Notable Women of the Roman Republic: Hortensia

Hortensia was the daughter of Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, 114 BC to 56 BC. Hortensius was regarded by many as the best legal advocate and orator of his day, rivaled only by the great Marcus Tullius Cicero. Hortensia, growing up in her father’s household was well educated and had studied Greek and Roman  history, philosophy and rhetoric. Women were entirely excluded from any official role in Roman politics and it is likely that Hortensia’s rhetorical gifts would have gone un-noticed but for some extremely unusual circumstances in Roman history.

 

In 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated by a conspiracy of Roman patricians intent upon restoring the republic. These men, led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus felt that Caesar had the ambition to become king of Rome and would abolish the republic.

 

After Caesar’s death, the most powerful man in Rome was Marc Antony, but Caesar, in his will, made his great nephew, eighteen-year-old Gaius Octavius his heir. Antony and Octavius would eventually vie with each other for power, but first they had to eliminate the conspirators who had assassinated Caesar. To this end they formed a Triumvirate along with the Consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. In order to eliminate their opposition and, at the same time raise money for their campaign against Brutus and Cassius, they drew up proscription lists and killed those on the lists and confiscated their property. Perhaps their most famous victim was Marcus Tullius Cicero. (See previous blog about Fulvia, the wife of Marc Antony.)

 

Finding that these measures did not provide sufficient funds for their proposed campaign, the Triumvirate decided to impose a heavy tax on 1500 wealthy Roman women. These women were incensed because they were not permitted a voice in public policy, and were not willing to finance a civil war. Many of them had seen their husbands, sons or brothers murdered by the triumvirate and their wealth confiscated and now possessed only their wealth from their dowries. They chose Hortensia to be their spokeswoman.

 

The women went to the forum and took the rostrum and, according to the historian Appian of Alexandria, Hortensia gave the following speech:

 

“As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewelry, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!”

The Triumvirs ordered Hortensia and the other women to leave the forum, but they refused. The lictors hesitated to manhandle noble born women. Finally, the Triumvirs agreed to remit the tax for all but 400 of the most wealthy women.

Appian said of Hortensia: “For by bringing back her father’s eloquence she brought about the remission of the greater part of the tax. Quintus Hortensius lived again in the female line and breathed through his daughter’s words.”

Comments

  1. Nice

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