“The Suiones, a Germanic nation, give honor to wealth,” says Tacitus, “for which rea­son they live under the govern­ment of one man alone.”1 What that means is that luxury is sin­gu­larly pro­per to monar­chies, and that in them there should be no sump­tuary laws.

As wealth is, by the cons­ti­tu­tion of monar­chies, une­qually sha­red, there must neces­sa­rily be luxury. If the rich there do not spend much, the poor will die of hun­ger. The rich must even spend in pro­por­tion to the ine­qua­lity of for­tu­nes ; and luxury, as we have said, must increase pro­por­tio­na­tely. Private wealth has increa­sed only because it has taken the phy­si­cal neces­si­ties away from a por­tion of the citi­zens, which must the­re­fore be retur­ned to them.

Thus, in order for the monar­chi­cal state to sus­tain itself, luxury must go incre­men­tally from the labo­rer to the arti­san, to the mer­chant, to the nobles, to the magis­tra­tes, to the great lords, to the prin­ci­pal finan­ciers, to the prin­ces ; other­wise all would be lost.

In the Roman senate, com­po­sed of grave magis­tra­tes, juris­consults and men imbued with the thought of the ear­liest times, the cor­rec­tion of the morals and luxury of women was pro­po­sed under Augustus. It is curious to see in Dio2 the skill with which he elu­ded the impor­tu­nate demands of those sena­tors. But he was foun­ding a monar­chy, and dis­sol­ving a repu­blic.

Under Tiberius, the ædiles pro­po­sed in the senate the re-esta­blish­ment of the for­mer sump­tuary laws.3 The prince, who had some unders­tan­ding, objec­ted : “The state could not sub­sist,” he said, “in the pre­sent state of things. How could Rome live ? How could the pro­vin­ces live ? We had some fru­ga­lity when we were citi­zens of a sin­gle city ; today we consume the riches of the entire world ; mas­ters and sla­ves work for us.” He was quite aware that there must be no more sump­tuary laws.

When under the same empe­ror it was pro­po­sed in the senate that gover­nors be for­bid­den to take their wives into the pro­vin­ces because of the dis­so­lu­te­ness they brought there, this was rejec­ted. They said that “the exam­ples of rus­ti­city of the ancients had been chan­ged into a more agreea­ble way of living.”4 They rea­li­zed that dif­fe­rent ways were cal­led for.

Luxury is thus neces­sary in monar­chi­cal sta­tes ; it is even more so in des­po­tic sta­tes. In the for­mer, it is a use that is made of what free­dom peo­ple pos­sess ; in the lat­ter it is an abuse they make of the advan­ta­ges of their ser­vi­tude, when a slave cho­sen by his mas­ter to tyran­nize his other sla­ves, uncer­tain for the mor­row of each day’s for­tune, has no other feli­city than to satisfy his pride and the desi­res and delights of each day.

All this leads to an obser­va­tion : repu­blics end in luxury, monar­chies in poverty.5

De moribus Germanorum.

Dio Cassius, book LIV.

Tacitus, Annals, book III.

Multa duritiei veterum melius et lœtius mutata (Tacitus, Annals, book III).

Opulentia paritura mox egestatem [‘Opulence soon foments poverty’] (Florus, book III).