In Book 34, Livy recounts a debate in the Roman senate concerning the Oppian Law, which forbids ‘female extravagance’. It presents a microcosm of ancient Rome. All the issues being raised here, such as moral virtues and vices, human rights, the relations between the sexes and between the social classes, the desires of the people vs. the sanctity of the laws, are universal, and highly relevant today, though the particulars have changed.
First, the consul M. Porcius Cato, who was known for his eloquence, austere and moral character, delivered a speech defending the law. Then, the tribune L. Valerius, who proposed the repeal, gave his rebuttal. The law was abrogated twenty years after it had been made.
Cato: The Vices of the Commonwealth
If we had, each one of us, made it a rule to uphold the rights and authority of the husband in our own households we should not now have this trouble with the whole body of our women. As things are now our liberty of action, which has been checked and rendered powerless by female despotism at home, is actually crushed and trampled on here in the Forum, and because we were unable to withstand them individually we have now to dread their united strength.
Had not my respect for the dignity and modesty of some amongst them, more than any consideration for them as a whole, restrained me from letting them be publicly rebuked by a consul, I should have said, ‘What is this habit you have formed of running abroad and blocking the streets and accosting men who are strangers to you? Could you not each of you put the very same question to your husbands at home? Surely you do not make yourselves more attractive in public than in private, to other women’s husbands more than to your own? If matrons were kept by their natural modesty within the limits of their rights, it would be most unbecoming for you to trouble yourselves even at home about the laws which may be passed or repealed here.’
Our ancestors would have no woman transact even private business except through her guardian, they placed them under the tutelage of parents or brothers or husbands. We suffer them now to dabble in politics and mix themselves up with the business of the Forum and public debates and election contests. This is the smallest of those restrictions which have been imposed upon women by ancestral custom or by laws, and which they submit to with such impatience. What they really want is unrestricted freedom, or to speak the truth, licence, and if they win on this occasion what is there that they will not attempt?
But surely, you say, what they object to is having a new restriction imposed upon them, they are not deprecating the assertion of a right but the infliction of a wrong. No, they are demanding the abrogation of a law which you enacted by your suffrages and which the practical experience of all these years has approved and justified. This they would have you repeal; that means that by rescinding this they would have you weaken all. No law is equally agreeable to everybody, the only question is whether it is beneficial on the whole and good for the majority. If everyone who feels himself personally aggrieved by a law is to destroy it and get rid of it, what is gained by the whole body of citizens making laws which those against whom they are enacted can in a short time repeal?
You have often heard me complain of the expensive habits of women and often, too, of those of men, not only private citizens but even magistrates, and I have often said that the community suffers from two opposite vices-avarice and luxury-pestilential diseases which have proved the ruin of all great empires. The brighter and better the fortunes of the republic become day by day, and the greater the growth of its dominion-and now we are penetrating into Greece and Asia, regions filled with everything that can tempt appetite or excite desire, and are even laying hands on the treasures of kings-so much the more do I dread the prospect of these things taking us captive rather than we them.
Diseases must be recognised before remedies are applied, and so the passion for self-indulgence must be in existence before the laws which are to curb it. What called out the Licinian Law which restricted estates to 500 jugera except the keen desire of adding field to field? What led to the passing of the Cincian Law concerning presents and fees except the condition of the plebeians who had become tributaries and taxpayers to the senate?
There are some desires of which I cannot penetrate either the motive or the reason. That what is permitted to another should be forbidden to you may naturally create a feeling of shame or indignation, but when all are upon the same level as far as dress is concerned why should any one of you fear that you will not attract notice? The very last things to be ashamed of are thriftiness and poverty, but this law relieves you of both since you do not possess what it forbids you to possess. The wealthy woman says, ‘This levelling down is just what I do not tolerate. Why am I not to be admired and looked at for my gold and purple? Why is the poverty of others disguised under this appearance of law so that they may be thought to have possessed, had the law allowed it, what it was quite out of their power to possess?’ Do you want to plunge your wives into a rivalry of this nature, where the rich desire to have what no one else can afford, and the poor, that they may not be despised for their poverty, stretch their expenses beyond their means? Depend upon it, as soon as a woman begins to be ashamed of what she ought not to be ashamed of she will cease to feel shame at what she ought to be ashamed of.
Do not imagine that things will be the same as they were before the law was made. It is safer for an evil-doer not to be prosecuted than for him to be tried and then acquitted, and luxury and extravagance would have been more tolerable had they never been interfered with than they will be now, just like wild beasts which have been irritated by their chains and then released.
Valerius: The Adornment of Women
What innovation have the matrons been guilty of by publicly assembling in such numbers for a cause which touches them so closely? Have they never appeared in public before? Hear how often they have done this and always to the benefit of the State. At the very beginning, during the reign of Romulus, after the capture of the Capitol by the Sabines, when a pitched battle had begun in the Forum, was not the conflict stopped by the matrons rushing between the lines? And when after the expulsion of the kings the Volscian legions under their leader Caius Marcius had fixed their camp at the fifth milestone from the City, was it not the matrons who warded off that enemy by whom otherwise this City would have been laid in ruins? When it had been captured by the Gauls, how was it ransomed? By the matrons, of course, who by general agreement brought their contributions to the treasury. And without searching for ancient precedents, was it not the case that in the late war when money was needed the treasury was assisted by the money of the widows? And yet, in matters which concern men and women alike, their action occasioned surprise to no one; why then should we be surprised at their taking the same action in a cause which especially interests them? But what have they done? We must, believe me, have the ears of tyrants if, whilst masters condescend to listen to the prayers of their slaves we deem it an indignity to be asked a favour by honourable women.
The consul adopted a twofold line of argument, for he protested against any law being repealed and in particular against the repeal of this law which had been passed to restrain female extravagance. His defence of the laws as a whole seemed to me such as a consul ought to make and his strictures on luxury were quite in keeping with his strict and severe moral code. Unless, therefore, we show the weakness of both lines of argument there is some risk of your being led into error.
As to laws which have been made not for a temporary emergency, but for all time as being of permanent utility, I admit that none of them ought to be repealed except where experience has shown it to be hurtful or political changes have rendered it useless. But I see that the laws which have been necessitated by particular crises are, if I may say so, mortal and subject to change with the changing times. Laws made in times of peace war generally repeals, those made during war peace rescinds, just as in the management of a ship some things are useful in fair weather and others in foul. As these two classes of laws are distinct in their nature, to which class would the law which we are repealing appear to belong? Is it an ancient law of the kings, coeval with the City, or, which is the next thing to it, did the decemviri who were appointed to codify the laws inscribe it on the Twelve Tables as an enactment without which our forefathers thought that the honour and dignity of our matrons could not be preserved, and if we repeal it shall we have reason to fear that we shall destroy with it the self-respect and purity of our women? Who does not know that this is quite a recent law passed twenty years ago in the consulship of Q. Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius? If the matrons led exemplary lives without it, what danger can there possibly be of their plunging into luxury if it is repealed?
If that law had been passed with the sole motive of limiting female excesses there might be some ground for apprehension that the repeal might encourage them, but the circumstances under which it was passed will reveal its object. Hannibal was in Italy; he had won the victory of Cannae; he was now master of Tarentum, Arpi and Capua; there was every likelihood that he would bring his army up to Rome. Our allies had fallen away from us, we had no reserves from which to make good our losses, no seamen to render our navy effective, and no money in the treasury. Who does not see that the poverty and wretched condition of the citizens, every one of whom had to devote his money to the needs of the commonwealth, were the real enactors of that law which was to remain in force as long as the reason for its enactment remained in force?
All orders of society, all men will feel the change for the better in the condition of the republic; are our wives alone to be debarred from the enjoyment of peace and prosperity? We, their husbands, shall wear purple, the toga praetexta will mark those holding magisterial and priestly offices, our children will wear it, with its purple border; the right to wear it belongs to the magistrates in the military colonies and the municipal towns. Nor is it only in their lifetime that they enjoy this distinction; when they die they are cremated in it. You husbands are at liberty to wear a purple wrap over your dress, will you refuse to allow your wives to wear a purple mantle? Are the trappings of your horses to be more gorgeous than the dress of your wives?
Cato said that there was no individual rivalry amongst them since none possessed what might make others jealous. No, but most certainly there is general grief and indignation felt among them when they see the wives of our Latin allies permitted to wear ornaments which they have been deprived of, when they see them resplendent in gold and purple and driving through the City while they have to follow on foot, just as though the seat of empire was in the Latin cities and not in their own. This would be enough to hurt the feelings of men, what then think you must be the feelings of poor little women who are affected by small things? Magistracies, priestly functions, triumphs, military decorations and rewards, spoils of war-none of these fall to their lot. Neatness, elegance, personal adornment, attractive appearance and looks-these are the distinctions they covet, in these they delight and pride themselves; these things our ancestors called the ornament of women. What do they lay aside when they are in mourning except their gold and purple, to resume them when they go out of mourning? How do they prepare themselves for days of public rejoicing and thanksgiving beyond assuming richer personal adornment?
Women are never freed from subjection as long as their husbands and fathers are alive; they deprecate the freedom which orphanhood and widowhood bring. It is your duty to act as their guardians and protectors and not treat them as slaves; you ought to wish to be called fathers and husbands, instead of lords and masters. Whatever decision you come to, they in their weakness will have to submit to it. The greater your power, so much the more moderate ought you to be in exercising it.