The World's Famous Orations/Volume 2/In Support of the Oppian Law

Reported by Livy.

4099516The World's Famous Orations (Volume 2: Rome) — In Support of the Oppian LawMarcus Porcius Cato



(215 B.C.)

Born in 234 B.C., died in 149; consul in 195; censor in 184; sent to Carthage in 150. Of Cato’s orations, numbering at least 150, only fragments have been preserved.

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 contumacy, 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 extirpated by a conspiracy of the women.

But the utmost danger may be apprehended equally from either sex if you suffer cabals and secret consultations to he held: scarcely indeed can I determine, in my own mind, whether the act itself, or the precedent that it affords, is of more pernicious 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 hither for the purpose of raising tribunitian 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 emotions 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 the 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 practise 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? Altho 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, suffer 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, ail which women bear with impatience: they long for either 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? Suffer them once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors.

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 practise 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, on 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?

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, on 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, coming out of Phrygia from Pessinus.

What motive, that even common decency will not 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 abrogated 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 avarice—those pests which have ever been the ruin of every 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 made their way into this city with hostile effect. I already hear too many commending and admiring the decorations of Athens and Corinth, and ridiculing the earthen images of our Roman guds that Itand 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, 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, think you, 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? What the Cineian Law, concerning gifts and presents, but that the plebeians had become vassals and tributaries to the senate? 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 ready to receive them.

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 anv 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 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; altho, 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 all the gods to prosper it.

  1. Delivered in the Roman forum in 215 B.C. Reported by Livy. Spillan and Edmonds translation.
    The Oppian Law which had been enacted "during the heat of the Punic War," declared 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 in a town, or any place nearer thereto than one mile, except on occasions of some public religious solemnity." Livy describes the scene in Rome on the day of Cato's speech: "The Capitol was tilled with crowds who favored or opposed the law; nor could the matrons be kept at home either by advice or shame, nor even by the commands of their husbands; but they beset every street and pass in the city, beseeching the men as they went down to the forum, that, in the present flourishing state of the commonwealth, when the private fortune of all was daily increasing, they would suffer the women to have their former ornaments restored. This throng of women increased daily, for they arrived even from the country towns and villages, and they had at length the boldness to come up to the consuls, pretors, and magistrates, to urge their request. One of the consuls, however, they found especially inexorable—Marcus Porcius Cato."

    After the discussion was ended, Livy says, "The women next day poured out into public in much greater numbers, and in a body beset the doors of the tribunes who had protested against the measure of their colleags; nor did they return until their intervention was withdrawn." The law was then repealed "in the twentieth year after it was made." In Smith's "Dictionary" we are told how the women evinced their exultation and triumph by "going in procession through the streets and the forum, bedizened with their now legitimate finery."