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The Long Shadow of Lex Oppia

Updated: May 28, 2023

She passes a hand through her many stolas, indecisive as to what to wear. Settling for a simple yet elegant maroon, the fabric slips through Tullia’s hands as she eyes its shade, ensuring that her stola shows no other colour. She feels a pang of sadness as she turns to close the wardrobe, her eyes falling upon her purple garments as a hand rests on them for a moment. Knowing that it is unacceptable to wear such a colour, she shuts the door and turns to the vanity mirror, attempting to conceal the frustration in her countenance. In the mirror’s reflection, she notices a trunk tucked away underneath the bed, filled with even more multi-coloured, expensive garments that she cannot wear out anymore.

We are writing the year 195 BCE. It has been seven years since the Second Punic War ended. For seventeen years, Romans and Carthaginians have engaged in a bloody war with major battles throughout present-day Italy, Spain and Tunisia.

What led to this conflict? The First Punic War was fought over which power would control the Western Mediterranean – Rome or the notorious sea-farer nation Carthage. After Carthage lost in 241 BCE, both sides lacked resources such as funding and weaponry. Yet, compared to the Carthaginians, crippled by paying reparations and ceding Sicily to Rome, the Romans quickly started rebuilding their strength. It was in 219 BCE that Carthage’s famous military leader Hannibal captured the Roman ally Saguntum, in present-day Spain, with a desire to further expand Carthaginian territory again. Rome declared war in 218 and soon another costly war was fought between the two rival powers, featuring Hannibal’s legendary passage across the Alps: The Second Punic War. After the bloodbath at Cannae in Southern Italy in 216, which saw the deaths of an estimated one fifth of all Roman men of fighting age, a major financial crisis followed for Rome. It was this crisis which motivated the implementation of several “sumptuary laws” in 215 to help the Roman State finance the war. One of these laws was Lex Oppia.

As a wealthy noblewoman, Tullia benefitted the most from expressing her upper-class status through lavish attire. Now, her mind can only wander, as she fondly remembers the days when she could wear extravagant clothing and elegant jewellery. She sighs, and plucks simple gold pieces from her jewellery dish to despondently set on the scale. Half an ounce, and no more, is the law she must abide by now. Her cascading thoughts are interrupted as a soft knock sounds at the door. “Intra.” Enter, Tullia says, as she adds more gold and dejectedly watches the scale tip over. The door creaks open as her ornatrix, hairdresser, enters the room to prepare an elaborate hairstyle for Tullia’s day out. Flanking are the ladies-in-waiting who will take care of dressing Tullia; it is imperative that her husband is not present for this process, as she was taught that it would ruin the “illusion” of the final look.

After a lengthy dress-up process, Tullia feasts on eggs, fish, and meats for breakfast. Meanwhile, women in the lower class typically stick to a simple breakfast of bread and fruit. Mulling over a cup of wine, which Tullia only sips, she decides to spend this day visiting shops for new single-coloured garments, and perhaps a ride in her carriage; a common activity for wealthy women in Rome. However, according to the Lex Oppia rule, she must do so a mile outside the city to conceal her extravagance. Despite her wealthy status, Tullia's situation is not unique: all women in Rome are subject to strict laws and societal expectations.

Indeed, Lex Oppia had a significant impact on women’s social status in the Roman Republic. This law was aimed at limiting “female extravagance” by decreasing women’s expenses on luxurious dress and finery. In a time period when women rarely had businesses and little to no means for political participation, and when their supreme duty was to nurture their family and take care of household chores, personal adornment often represented women’s only gateway to achieving a social identity of their own. Fine clothes and ostentatious jewellery, especially in gold and purple, acted as status symbols. It was a way to be more than just the wife or mother of someone. However, it is important to note here that we know little nowadays about the everyday lives of Roman women, including what they wore. This is especially true for women of lower social classes, as most surviving sources from Roman times, such as sculptures and literature, likely depicted mostly the wealthiest women of the time.

The shop Tullia plans to visit is maintained by another Roman woman: Mirta. She is unmarried and works strenuous hours to earn just enough to get by. As an artisan, Mirta spends her time weaving thread to craft clothing: work that was expected of an unmarried and middle-to-lower-class woman. She is also dressed in a single-coloured stola, with no gold adorning her worn features; Mirta did not have such an extravagant title to flaunt, unlike Tullia, so Lex Oppia did not affect the working woman as much. The weaving process she committed to was arduous, yet it gave her a sense of purpose, even if what she earns is inevitably handed over to her husband. Mirta is 19 now, and as her deft hands work with the fabric, she reminds herself again to find a spouse. After being wed, she will eventually have to close her shop to instead fulfil household duties. If not wed by the age of 20, she will be criticised by society for adhering to their standards. Tullia, on the other hand, was wed during her mid-teens, and even as a noblewoman, had never claimed ownership of any marriage gifts or inherited assets and property from her family. Her husband is in control of this, and before her marriage, it was exerted by her father. Marriage is an important element in Roman society, for both the upper and lower classes; most of the women that Tullia knows entered a manus marriage, in which the “hand” of the woman is passed from father to husband.

As you can already speculate based on women’s position in the patriarchal Roman society, their economic means were very restricted. Although dowries represented important financial resources, particularly in upper-class marriages, it was the husbands who would administer their wives’ dowries. Yet, large dowries that were added to the marriage put pressure on husbands to maintain the same living standards as their wives were used to before the marriage. Some women would also get small allowances to use on personal expenses, such as their dresses. It was not possible for women, however, to legally own any assets. Given such little control that women had over financial means, you should now understand the outrage upper-class women felt when Lex Oppia limited their main gateway to achieving social status by further restricting women’s expenses.

Now, some weeks have passed since Tullia’s day out. Her shoes clop against the terracotta cobblestone roads, and the sounds of chanting grow louder and louder as she nears the Forum: the central marketplace in Rome. As a wealthy woman, Tullia knows that she is expected of proper behaviour in public, yet impatience is also one of her more unattractive traits. She bundles the skirt of her favourite multi-coloured dress in her fists and begins to hurry towards the audible commotion within the Forum. The purple tones of Tullia’s dress are stark, and the finest gold pieces from her collection shine elegantly in the midday sun. Arriving at the edge of the Forum, she begins to weave her way through the passerbyers dressed in comparatively dull apparel, eager to join the other women protesting against Lex Oppia. Tullia’s lilted voice joins the chant as she reaches them, and notices Mirta, her artisan for new garments, amongst the group. Mirta’s dress is a simple thing compared to Tullia’s striking stola, yet maintains its own colourful charm. They exchange glances, and a knowing smile blooms on Mirta’s face. The women continue to chant together, as their determined vexation fills the area.

Unlike other sumptuary laws implemented at the height of the Second Punic War, Lex Oppia was not immediately revoked after the war ended, much to the frustration of the concerned (Roman) women. The year 195 BCE marked twenty years since Lex Oppia had been implemented. The Roman Republic had found prosperity again, a time during which the sumptuary law Lex Oppia had lost its “raison d’être”. At least this was the view of Rome’s women who finally took to the streets in 195 and demanded the abolishment of Lex Oppia. In the Senate, however, not everyone shared their views. Most notably opposing this was Cato the Elder, who argued that revoking the law would “give loose rein to [a woman’s] uncontrollable nature and to this untamed creature” who would not be able to restrain herself in her expenses. Cato furthermore called the women’s protests in the Forum a “madness”, as they dared to speak to other women’s husbands and meddle in public affairs. He denoted the failure of men to keep their wives under control.

Yet, as patriarchal as the Roman system was at the time, there were some individuals among the senators who expressed sympathy with the women’s cause and criticized Cato’s view, as was spoken by Lucius Valerius Flaccus and recorded in Livy’s The History of Rome:

“et equus tuus speciosius instratus erit quam uxor vestita?”

“and will the strappings of your horse be more splendid than the dress of your wife?”

These words exemplified his understanding of the impact Lex Oppia had on women. The politician pointed out how women already had fewer rights than men and that the “elegance of appearance, adornment, apparel [were] the woman's badges of honour”. Under the pressure of the continuous protests in the Forum, the Senate finally ceded to the women’s demands and repealed Lex Oppia in 195 BCE, twenty years after its entry into force.

Mirta flexes a hand briefly before continuing the weaving process. It has been a few weeks now since Lex Oppia has been lifted, and no time passed before a multitude of requests for new garments came her way. Now, Mirta continues crafting a new stola for a favoured customer, with bright tones of purple and gold. A smile graces the artisan’s worn features when that customer enters her shop, recognising that familiar, lilted voice. From where she is seated, Mirta turns towards the sound to greet Tullia, who is just in time for her fitting. As they speak to each other, Mirta notices the difference in how Tullia carries herself, adorned with lavish jewellery and a colourful, stunning outfit. The artisan acknowledges the change with a smile, content to see that Tullia can express her identity and status once again.

This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.


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