- Ville Vuolanto
The lex Voconia is a plebiscitum, named after the people’s tribune Q. Voconius Saxa, who proposed the bill before the concilium plebis (see comitia) in 169 bce. It provides that testators of the first census class (that is those with a minimum wealth of 100,000 asses) were not allowed to institute a woman as a testamentary heir. Furthermore, the law states that the value of a legacy or donatio mortis causa could not exceed the part of the inheritance left to the heir or heirs (Gai. Inst. 2.274 and 2.226; Dio Cass.56.10; Cic. Verr. 1.43). It seems likely that this latter provision was not as restrictive as the former and that it therefore applied to all levels of the society irrespective of their wealth.
There is no persuasive evidence that the law originally would have included other provisions. While the 3rd-century Pauli Sententiae (4.8.20) excludes female relatives more remote than sisters from intestate succession among the agnates and connects this exclusion to the lex Voconia, it cannot be determined whether this was one of these other provisions. In all likelihood, it was an extensive interpretation of the law by later jurists, or even a misinterpretation, as one would expect that such an issue would have been mentioned by the jurist Gaius (2) (Inst. 3.14) if it had formed part of the original piece of legislation.
Since the text of this piece of legislation has not been preserved, it is unclear what the fate of inheritances given in violation of the lex Voconia. Such bequests were most likely considered void (that is, lex Voconia was so called lex perfecta), though scholarly opinion on this matter remains divided.1
The question as to why the law was originally instituted has aroused much discussion. Its promulgation has been connected with the specific needs of the military elites at the beginning of the 160s bce, to preserve family wealth in male hands, especially when they needed to pay the tributum, the nominally voluntary war tax.2 The law has also been linked directly with the personal political aims and conservatism of Cato the Elder: the law would have been a means to keep women from intervening in public matters and would prevent them from hoarding family wealth.3 Indeed, Aulus Gellius cites Cato’s speech in support of the law: Cato attacks women who were emerging as more independent and who were in possession of greater wealth in marriage because of sine manu—marriage having become more usual (see marriage law, Roman). This text, as it is preserved, however, does not refer to inheritances (but dowries), nor does it discuss directly the reasoning behind the institution of the lex Voconia.4
More generally, the law has been seen as an attempt to prevent women from accruing wealth, or to check women’s luxury.5 The late 3rd and early 2nd century bce was a period of regular warfare, resulting in great losses of manpower. Consequently, financial resources accumulated in the hands of women, by virtue of inheritance. According to this view, the lex Voconia was enacted as a corrective, to preserve wealth necessary to fund elite men’s public life as statesmen.6
Despite these possible motivations Cicero (Rep. 3.17) already noted that the law, as such, did not set any limit on the amount a woman could inherit or possess. Furthermore, donating money to women was not banned and legacies were legal, so long as they did not exceed the value of shares left to the heirs. There were many other ways in which it was possible to transfer (family) wealth to women. Clearly, fideicommissa (trusts) for women were used to circumvent the problem (Cic. Fin. 2.17.55), even if these were not protected by law before Augustus. Usufruct was available, too, if one wanted to leave property for the use of one’s daughter or wife. To evade the provisions of the lex Voconia, other legal measure could be used, such as a dowry or a deliberate omission of legal heirs from the testament.7 Finally, the law applied only to testaments, so women could inherit ab intestato. However, for those aristocratic parents about to die without male successors, but with daughters, this was not an option; it was part of the elite ideology that leaving a testament was an inescapable duty.8 Moreover, those who belonged to lower census classes were seemingly free to institute women as heirs, as the first provision of the lex Voconia seemingly applied only to those, whose wealth was determined through census. Wealth itself seems not to have been the determining factor, while belonging to a certain social group was.
Given these complications, it has been suggested that neither economic nor moralistic reasons could have been the principal motivations behind the lex Voconia. Instead, it has been argued that the introduction of this piece of legislation was due to the social organization and values of Roman aristocracy. Most pointedly, J. Pölönen had stated that lex Voconia was intended to protect the Roman aristocracy, and that the financial implications of this law allowed them to continue the name, estate, and sacral traditions of the great Roman familiae.9 Only males could transmit these to the next generation, as a woman was traditionally seen as “familiae suae et caput et finis,” the beginning and the end of her own familia, as the jurist Ulpian crystallized the principle (Dig. 220.127.116.11). A male heir was needed to secure agnatic succession and both the tangible and intangible heritage. Moreover, an aristocratic female heir, who would inevitably be a visible actor in society, would be a challenge for male privilege. According to this line of thought, the clauses of the lex Voconia would have been very much in the interests of the leading aristocratic families of the first census class, protectors of the traditional patrician values. The lex Voconia would have helped to secure both the agnatic continuity of the aristocratic familiae and the traditional order in public life.
As society changed, the law came to be seen as unjust and unequal (see Cic. Rep. 3.170) and fell into desuetude. Still, it clearly remained the law and could be used as an argument against leaving wealth for women a century after its promulgation. Cicero, for example, claimed that C. Verres tried to extend the law for his own profit by attempting to prohibit a woman from becoming an heir to a considerable property—the father would have qualified to the first census class, but was not enrolled in it (Cic. Verr. 1.41–44; see also Fin. 2.17.55).
The provision concerning the amount of the legacies was superseded by the lex Falcidia in 40 bce, which fixed the minimum share of an heir to one fourth of the total inheritance. The jurist Gaius (2.225–227) explicitly claims that this law was to remedy the problems inherent in the lex Voconia. Cassius Dio (56.10.2) claims, in turn, that Augustus had brought about changes to the application of the lex Voconia by freeing some women from it. In scholarship, these changes have been connected with Augustus’ marriage laws (see marriage law, Roman), most probably with privileges (of accepting inheritances and legacies) by ius liberorum. There is disagreement, however, of the more exact nature of these provisions.10
The common opinion among scholars has been that the validity of the provision of the lex Voconia prohibiting women to inherit gradually diminished.11 The final blow to the application of the law would have been the termination of the census system in Italy after 74 ce. However, some have seen that the law had lost its relevance already quite soon after its promulgation in 160s bce, while some others argue, in turn, that the law was still valid at the time of Gaius, in a form altered by Augustus.12 What is clear is that at the time of Domitian, at least, the law still had some relevance (Plin. Pan. 42.1), and the prohibition of instituting female heirs was never explicitly removed. However, Gaius’ exact contemporary in late 2nd century ce, Aulus Gellius (20.1.23), claimed that the law had been “wiped out and buried by the Senate.”
The number of women or families directly affected by the lex Voconia was small. Still, it had economic and symbolic importance—as can be seen also in the ongoing discussions devoted to it in recent scholarship.
- Astin, Alan E. Cato the Censor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
- Balestri Fumagalli, Marcella. Riflessioni sulla “lex Voconia.” Milan: LED, 2008.
- Champlin, Edward. Final Judgments: Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills, 200 B.C.–A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
- Gardner, Jane. Women in Roman Law and Society. London: Croom Helm, 1986.
- Guarino, Antonio. “Lex Voconia.” Labeo 28 (1982): 188–191.
- Hähnchen, Susanne. “Ratio Voconiana–Gedanken zur erbrechtlichen Benachteiligung von Frauen.” In Facetten des römischen Erbrechts. Edited by J. D. Harke, 35–52. Berlin: Springer, 2012.
- McClintock, Aglaia. “The Lex Voconia and Cornelia’s Jewels.” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 60 (2013): 183–200.
- McGinn, Thomas A. J. “Lex Voconia.” In Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Edited by R. S. Bagnall, K. Broderson, C. B. Champion, A. Erskine, and S. R. Huebner, 4047–4049. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
- McGinn, Thomas A. J. “The Expressive Function of Law and the lex imperfecta.” Roman Legal Tradition 11 (2015): 1–41.
- Pölönen, Janne. “Lex Voconia and Conflicting Ideologies of Succession. Privileging Agnatic Obligation over Cognatic Family Feeling.” Arctos 33 (1999): 111–131.
- Sirks, A. J. R. “Sacra, Succession and the lex Voconia.” Latomus 53 (1994): 273–296.
- Tellegen-Couperus, Olga, and Jan Tellegen. “La loi Voconia et ses sequelles.” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 66 (1998): 65–95.
- Van der Meer, Tanja. “The Voconian law: nova or phoenix?” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 67, no. 1 (1999): 115–123.
- Vigneron, Roger. “L'antifeministe loi Voconia et les Schleichwege des Lebens.” Labeo 29 (1983): 140–153.
- Vigneron, Roger, and Jean-François Gerkens. “The Emancipation of Women in Ancient Rome.” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 47 (2000): 107–121.
- Watson, Alan. The Law of Succession in the Later Roman Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
- Weishaupt, Arnd. Die lex Voconia. Cologne: Böhlau, 2000.
1. Thomas McGinn, “The Expressive Function of Law and the lex imperfecta,” Roman Legal Tradition 11 (2015): 32, with further literature, against Antonio Guarino, “Lex Voconia,” Labeo 28 (1982): 188.
2. For example, Olga Tellegen Couperus and Jan Tellegen, “La loi Voconia et ses sequelles.” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 66 (1998), esp. 71.
3. Roger Vigneron and Jean-François Gerkens, “The Emancipation of Women in Ancient .” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 47 (2000): 110.
4. Gell. 17.6, with Janne Pölönen, “Lex Voconia and Conflicting Ideologies of Succession. Privileging Agnatic Obligation over Cognatic Family Feeling.” Arctos 33 (1999): 126; and Alan E. Astin, Cato the Censor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 113–118.
5. See Pölönen, “Lex Voconia,” 112–113 for further references and discussion.
6. See esp. Jane Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 176.
7. Gai. Inst. 2.123–126, with Aglaia McClintock, “The Lex Voconia and Cornelia’s Jewels,” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 60 (2013): 189; and Vigneron and Gerkens, “The Emancipation of Women,” 110–113.
8. On dying intestate, see Edward Champlin. Final Judgments: Duty and Emotion in Roman Wills, 200 B.C.– A.D. 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 46.
9. Pölönen, “Lex Voconia,” 115–126; see also McClintock, “The Lex Voconia,” 190–192 and A. J. R. Sirks, “Sacra, succession and the lex Voconia.” Latomus 53 (1994): 273–296.
10. See Thomas A. J. McGinn, “Lex Voconia,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient History, ed. R. S. Bagnall et al. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 4049; and Tanja van der Meer, “The Voconian Law: Nova or Phoenix?” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 67, no. 1 (1999): 120–123.
11. See e.g., McGinn, “Lex Voconia” and Pölönen, “Lex Voconia.”
12. The extremes here are Tellegen and Tellegen, “La loi Voconia,” 71 and 76 (with the relevance restricted to Roman republican times); and Tanja van der Meer, “The Voconian Law,” 118–122 (with the relevance in late 2nd century ce).