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Text #9554

"Lex Oppia", in Wikipedia.
Following the Second Punic War, with Rome...

Following the Second Punic War, with Rome victorious over Carthage, wealth from the conquered areas began to flow into the hands of the Roman ruling class, transforming their lives from one of traditional agrarian simplicity to ostentatious display and unbounded extravagance. The victory made wealthier Romans aware of the possibilities of different, more comfortable life styles, and gave them access to more varied, more exotic and more luxurious products. During this period, there was an inevitable change of mores, which in practice meant largely the conduct of individuals in the upper strata of Roman society; and with the financial woes eliminated, there was no longer a reason for women to restrict their expenditures. With Rome rich in Carthaginian wealth, attempts to check self-indulgent expenditure with sumptuary legislation proved vain. Consequently, two tribunes of the plebs, Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, proposed repealing the Lex Oppia.

The supporters of the Lex Oppia were led by two tribunes of the plebs, Marcus Junius Brutus and Publius Junius Brutus, and consul Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, who had been elected in 195 BC. Cato argued that the law removed the shame of poverty because it made all women dress in an equal fashion. Cato insisted that if women could engage in a clothes-contest, they would either feel shame in the presence of other women, or on the contrary, they would delight in a rather base victory as a result of extending themselves beyond their means. He also declared that a woman’s desire to spend money was a disease that could not be cured, but only restrained; the removal of Lex Oppia, Cato said, would render society helpless in limiting the expenditures of women. Cato pronounced that Roman women already corrupted by luxury were like wild animals who have once tasted blood in the sense that they can no longer be trusted to restrain themselves from rushing into an orgy of extravagance.

The proponents of abolishing the Lex Oppia were led by Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius, as well as the other consul, Lucius Valerius Flaccus, elected in 195 BC. Flaccus contested Cato’s assumption that there would be no rivalry among women if they did not own anything by reminding the audience of the suffering and anger Roman women feel when they see the wives of Latin allies wearing ornaments of which they have been deprived.

As nobles spoke for or against the repeal of the Lex Oppia, the matrons of Rome crowded the Capitol. They could not be kept indoors by either the authority of the magistrates or the orders of their husbands or their own sense of propriety. They blocked all the streets of the city and the approaches to the Forum, and implored the men as they descended to the Forum to allow the women to resume their former adornments. After the speeches against and in favor of the Lex Oppia, the women poured into the streets the next day in greater numbers and besieged the doors of the two Brutuses. The dissenting tribunes eventually gave in to the persistent demanding of the Roman matrons, and the Lex Oppia was repealed in 195 BC.

References

Lewis, Naphtali, and Meyer Reinhold, eds. Roman Civilization: Selected Readings. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 1990. 489-496.

Johnston, Patricia A. “Poenulus 1, 2 and Roman Women.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 110 (1980): 143-159. JSTOR.

Astin, A., F. Walbank, M. Frederiksen, and R. Ogilvie, eds. The Cambridge Ancient History. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989. 181-185, 439, 453, 495.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. “Lex Fannia.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. “Lex Didia.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

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