"I come now to the question in debate, with respect to which the consul's argument is twofold: for, first, he is displeased at the thought of any law whatever being repealed; and then, particularly, of that law which was made to restrain female luxury.
His former argument, in support of the laws in general, appeared highly becoming of a consul; and that on the latter, against luxury, was quite conformable to the rigid strictness of his morals.
There is, therefore, a danger lest, unless I shall show what, on each subject, was inconclusive, you may probably be led away by error.
For while I acknowledge, that of those laws which are instituted, not for any particular time, but for eternity, on account of their perpetual utility, not one ought to be repealed; unless either experience evince it to be useless, or some state of the public affairs render it so; I see, at the same time, that those laws which particular seasons have required, are mortal, (if I may use the term,) and changeable with the times.
Those made in peace are generally repealed by war; those made in war, by peace; as in the management of a ship, some implements are useful in good weather, others in bad.
As these two kinds are thus distinct in their nature, of which kind does that law appear to be which we now propose to repeal? Is it an ancient law of the kings, coeval with the city itself?
Or, what is next to that, was it written in the twelve tables by the decemvirs, appointed to form a code of laws?
Is it one, without which our ancestors thought that the honour of the female sex could not be preserved? and, therefore, have we also reason to fear, that, together with it, we should repeal the modesty and chastity of our females? Now, is there a man among you who does not know that this is a new law, passed not more than twenty years ago, in the consulate of Quintus Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius?
And as, without [p. 1498]
it, our matrons sustained, for such a number of years, the most virtuous characters, what danger is there of their abandoning themselves to luxury on its being repealed? For, if that law had been passed for the purpose of setting a limit to the passions of the sex, there would be reason to fear lest the repeal of it might operate as an incitement to them.
But the real reason of its being passed, the time itself will show. Hannibal was then in Italy, victorious at Cannae: he already held possession of Tarentum, of Arpi, of Capua, and seemed ready to bring up his army to the city of Rome.
Our allies had deserted us. We had neither soldiers to fill up the legions, nor seamen to man the fleet, nor money in the treasury.
Slaves, who were to be employed as soldiers, were purchased on condition of their price being paid to the owners at the end of the war. The farmers of the revenues had declared, that they would contract to supply corn and other matters, which the exigencies of the war required, to be paid for at the same time.
We gave up our slaves to the oar, in numbers proportioned to our properties, and paid them out of our own incomes. All our gold and silver, in imitation of the example given by the senators, we dedicated to the use of the public.
Widows and minors lodged their money in the treasury. It was provided by law that we should not keep in our houses more than a certain quantity of wrought gold or silver, or more than a certain sum of coined silver or brass.
At such a time as this, were the matrons so eagerly engaged in luxury and dress, that the Oppian law was requisite to repress such practices; when the senate, because the sacrifice of Ceres had been omitted, in consequence of all the matrons being in mourning, ordered the mourning to end in thirty days? Who does not clearly see, that the poverty and distress of the state, requiring that every private person's money should be converted to the use of the public, enacted that law, with intent that it should remain in force so long only as the cause of enacting the law should remain?
For if all the decrees of the senate and orders of the people, which were then made to answer the necessities of the times, are to be of perpetual obligation, why do we refund their money to private persons?
Why do we contract for public works for ready money? Why are not slaves brought to serve in the army?
Why do not we, private subjects, supply rowers as we did then? [p. 1499]