Women and Property Law in Ancient Rome

Cornelia Africana / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Peter Kruschwitz / 03.08.2018
Professor of Classics
Fellow of the Pontifical Academy for Latin (Pontificia Academia Latinitatis)
University of Reading

In 195 B. C., Rome’s women had had enough.

It had been for almost exactly twenty years that, due to a decision taken in 215 B. C., at the height of the Second Punic War, their right to possess, and to display, wealth had been severely restricted.

Originally perhaps devised as an austerity measure during the Hannibalic war, the lex Oppia, a so-called sumptuary law, affected not only the possession and display of precious objects but even regulated their dress and modes of transportation.

The law’s supporters – very much like those who advocate school uniforms – argued that, among other things, this law had reduced unnecessary competition and therefore was in everyone’s interest – a means to rein in wasteful spending and extravagance.

Those who argued against the law, at a time when austerity was no longer a major concern, suggested that it put Roman women at a disadvantage to their peers in other communities who were not affected by such measures.

Eventually, after much debate, with the elder Cato as the most prominent supporter of the lex Oppia, the law was abolished.

One might take this event as yet another example of how, historically, men have been trying to suppress women and making decisions over their bodies as well as over their rights – an unsurprising, somewhat trite observation to make, of course, considering that ancient Rome was a patriarchy and the feminist movement had not yet come about.

Unlike in other ancient societies, however, Roman women were fully well able to organise themselves and to voice their views publicly – much to the annoyance of at least some men.

On occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, and in keeping with the strike theme of my recent posts, I would thus like to celebrate the fear that the women of Rome very clearly managed to inspire in the male establishment.

Here is how the elder Cato is represented by the historian Livy responding to the fact that the women of Rome, no longer willing to accept this interference with their interests, took to the streets (Liv. 34.2.4–13, transl. J. C. Yardley):

“I personally have difficulty in deciding in my own mind which is worse, the affair itself or the precedent it may set—one of which is more a concern for us consuls and other magistrates, while the other pertains more to you, my fellow citizens. For whether what is being proposed to you is or is not in the interests of the state is for you to judge—you who will be voting on the matter. But this disorderly conduct of the women, whether it is spontaneous or occasioned by you, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, must certainly be blamed on the magistrates, and I do not know whether it brings more disgrace on you, the tribunes, or on the consuls. It brings more on you if you have drawn the women into your tribunician revolts, and more on us if laws must be accepted because of a secession of women, as formerly because of a secession of the plebs.

“Frankly, I was blushing somewhat a moment ago when I came into the Forum through the midst of a crowd of women. Had I not been held back by respect for the status and modesty of some of the individuals present rather than of the group as a whole—I feared they might appear to have been rebuked by a consul—I would have said: ‘What sort of conduct is this, all this running out into public places, blocking streets and accosting other women’s husbands? Couldn’t you all have asked your own husbands the very same thing at home? Are your charms more seductive in public than in private and to other women’s spouses more than your own? And yet not even at home should the proposing or repealing of laws in this place have been any concern of yours, not if modesty kept married women within their proper limits.

“Our ancestors did not want women conducting business, even private business, without a guardian acting as her spokesman; they were to remain under the protection of fathers, brothers or husbands. But we, for God’s sake, are now allowing them even to engage in affairs of state and almost to involve themselves in the Forum, in our meetings and in our assemblies. For what else are they doing at this moment in the streets and at the crossroads but urging acceptance of a bill of the plebeian tribunes and voting for repealing a law?”

Cato stylises the women’s taking it to the streets, their ‘disorderly conduct’ (consternatio muliebris in the original Latin) into a major strike and walkout, a mulierum secessio, in the fashion of the fabled walkouts of the Roman people in response to their lack of power and rights in the face of patrician rule.

At the same time, Cato appears to be rather clear about, and afraid of, the very real consequences that such a united walkout would have: it would mean that laws would have to be accepted that are actually in the interest of Rome’s womanhood.

A scary thought to the elder Cato.

After all, where would this end…?

Cato knew the answer to that, of course – and his vision, though terrifying to him, is a message of hope to us (Liv. 34.2.14):

“Give free rein to their wild nature, to this unbroken beast, and then hope that they themselves will impose a curb on their license! If you do not impose it, this curb on them is merely the least of the restraints that women resent having imposed upon them by convention or the law. What they want is freedom—no, complete license, if we are willing to speak the truth,—in everything. If they win on this point, what then will they not try?”

Unity is strength.

Originally published by Peter Kruschwitz, The Petrified Muse, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.