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2.1: From Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome,

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    Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, trans. George Baker, 6 vols. (London: A.J. Valpy, 1833-1844), vol. 4, pp. 406-414.

    Livy’s history dates from the late 1st century BCE to the early 1st century CE and influenced many later writers, including Machiavelli [1].

    Bk. 34.1. Amid the serious concerns of so many important wars, some scarcely ended, and others impending, an incident intervened, which may seem too trivial to be mentioned, but which, through the zeal of the parties concerned, occasioned a violent contest. Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, plebeian tribunes [2], proposed to the people the repealing of the Oppian law. This law, which had been introduced by Caius Oppius, plebeian tribune, in the consulate of Quintus Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius, during the heat of the Punic war [3], enacted, that “no woman should possess more than half an ounce of gold, or wear a garment of various colors, or ride in a carriage drawn by horses, in a city, or any town, or any place, nearer thereto than one mile; except on occasion of some public religious solemnity.”

    Marcus and Publius Junius Brutus, plebeian tribunes, supported the Oppian law, and declared that they would never allow it to be repealed; while many of the nobility stood forth to argue for and against the motion proposed. The Capitol was filled with crowds, who favored or opposed the law; nor could the matrons [4] be kept at home, either by advice or shame, nor even by the commands of their husbands; but beset every street and pass in the city; beseeching the men as they went down to the Forum [5], that in the present flourishing state of the commonwealth, when the public prosperity was daily increasing, they would permit the women so far to partake of it, as to have their former ornaments of dress restored. This throng of women increased daily, for they arrived even from the country towns and villages; and had at length the boldness to come up to the consuls [6], prætors [7], and other magistrates [8], to urge their request. One of the consuls, however, they found inexorable—Marcus Porcius Cato [9], who, in support of the law proposed to be repealed, spoke to this effect:—

    Bk 34.2. “If, Romans, every individual among us had made it a rule to maintain the prerogative and authority of a husband with respect to his own wife, we should have less trouble with the whole sex. But now, our privileges, overpowered at home by female contempt, are, even here in the Forum, spurned and trodden under foot; and because we are unable to withstand each separately, we now dread their collective body. I was accustomed to think it a fabulous and fictitious tale, that, in a certain island, the whole race of males was utterly abolished by a conspiracy of the women. But the utmost danger may be apprehended equally from either sex, if you suffer conspiracies and secret consultations to be held: scarcely, indeed, can I determine, in my own mind, whether the act itself, or the precedent that it affords, is of more dangerous tendency. The latter of these more particularly concerns us consuls, and the other magistrates; the former, you, my fellow-citizens. For, whether the measure, proposed to your consideration, be profitable to the state or not, is to be determined by you, who are to vote on the occasion.

    As to the outrageous behavior of these women, whether it be merely an act of their own, or owing to your instigations, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, it unquestionably implies culpable conduct in magistrates. I know not whether it reflects greater disgrace on you, tribunes, or on the consuls: on you certainly, if you have brought these women here for the purpose of raising tribunician seditions; on us, if we suffer laws to be imposed on us by a secession of women, as was done formerly by that of the common people. It was not without painful emotion of shame, that I, just now, made my way into the Forum, through the midst of a band of women. Had I not been restrained by respect for the modesty and dignity of some individuals among them, rather than of the whole number; and been unwilling that they should be seen rebuked by a consul, I should not have refrained from saying to them, ‘What sort of practice is this, of running out into public, besetting the streets, and addressing other women’s husbands? Could not each have made the same request to her husband at home? Are your blandishments more seducing in public than in private; and with other women’s husbands than with your own? Although if females would let their modesty confine them within the limits of their own rights, it did not become you, even at home, to concern yourselves about any laws that might be passed or repealed here.’

    Our ancestors thought it not proper that women should perform any, even private business, without a director; but that they should be ever under the control of parents, brothers, or husbands. We, it seems, permit them, now, to interfere in the management of state affairs, and to thrust themselves into the Forum, into general assemblies, and into assemblies of election. For, what are they doing, at this moment, in your streets and lanes? What but arguing, some in support of the motion of tribunes; others, contending for the repeal of the law? Will you give the reins to their intractable nature, and then expect that themselves should set bounds to their licentiousness, and without your interference! This is the smallest of the injunctions laid on them by usage or the laws, all of which, women bear with impatience: they long for entire liberty; nay, to speak the truth, not for liberty, but for unbounded freedom in every particular. For what will they not attempt, if they now come off victorious? Recollect all the institutions respecting the sex, by which our forefathers restrained their profligacy, and subjected them to their husbands; and yet, even with the help of all these restrictions, they can scarcely be kept within bounds. If, then, you suffer them to throw these off one by one, to tear them all asunder, and, at last, to be set on an equal footing with yourselves; can you imagine that they will be any longer tolerable? Permit them once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors.

    Bk 34.3. “But, indeed, they only object to any new law being made against them: they mean to deprecate, not justice, but severity. Nay, their wish is, that a law which you have admitted, established by your suffrages, and found in the practice and experience of so many years to be beneficial, should now be repealed; and that by abolishing one law, you should weaken all the rest. No law perfectly suits the convenience of every member of the community: the only consideration is, whether, upon the whole, it be profitable to the greater part. If, because a law proves obnoxious to a private individual, it must therefore be canceled and annulled, to what purpose is it for the community to enact laws, which those, whom they were particularly intended to comprehend, could presently repeal? Let us, however, inquire what this important affair is which has induced the matrons thus to run out into public in this indecorous manner, scarcely restraining from pushing into the Forum and the assembly of the people. Is it to solicit that their parents, their husbands, children, and brothers, may be ransomed from captivity under Hannibal [10]? By no means: and far be ever from the commonwealth so unfortunate a situation. Yet, when such was the case, you refused this to the prayers which, upon that occasion, their duty dictated. But it is not duty, nor solicitude for their friends; it is religion that has collected them together. They are about to receive the Idæan Mother [11], coming out of Phrygia from Pessinus [12].


    Picture of the Roman Forum taken by J. Miers in Rome, Italy.

    What motive, that even common decency will allow to be mentioned, is pretended for this female insurrection? Hear the answer: That we may shine in gold and purple; that, both on festival and common days, we may ride through the city in our chariots, triumphing over vanquished and abolished law, after having captured and wrested from you your suffrages; and that there may be no bounds to our expenses and our luxury. Often have you heard me complain of the profuse expenses of the women—often of those of the men; and that not only of men in private stations, but of the magistrates: and that the state was endangered by two opposite vices, luxury and frugality: those pests, which have ever been the ruin of every great state. These I dread the more, as the circumstances of the commonwealth grow daily more prosperous and happy: as the empire increases; as we have passed over into Greece and Asia, places abounding with every kind of temptation that can inflame the passions; and as we have begun to handle even royal treasures: for I greatly fear that these matters will rather bring us into captivity, than we them. Believe me, those statues from Syracuse [13] made their way into this city with hostile effect. I already hear too many commending and admiring the decorations of Athens [14] and Corinth [15], and ridiculing the earthen images of our Roman gods that stand on the fronts of their temples. For my part I prefer these gods,—propitious as they are, and I hope will continue, if we allow them to remain in their own mansions.

    In the memory of our fathers, Pyrrhus, by his ambassador Cineas [16], made trial of the dispositions, not only of our men, but of our women also, by offers of presents: at that time the Oppian law, for restraining female luxury, had not been made: and yet not one woman accepted a present. What, do you think, was the reason? That for which our ancestors made no provision by law on this subject: there was no luxury existing which might be restrained. As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws, which prescribe limits to them. What called forth the Licinian law, restricting estates to five hundred acres, but the unbounded desire for enlarging estates [17]? What the Cincian law, concerning gifts and presents, but that the plebeians [18] had become vassals and tributaries to the senate [19]? It is not therefore in any degree surprising, that no want of the Oppian law, or of any other, to limit the expenses of the women, was felt at that time, when they refused to receive gold and purple that was thrown in their way, and offered to their acceptance. If Cineas were now to go round the city with his presents, he would find numbers of women standing in the public streets to receive them.

    Bk 34.4. “There are some passions, the causes or motives of which I can no way account for. To be debarred of a liberty in which another is indulged, may perhaps naturally excite some degree of shame or indignation; yet, when the dress of all is alike, what inferiority in appearance can any one be ashamed of? Of all kinds of shame, the worst, surely, is the being ashamed of frugality or of poverty; but the law relieves you with regard to both; you want only that which it is unlawful for you to have. This equalization, says the rich matron, is the very thing that I cannot endure. Why do not I make a figure, distinguished with gold and purple? Why is the poverty of others concealed under this cover of a law, so that it should be thought that, if the law permitted, they would have such things as they are not now able to procure. Romans, do you wish to excite among your wives an emulation of this sort, that the rich should wish to have, what no other can have; and that the poor, lest they should be despised as such, should extend their expenses beyond their abilities?

    Be assured that when a woman once begins to be ashamed of what she ought not to be ashamed of, she will not be ashamed of what she ought. She who can, will purchase out of her own purse; she who cannot, will ask her husband. Unhappy is the husband, both he who complies with the request, and he who does not; for what he will not give himself, another will. Now, they openly solicit favors from other women’s husbands; and, what is more, solicit a law and votes. From some they obtain them; although, with regard to you, your property, or your children, you would find it hard to obtain anything from them. If the law ceases to limit the expenses of your wife, you yourself will never be able to limit them. Do not suppose that the matter will hereafter be in the same state in which it was before the law was made on the subject. It is safer that a wicked man should never be accused, than that he should be acquitted; and luxury, if it had never been meddled with, would be more tolerable than it will be, now, like a wild beast, irritated by having been chained, and then let loose. My opinion is that the Oppian law ought on no account to be repealed. Whatever determination you may come to, I pray to all the gods to prosper it.”

    Bk 34.5. After him the plebeian tribunes, who had declared their intention of protesting, added a few words to the same purport. Then Lucius Valerius [20], who made the motion, spoke thus in support of it:—“If private persons only had stood forth to argue for and against the proposition which we have submitted to your consideration, I, for my part, thinking enough to have been said on both sides, would have waited in silence for your determination. But since a person of most respectable judgment, the consul, Marcus Porcius, has denounced our motion, not only by the influence of his opinion, which, had he said nothing, would carry very great weight, but also in a long and labored discourse, it becomes necessary to say a few words in answer. He has spent more words in rebuking the matrons, than in arguing against the measure proposed; and even went so far as to mention a doubt, whether the conduct which he censured in them, arose from themselves, or from our instigation. I shall defend the measure, not ourselves: for the consul threw out those insinuations against us, rather for argument’s sake, than as a serious charge. He has made use of the terms conspiracy and sedition; and, sometimes, secession of the women: because the matrons had requested of you, in the public street, that, in this time of peace, when the commonwealth is flourishing and happy, you would repeal a law that was made against them during a war, and in times of distress.

    I know that to declaim is an easy task: that strong expressions, for the purpose of exaggeration, are easily found; and that, mild as Marcus Cato is in his disposition, and gentle in his manners, yet in his speeches he is not only vehement, but sometimes even austere. What new thing, let me ask, have the matrons done in coming out into public in a body? Have they never before appeared in public? I will turn over your own Antiquities, and quote them against you. Hear now, how often they have done the same, and always to the advantage of the public. In the earliest period of our history, even in the reign of Romulus [21], when the Capitol [22] had been taken by the Sabines [23], and a pitched battle was fought in the Forum, was not the fight stopped by the matrons running in between the two armies [24]? When, after the expulsion of the kings, the legions [25] of the Volscians [26], under the command of Marcius Coriolanus, were encamped at the fifth stone, did not the matrons turn away that army, which would have overwhelmed this city [27]? Again, when the city was taken by the Gauls [28], whence was the gold procured for the ransom of it? Did not the matrons, by unanimous agreement, bring it into the public treasury? In the late war, not to go back to remote antiquity, when there was a want of money, did not the widows supply the treasury? And when new gods were invited hither to the relief of our distressed affairs, did not the matrons go out in a body to the sea-shore to receive the Idæan Mother [29]? The cases, he says, are dissimilar. It is not my purpose to produce similar instances; it is sufficient that I clear these women of having done anything new. Now, what nobody wondered at their doing, in cases which concerned all in common, both men and women, can we wonder at their doing, in a case peculiarly affecting themselves? But what have they done? We have proud ears, truly, if, though masters disdain not the prayers of slaves, we are offended at being asked a favor by honorable women.


    Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Women photographed by Yair Hakalai at the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy.

    Bk. 34.6. “I come now to the question in debate, with respect to which the consul’s argument is two-fold: for, first, he is displeased at the thought of any law whatever being repealed; and then, particularly, of that law which was made to restrain female luxury. His mode of arguing, on the former head, in support of the laws in general, appeared highly becoming of a consul; and that, on the latter, against luxury, was quite conformable to the rigid strictness of his morals. Unless, therefore, I shall be able to point out to you which of his arguments, on both heads, are destitute of foundation, you may, probably, be led away by error. For while I acknowledge, that of those laws which are instituted, not for any particular time, but for eternity, on account of their perpetual utility, not one ought to be repealed; unless either experience proves it to be useless, or some state of the public affairs render it such; I see, at the same time, that those laws which particular seasons have required, are mortal (if I may use the term), and changeable with the times. Those made in peace, are generally repealed by war; those made in war, by peace; as in the management of a ship, some implements are useful in good weather, others in bad. As these two kinds are thus distinct in their nature, of which kind, do you think, is that law, which we now propose to repeal? Is it an ancient law of the kings, contemporary with the city itself? Or, what is next to that, was it written in the twelve tables by the decemvirs [30], appointed to form a code of laws [31]?

    Is it one, without which our ancestors thought that the honour of the female sex could not be preserved; and, therefore, we also have reason to fear, that, together with it, we should repeal the modesty and chastity of our females? Now, is there a man among you who does not know that this is a new law, passed more than twenty years ago, in the consulate of Quintus Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius? And as, without it, our matrons sustained, for such a number of years, the most virtuous characters, what danger is there of their abandoning themselves to luxury on its being repealed? For, if the design of passing that law was to check the passions of the sex, there would be reason to fear lest the repeal of it might operate as an incitement to them. But the real reason of its being passed, the time itself will show. Hannibal was then in Italy, victorious at Cannæ [32], possessed of Tarentum [33], of Arpi [34], of Capua [35], and seemed ready to bring up his army to the city of Rome. Our allies had deserted us. We had neither soldiers to fill up the legions, nor seamen to man the fleet [36], nor money in the treasury. Slaves, who were to be employed as soldiers, were purchased on condition of their price being paid to the owners, at the end of the war. The farmers of the revenues declared that they would contract to supply corn and other matters, which the challenges of the war required, to be paid for at the same time. We gave up our slaves to the oar, in numbers proportioned to our properties, and paid them out of our own pockets. All our gold and silver, in imitation of the example given by the senators, we dedicated to the use of the public. Widows and minors lodged their money in the treasury. We were prohibited from keeping in our houses more than a certain quantity of wrought gold or silver, or more than a certain sum of coined silver or brass. At such a time as this, were the matrons so eagerly engaged in luxury and dress, that the Oppian law was requisite to repress such practices? When the senate, because the sacrifice of Ceres [37] had been omitted, in consequence of all the matrons being in mourning, ordered the mourning to end in thirty days? Who does not clearly see that the poverty and distress of the state requiring that every private person’s money should be converted to the use of the public, [the state] enacted that law, with intent that it should remain in force so long only as the cause of enacting it should remain? For, if all the decrees of the senate, and orders of the people, which were then made to answer the necessities of the times, are to be of perpetual obligation, why do we refund their money to private persons? Why do we pay ready money to contractors for public services? Why are not slaves brought to serve in the army? Why do we not, private subjects, supply rowers as we did then?

    Bk 34.7. “Shall, then, every other class of people, every individual, feel the improvement in the state; and shall our wives alone reap none of the fruits of the public peace and tranquility? Shall we men have the use of purple, wearing the purple-bordered gown in magistracies and priests’ offices? Shall our children wear gowns bordered with purple? Shall we allow the privilege of such a dress to the magistrates of the colonies and borough towns, and to the very lowest of them here at Rome, the superintendents of the streets; and not only of wearing such an ornament of distinction while alive, but of being buried with it when dead; and shall we forbid the use of purple to women alone? And when you, the husband, may wear purple in your great coat, will you not permit your wife to have a purple cloak? Shall the furniture of your house be finer than your wife’s clothes? But with respect to purple, which will be worn out and consumed, I can see an unjust, indeed, but still some sort of reason, for parsimony: but with respect to gold, in which, excepting the price of the workmanship, there is no waste, what motive can there be for denying it to them? It rather serves as a useful fund for both public and private emergencies, as you have already experienced. He says there will be no emulation between individuals, when no one is possessed of it.

    But, in truth, it will be a source of grief and indignation to all, when they see those ornaments allowed to the wives of the Latin confederates which have been forbidden to themselves; when they see those riding through the city in their carriages, and decorated with gold and purple, while they are obliged to follow on foot, as if empire were seated in the country of the others, not in their own. This would hurt the feelings even of men, and what do you think must be its effect on those of weak women, whom even trifles can disturb? Neither offices of state, not of the priesthood, nor triumphs, nor badges of distinction, nor military presents, nor spoils, can fall to their share. Elegance of appearance, and ornaments, and dress, these are the women’s badges of distinction; in these they delight and glory; these our ancestors called the women’s world. What other change in their apparel do they make, when in mourning, except the laying aside their gold and purple? And what, when the mourning is over, except resuming them? How do they distinguish themselves on occasion of public thanksgivings and supplications, but by adding unusual splendor to their dress?

    But then, if you repeal the Oppian law, should you choose to prohibit any of those particulars which the law at present prohibits, you will not have it in your power; your daughters, wives, and even the sisters of some, will be less under your control. The bondage of women is never shaken off, without the loss of their friends; and they themselves look with horror on that freedom which is purchased with the loss of a husband or parent. Their wish is that their dress should be under your regulation, not under that of the law; and it ought to be your wish to hold them in control and guardianship, not in bondage; and to prefer the title of father or husband, to that of master. The consul just now made use of some hateful terms, calling it a female sedition and secession; because, I suppose, there is danger of their seizing the sacred mount, as formerly the angry plebeians did; or the Aventine [38]. Their feeble nature must submit to whatever you think proper to enjoin; and the greater power you possess, the more moderate ought you to be in the exercise of your authority.”

    Bk. 34.8. Notwithstanding all these arguments against the motion, the women next day poured out into public in much greater numbers, and, in a body, beset the doors of the protesting tribunes; nor did they retire until the tribunes withdrew their protest. There was then no farther hesitation, but every one of the tribes voted for the repeal. Thus was this law annulled, in the twentieth year after it had been made. [....]


    Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen of krater with a depiction of a Symposium on it found at the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid


    [1] An Italian Renaissance diplomat, philosopher, and writer.

    [2] The plebeian tribunes were the first public office open to plebeians and traditionally served to curb the power of the Roman Senate and magistrates. Tribunes could convoke and preside over the people’s assembly, could call the senate to meet and propose legislation to it. Tribunes could also act to protect plebeians in legal cases and could veto the consuls and other officials. An assault on the tribune’s person was punishable by death. Most of their powers were usurped by the emperors after the end of the Republic.

    [3] The Punic Wars were a series of vicious and long-running wars between Rome and the Carthaginians.

    [4] A married woman.

    [5] An area in the center of Rome that was home to many daily public activities such as shopping, speeches, and trials.

    [6] The highest political office for elected officials in the Roman Republic.

    [7] Judicial officials responsible for public games and equity in the Roman Republic.

    [8] Elected officials.

    [9] A noted orator and politician who represented the longing for the “good old days” of Rome and opposed Hellenizing influences. He was known for his simple lifestyle.

    [10] The archenemy of the Romans during the Punic Wars, a famous Carthaginian general.

    [11] The Great Idaean Mother of the Gods (Mater Deum Magna Idaea) was Cybele, an ancient eastern and Greco-Roman goddess.

    [12] Pessinus correlates to the modern day city of Ballihisar. This town, located in ancient Phrygia (a region in Asia Minor), was famed for its cult of Cybele.

    [13] A city on the Eastern coast of the island of Sicily.

    [14] A city in Greece.

    [15] A city in South-central Greece.

    [16] A Greek king and opponent of the early Roman Republic.  Cineas was a Thessalian advisor of Pyrrhus sent to negotiate peace with the Romans on at least two separate occasions. In general, the Romans considered the Greeks luxury-loving.

    [17] This was part of a series of laws proposed by two plebeian tribunes in 368 BCE, Lucius Sextus Lateranus and Gaius Licinius Stolo. Cato refers to a law which curbed private ownership of over 300 acres of public land and limited grazing rights on public land to no more than 100 cattle. This was an attempt to prevent the wealthy from encroaching on public lands traditionally allotted in small plots to plebeian farmers for subsistence farming. It appears to have had little effect.

    [18] General citizens of Ancient Rome.

    [19] Passed by a plebeian plebiscite, this law sought to reform the legal system by preventing advocates who presented cases from receiving compensation. The law was later extended to the regulation of other forms of gift-giving in an attempt to curb the influence of wealthy patricians at the expense of the plebeians.

    [20] A consul of the Roman Republic.

    [21] Legendary first king and founder of Rome.

    [22] Rome.

    [23] An ancient people living in Italy who inhabited the central Apennine Mountains.

    [24] This is the famous legend of the Sabine women, one of the founding myths of Rome.

    [25] The Roman army's largest military unit.

    [26] An ancient people living in Italy who inhabited the Liris River's upper valley.

    [27] According to Livy, Ab urbe Condita, 2:40, the legendary Roman general Coriolanus had defected to the Volscian side. His mother, Veturia, and wife, Volumnia, their two sons and the Roman matrons ventured into the Volscian camp and pleaded with Coriolanus to end the siege of Rome, which he did. A temple to the goddess Fortuna was built in honor of these women’s salvation of Rome.

    [28] An ancient Celtic people who inhabited continental Europe.

    [29] In Livy’s History, 5.25, after the sack of Rome by the Gauls, in order to fund a defensive colony to be founded on the Volscian frontier, a massive contribution from the Roman populace was requested. “Thus the city and territory came into the estimate. The money was drawn from the treasury, and the consular tribunes were commissioned to purchase gold with it. As there was not a sufficient supply, the matrons, after meeting to talk the matter over, made themselves by common consent responsible to the tribunes for the gold, and sent all their trinkets to the treasury. The senate were in the highest degree grateful for this, and the tradition goes that in return for this munificence the matrons had conferred upon them the honour of driving to sacred festivals and games in a carriage, and on holy days and work days in a two-wheeled car. The gold received from each was appraised in order that the proper amount of money might be paid for it, and it was decided that a golden bowl should be made and carried to Delphi as a gift to Apollo.” (Rev. Canon Roberts, trans., Livy’s History of Rome, vol. 1, J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1905). See footnote 27 above for the goddess.

    [30] Ten-man commissions of the Roman Republic.

    [31] The Romans venerated the laws of the Twelve Tables as their first formal code of law.

    [32] The Battle of Cannae was waged during the Second Punic War between the Roman Republic and Carthage.

    [33] An ancient Roman city located on the Southern coast of Apulia.

    [34] An ancient Roman city in Apulia.

    [35] A city in Southern Italy.

    [36] The Roman navy.

    [37] Ceres was a powerful deity associated with the well-being of cities (including Rome) and relations with the shades of the dead in the underworld. Roman women participated in rites in the temple of Ceres to mark life transition points and special sacrifices were made to the goddess at certain points in the year and in times of crisis for Rome. Mourning the dead made one ritually unclean and unable to offer sacrifice.

    [38] One of the seven hills that ancient Rome was built on.

    2.1: From Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.