Hortensia was celebrated in the final years of the Roman Republic for her oration (public speaking) and in particular an impassioned speech she gave before the three most important men of her generation.
Public oratory was central to the life of a Roman citizen. Careers were built and destroyed based on a politician’s ability to speak in public and persuade the people with eloquence and reason. Courts of law held rhetoric in high esteem, and having a lawyer who could speak well was often more important than evidence and justice.
Hortensia’s father, Quintus Hortensius, was a highly skilled orator, and rival to Cicero, the greatest speaker of the time. He ensured that his intelligent daughter received an education unusual for women at the time. A keen student, Hortensia read Greek and Latin, learning rhetoric by reading the speeches of great orators.
She likely married her second cousin, Quintus Servilius Caepio, who left her widowed in 67 BCE. The marriage produced a daughter, Servilia, and Caepio also adopted his nephew Marcus Junius Brutus – who became one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.
In 42 BCE, Rome was being managed under the uneasy triumvirate of Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus, who were at war with Caesar’s assassins. The campaign required almost all of Rome’s legions and was becoming very expensive. A tax was needed – and the three rulers decided that it should be levied against Rome’s most wealthy women.
The women, including Hortensia, were outraged. They had not caused the war, nor were they permitted to vote under Roman law. Many of them had lost husbands, brothers and sons in the fighting – and now they were being forced to pay for it, too!
They chose Hortensia to plead their case, and a group of women marched to the senate to protest the tax. The historian Appian records Hortensia’s speech:
“You have already deprived us of our fathers, our sons, our husbands, our brothers on the pretext that they wronged you, but if, in addition, you take away our property you will reduce us to a condition unsuitable to our birth, our way of life and our female nature.
If we have done you any wrong, as you claim our husbands have, proscribe us as you do them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, nor torn down your house, nor destroyed your army, nor led another against you, nor prevented you from obtaining offices and honours, why do we share in the punishments when we did not participate in the crimes?
Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honours, military commands, nor in short the government for which you fight between yourselves with such harmful results? You say ‘because it is wartime’. When have there not been wars? When have taxes been imposed on women, whom nature has set apart from men? Our mothers once went beyond what is natural and made contributions during the war against the Carthaginians, when danger threatened your entire Empire and Rome itself. But then they contributed willingly, not from their landed property, their fields, their dowries, or their houses, without which it is impossible for free women to live, but only from their jewelry.
Let war with the Celts or Parthians come, we will not be inferior to our mothers when it is a question of common safety. But for civil wars, may we never contribute nor aid you against each other.”
Angry and embarrassed at being told off by a group of women, Octavian, Antony and Lepidus tried to no avail to dismiss the women. Still, the crowd found in their favor. The very next day the number of women subject to tax reduced from 1400 to 400.
The Civil Wars , Book 4– Appian
Institutio Oratoria – Quintilius