Livy 34.4-7

(Penguin translation by H. Bettenson)

2.[Cato the Elder is speaking, 195 BCE, on the repeal of the Lex Oppia] 'Citizens of Rome, if each one of us had set himself to retain the rights and the dignity of a husband over his own wife, we should have less trouble with women as a whole sex. As things are, our liberty, overthrown in the home by female indiscipline, is now being crushed and trodden underfoot here too, in the Forum. It is because we have not kept them under control individually that we are now terrorized by them collectively. I really used to think it a fable, a piece of fiction - that story of the destruction, root and branch, of all the men on that island by a conspiracy of the women.(1) But in fact there is the greatest danger from any class of people, once you allow meetings and conferences and secret consultations. For myself, indeed, I find it hard to decide in my own mind which is worse - the activities themselves or the precedent thus set. The activities concern us consuls and the other magistrates; the precedent, citizens, rather concerns you. For the question whether the proposal brought before you is in the public interest or not, is a question to be decided by you, who are soon to vote upon it; but this female tumult, whether it is spontaneous or is instigated by you, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, is, beyond doubt, something to the discredit of the magistrates; and I do not know whether it is more dishonourable to you tribunes, or to the consuls. It is to your shame, if you have brought these women here to foment the disorders started by the tribunes; it is to our shame, if we have to accept laws imposed through a secession of the women, as formerly through a secession of the plebs.

`For myself, it was with something like a blush of shame that I made my way just now to the Forum through the midst of an army of women. Had I not been restrained by my respect for the dignity and modesty of some individual women, rather than that of the female sex as a whole, if I had not feared that it might appear that such women had been rebuked by a consul, I should have said: "What sort of behaviour is this? Are you in the habit of running out into the streets, blocking the roads, and addressing other women's husbands? Couldn't you have made the very same request of your own husbands at home? Or are you more alluring in the street than in the home, more attractive to other women's husbands than to your own? And yet, even at home, if modesty restrained matrons within the limits of their own rights, it would not become you to be concerned about the question of what laws should be passed or repealed in this place."

'Our ancestors refused to allow any woman to transact even private business without a guardian to represent her; women had to be under the control of fathers, brothers, or husbands. But we (heaven preserve us!) are now allowing them even to take part in politics, and actually to appear in the Forum and to be present at our meetings and assemblies! What are they now doing in the streets and at the street corners? Are they not simply canvassing for the proposal of the tribunes, and voting for the repeal of the law? Give a free rein to their undisciplined nature, to this untamed animal, and then expect them to set a limit to their own licence! Unless you impose that limit, this is the least of the restraints imposed on women by custom or by law which they resent. What they are longing for is complete liberty, or rather - if we want to speak the truth - complete licence.

3. 'Indeed, if they carry this point, what will they not attempt? Run over all the laws relating to women whereby your ancestors curbed their licence and brought them into subjection to their husbands. Even with all these bonds you can scarcely restrain them. And what will happen if you allow them to seize these bonds, to wrest them from your hands one by one, and finally to attain equality with their husbands? Do you imagine that you will find them endurable? The very moment they begin to be your equals, they will be your superiors. Good heavens! They object to the passing of a new measure against them; they complain that this is not law but rank injustice. In fact, their aim is that you should repeal a law which you have approved and sanctioned by your votes, whose worth you have tested in the practical experience of all these years; they intend, in other words, that by the abolition of this one law you should weaken the force of all the others. If every individual is to destroy and demolish any law which hinders him in his particular interests, what use will it be for the whole citizen body to pass measures which will soon be repealed by those whom they directed?

`I should like to be told what it is that has led these matrons to rush out into the streets in a tumult, scarcely refraining from entering the Forum and attending a public meeting. Is it to plead that their fathers, their husbands, their sons, their brothers, may be ransomed from Hannibal? (2) Such a disaster to our country is far away - and may it always be so! And yet, when that disaster did befall us, then you refused to respond to their prayers inspired by family affection. But the truth is that it was not family affection that brought the women together - it was not their anxiety for their loved ones. No, it was a matter of religion; they were going to receive the Idaean Mother on her arrival from Pessinus in Phrygia. (2a) And what excuse, that can be spoken without shame, is offered for this present feminine insurrection? "We want to gleam with purple and gold", says one of them "and to ride in our carriages on festal days and on ordinary days: we want to ride through Rome as if in triumph over the law which has been vanquished and repealed, and over those votes of yours which we have captured and wrested from you; we want no limit to our spending and our extravagance."

4."You have often heard my complaints about the excessive spending of the women, and of the men, magistrates as well as private citizens, about the sorry state of our commonwealth because of two opposing vices, avarice and extravagance - plagues which have been the destruction of all great empires. As the fortune of our commonwealth grows better and happier day by day, and as our empire increases - and already we have crossed into Greece and Asia (regions full of all kinds of sensual allurements) and are even laying hands on the treasures of kings - I am the more alarmed lest these things should capture us instead of our capturing them; those statues brought from Syracuse, believe me, were hostile standards brought against this city. (3) And now I hear far too many people praising the ornaments of Corinth and Athens, and jeering at the terracotta antefixes of the Roman gods. For my part, I prefer to have those gods propitious to us - as I trust they will be propitious, if we allow them to remain in their own abodes.

"It is within the memory of our fathers that Pyrrhus, through his agent Cineas, tried to win over with gifts the minds not only of our men but of our women as well.(4) The Lex Oppia had not then been passed to restrain female extravagance; and yet no woman accepted these gifts. What do you suppose was the reason for this? The same reason which explains why our ancestors imposed no legal sanction in this regard: there was no extravagance to be restrained. Diseases must be known before their cures are found; by the same token, appetites come into being before the laws to limit their exercise. What provoked the Licinian law, concerning the five hundred iugera?(5) Was it not simply the inordinate passion for joining field to field? What gave rise to the Cincian law, concerning gifts and fees?(6) Surely it was the fact that the plebeians had begun to be tributaries and vassals to the Senate. And so it is not in the least surprising that no Oppian law, or any other law, was required to set limits on female expenditure at a time when they refused gifts of gold and purple offered without their asking. If Cineas were going round the city today with those gifts, he would find women standing in the streets to accept them.

"For myself, there are some desires for which I can discover not even a cause or an explanation. No doubt it may occasion some natural shame or resentment if what is permitted to another is refused to yourself; but if that is so, provided that the dress of all is made uniform, how can any one of you be afraid of being conspicuous in any respect? The worst kind of shame is certainly that due to meanness or poverty; but the law deprives you of the chance of showing either, since what you are going without is what the law forbids you to have. "Ah, yes," says that rich woman over there, "it is precisely this uniformity that I am not able to stand. Why am I not conspicuous, distinguished by my purple and gold? Why does the poverty of other women lie hidden under cover of this law, so that it may seem that they would have possessed, if the law allowed it, what in fact they have not the means to possess?" Is your wish, citizens, to start such a competition between your wives, so that the rich will desire to possess what no other woman can possess; while the poor will stretch themselves beyond their means, to avoid being looked down on for their poverty? Let them once begin to be ashamed of what should cause no shame, and they will not be ashamed of what is truly shameful. The woman who can buy these things with her own money, will buy them; the woman who cannot, will entreat her husband to buy them. Pity the poor husband, if he yields! Pity him if he refuses, since what he does not give himself he will see given by another man! At the present time they are making requests of other women's husbands, in public, and (what is more important) they are asking for legislation and for votes; and from some men they get what they want. Against your own interests and the interests of your property and your children, you, my friend, are open to their entreaties; and when once the law has ceased to put a limit on your wife's spending, you yourself will never do it.

"Do you imagine, citizens, that things will be the same as they were before the law was passed? It is safer that a villain should escape prosecution than that he should be acquitted; in the same way, extravagance, left untroubled, would have been more tolerable then than it will be now, when it has been, like some wild beast, first enraged by the very chains that bound it, and then set free. My opinion is that the Lex Oppia should on no account be repealed; and I pray the blessing of all the gods on your decision."

5. After this address the tribunes of the plebs who had declared their intention of vetoing the bill added a few words in the same sense; and then Lucius Valerius argued for the proposal he had put forward. "If private citizens only", he said, "had come forward to support or oppose the measure laid before you, I should myself have awaited your votes in silence, since I considered that enough had been said on both sides. But now the consul Marcus Porcius, a man of the highest standing, has attacked our proposal not merely with his authority, which would have had sufficient weight, even if not expressed in words, but also in a long and elaborate speech; hence it is necessary to make a brief reply.

"However, he spent more words in chiding the matrons than in speaking against our proposal; and indeed he left it undecided whether the behaviour for which he reproved them was spontaneous or instigated by us. I shall defend our action, not ourselves, although the consul laid the blame on us, by verbal innuendo, rather than by making a substantial charge. The gathering of women he called "sedition" and, at times, "a feminine secession", on the ground that the matrons, in the public streets, had asked you to repeal, in a time of peace, when the country is flourishing and prosperous, a law passed against them in the harsh days of war. These and other such allegations are, I know, the kind of impressive phrases that speakers go in search of to add conviction to their argument. And we all know that Marcus Cato, as an orator, is not only powerful but sometimes even violent, although by nature he is a gentle soul. Now, have the matrons done anything unprecedented, I ask you, in coming out into the streets in crowds, to support a cause which is their particular concern? Have they never before this occasion appeared in public places? Now, Marcus Cato, let me quote your own Early Roman History (7) against you. Observe how often the women have done just this, and always, it must be admitted, for the general good.

"At the very beginning of our history, in the reign of Romulus, when the Capitol had been taken by the Sabines and a pitched battle was raging in the middle of the Forum, was not the fighting brought to a halt by the matrons when they rushed between the two battle-lines? Then again, after the expulsion of the kings, when the Volscian legions under Marcius Coriolanus had pitched camp at the fifth mile-stone, did not the matrons turn back the army which would have destroyed this city? And when Rome had actually been captured by the Gauls, where did the money come from for its ransom? We all know the answer. The matrons by unanimous consent contributed their gold to the nation. In the last war (let us leave ancient history) it is common knowledge that, when money was scarce, the widows aided the treasury with their stores of money, and that when new gods also were summoned to help us in the hour of crisis, the matrons with one accord went down to the sea to welcome the Idaean Mother. Yes, but the cases, you say, are different. It is not my intention to show their similarity; it is enough for me to refute the charge of unexampled behaviour. No one is surprised at the past actions of women in situations affecting all the people, men and women alike; are we surprised that they should so act in a case which is their own particular concern? What, in fact, have the women done? Heavens above! How haughty are our ears, if we resent the entreaties of decent women, although masters do not disdain the supplications of their slaves!

6. "I come now to the matter in dispute. On this the consul's argument was twofold. He resented the repeal of any law at all; and in particular he protested against the repeal of that law which was passed to bridle female extravagance. The former argument, apparently a general defence of the laws, seemed fitting in a consul; the latter, an attack on extravagance, was appropriate to a strict morality. Accordingly there is a danger that, unless I point out what is spurious in both these arguments, the wool may be pulled over your eyes. Now I readily admit that some laws have been passed not as temporary measures to meet an emergency, but as permanent statutes, with a view to lasting benefit: none of these latter, I grant, should be repealed, unless experience proves a law to be harmful, or some change in the political situation renders it inexpedient. At the same time I see that laws which have been called for by certain emergencies, are, one might say, mortal and subject to change with changing circumstances. Laws passed in peacetime are frequently cancelled by war; and peace often repeals the legislation of wartime: just as, in the handling of a ship some methods are of service in fair weather, other methods in time of storm.

"There is thus a natural distinction between the two classes of laws. To which class does this law appear to belong, this law that we are seeking to repeal? Is it ancient? Is it a royal law, contemporary with the birth of the city itself? Or, what is next in time, is it one of the laws inscribed on the Twelve Tables by the Decemvirs appointed to codify the laws?(8) Is it a law essential, in the judgement of our ancestors, for the preservation of matronly honour, a law we must fear to repeal, lest we abolish, along with the law, the modesty and chastity of our women? In fact, everyone knows that this is a recent law, passed twenty years ago, in the consulate of Quintus Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius. Our matrons lived without it for all these years, by the highest moral standards. Is there really any danger that when it is repealed they will give themselves up to riotous living? Now if it were an ancient law, or a law passed expressly to put a check on feminine excess, then there would be cause for fear that its abrogation would inflame the passions of women. As it is, the occasion of its passing reveals its purpose. Hannibal was in Italy, after his victory at Cannae; he already held Tarentum, Arpi, Capua; he seemed about to march on Rome. Our allies had fallen away; we had no reserves of troops, no seamen to keep the fleet in being, no money in the treasury. Slaves were being bought for service in the army, on condition that the price for them should be paid to their owners when the war was over. The contractors professed readiness to supply provisions and other requirements for the conduct of the war, for payment on the same settling day; we provided slaves for ships' crews, the number being fixed in proportion to our tax rating, and we paid for them; all our gold and silver we contributed to the state, after the senators had given a lead in this matter; widows and minors deposited their capital in the treasury; there was a regulation against keeping in any home more than a prescribed quantity of gold and silver plate, or a certain quantity of silver and bronze coin.

"At a time like that, were the matrons so preoccupied with luxuries and fineries that the Lex Oppia was needed to restrain their extravagances? It was a time, remember, when the rites of Ceres had to be foregone, because all the women were in mourning, and, in consequence, the Senate ordered the mourning to be limited to thirty days. It must be clear to everyone that the poverty and distress of the community drafted that law, since all the property of private citizens had to be turned to public use, and that the law was to continue for so long as the cause of its drafting remained. For if the emergency measures brought in by senatorial decree or by popular vote have to be kept in being for ever, why do we repay the loans of private citizens? Why do we place contracts to be paid with ready money? Why are slaves not bought for military service? Why do not private citizens provide rowers as we did then?

7."All other classes in the commonwealth, and people in general will feel the change for the better in the nation. Is it only our wives who will not be reached by the benefits of national peace and tranquillity? Are we men to wear purple, clad in the toga praetexta when we hold office or exercise a priesthood; are our sons to wear the purple-bordered toga; are magistrates in colonies and municipalities, and here in Rome the district-masters, officials of the lowest rank -are they to have, by our permission, the right to wear the toga praetexta; and are all these not only to enjoy the distinction of this attire during life but also after death to have the privilege of being cremated in it - are we to allow all this, while to women alone we deny the wearing of purple? And while you, as a man, are allowed to wear purple on your outer garment, are you not going to permit your wife to have a purple cloak, and are the trappings of your horse to be more splendid than the dress of your wife? Now in regard to purple, which wears out and is destroyed, I see some reason - not a sound reason, it is true, but still a kind of reason - for obstinacy; but in respect of gold, in which there is no loss except the workmanship, what meanness is shown! There is rather a safeguard in gold, to meet both private and public needs, as you have found in experience. Cato said that there would be no rivalry among individuals because no woman would have any of these things. But, good heavens, there is annoyance and resentment felt by all alike, when they see ornaments denied to themselves permitted to wives of allies of Latin status, when they see them conspicuous in gold and purple, when they see them riding through the city, while they themselves follow on foot, as if sovereignty resided in the Latin cities and not in Rome. Treatment like this would be enough to wound the feelings of men; what effect do you suppose it to have on the feelings of weak women, who are upset even by little things? No magistrates, no priesthoods, no triumphs, no insignia, no rewards or spoils of war can fall to them: elegance, adornment, dress - these are the insignia of women; in these is their delight and their glory; these are what our ancestors called "feminine decoration". In time of mourning what do they lay aside? Purple and gold, to be sure. What do they put on when they have come out of the shadows? In times of rejoicing and thanksgiving what do they add save more splendid adornments?

"If you repeal the Lex Oppia, you will, I suppose, have no authority if you wish to forbid any of the luxuries which the law now forbids! Some males will find daughters, wives, even sisters, less under their control! Never while their males are still alive is female servitude cast off; and the women themselves detest the freedom bestowed by the loss of husbands or fathers. They prefer their finery to be under your authority, not under the law's control. And you ought to keep them under control and guardianship, not in servitude; you should want to be called fathers and husbands, rather than masters. The consul just now employed words designed to create odium, when he spoke of feminine "sedition" and "secession ". There is a danger, he suggests, that they will seize the Mons Sacer or the Aventine, as the angry plebs once did. But in fact their weakness must put up with whatever you decide. The greater your power, the greater the moderation you should display in its exercise."

(1) On Lemnos the women killed all the men (only Hypsipyle saved her father). Note the political tone of 'conspiracy' and, later, 'plebeian secession'.

(2) The men captured at Cannae.

(2a) The solemn reception (204 B.C.) of the black cult-stone of Cybele, the "Great Mother", from Asia Minor.

(3). The Greek art treasures gathered by Marcellus after taking Syracuse in 211 B.C.; by contrast, the traditional temple 'antefixes', viz. the figures set at gable angles and roof-beam ends.

(4) After his ' Pyrrhic victory' at Heraclea (28o B.C.) Pyrrhus offered terms of peace.

(5). The Licinian-Sextian legislation of 367 B.C., limiting the tenancy of public land to c. 3oo acres.

(6). In 204 B.C., banning remuneration for legal assistance.

(7). The Origines: "Foundation" accounts of Rome and the Italian peoples, continued (c. 168-149 b.c.) into later Roman history; the reference is anachronistic.

(8). The earliest codification of Roman law, set up in 451-450 B.C.