Skip to main content

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was remembered even centuries later for the heightened visibility of Roman women’s wartime activity. When Carthage was threatening Rome’s very existence during this traumatic and socially disruptive war, Roman authorities relied on women to take on new domestic and public roles. This paper explores late republican and early imperial memories of Roman women’s contributions to the war effort. Specifically, I focus on two historiographical speeches citing women’s actions on behalf of Roman society during the Second Punic War: Livy’s rendition of the debate over the repeal of the lex Oppia in 195 BC (34.1-8), and Appian’s account of Hortensia’s speech to the triumvirs in 42 BC (BC 4.5.32-3).

War systems rely on women’s bodies and labor, but this reliance is culturally inflected and varies from one society to another (Elshtain 1987; Enloe 2000; Goldstein 2001). For example, American women “doing their bit” during the Second World War by working in munitions factories were quite different from their First World War counterparts knitting clothing to be sent to soldiers abroad. Both modes of wartime femininity diverge, in turn, from those operating in ancient Rome. The latter are visible in the speeches analyzed in this paper. These texts document moments at which later generations recalled and grappled with Roman women’s involvement in the Second Punic War.

Livy recounts at length the debate in 195 BC over the repeal of the lex Oppia, a law passed twenty years earlier that limited women’s use of gold, purple, and carriages. The speakers arguing against and for repeal – Cato and Valerius, respectively – draw on historical exempla in support of their positions (Chaplin 2000: 97–101; Milnor 2005: 154–79). I argue that Cato, even while adducing several incidents from the Second Punic War as examples for his argument, downplays their suitability as exempla. Valerius, on the other hand, juxtaposes two recent wartime episodes beside three standard exemplary tales from Rome’s early history. According to aetiological accounts of the latter, the senate had rewarded women’s wartime benefactions with matronal privileges that would become traditional (e.g., the use of carriages, the right of way in the street, wearing vittae). Through this juxtaposition, Livy’s Valerius subtly furthers his argument in favor of repealing the lex Oppia; he suggests that, in return for their own wartime benefactions, contemporary women should have been rewarded with additional privileges rather than deprived of preexisting ones. Yet, in order to make his comparison, Valerius has to manipulate the episodes cited from the Second Punic War to fit a traditional model of wartime femininity; he amplifies some details, suppresses others, and reframes entire stories.

Similar alterations are necessary when Hortensia deploys memories of the Second Punic War in a speech made to the triumvirs in 42 BC in protest of a tax newly imposed on wealthy Roman women. Echoes of her original arguments are likely preserved in Appian’s narrative (Hopwood 2015). Appian’s Hortensia offers the Second Punic War as an historical precedent: contemporary women will follow their forebears in funding external wars but have not and will not contribute to civil wars. In fact, no known incident from the Second Punic War precisely fits Hortensia’s description of women’s contributions to the conflict. Rather, she, like Livy’s Valerius, glosses over the particulars, offering instead an idealized model of Roman women at war.

Taken together, these speeches demonstrate the significance in Roman historical memory of women’s contributions to the Second Punic War. Later authors and orators could marshal these episodes for their own rhetorical purposes. In addition, these texts reveal cultural norms for women’s wartime activity: Roman women were expected to contribute financially to external wars but to intervene as mediators in civil wars. Yet the speeches also reveal disjunctions between these norms and women’s attested actions during the Second Punic War; the types and scope of women’s contributions did not fit easily within these tidy boxes, despite later attempts to repackage them.