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Heard, but Preferably not Seen: The Subversion of Women’s Social Networks in the Late Republic

Krishni Burns

When the second triumvirate proposed a tax on the wealthiest women of Rome to cover the mounting costs of their war with Caesar’s assassins, Rome’s moneyed matrons did not favor the prospect of being taxed without representation.  A group of matrons immediately took action to protect themselves from the steep new levy.  Hortensia, the daughter of the great orator Quintus Hortensius, addressed the Triumvires in the Forum on behalf of the matrons.  Her speech swayed public opinion to the side of the matrons and the triumvirate reduced the number of women to be taxed from 1,400 to a mere 400.[1]

According to later authors Valerius Maximus and Quintilian, Horetensia’s speech was hailed as a masterpiece of oration composed in the style of her renowned father,[2] but she herself opens it with an apology for violating correct protical in approaching the triumvirs directly.  Hortensia prefaces her complaint with an explanation of her choice to appear before the triumvires in the masculine sphere of the Forum.  Normally, she says, such speech making would be the sole preview of patrician men and Hortensia makes it clear that her unprecedented act of public oratory was only undertaken once appropriate means of lobbying had been exhausted. 

According to Appian, Hortensia opens her speech by explaining that she and her fellow wealthy matrons had been forced to take the extreme measure of address the Triumvirs because Antony’s wife, Fulvia, had refused to speak to hear their petition.[3]  The implication of this claim is that in the normal course of lobbying for their interests, Riman matrons would bring their complaints to the female relatives of important politicians and could expect both that these complaints would be heard by these matrons and presented as a serious complaint to their highly placed husbands and sons. 

This implication is in keeping with other hints in the literary and epigraphic record that friendships between Rome’s most influential Matrons had a more important socio-political function that has been previously thought.  The supplication of Coriolanus by the women of Rome, the well-planned lobbying of the Lex Oppia protests, and other smaller instances of group action on the part of Roman women suggest that these social networks were a recognized, if unofficial, channel through which Roman women could influence political processes.  Even before important public figures like Agrippina and Julia Domna became political leaders during the Empire, the women of Rome were able to approach the female relatives of members of the Roman government and lobby for their own interests. 

Hortensia’s description of Fulvia’s rebuff suggests that these unofficial channels came with certain expectations of functionalism.  Members of these socio-political networks were expected both to listen to each other and to act intermediaries between the women and their male relatives.  By refusing to fulfill her function within this process, Fulvia drove the matrons under threat to make use of a traditional male form of lobbying, approaching the triumvirs in the forum, instead of the usual female of expressing political decent via female social networks. 

[1] Appian. The Civil Wars. 4.34.

[2] Val. Max. Factorum et dictorum memorabilium 8.3.3, Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. 1.1.6.

[3] According to Quintilian, the text of Hortensia’s speech was still extant as a study text when he wrote his Institutio Oratoria, so presumably Appian was working from the actual text when he reported Hortensia’s speech in his Civil Wars.

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Gender and Identity

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