"The Roman Matron of the Late Republic and Early Empire"
by Sarah B. Pomeroy
. . . Groups of matrons were involved in political and religious action in the earliest events of Roman history, related principally by Livy. Roman women, in contrast to Athenian, were not sequestered. and it is not difficult to believe that the affairs of state were of interest to them. Moreover, they were accustomed to all-female gatherings for religious purposes. Whether all the events actually took place, or if they occurred as Livy relates, does not concern us here; even as social myth they are of value in considering the political influence of Roman women. Livy tells a number of stories about honorable women congregating at critical points in Roman history, and per forming acts that were crucial to the safety of the state. The first group was the Sabine wives of the early Romans, whose intercession not only prevented war between their husbands and fathers but brought about a profitable alliance between the two. Then there are the stories about the deputation of women who persuaded the traitor Coriolanus not to make war on Rome, and the matrons in the Forum who supported Verginius in his fight against the tyrannical Appius Claudius. Often the women ask for and win the favor of the gods for the state's benefit. Rarely, groups of women are shown to gather for malevolent purposes. However, in 331 B.C., 116 women were condemned for gathering to concoct charms or poisons. Women's
collective lamentations were disruptive in time of war, but that was forgivable, and Livy uses the women's mourning to underline particular disasters. The women who gathered in 195 B.C. to demand the abrogation of the Oppian Law which had been in force for twenty years staged the first women's demonstration.
At Trasimene and Cannae, in the two years preceding the passage of the Oppian Law, the Roman army had suffered the most debilitating defeats in its history. At the battle of Cannae alone, Hannibal destroyed so many men that, as Livy puts it, "There was not one matron who was not bereaved." In 216 B.C. the annual rite of Ceres, which could be celebrated only by women, had to be canceled, since mourners were not allowed to participate. Owing to the dearth of freeborn men, an emergency military levy was made of adolescents and 8000 slaves.
Hannibal offered another 8000 Roman prisoners for ransom. Women entreated the Senate to ransom their sons, brothers, and kinsmen. Many upper-class men were among those lost, either through battle or through the Senate's decision not to pay ransom. Many of the prisoners were related to the senators, and the next year the number of people eligible to pay the property tax was so diminished by the losses at Trasimene and Cannae that the tax was in sufficient to meet the needs of the state.
As the men died, we assume, their property was apportioned among the surviving members of the family. Women and children will have been numerous among the beneficiaries. Some Romans died intestate, and according to the laws of intestate succession sons and daughters shared equally. To put it crudely, when their fathers and brothers were eliminated by Hannibal, women's portions of wealth increased.
One may consider whether the women availed themselves of the opportunity to flaunt any new-found wealth in the vulgar manner characteristic of Romans. As Plutarch remarks, "Most people think themselves deprived of wealth if they are prevented from showing off; the display is made in the superfluities, not the essentials of life." Women were certainly prone to this vice. As one example, we may consider that Papiria, the mother of Publius Scipio Aemilianus, did not hesitate long after Aemilia's funeral to drive out in the dead woman's carriage which her natural son, Aemilia's heir, had given her.
It could be argued that the specter of Hannibal and the
general misery contributed to inhibit boisterous displays. On the other hand. this period is replete with queer portents and indications of hysteria. But in 215 B.C., the year following the battle of Cannae, the state not only took most of the women's gold but deprived them of the opportunity to indulge in other displays of wealth. The Oppian Law was passed, limiting the amount of gold that each woman could possess to half an ounce. and forbidding women to wear dresses with purple trim or ride in carriages within a mile of Rome or in Roman country towns except on the occasions of religious festivals.
Thus, although the state had curtailed the period of mourning and women were not to wear the sordid dress of the bereaved. They were to display the behavior and costume more appropriate to a dismal military situation. By this compromise, the requirements of religion and decorum could be met.
The next year all the funds of wards, single women. and widows were deposited with the state. And that was the end of the windfall of any woman or minor who had become rich up to that time through the intervention of Hannibal. We also note, in passing, that the state readily commandeered the wealth of all those without close male relatives to defend them. The war continued for thirteen years, and we assume that after the passage of the Oppian Law some women continued to be fortuitously and disproportionately enriched by the deaths of male members of the family.
Appian's report of women's patriotism during the Second Punic War is slightly inconsistent with Livy's version. Hortensia states that women gave freely, but then only from their jewelry and not from their dowries and other possessions. One could suppose that, threatened by Hannibal, women would voluntarily make donations even from their dowries. Livy indicates that the women's wealth was taken through taxes, and that in 207 B.C. they were forced to invade their dowries and make an offering to Juno Regina to elicit her aid. He also highlights the generous patriotism shown by men in 210 when the senators, followed spontaneously by the knights and the plebs, contributed almost all their gold, silver, and coined bronze; each reserved only rings for himself and his wife, a bulla (a gold locket) for each son, and an ounce of gold each for his wife and daughters. These reports of competitive patriotic zeal are suspect. and almost certainly mask official confiscations. including women's dowries and other possessions. Livy's report brings to mind the
anger of the triumvirs after Hortensia's oration, when they thought that women were concerned about hoarding their money while men were actually serving in the army.
One may wonder who exercised authority over the women when their male kin were deceased. Guardians were probably appointed, but, as we have noted, a guardian's concern with a woman's virtue is less than the concern of male relatives who regard female members of the family as extensions of themselves. Livy notes that "women's servitude is never terminated while their males survive." Conversely, are there indications that their servitude was abated when their males were deceased? We remarked, in our discussion of the last phase of the Peloponnesian War, that women were less constrained in the absence of men. At Rome, too, they dared to mingle in the Forum with crowds of men, and even to make entreaties of the Senate.
The loss of male relatives was conducive to the formation of irregular liaisons which the state attempted to punish or discourage. In 215 B.C. the cult of Venus Verticordia (Changer of Hearts [toward virtue]) was founded (see pp. 208-209). In 213 B.C. a number of matrons who were charged by the tribunes with immoral conduct were driven to exile. These women should have been dealt with in domestic tribunals by their husbands and male relatives. Probably they had none left, and the tribunes did the job instead, hoping that the publicity would discourage future derelictions.
An incident toward the end of the war underlines the aspersions cast upon the moral character of even the highest born of Roman women. When the stone representing the Magna Mater, an Oriental mother goddess, was brought to Rome from Asia, its transfer was assigned to the noble matrons. The patrician Claudia Quinta used the opportunity of moving the stone as an ordeal to prove her chastity, for she had been popularly charged with promiscuity though she had not been—and could not be—prosecuted. Her success in moving the stone was considered the testimony of the goddess to Claudia's chastity. It was the turmoil of the war that led to suspicion of Claudia and that then provided her with an opportunity to make a public demonstration of her chastity.
After the defeat of Hannibal in 201 B.C., Rome swiftly recovered. Men were allowed to display their prosperity. They wore purple, and their horses could be magnificently equipped. But the Oppian Law
remained in effect, curtailing displays by women. The law was an irritant, despite some hints that it was not strictly enforced at all times. In 195 B.C. the repeal of this law was proposed, and women demonstrated in the streets. The issue, obviously, was of concern only to the wealthy, and presumably they alone were the demonstrators. This demonstration may have been orchestrated by men and have resulted from factional disputes among them. Men may have also wished to avail themselves once more of the opportunity of displaying wealth through the adornments of the female members of their families. But we cannot discount the idea that women were demonstrating in their own behalf. The Second Punic War had given them an opportunity to develop independence. Their pleas before the Senate more than twenty years earlier had been a rehearsal in political activism. At the time when they demonstrated for the repeal of the Oppian Law, some of them, having lost their fathers and husbands, may have been under the authority of a relatively uninterested guardian. These women will have been freer to mill around in the streets and make demands of the government.
We may speculate whether it was likely that all the women bereaved by the war found new husbands. The speech of Cato arguing against repeal of the Oppian Law cannot be taken as evidence for the actual situation in 195 B.C., for the words are Livy's own, and there is no proof that Cato even spoke on the occasion. It is in this speech that Cato declares that the women's husbands should have kept them in the house. After the loss in Roman manpower resulting from the Second Punic War, it does not seem likely that all women would have had husbands in 195 B.C. Two thousand Romans, whom Hannibal had sold into slavery in Greece, returned in 194 B.C. Did they find their wives remarried? To compare the situation at Rome with that of Russia after World War II, when virtually a generation of women could not find husbands, would be extreme, but we cannot assume that all the women had husbands.
The condition of women without husbands and fathers is considered in the speech that Livy represents as winning the repeal of the law. The Aristotelian view of the unequal relationship between women and men is recognizable. The argument is that women, even without the control of the Oppian Law, would not take advantage of the freedom they could enjoy, "for they abhor the freedom that loss of husbands and fathers provides." The speaker also points out that even Roman men would be dismayed if they were not permitted to
flaunt their wealth in the face of their Latin neighbors. Naturally, weak women, who become disturbed over the merest trifles, would be all the more upset over their lost opportunities. . . .
from Sarah B. Pomeroy. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1975), 176-181
©Sarah B. Pomeroy