Hortensia – Ancient Rome’s female equality advocate

You are standing in the place, where two years ago, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. Behind you, a large crowd has gathered. Despite your growing reputation as an orator, it is a rare sight to see a woman address the three most powerful men in Rome: the triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus. At best, you are regarded as a curiosity; at worst, a monstrous inversion of the natural order.

Somewhere in the crowd are the women you represent: several hundred grieving widows, mothers, daughters and sisters of men killed in the civil war which is tearing the city apart, dividing families and sowing discord. Your clients have lost everything that was dear to them but the state has now imposed a tax on them to fund the continuation of the war which killed their menfolk and over which they have no say.

Mark Antony is the first of the Triumvirs to address you. “Hortensia, we have granted you an audience out of respect for your father. His fame as an orator will be immortal.”

His words are gracious but do not disguise the chill in his voice. Only a few months earlier, Antony had ordered the killing of your father’s great friend, Cicero, before displaying his severed head and hands in the forum as a warning to others. Some say that Antony’s wife, Fulvia, had pulled Cicero’s tongue from his head and stabbed it with a hairpin. This is what becomes of orators who cross the Triumvirs.

You take a step forward and begin the speech of your life, the studied calm in your voice belying the doubts that rage inside you.

As was appropriate for women like us when addressing a petition to you, we spoke first to your wives. But Fulvia rebuffed us and compelled us here instead.

“You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

“Moreover, why should we pay taxes when we have no part in public office or government in general, an evil you men have fought over with such disastrous results?”

Octavian interrupts you: “You shall pay because this is a time of war and the city is under threat.

“And when have there not been wars?” you reply. “If there should be a war against the Celts or Parthians, we would willingly pay to defend the country’s welfare as our foremothers did when the city was threatened by Carthage. Do not question our patriotism. But we will never pay taxes to fund a male power struggle over the offices from which women, by our gender, are excluded.”

By a gesture of his hand, Octavian orders his bodyguards to seize you. As you struggle to free yourself, you catch Octavian’s gaze and sense a fleeting moment of doubt. At that moment, a crowd of your supporters, several hundred women and many men sympathetic to your cause, press forward. The anger and division in the city threatens to erupt. Sensing the mood of the crowd, Octavian gestures your release and adjourns the proceedings.

The following morning, your scribe rushes into your study.

Mistress, you have won!” he exclaims.


Yes! The tax on your clients has been revoked. Everyone is talking about your speech. They say that your father lives again and breathes through his daughter’s words.

That is not victory

Mistress, did you not hear what I said?

I heard it well enough” you say. “The Triumvirs will find another way to fund their war and all the while the women of the city are still excluded from the offices over which they squabble. Victory may yet come but it has not been gained today.

Clickherefor more tales from the history of employment law. All the stories are based on real cases but the retelling of each is entirely fictional. To receive new blog posts by email, enter your email address in the box on the right-hand side of the page.

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