XI. THE NEW PUSHES THE OLD - WARS AND CONQUESTS.
There were days of tumult in Rome in the year 195, which illustrate the temper of the times, and show how the city and the people had changed, and were changing, under the influence of two opposite forces. A vivid picture of the scenes around the Capitol at the time has been preserved. Men were hastening to the meeting of the magistrates from every direction. The streets were crowded, and not with men chiefly, for something which interested the matrons seemed to be uppermost, and women were thronging in the same direction, in spite of custom, which would have kept them at home; in spite even of the commands of many of their husbands, who were opposed to their frequenting public assemblies. Not only on one day did the women pour out into all the avenues leading to the forum, but once and again they thrust themselves into the presence of the law-makers. Nor were they content to stand or sit in quiet while their husbands and brothers argued and made eloquent speeches; they actually solicited the votes of the stronger sex in behalf of a motion that was evidently very important in their minds.
Of old time, the Romans had thought that women should keep at home, and that in the transaction of private business even they should be under the direction of their parents, brothers, or husbands. What had wrought so great a change that on these days the Roman matrons not only ventured into the forum, but actually engaged in public business, and that, as has been said, in many instances, in opposition to those parents, brothers, and husbands who were in those old times their natural directors? We shall find the reason by going back to the days when the cost of the Punic wars bore heavily upon the state. It was then that a law was passed that no woman should wear any garment of divers colors, nor own more gold than a half-ounce in weight, nor ride through the streets of a city in a carriage drawn by horses, nor in any place nearer than a mile to a town, except for the purpose of engaging in a public religious solemnity. The spirited matrons of Rome were ever ready to bear their share of the public burdens, and though some thought this oppressive, but few murmurs escaped them as they read the Oppian law, as it was called, when it was passed, for the days were dark, and the shadow of the defeat at Cannæ was bowing down all hearts, and their brothers and parents and husbands were trembling, strong men that they were, at the threatening situation of the state. Now, however, the condition of affairs had changed. The conquests of the past few years had brought large wealth into the city, and was it to be expected that women should not wish to adorn themselves, as of yore, with gold and garments of richness?
When now the repeal of the law was to be discussed, the excitement became so intense that people forgot that Spain was in a state of insurrection, and that war threatened on every side. Women thronged to the city from towns and villages, and even dared, as has been said, to approach the consuls and other magistrates to solicit their votes. Marcus Porcius Cato, a young man of about forty years, who had been brought up on a farm, and looked with the greatest respect upon the virtue of the olden times, before Grecian influences had crept in to soften and refine the hard Roman character, represented the party of conservatism. Now, thought he, is an opportunity for me to stand against the corrupting influence of Magna Græcia. He therefore rose and made a long speech in opposition to the petition of the matrons. He thought they had become thus contumacious, he said, because the men had not individually exercised their rightful authority over their own wives. "The privileges of men are now spurned, trodden under foot," he exclaimed, "and we, who have shown that we are unable to stand against the women separately, are now utterly powerless against them as a body. Their behavior is outrageous. I was filled with painful emotions of shame as I just now made my way into the forum through the midst of a body of women. Will you consent to give the reins to their intractable nature and their uncontrolled passions? The moment they had arrived at equality with you, they will have become your superiors. What motive that common decency will allow is pretended for this female insurrection? Why, that they may shine in gold and purple; that they may ride through our city in chariots triumphing over abrogated law; that there may be no bounds to waste and luxury! So soon as the law shall cease to limit the expenses of the wife, the husband will be powerless to set bounds to them." As the uttermost measure of the abasement to which the women had descended, Cato declared with indignation that they had solicited votes, and he concluded by saying that though he called upon the gods to prosper whatever action should be agreed upon, he thought that on no account should the Oppian law be set aside.