Death and city taxes were as inevitable and unwelcome in Roman days as they are to Malibuites today. Women felt the hurt of the second as much as the former. In 42 B.C., five men dragged the entire country into a civil war — an expensive activity, even before stealth bombers and SCAR missiles were invented. To finance their adventure, the ruling council — men — decided to lay a tax on women — and only women whose wealth exceeded 100,000 denarii. A total of 1,400 females were told to cough up one year’s income and, by the way, lend the city council one-fiftieth of their property at interest. To ensure compliance, rewards were offered to informers, free or slaves, about ladies who, shall we say, under reported. Like Malibu code enforcement policies work today. At other points in Roman history, matrons with wealth had given generously. This time the circumstances were different. This was a civil war and the squash was put solely on women of wealth.
Although she’d never been allowed to plead law cases, Hortensia, the daughter of Rome’s top orator and legal advocate, had a superb education and real talent for the law. She was chosen by the throng of enraged women to act as their spokesperson. No male had the nerve or interest to plead his case. With Hortensia in the lead, the women made a noisy political march through the streets of Rome and into the city council chambers blowing whistles and clanging bells. There the city council was forced to listen as Hortensia give an enormously effective speech on their behalf.
How good was Hortensia? She convinced the squandering council members to reduce the number of women being taxed from 1,400 to 400. More critical, they decreed that the new tax would fall equally on women and men, citizens and strangers alike. Granted, that’s not as good as rejecting the whole idea, but then those council members really needed money for their pork barrel city projects and after all they were fighting a war.
Hortensia’s speech entered Roman history, where little boys (and, I hope little girls) read it and memorized it for centuries. It is time that the Malibu City Council members read or reread her speech, then, on the other hand they might have more time to read it in early political retirement.
And that’s the truth.