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Blog: Roe v. Wade, the GOP, and echoes of Augustus: Reproducing fascism

A black-and-white image of the reverse of a diadrachm of Magas, dated 300–275 BCE, depicting the silphium plant, with a small crab on the right side and Greek letters interspersed in the branches of the plant.

I guess I should say “thank you.” Gratias vobis ago. Thank you to the Republican Party’s long game, a partisan SCOTUS, years of deliberate Democratic avoidance. You see, I’ve been wanting for a while to write a book about social control, forced reproduction, and their effects on real people living under an authoritarian government. Of course, I was planning to write about Augustan Rome. But with the Court’s decision yesterday, ending nearly 50 years of Roe (that is, legal abortion in America), I’ve got a great reception study. And in real time. Living history!

In 18 BCE, 17 BCE, and 9 CE Augustus, first emperor of Rome, issued a series of authoritarian morality laws. First, the lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus, the Julian law about the marrying orders. The “orders” in question were the class structure of Rome. This law strengthened social hierarchies, forbidding senators from marrying freedwomen, and anyone from marrying someone labeled infamis (actresses, sex laborers, hostesses, enslaved women, women convicted of adultery, etc.). Men between the ages of 25 and 60 and women between 20 and 50 had to marry and remarry. The point, these ages suggest, was procreation. And Augustus certainly did want to increase the population (and thus the army): the civil wars of the last 50 years had reduced the pool of eligible soldiers. But this law was also retroactive. If Augustus really wanted to produce new Roman citizens quickly, he wouldn’t have legislated that marriages violating these rules would be rendered null and their issue illegitimate.

(Augustus also attempted to make a traditional dress code a thing, but that was overshadowed by the rest, kind of like how the hypocrisy of SCOTUS’ overturning of states’ rights on gun legislation is overshadowed by the Roe decision insisting on states’ rights on abortion.)

Next, the lex Iulia de adulteriis coercendis, the adultery law. It set up a separate court for hearing cases of adultery, because now adultery was the business of everyone’s pater familias, Augustus. If a husband caught his wife in adultery, he had 60 days to divorce and bring her to court. If he didn’t, anybody else could. And for profit! If convicted, wealthy men and women lost half of their property. The accuser and the state shared the reward (Texas listens attentively…).

Then finally, the lex Pappia Poppaea of 9 CE. This is the one that reinforced the procreation part of the first law: the ius trium liberorum was introduced, with citizen men and women offered social, economic, and political incentives to produce three children (freedwomen had to produce four). Of course, these incentives really only affected the wealthy, kind of like abortion restrictions today predominantly disadvantage the poor.

These laws weren’t popular, just like 70% of Americans aren’t keen on dismantling Roe. Why would they be? The people of Rome had been seeing to their personal affairs (in both senses of the word) for most of Rome’s history. Adultery was a family issue. Marriage, remarriage, and divorce: family issues. Childbearing: again, family issue. The equites protested and demonstrated. Augustus shamed them, telling them that their lack of morals was killing the state itself, their selfishness was endangering the safety of Rome. Morality and duty, not bodily autonomy and privacy. Pre-Romans have rights!

It was a great success: Rome gained nearly 800,000 new citizens. But it was not a great success because of the moral legislation. It was a great success of the other legislation Augustus introduced during his rule: manumission and citizenship legislation. Augustus made it much easier for enslaved persons to be freed and become citizens.  Introducing more people (albeit involuntarily), not pronatalism, produced demographic change.

But ancient Rome is so distant, both temporally and culturally, that it can be hard to really imagine how these laws made people feel, how they changed lives, how they destroyed families, how they took away choices, how they affected people economically, medically, psychologically. Now we can observe these effects in our own country — no more looking to Romania, Poland, or fascist Italy for comparanda. What will it look like here?

The poor will stay poor and get poorer. Women’s rights will be set back a few more decades (COVID-19 already took a toll there). Maternal mortality will continue to be higher among rural parents and parents of color. The prisons will continue to overflow with people who can’t afford to pay child support and in prison have no way of changing that. People will die from and be injured by from DIY abortions (a bleak Pinterest board). Children will continue to go hungry (oh hey, Congress). We still won’t have paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, sufficient social welfare programs, accessible and affordable healthcare, or quality educational opportunities. We will have more teen parents, more depression, more suicide, criminal consequences for miscarriages, more children in state care, more children of rape and incest, more families crammed into too little and too expensive housing, more trouble for the economy, more people dead from sepsis and infection because no abortion means no crucial healthcare when pregnancies endanger their “hosts.”

It’s not so hard to imagine anymore what the deprivation of bodily autonomy may have felt like.

So, thank you, everyone who contributed to the nightmare of today. This is one of the things the insurrectionists were fighting for. You’ve given me topical material, more data than I could have hoped for, and a dystopian future to compare with an authoritarian past. We are truly reliving history as you are reproducing fascism.

Header image: A coin depicting the plant silphium, reputed for its contraceptive properties. “Magas as Ptolemaic governor, first reign, circa 300-282 or 275 BC Didrachm,” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CC-BY-SA-3.0).

switzke's picture

Serena S. Witzke is Visiting Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Wesleyan University. She works in the fields of ancient comedy, gender and sexuality in antiquity, and Classical reception. In her work, she examines the intersection of gender, class, age, and status and how this relationship shapes lived realities. She can be contacted via email at switzke@wesleyan.edu.

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