The Repeal of the Oppian Laws

The Oppian laws were passed during the Second Punic War at a time when Rome was badly in need of funds to carry on their war against Hannibal. They forbid women from owning more than a small amount of gold and jewelry and from riding in carriages and from wearing purple. This encouraged wealthy women to donate their gold and jewels to the state to pay for the war effort.
In 196 B.C. the war had been over for six years and the women of Rome took to the streets to persuade the Assembly to appeal the Oppian Laws. One of the Tribunes, Lucius Valerius, took the side of the women, defending the motion against the Consul Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder who vehemently opposed it.
“I shall defend the motion, not ourselves, against whom the Consul has hurled this charge. He has called this assemblage ‘Secession’ and sometimes ‘womanish rebellion,’ because the matrons have publicly asked you, in peacetime when the state is happy and prosperous, to repeal a law passed against them during the straits of war. Not too far back in history, in the most recent war, when we needed funds, did not the widow’s money assist the treasury?
“What, after all, have they done? We have proud ears, indeed, if, while masters do not scorn the appeals of slaves, we are angry when honorable women ask something from us.
“Since our matrons lived so long by the highest standards of behavior without any law, what risk is there that once it is repealed, they will yield to luxury? Should we forbid only women to wear purple? When you, a man, may use purple on your clothes, will you not allow the mother of your family to have a purple cloak, and will your horse be more beautifully saddled than your wife is garbed?
“By Hercules! All are unhappy and indignant when they see finery denied them and permitted to the wives of the Latin allies, when they see them adorned with gold and purple, when those other women ride through the city and they follow on foot, as though the power belonged to the other women’s cities and not to their own. This could wound the spirits of men; what do you think it could do to the spirits of women, whom even little things disturb?
“They cannot partake of magistracies, priesthoods, triumphs, badges of office, gifts or spoils of war; elegance, finery and beautiful clothes are women’s badges, in these they find joy and take pride. This our forebears called the women’s world.
“Of course, if you repeal the Oppian laws, you will not have the power to prohibit that which the law now forbid; daughters, wives and even some men’s sisters will be less under your authority—but, never, while her men are well, is a woman’s slavery cast off. It is for the weaker sex to submit to whatever you advise. The more power you possess, the more moderately you should exercise your authority.”
Despite the opposition of Cato the Elder, all of the centuries voted to appeal the Oppian laws.

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