Women in Ancient Roman Society & Home

What role did women play within the Roman family?  Did they have a role in Roman society outside the family?  

To discover what role women played within the Roman family (familia) and outside it, different social classes of women and their various roles in the home and society will be considered in this essay: women’s official role in the family, occupations outside the home, religious activities, women in politics and education.  I will argue that women’s roles changed due to two main factors: the blurring of the Roman domestic and public spheres, and, an ideological shift that took place in the in the law under Augustus. As a direct result of these two factors, Roman women, particularly patrician women, gained greater social, economical, and political freedom under the law and in society.  

The Roman woman was not confined to the home and hearth, as was the Greek upper-class woman.  However, her gender identity was held by the Roman state to be biologically scripted, being ‘linguistically and socially constructed in the interests of patriarchal power relations’.[1]  The obvious difference between the Roman matron and her Greek counterpart is discernable due to the blurring of the domestic and public spheres in ancient Roman society.  

The elite Roman family’s role, as a major, if not the main political unit, in a staunchly and traditionally patriarchal system, ‘was able to furnish its womenfolk with what modern political scientists label a ‘power base’.[2]  The official role of the Roman upper class mother (mater), the wife of a patrician, was to prepare their freeborn sons (filius) to become fruitful Roman citizens (civis romani) with all the pride that this job involved.  It was due to this central role that the Roman woman was honoured.  

Therefore, because of the way in which the Roman upper-class family was structured, the upper class Roman matron (matrona) held an official position as lawful wife, lawful mother and citizen.  In this central position from the private sphere, in both political and social significance, Roman women were required to participate in men’s lives in order to assimilate their values and act as faithful transmitters of them.  Entrusted with this fundamental instrument for the perpetuation of a transmittance of a culture, it could be said that Rome’s political system depended upon the Roman matron’s co-operation to continue to function as it did.  

Not withstanding her familial duties, all of Rome’s women and children were under the law of the male head of the household (paterfamilias); this law greatly-hindered her freedom.  Romans considered the woman as intellectually inferior to the male of the species, ‘Our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of their weakness of intellect, should be under the power of guardians’. [3]  

However, an ideological shift took place in the law, during the imperial period of Augustus’ reforms, bringing with it a measure of autonomy for women (27 BC-AD 14).  ‘Guardianship terminates for a free-born woman by title of maternity of three children, for a freed-woman under statutory guardianship by maternity of four children: those who have other kinds of guardians … are released from wardship by title of three children’. [4]  

Outside the home, the history of women and politics in ancient Rome reveals an unofficial women’s politics of protest.  Cato, as early as 195 BC, complained, ‘must we accept law from a succession of women?  Our ancestors would not have a woman transact private matters of business without a guardian, but we allow them to visit the Forum and the Assembly, to support a bill, to canvas for the repeal of a law.  Let them succeed in this and what limit to their ambitions will there be? [5]  Finally, upper class Roman women’s involvement in imperial Roman society arrived in their influencing the emperor’s choice of policy and a candidate, so much so that, Cato the Censor, 195 BC said, ‘once or twice women came close to co regency. [6]  

The Roman upper-class woman had a responsibility to her husband, her family and the state to remain chaste and at least appear to uphold the traditional ideological image and role.  ‘Here lies Amymone, wife of Marcus, best and most beautiful, worker in wool, pious, chaste, thrifty, faithful, a stayer-at-home’. [7]  Though the sources for women are limited, these describe, in the main, what men wanted to convey about women.  However, there is a difference between social ideology and social behaviour; between the prescriptive and the descriptive.  

In keeping with Rome’s prescriptive ideology, the Roman woman’s fidelity provided alliances with other patrician houses (gens).  These alliances were due, in the main, to the Rome’s upper-class daughter’s (filia) training to comply with Rome’s traditional ideology regarding women through marriage.   Training was carried out by their mothers.  

The description given of Murdia reveals her as such a daughter, albeit described through male words and ideals.  ‘She determined to maintain the marriages given her by her parents to worthy men, with obedience and proprietary, and as a bride to become more beloved because of her merits, to be thought dearer because of her loyalty, to be left in greater honour because of her judgment, and after her death to be praised in the estimation of her fellow citizens’. [8]  Faithful daughters such as Murdia provided the link in the Roman system, marrying together families for political power.  

Class and social distinctions were set according to a moral standard, by age and by whether women were slave (servus) or free, along with marital status.  Fundamental subdivisions such as young virgin, celibate adult, wife, wife married only once and widow, carried all the way through to religious observances.  Such distinctions played their part to maintain social control over Rome’s women and their prescribed roles in that society. [9]

Before Christianity finally took over, Rome had its traditional state religions as well as the imported Oriental exotic varieties.  Both kinds of religions held exclusive public festivals for women to both enlist divine aid or to divert the wrath of a deity. [10]  However, other than the perpetual priesthood of Rome’s six vestal virgins, buried alive for punishment if found out for breaking their chastity vows, the priests of Rome’s religions were male.  Nevertheless, in private, women of Rome were the traditional keepers of religion.  Cicero reminds his wife of the division that was in Roman society between the religious and the secular, the woman and the man: ‘The [ideal] division of labour – the cultivation of the heavenly powers by the woman and the care of the mundane by the man’. [11]  

Roman women, unlike their Greek counterpart, dined with men and went out in the street.  However, certain proprietaries did prevail in which Kathleen Corley proposes that aspects of Grece-Roman meal etiquette were undergoing changes that reflected larger cultural forces throughout Greco Roman society.  ‘Just as women were moving into public roles and gaining rights previously denied them under a more restrictive Greek social code, Roman women were attending public meals. [12]  

Such meals were a standard feature of Roman society.  Banquets, therefore, provided a role for slave women to fulfil, such as, waiting on tables, working as musicians and dancers.  The slave women’s duties also included sexual favours, carried out following the main meal.  This is when drinking and other frivolous behaviour took place. [13]  

A large number of home-born women slaves (verna) fulfilled various roles in wealthy Roman households.  There, they were involved in every manner of general domestic duties, as well as wet nurses, and, depending upon their background and country of origin, even educators.  In some instances, a woman slave may even be the housekeeper of a villa.  Varro, on agriculture, records that slave women were involved in agricultural activities on a country estate which meant being involved in hard labour: ‘being able to tend the herd or carry firewood and cook the food, or to keep things in order in their huts’. [14]  

The Roman master had sexual access to all his slave women.  For some of Rome’s males, slave women were, inevitably, a source of income for him as part of Rome’s sex trade.  There, slave women worked as prostitutes in brothels, inns, or public baths, as were women actors and entertainers who sometimes appeared nude and performed sexual acts on stage.  Slave women could buy their freedom or be granted it by their owner while either alive or by will at death.  

Roman women, over the centuries, took every opportunity to break free from the confines of Roman ideology.  The impact of two generation of civil war (90-30 BCE) and heads of noble families killed, or exiled, saw educated and leisured women become enterprising women, using whatever means they had at their disposal.  Valeria Messalina, in accosting and winning in marriage the autocrat Sulla; Caecilia Metella, used her position for political influence.  Others, such as Cicero’s wife, Terentia, ran financial affairs through her steward, and profited at her husband’s expense.  Yet, others, such as Cato’s half sister, Servilia, used her skills through family connections. This was to make alliances thru the marriages of her daughters with rising politicians of many kinds of groups.[15].  

Scholars have offered scant evidence of ancient Roman women’s education and their role in it.  However, a recent work states ‘from the late republic onwards upper-class girls, as a rule, received an elementary education and quite a number of them followed (part of) the course in grammar on a level with the boys of their class … in the liberal arts, especially mathematics and philosophy’.[16]  C. Musonius Rufus, a Stoic philosopher, argued for the education of girls to make her a chaste wife, a prudent manager of the household and a good mother, who would guide her children and her grandchildren by example.[17]  

Through education, women’s lives took on new meaning, influences, and new roles.  Cornelia, the mother of the Graccchi (200 BC) was the earliest highly educated women we know of, and was a patron of Greek scholars and men of letters in her later years.[18]  Cornelia ‘had a good knowledge of literature, of playing the lyre, and of geometry, as well as being a regular and intelligent listener to lectures on philosophy’.[19]  Other Roman women who received education had access to libraries.  Women of patrons of literature and learning are also mentioned in the same work by Hemelrijk.  

During the period of Republican Rome, women are reported as speaking in court for the first time, due to the unsettled times and loss of men at and in the war.  Maesia of Sentinum earned the name ‘Androgyne’ for pleading in her own defence.  Afrania ‘was addicted to lawsuits… a notorious example of female abuse of court’.[20]  The famous argument put forward by Hortensia, who, because of the heavy taxes of civil war, she pleaded before the triumvirs on behalf of Rome’s wealthy matrons, in 42 BCE, is well known  ‘Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the statecraft for which you contend against each other with such harmful results’.[21]  

Roman women, particularly patrician women, gained greater social, economical and political freedom for themselves and ultimately, for other women of Rome, due to the blurring of the public and the private sphere.  Such blurring provided the women with a power base in the home.  In the time of Augustus, an ideological shift took place that also allowed them some autonomy.  Civil wars affected Rome’s society and women’s roles and women themselves, by their own efforts, saw their roles and power expand within and outside the home, amongst women of the upper as well as the lower classes.  

[1] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist practices of biblicaliInterpretation, Boston, 1992, p. 88.  

[2] Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society: Women and the elite family, Princeton, 1984, p. 29.  

[3] Naphtali, Lewis & Meyer, Reinhold, (ed), Roman Civilization, Sourcebook 11: The Empire, London, 1966, p. 543.  

[4] Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H. A. Shapiro, Women in Classical World: Image and text, Oxford, p. 303.  

[5] Richard A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, London, 1992, p 1.  

[6] ibid., p. 6.  

[7] Mary R. Lefkowitz & Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, Baltimore, 1992, p. 17.  

[8] ibid., p 17-18.

[9] Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: women in classical antiquity, New York, 1975, p 206. 

[10] Ibid., p. 206.   

[11] ibid., p. 205. 

[12] Kathleen E. Corley, Private Women, Public Meals: social conflict in the synoptic tradition, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 24.  

[13] ibid., p 47.  

[14] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, op. cit, p. 267.  

[15] Ibid., p. 272.  

[16] Emily A. Hemelrijk, Marona Docta: Educated women in the roman elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, 1999, London,p. 59.  

[17] ibid., p. 61-4.  

[18] Ibid., p. 54.  

[19] Ibid., p. 272.  

[20] ibid., p. 273.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_ancient_Rome

[21] Ibid., p. 273.   Hortensia, daughter of consul and advocate Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, earned notoriety during the late Roman Republic as a skilled orator. She is best known for giving a speech in front of the members of the Second Triumvirate in 42 B.C. that resulted in the partial repeal of a tax on wealthy Roman women.