Roman Women

Among the Romans, a grave and austere people, who, during five hundred years, were unacquainted with the elegancies and the pleasures of life, and who, in the middle of furrows and fields of battle, were employed in tillage or in war, the manners of the women were a long time as solemn and severe as those of the men, and without the smallest mixture of corruption, or of weakness.

The time when the Roman women began to appear in public, marks a particular era in history.

The Roman women, for many ages, were respected over the whole world. Their victorious husbands re-visited them with transport, at their return from battle. They laid at their feet the spoils of the enemy, and endeared themselves in their eyes by the wounds which they had received for them and for the state. Those warriors often came from imposing commands upon kings, and in their own houses accounted it an honor to obey. In vain the too rigid laws made them the arbiters of life and death. More powerful than the laws, the women ruled their judges. In vain the legislature, foreseeing the wants which exist only among a corrupt people, permitted divorce. The indulgence of the polity was proscribed by the manners.

Such was the influence of beauty at Rome before the licentious intercourse of the sexes had corrupted both.

The Roman matrons do not seem to have possessed that military courage which Plutarch has praised in certain Greek and barbarian women; they partook more of the nature of their sex; or, at least, they departed less from its character. Their first quality was decency. Every one knows the story of Cato the censor, who stabbed a Roman Senator for kissing his own wife in the presence of his daughter.

To these austere manners, the Roman women joined an enthusiastic love of their country, which discovered itself upon many great occasions. On the death of Brutus, they all clothed themselves in mourning. In the time of Coriolanus they saved the city. That incensed warrior who had insulted the senate and priests, and who was superior even to the pride of pardoning, could not resist the tears and entreaties of the women. They melted his obdurate heart. The senate decreed them public thanks, ordered the men to give place to them upon all occasions, caused an altar to be erected for them on the spot where the mother had softened her son, and the wife her husband; and the sex were permitted to add another ornament to their head-dress.

The Roman women saved the city a second time, when besieged by Brennus. They gave up all their gold as its ransom. For that instance of their generosity, the senate granted them the honor of having funeral orations pronounced in the rostrum, in common with patriots and heroes.

After the battle of Cannæ, when Rome had no other treasures but the virtues of her citizens, the women sacrificed both their jewels and their gold. A new decree rewarded their zeal.

Valerius Maximus who lived in the reign of Tiberius, informs us that, in the second triumvirate, the three assassins who governed Rome thirsting after gold, no less than blood, and having already practised every species of robbery, and worn out every method of plunder; resolved to tax the women. They imposed a heavy contribution upon each of them. The women sought an orator to defend their cause, but found none. Nobody would reason against those who had the power of life and death. The daughter of the celebrated Hortensius alone appeared. She revived the memory of her father’s abilities, and supported with intrepidity her own cause and that of her sex. The ruffians blushed and revoked their orders.

Hortensia was conducted home in triumph, and had the honor of having given, in one day, an example of courage to men, a pattern of eloquence to women, and a lesson of humanity to tyrants.

During upwards of six hundred years, the virtues had been found sufficient to please. They now found it necessary to call in the accomplishments. They were desirous to join admiration to esteem, ’till they learned to exceed esteem itself. For in all countries, in proportion as the love of virtue diminishes, we find the love of talents to increase.

A thousand causes concurred to produce this revolution of manners among the Romans. The vast inequality of ranks, the enormous fortunes of individuals, the ridicule, affixed by the imperial court to moral ideas, all contributed to hasten the period of corruption.

There were still, however, some great and virtuous characters among the Roman women. Portia, the daughter of Cato, and wife of Brutus, showed herself worthy to be associated with the first of human kind, and trusted with the fate of empires. After the battle of Phillippi, she would neither survive liberty nor Brutus, but died with the bold intrepidity of Cato.

The example of Portia was followed by that of Arria, who seeing her husband hesitating and afraid to die, in order to encourage him, pierced her own breast, and delivered to him the dagger with a smile.

Paulinia too, the wife of Seneca, caused her veins to be opened at the same time with her husband’s, but being forced to live, during the few years which she survived him, “she bore in her countenance,” says Tacitus, “the honorable testimony of her love, a paleness, which proved that part of her blood had sympathetically issued with the blood of her spouse.”

To take notice of all the celebrated women of the empire, would much exceed the bounds of the present undertaking. But the empress Julia the wife of Septimius Severus, possessed a species of merit so very different from any of those already mentioned, as to claim particular attention.

This lady was born in Syria, and a daughter of a priest of the sun. It was predicted that she would rise to sovereign dignity; and her character justified the prophecy.

Julia, while on the throne, loved, or pretended passionately to love, letters. Either from taste, from a desire to instruct herself, from a love of renown, or possibly from all these together, she spent her life with philosophers. Her rank of empress would not, perhaps, have been sufficient to subdue those bold spirits; but she joined to that the more powerful influences of wit and beauty. These three kinds of empire rendered less necessary to her that which consists only in art; and which, attentive to their tastes and their weaknesses, govern great minds by little means.

It is said she was a philosopher. Her philosophy, however, did not extend so far as to give chastity to her manners. Her husband, who did not love her, valued her understanding so much, that he consulted her upon all occasions. She governed in the same manner under his son.

Julia was, in short, an empress and a politician, occupied at the same time about literature, and affairs of state, while she mingled her pleasures freely with both. She had courtiers for her lovers, scholars for her friends, and philosophers for her counsellors. In the midst of a society, where she reigned and was instructed. Julia arrived at the highest celebrity; but as among all her excellencies, we find not those of her sex, the virtues of a woman, our admiration is lost in blame. In her life time she obtained more praise than respect; and posterity, while it has done justice to her talents and her accomplishments, has agreed to deny her esteem.


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