect society, gold and silver were to be put to ignoble uses like chamber pots so that these precious would be despised by all citizens. Montaigne advocates similar measures for engendering a contempt for luxuries. A sympathy for sumptuary laws runs throughout the Renaissance and beyond. Not all writers believed that these laws could ever work but considered the intended effects salutary. From their reading of Plato, Livy, Plutarch and other authors, and their own understanding of ancient history, Machiavelli, Gibbon, and many more believed luxury and extravagance were the undoing of republics and empires alike.


The laws of Lycurgus were the most thorough and rigorous of all codes in curbing luxury. The Spartans used money minted of iron, on the rare occasions they handled money at all. The Spartans wore the simplest clothes, ate the coarsest food, and lived lives of hardship and privation, in order to make themselves peerless warriors. They were great fighters and Plato, Xenophon, and many more Athenian authors credited this abstemious lifestyle for their prowess on the battlefield.


Later writers like Livy and Plutarch made a natural comparison between the early Romans and the Spartans. Those Romans from the early days of the Republic, Cincinnatus, the Horatii, and Camillus, lead lives of rude simplicity, scratching out their daily bread from the soil, strengthened by hard manual labor and inured against every privation. These sturdy forefathers conquered an empire, and this accession of wealth corrupted their descendants. The Romans became gluttonous, lazy, effeminate in manner, accustomed to lives of ease and pleasure that rendered them unfit for the legions. The fall of Rome is a story of moral degeneracy.


Although remembered as the supreme exponent of unscrupulous measures, Machiavelli was a very moral author and he thought any republic corrupted in its manners incapable of surviving. What exactly is corruption. Everything Lycurgus and Cato the Elder would despise and denounce: riding in litters, wearing silk, eating off gold plate, sleeping in soft beds. Some like Gibbon and Montesquieu have a peculiar fixation with climate. Throughout his history, Gibbon contrasts the legions hardened by the winters of northern provinces like Dacia and Britannia with those legions enervated by their heat and torpor of Syria and Egypt. Against all counterexamples, he considers shivering somehow a fortifying exercise and insists that balmy climes are fatal to martial vigor. This bias persists into modern times and Toynbee deems the town of Capua particularly emasculating.


Augustus was so alarmed by the moral decay of the Roman state that he became one of the most prolific legislators of sumptuary laws. Over the next centuries, the legions, once manned by the citizen farmers of the nearby countryside, came to depend on contingents of German mercenaries and his fears seem to be well founded. The lecheries and debaucheries of Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula, so sensationally depicted by Suetonius provide an antipode to the heroes of Livy. We picture Cincinnatus at his plow alongside his degenerate descendants writhing in their orgies or hunched over their vomitorium. Such Mediterranean sybarites can never stand up to the burly giants sweeping down from the north.


Discomfort and privation do not make good soldiers. Men accustomed to riding horses (when it was still a skill useful in war), hunting, rifles, and trained to arms since childhood will at first be better fighters than their counterparts who may be equally robust and strong in body but lack this early training. They will keep this ascendancy for some while, but their adversaries will be seasoned by training and experience and soon match if not surpass them. The Southerners were convinced that one man in butternut was worth ten in blue but in the end the factory workers of the North beat the Southern cavaliers facing them. As Sam Houston had predicted, the descendants of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker Hill were found the equals with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. The Thebans learned the art of the phalanx from the Spartans and at Leuctra although outnumbered they defeated them.


Men don’t fight well because they’re poor, or hungry, or ill-clad. They fight because they believe they have a reason to fight. They fight because they think their actions matter. Citizens believe that the state is an enterprise in which they have a share. They must be sure that they have a voice in the decisions taken and a stake in the outcome of those decisions. With this assurance they can accomplish anything, without it they’re good for nothing. The Romans were no longer willing to serve under the eagles because they didn’t believe they had a voice or a stake and they were right. The Empire was the rule of one man, whether benevolent and despotic. There were many emperors over the next centuries, so wide in their extraction, so various in their circumstance and character, that any man might aspire to become emperor. If a gigantic Thracian peasant like Maximin, or a Syrian zealot like Elagabalus might rise to become emperor, the way seems clear for anybody bold or lucky enough to attempt that dangerous climb. Yet for the ordinary citizen to take a hand in the management of the state was quite impossible.


The Roman Empire held some of the fairest portions of the earth, and this wide and fertile expanse yielded much wealth that was channeled into the recruitment and maintaining of the legions. Yet while the citizens of the Roman Empire enjoyed its benefits, they took no part in its direction. The ordinary people kept their heads down and endured whichever adventurer had risen to the purple. In the general prosperity, very few young men were compelled by poverty to enlist in the legions. There were easier and safer ways to make a living. The natives of Italy no longer aspired to become centurions, and so the empire turned to the barbarian tribesmen, trained to arms since childhood and already grouped into their warrior bands.


The Russian peasants conscripted into the armies of the Czar in the First World War were no match for the Germans. The Germans were raised in comfort and plenty in comparison to their Russian foes, and they were the recipients of a public education which furnished them with the skills to fight a modern war and inculcated the nobility of service to the state. Growing up, the Germans had been better nourished, better educated, and more thoroughly indoctrinated. The Germans had imbibed a fervid and bellicose nationalism from the cradle, and the illiterate, confused, often unhealthy Russian serfs facing them stood little chance. The Battle of Tannenberg showed the immense might of a modern, industrial state. Schoolboys taught reading, arithmetic, and love for the Kaiser and the Fatherland throughout childhood, made terrible soldiers once grown to manhood.


It is upbringing, education, and above all, unity of purpose that makes for a citizen soldier. The Spartan fought for his companions in the mess, the Goths for a chieftain preeminent for his leadership and courage, the private in the Army of the Potomac for the union, the Roman legionary for the senate and people of Rome, and the German private in the Imperial Army for kaiser and fatherland. They fought alongside comrades and for a country or a cause that will stand and fall upon the outcome of their arms. If they become estranged from their leaders, if they consider themselves inhabitants only and not citizens, that courage will vanish.

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