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date: 02 December 2020

lex Oppiafree

  • Ville Vuolanto


The lex Oppia, decreed in 216 bce, regulated the use of wealth by the Roman women. There are different modern interpretative approaches to the law, dealing with its original contents and purpose (as a sumptuary law or as a wartime emergency measure), its abrogation in 195 bce with Cato the Elder’s speech and women’s demonstrations, and its uses in Livy and the debates in Rome in the late 1st century bce.

The lex Oppia was a plebiscitum decreed after a proposal by the people’s tribune Gaius Oppius in 215 bce; it was repealed in 195 bce. According to Livy, it provided that no woman should have (habere) more than one half an ounce (semiuncia, c. 14 grams) of gold, wear luxuriously coloured (versicolor) clothing, or ride in a carriage (iunctum vehiculum) in Rome, in any town, or within a mile of the settlement in question, except in the performance of public religious rites (Liv. 34.1.3; see also Tac. Ann. 3.33–34; Val. Max. 9.1.3; Zonaras 9.17; and Orosius 4.20.14). The law has generated a long and varied modern discussion of its original contents and purpose, and of the circumstances leading both to its enactment and to its abrogation, since it is the narrative of Livy that supplies our earliest full account of these events, almost 200 years later.

The way that Livy, in particular, discusses lex Oppia implies that the law was intended to take advantage of private wealth for public uses. This has caused debate among modern scholars about whether the law should indeed be seen specifically as a sumptuary law, or rather as a wartime emergency measure, while an intermediate view sees the origin of the lex as a war measure that served as an important precedent for the enactment of the later sumptuary law in a more strict sense.1 It has also been proposed that the actual reason behind the legislation was the need to keep women’s growing visibility and (financial) independence at bay—or its usefulness in the competition between Senate factions.2

Most scholars argue that by the versicolor clothing, Livy denotes purple, a luxury dye in the Roman world. Unquestionably, Livy did indeed have purple in mind, even if in the original context versicolor may have had a broader meaning.3 Further, Livy’s wording has prompted a discussion of the actual status of the gold mentioned in the law: would habere indicate gold actually owned by women? This would be problematic in a legal and social context in which most women were not sui iuris but were either under the potestas of a father (see patria potestas) or in the manus (see marriage law, Roman). It is therefore probable that habere refers only to the use of the wealth. In other words, it prohibits women from wearing or carrying more than a semiuncia of gold with them. It seems that the extra wealth of women was not to be confiscated for the public use—there is no reference to any regulation decreeing that—and in the following years, the Roman elite ladies still had at their disposal more gold than the mere semiuncia.4 It may be argued that Livy was vague on purpose, since he wanted to connect lex Oppia’s origin to wider economical and moralistic issues instead of restricting its context to appearances only. In any case, wartime measures and a general shortage would have required even the wealthiest families to display modesty, even austerity, in public.5 The law was, after all, decreed in the middle of the Second Punic War, with the catastrophic defeat against Hannibal at Cannae that had taken place the year before.

The lex Oppia is renowned in modern scholarship, not so much because of its social or cultural significance while it was in force, but rather because of the events surrounding its abrogation in 195 bce. This has proved to be one of the key texts in discussing the Republican attitudes to luxury and women’s roles in Roman society. According to Livy (34.1.2–7), the plebeian tribunes of 195 bce, M. Fundanius and L. Valerius, proposed the abrogation of the law, while two other tribunes, M. and P. Iunius Brutus, opposed the repeal. Eventually, the debate drew supporters from both sides, and women took an active part in the public demonstrations. Matrons arrived, even from outside of Rome, in large numbers and blocked streets into the Forum and houses of those tribunes in favour of the law. In this situation, Cato the Elder, the other consul of the year, held a speech to oppose the repeal (Livy 34.2–4) and was given a response by L. Valerius (Livy 34.5–7). The women’s demonstrations intensified, and the tribunes who were against the repeal of the law were forced to not use their veto.

The common opinion among scholars is that the speeches are anachronistic and cannot be based on any authentic presentations.6 Cato, for example, is already presented as a traditional, austere figure, Cato the Censor, who fought for traditions and wanted to keep luxury and all things Hellenic in check—and for women to remain in their homes. Valerius, in turn, argued that women’s weaknesses (infirmitas) should be controlled by private measures at the households, rather than by public legislation—not a particularly liberal point of view, as sometimes claimed in modern scholarship. He also claimed that women were asking to be given back the items belonging to the traditional mundus muliebris, which would make evident their social status—the insignia of women—and, after all, all the other wartime austerity measures had already been lifted earlier on.7

For women in mid-Republican society there were not many markers of rank available to show their status and social distinction other than personal adornment. It was also a question of acquiring renown and social capital for the great families and their menfolk more generally. The lex Oppia made this very difficult, and its repeal was, therefore, profitable to a large sector of the elite Roman families.8

A striking feature in Livy’s account of the law is the account of the demonstrations by women in favour of its abrogation in 195 bce. Most scholars have not cast any doubt on the historicity of these stories, although some had registered their surprise that the subsequent measures to affect elite women (like the institution of lex Voconia in 169, or the other sumptuary laws of the 2nd century bce) did not arouse any significant public protests on their part.9 However, Gerhard Perl and Iradj El-Qalqili proposed that the tradition of the mass demonstrations by women in 195 bce was an invention by the late-Republican annalists and Livy, and reflects the tax protest of women in 43 bce, led by Hortensia.10 It has therefore been argued that the sources on lex Oppia, and especially Livy’s account of the abrogation of the Oppian law, should be studied in the context of the late 1st century bce, as evidence of contemporary discussions of women’s place, their proper role, and especially the limits of women’s acceptable (political) agency in Rome’s changing social and cultural environment. According to this view, Livy’s account of lex Oppia would reflect the will to see the subjugation of women to the tutelage of men as traditional and thus a normal and natural feature in Roman society, in line with both the contemporary view of the mos maiorum and Augustan family politics.11

Primary Texts

For the relevant primary sources, see “lex Oppia Sumptuaria (215 bce),” in Y. Lassard and A. Koptev, The Roman Law Library. Livy 34.1–8 is available in Perseus Digital Library, both in Latin and in English. Tacitus Annals 3.33–34 is also available in Latin and in English online in the Perseus Digital Library. Valerius Maximus 9.1.3. is available online in Latin.


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