Throughout history, morality laws have been used by empires to place restrictions on society in order to create a specific image and enforce power. Many times, these laws would especially affect a specific group within the population. The post this month will compare two different ancient cultures and reveal how ancient morality laws were used to place controls on women. It will explore how these restrictions were to help create the ideal society that the leaders envisioned. In the process, some amazing heroines, The Trung sisters of Vietnam, will be highlighted. Even in the current era, morality laws can still be found. In the past decade there have been many debates which affect marriage rights, healthcare, and the choices of particular groups in our society. Many of the ancient laws that are discussed here will seem outdated, but it is interesting to compare to the discussions happening in our world today.
Julian Morality Laws and the Roman Empire
During the reign of Augustus (27 BCE- 14 CE), the first emperor of ancient Rome, morality laws were created to re-shape society. These laws focused on the noble classes and encroached into the private life of the citizens. Augustus envisioned that Rome would prosper more once the citizens had returned to “family values”. To the emperor, family was essential to a prosperous state, but the traditional Roman family held a significant hierarchy. The Paterfamilias dominated the family. The Paterfamilias was the eldest male who controlled all family finances and affairs. He had the right to disown children and family members, arrange marriages, determine what newborns should be kept, and how property would be divided among sons. Under this system, women did not have much agency. In the Roman world, a strong male as the head of the household brought order and stability. These are exactly the traits that Augustus wanted for his new empire.
Prior to Augustus, these “traditional values” had weakened. Women had more access to power and took control of their own property and finances. They took agency of their own sexual choices as well. To the traditionalists, this younger generation and “liberated” woman had become a threat. There was also a population issue in the empire. Women (and men) were now practicing birth control in various forms, which allowed them choice in matters of family and in love. Coincidence or not, this loosening of “traditional values” coincided with the fall of the republic. Augustus began to look back to a time when government was strong. He concluded that the hierarchy system was the way he could consolidate power.
The Julian laws regulated family life and provided restrictions and incentives to ensure these were followed. They included some of the following:
- Marriage was required for all men between ages 25-60 and all women between the ages 20-50.
- Due to the decrease in population, the emperor created an incentive for the female members of society. Any noble woman who bore at least three children (for free women it was four), would be eligible to be released from some of her husband’s controls. This means that she could take control of her own property and finances. Augustus knew this is what women wanted, but he restricted this freedom until his own terms and goals could be met.
- To reduce the use of birth control practices and “free love”, adultery was declared against the law for women. Women were the ones who held the sole responsibility for keeping the family’s bloodline pure. It was important that this would not be soiled by “unfavorable” partners. Fathers needed their heirs to be guaranteed. Men would be punished if they had relations with other noblewomen (again this affected the bloodlines) but were free to do what they wished with lower class women, slaves and prostitutes. Women would be punished if they had relations with anyone outside of their lawful husbands. To get around this, many noblewomen actually began to register themselves as prostitutes, until Augustus figured out the scheme and quickly put an end to it.
These moral restrictions on society gave Augustus and his newly formed empire more control over family and hierarchy which, he believed, would bring the Roman Empire strength. The laws also provided population controls as it encouraged reproduction. These laws did restrict all members of society, but specifically targeted women. The emperor’s own daughter, Julia, felt the difficulties of the laws first hand. Despite bearing the required three children, she was still punished for her choices. She “earned” the freedom to separate from her third husband, Tiberius, and take control of her own finances. She chose to use this time to experience love and create lavish parties. She had many lovers and took control of her own life (to the dismay of her father). His own daughter rejected the moral state that he had created, which cast a bad image upon himself and brought his heirs into question. He was trying to create this “moral” state, but his own daughter was not conforming. He exiled Julia to a remote island despite her popularity among the people. The laws were not universally popular even among the contemporary citizens.
The Trung Sisters and Ancient Vietnam
The Trung sisters lived in the Red River Delta of modern-day Vietnam and would become famous for their rebellion that took place in 39 or 40 CE. The Red River Delta was fertile land that held many advantages for those who controlled it. In 111 BCE, the Han dynasty of China conquered the region and ruled lightly from afar. The regional culture was very different from the Chinese, yet their overlords allowed the Vietnamese to retain their traditions and values. Ancient Vietnam was based on a clan system. This system is believed to have been based on a matriarchal society. Women held a great deal of power within the clans and were consulted on varying issues. The mother was the most important blood tie.
Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were raised by a single mother (their father seems to have passed away prior to their story). This was perfectly acceptable in the clans. While Julia was pressured by her father to marry three times, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi’s mother was free to control her own household. The sisters were raised in the traditional way. They were trained with household management skills and in military skills. This included sword fighting, archery, and elephant riding. Women and men participated in the military.
In regards to marriage and love, it was the women who chose their partners. If a child happened to be on the way, the father would return to the mother’s clan and marry her. Since men came to live with the female’s family, sisters were able to stay together and the women were key to communication. If she did not become pregnant, then she was free to choose another partner. It was a communal lifestyle with an average of eight members to a household. Marriage was not always a necessity in a relationship and women held a more equal status to that of men.
Laws began to change in 25 CE, after the Han dynasty had recovered from a brief revolution in their lands. As a result, the Chinese became stricter throughout the entire empire. The Chinese government now decided that the “immoral barbarians” had to be put under control. They had to adhere to the “proper order” of their world. At the time, the Chinese society was based off the ideas of Confucius. There was a strict hierarchy to the world and it was based off of the patriarchal family. Subjects were subordinate to rulers, sons were subordinate to their fathers, and women/people of the lower classes were at the bottom. Women were to be subordinate to their fathers when they were young, their husbands as they grew older, and then their eldest sons in their old age. A woman in this system did not have the power to make her own choices in relationships and did not have authority. Under the ideas of Confucianism, the Chinese government believed that the success of an empire and families was the clear obedience of those who were deemed inferior.
This was quite a culture shock to the clans of ancient Vietnam. After years of a relaxed rule, the Chinese now wanted to enforce their ideas of morality onto a completely different system. The Chinese created some morality laws to enforce their restrictions and strengthen their hold. All men were to be married between the ages 20 and 50 and all women were to be married between the ages of 15 and 40 years. The Chinese encouraged the “proper” ways to show respect and “proper” ways to go about marriage and betrothal. These methods were prioritize the father’s families (rather than the mother’s) and take away the choice of who to love. With the introduction of the morality laws and the creation of schools enforcing the Chinese ways of life (marriage, Confucianism, agriculture, etc.), the role was women was cut significantly. All these rules sound very familiar to what Augustus was trying to achieve in the Roman Empire.
Trung Trac was married to a clan chief, Thi Sach, who had openly resented the changes that were being made in Vietnam. For this resistance, Thi Sach was killed as an example. This encouraged Trung Trac to stand up and fight back against their oppressors. She was fighting back for their traditional way of life.
Trung Trac recruited her sister, Trung Nhi, and formed an army of those loyal to the clans. Men and women held leadership roles in the military and both sexes fought in the Trung sisters rebellious army. The sisters mounted their war elephants and led their armies to win a series of battles. The rebels had taken control of 65 cities. They had unified the territory and Trung Trac was named queen. As queen, Trung Trac abolished the hated Chinese taxes, encouraged trade, and promoted the previous way of life in the Red River Delta.
As can be expected, the Chinese Emperor (Guangwudi), was furious that his territory had been seized from him. To make matters worse, he believed it was “unnatural” that a woman had won the war and was chosen to be in a leadership position. This threatened his power and the morality laws he had created. Within two years, Emperor Guangwudi hired a general, Ma Yuan, who would take the fight back to the Delta in 43 CE. The Trung sisters and their army confronted Yuan’s military force.
The sisters had superior numbers, but the Chinese soldiers were overall more disciplined. A series of defeats followed, but the sisters refused to give up hope. For the next few years, Ma Yuan hunted down the Trung sisters and the remainder of their rebellious army. Ma Yuan captured and executed the Trung sister and the Chinese began to slowly take back control of the region.
Yet, the Trung Sisters lived on in Vietnamese memory. They are remembered for their strength and courage during the rebellion despite the risks it brought on themselves. According to legend, the sisters were not killed, but had drowned themselves in the Hat River. This was a nobler ending to the nation’s heroes than what may have actually happened. They died in honor and free rather than as captives of their enemies. They sacrificed themselves for Vietnamese freedom.
Eventually, the emperor fully converted the region to a Chinese province and the culture began to shift to completely match the hierarchy model. The clan system was dismantled and cultural symbols (like the Dong Son Drum) were destroyed. The Chinese schools prospered and taught future generations their “natural” hierarchy of world. Despite all of the changes, the empire was still not able to erase the legacy of the Trung sisters.
To this day, the Trung sisters are symbols of freedom for the Vietnamese people. The sisters were honored prior to wars throughout the Vietnamese history. They inspired soldiers and encouraged female participation in the military throughout the years. There are many monuments and statues and shrines created to the Trung sisters. They are celebrated every year during a holiday (Hai Ba Trung Day) in February. This is a memorial celebration in remembrance of their sacrifice and death. Two girls are chosen on the day to represent the sister and ride elephants through a celebration parade. Despite the loss, the Trung sisters lived on in a legacy that continued for centuries.
Morality laws were a common tactic for emperors to control their empires and mold it into their ideal vision. Despite differences in culture and time, morality laws in both of the examples was restricted the freedoms and sexuality of women control the image of the empire. Yet, standouts like Julia and the Trung Sisters still prevailed and fought against these restrictions. Their legacies created a more positive and lasting impact upon the world.
Kiernan, Ben. Vietnam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. Oxford University Press: 2017.
Satterfield, Susan. “Livy and the Pax Deum.” Classical Philology 111, no. 2 (April 2016): 165–76.
Frank, Richard I. “Augustus Legislation on Marriage and Children.” California Studies in Classic Antiquity Vol. 8 (1975), pp. 41-52 (12 pages)
Salisbury, Joyce E. “Julia Disobeys Emperor Augustus.” Lecture 1 in Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400. The Great Courses. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
Salisbury, Joyce E. “The Trung Sisters of Vietnam Fight the Han.” Lecture 3 in Warriors, Queens, and Intellectuals: 36 Great Women before 1400. The Great Courses. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.