[[This is a slightly revised excerpt of the first 650 or so words of my short story, “The Speech of Hortensia” published in HerStory in 2013. It is set after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, about 16 years before Octavian becomes Augustus, considered the first Emperor of Rome.]]
“We want you with us, Hortensia.” Marcia Aemilia’s voice suddenly belied her age, as she stared with grave certainty at the younger woman. “We want you to speak for us.”
Speak out to spare the women of Rome from paying this tax this tax? The Triumvirs – Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus – had created a new order, after Julius Caesar had been slain in the Senate House more than two years. His murderers claimed they acted in the name of Liberty, but Hortensia didn’t feel free. The Rome her father loved and served did not feel free.
Marcus Antonius had turned the city against the assassins, but then the Triumvirs turned Rome into a den of murder for advantage. They had proscribed nearly a thousand names as enemies of the state and many of those men had already died. A few had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time; others had been mistaken for one who was in fact proscribed. If kissed by Fortune, some escaped to the safety of the countryside. Their properties however were always confiscated.
At night now, the streets of Rome were too quiet. No one wanted to be out – not even to stroll in the evening breezes. Friends no longer visited friends—nobody could be certain any longer whether or not their “friends” would decide to turn them in for personal gain.
For all their efforts, it seemed the Triumvirs had not yet acquired enough wealth for their needs. Their latest scheme had impelled the elderly Marcia Aemilia to pay a call on Hortensia. The Triumvirs demanded each of the 1,400 richest women in Rome pay a specified tax, based on the valuation of their property.
The women intended to object.
Marcia Aemilia’s family was one of the oldest and noblest of Rome. One of Hortensia’s servants had led her into the atrium, where Hortensia invited her to sit and rest. The older woman must have rushed to meet Hortensia, breathing heavily while she sipped a cup of well-watered wine. Patting her grey hairs into place as she eyed Hortensia, Marcia finally said, “They never asked us about our husbands, or sons, or fathers, Hortensia. They never asked us if our men were lost to us, suffering from wounds or illness. They just listed the women they planned to tax. I am listed. So are Caecilia Metella and Cassia Trebonia—so are you.”
Hortensia sat silently, lost in thought.
Marcia spluttered. “Do you intend to stay quiet and simply pay the tax?”
As soon as she had learned of the list’s existence, Hortensia knew her name would appear on it. Her father, Quintus Hortensius, a great orator and advocate, had been shrewd with money. His caution had ensured that Hortensia lived comfortably and well.
Hortensia had buried her father two years before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. She could still remember listening to his conversations with Cicero, on his occasional visits to her father’s home on the Palatine. Encouraged by her father to participate now and then in those discussions, Hortensia had learned much about rhetoric and logical argument. She used both, acquiring some fame writing speeches about the Republic’s history.
When Cicero was proscribed last year, Hortensia had thanked her ancestors and household gods that her father had not lived to see these days. But then, Quintus’ name had appeared in posthumous absentia on the proscription list. Rumor had it that Octavian had long wanted a house on the Palatine; thus, the Hortenius property had been confiscated.
Hortensia had wept with sorrow when her father died. She had wept again with bitterness when her father’s property had been confiscated. She had been angry too, for the changes in Rome. But a woman of Rome never spoke up, except perhaps in private. Roman women were not Spartans—they lived in a world dictated solely by the men of their household and government.
When news of the list of 1,400 women had been announced, Hortensia was shocked, and angry. She was also afraid.