A defeated and cash-strapped Rome passed a new law in 215 BCE.
The context was their greatest military defeat ever. As the first century Roman historian Livy cried, “Certainly, there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.”
Except Rome wasn’t like other nations, which was Livy’s point. Rome did not succumb. They tightened their belt, raised a new army and kept going. Rome epitomized grit.
That’s why they also cracked down on a growing group of independently wealthy women – the wives and daughters who profited from the sudden reduction in male guardians. Rome did this for probably two reasons, although historians still argue about it.
One reason was certainly the war effort. Rome needed money from everyone. So they passed the Oppian Law, “which put severe restrictions on women’s wealth.” Women were encouraged to spend more money for Rome and less on themselves.
The second reason Rome probably passed the Oppian Law was to limit women’s public display of wealth.
Rome won, by the way. But, when the crisis was over, the law restricting women’s wealth continued while laws restricting men’s wealth did not.
By 195 BCE, women in Rome had enough. They protested publicly, blockading the streets and even pathways to the Forum, demanding the law be repealed.
As Livy tells us, “This crowd of women was growing daily, for now they were even gathering from the towns and villages. Before long they dared go up and solicit consuls, praetors and other magistrates.”
One consul, Cato the Elder, opposed repealing the law. Listen to what he said, and remember Livy is recording his speech probably during the reign of Caesar Augustus (approximately 30 BC and 17 AD):
“At home our freedom is conquered by female fury, here in the Forum it is bruised and trampled upon, and because we have not contained the individuals, we fear the lot. … Indeed, I blushed when, a short while ago, I walked through the midst of a band of women. I should have said, ‘What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked our own husbands the same thing at home? Are you more charming in public with others’ husbands than at home with your own? And yet, it is not fitting even at home for you to concern yourselves with what laws are passed or repealed here.’
“Our ancestors did not want women to conduct any – not even private – business without a guardian; they wanted them to be under the authority of parents, brothers or husbands; we (the gods help us!) even now let them snatch at the government and meddle in the Forum and our assemblies. What are they doing now on the streets and crossroads, if they are not persuading the tribunes to vote for repeal? … If they are victorious now, what will they not attempt? As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors …” (emphasis added).
Livy recorded this speech by Cato in his History of Rome. He was a very popular writer, and his History would have been well known.
So, as a historian, it isn’t surprising to me at all that echoes of Livy ended up in the New Testament.
Just listen to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (emphasis added): “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (emphasis added).
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t it seem that Paul might be quoting from his Roman context?
Cato’s speech isn’t the only Roman text to convey this sentiment about women. Baylor Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion and New Testament scholar Charles Talbert reminds us that Juvenal (early second century CE), in Satires 6, also condemns women who run around publicly intruding on male governance instead of staying at home.
Likewise, the Hellenistic Jew Josephus (1st century) states in Against Apion 2.201 that, “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive … that she may be directed, for the authority has been given by God to the man,” while Philo (late first century BCE to first century CE) states in Hypothetica 8.7.14 that, “The husband seems competent to transmit knowledge of the laws to his wife.”
The Hellenistic Roman world, both pre and post the beginning of Christianity, viewed women as subordinate to men.
The Hellenistic Roman world, again both pre and post the beginning of Christianity, declared that men should convey information to their wives at home instead of women going about in public.
Editor’s note: At the author’s request, this article was revised on Aug. 3, 2021, from the version originally published. This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. A version of this article first appeared in The Anxious Bench blog. It is used with permission.
Associate dean in the Baylor Graduate School, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She is the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood, serves as the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality.