Friday, September 17, 2004

Feminae Romanae: The Role of Women in Ancient Rome

Amanda Cats-Baril
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction

In beginning to examine the expansive and multifaceted topic of women’s role in Ancient Roman society it is most important to remember that whether or not one is looking at a farmer’s wife, a prostitute, a goddess or an empress, one is looking at them through the eyes of a male. Not a single female voice echoes through history, telling the tale of her gender and how they felt about their position in society. Instead there are only resoundingly masculine voices, portraying expectations and conveying women as either the failure or satisfaction of these. That said, we do have enough variety within our male sources to compile a fairly accurate conception of what women’s lives were like in the Great Roman Empire. It is possible to look to Roman literature and pieces written by Pliny, Cicero, Livy and others to get the most accurate view of women, but one can also turn to portraits and sculptures, mostly of goddesses, which are key in deciphering what values women were expected to embody. A plethora of eulogies allow us to understand how women were memorialized and remembered by those they left behind and certain telling elements of Roman architecture offer us a window in to the daily lives of Roman women. Such constructions as the Roman house, which provides no separate quarters for women, reveal the extent to which male and female lives were integrated in the private sphere.

Most importantly in understanding Roman women, however, we have Roman legend which established in no uncertain terms the expectations that women were expected to fulfill and the virtues that they were demanded to exemplify. What sets legend apart from the other sources (with the exception of sculpture, in itself a physical representation of legend) is that Roman women themselves would have been very aware of the messages that the legends were intended to impress upon them. The significance of legend and virtues in establishing the morals and essence of the Roman Empire was equally applicable to its significance in dictating the expectations for Roman women. Women who achieved these virtues were given due respect but women who didn’t were expected to take their own lives. The virtues and expectations portrayed in Roman legend were consistent throughout the existence of Ancient Rome. Even as women’s rights changed, particularly with the transition from Republic to Empire, the conception of an ideal woman was remarkably consistent.

Before embarking on a specific discussion of women’s role in society, therefore, it is necessary to establish a firm understanding of the virtues portrayed in legends and sculpture. The virtues that would have stood, larger than life, for all women to observe and respect can be summarized in three Roman terms: pietas, pudicita, and concordia. Pietas, meaning piety, was expected of all Roman citizens but was particularly important for women. This virtue is exemplified when we see statues that portray women with their heads covered. These statues would have been portrayed in public and one can imagine that a woman entering the public sphere would have been ashamed to stand next to a statue exhibiting piety if the woman herself wasn’t complying with this virtuous norm. Pudicita can be considered the cardinal virtue of a woman in Rome and is slightly more complex than piety. Pudicita was a mix of chasity, modesty, sexual fidelity and most importantly fertility. This virtue was inextricably tied to a woman’s role as wife and mother, her true place in Roman society, and was therefore of utmost significance in determining how she was viewed. Also related to the woman’s position in the home as mother and wife was the virtue concordia which explicated the expectation of harmony between husband and wife. One of the most unique aspects of women’s lives in Rome (compared to the lives of women in other societies of antiquity) was that mutual respect and affection was the norm in Roman marriages. Particularly following 100 BCE, when women had the right to own their own property, harmonious equality became the rule in Roman households.
As was previously discussed, these ruling virtues were displayed most obviously in Roman legend. All of these virtues were embodied by historic women, most of whom are familiar to all who have studied Rome. The first of these women were the Sabines who were kidnapped away from their men at the festival of Consuelia and were raped to become the first mothers and wives of the Roman Empire. These women are forever credited in helping to launch the Roman Empire in the 8th century BCE and are remembered mainly in the context of the battle which occurred eight years after their original kidnapping. When the Sabine men returned for their women and entered Rome the women themselves protected the city of Rome and its male inhabitants, urging both parties to abandon the fight as their brothers and fathers on one side and husbands on the other. In this way the women exemplified the balance that was expected of their gender: a delicate blend of strength and obedience. Based on their interference in the battle, the Sabine women have forever stood for endurance, courage, perseverance and honor. It is important to note that these particular virtues are not gender specific, and in this way the women set the bar for not only the females but also the males of the Roman Empire. The Sabines are also significant in that they are respected as the mothers of Roman society. This is important as an explanation to the respect that was due to all Roman women as mothers: just as the Sabines stood as the moral authority for Roman society in its entirety, so contemporary Roman women were respected as the cultural and moral authority in their role as child-rearers.
Another famous woman in Roman legend is Lucretia, wife of Collatinus who was raped by Sextus Tarquinius in 510 BCE. Lucretia was the picture of the ideal Roman woman. She was chaste, modest, loyal to her husband; famously, she sat at home knitting while other women went to dinner parties. Most importantly, however, when Lucretia’s virtuosity was violated she took her own life. This action, reiterated throughout Roman legend, made it extremely clear that un-virtuous women were expected to acknowledge that they didn’t deserve life and that they were a burden to their families as long as they were living. In true Italian fashion, the family was to come before the individual and the woman was expected to kill herself. This seems harsh to us today but was a norm in the past. What is also notable about Lucretia is that she shaped Roman history; the ensuing revenge that her friends took on the Tarquinius family, ended their tyrannical rule and gave birth to the Roman Republic. It is important to take note of the way in which women, Lucretia and the Sabines, are regarded as essential figures in the unfolding of Roman history.

Women abound in Roman legend. Circa 506 BCE a woman named Cloelia was taken hostage by the warrior Porsenna. Cloelia became an icon of “pragmatic patriotism” when her attempted return to the Roman Empire was discovered. Porsenna threatened to wage war on Rome based on the fact that Cloelia’s escape had broken their truce. In an act of extreme courage and self-sacrifice for the state, Cloelia offered to return herself to Porsenna. He was so impressed that he granted her her freedom and in addition allowed her to bring friends back to the empire with her. Instead of taking her female compatriots with her, Cloelia recognized that the Romans needed warriors and left her friends behind in exchange for the freedom of male hostages.
In direct opposition to the example set by Cloelia, Tarpaeia stood as her antithesis. Tarpaeia is notorious for leading the Sabines into Rome in exchange for gold. Her unbounded greed was severely punished when the Sabines crushed her under their shields. Tarpaeia is important in that she represents the extent to which treason was intolerable to the Romans. Her preference for personal, material wealth over the good of the state is memorialized in legend. An important aspect of this legend is that it represents the way in which men portrayed women as either virtuous or wicked. There was no middle ground for women in the Roman Empire, all portrayals cast women at one extreme or the other.

This is slightly ironic because in reality Roman women were a balance between the extremes of other women who preceded them in antiquity: the Etruscans and the Greeks. Etruscan women were treated as equals to the men in their society. They exercised beside their men, were politically ambitious, educated and renowned for their sexual promiscuity. In this last category they differed greatly from the Romans, who valued female chastity and sexual fidelity, but all in all the freedoms awarded to Etruscan women made way for the Roman women to enjoy many rights forbidden to the Greeks. Greek women were extremely oppressed in both the public and private spheres. Cornelius Nepos who saw one of "the salient contrasts between Greek and Roman society that Romans do not segregate their womenfolk and that the matrona "versatur in medio", that is, moves about in the middle of male life in terms of both physical space and social occassion." Nepos commented directly on the differences between Roman and Greek women, “Many things that among the Greeks are considered improper and unfitting are permitted by our customs. Is there any chance a Roman who is ashamed to take his wife to a dinner away from home?” And indeed, the answer to his question would be no. Women in Roman society were permitted and encouraged to make public appearances at social occasions. They attended public and private banquets, even though they were excluded from most political and religious ceremonies. While they would never have been allowed to vote or hold office, Roman women were considered full “cives Romanae” and enjoyed private rights that were comparable to Roman males (i.e. inheritance).

As was previously mentioned, Roman women enjoyed a large amount of authority within the home. Their main role in society was as mother and wife, and a woman’s fulfillment of these duties was central to how she would be judged. The emphasis laid on duty fulfillment is best exemplified in the eulogies of the time, which are all focused on wifely duties such as being loving towards husbands, bearing children and attending the house. This focus is understandable when one considers that the vast majority of a woman’s life was spent within her marriage. With average life expectancy for women estimated at 25 years and the minimum age of marriage being 12 years old a woman hardly knew life outside of her marriage. By the age of twenty, 59% of Roman women were married and 26% would already have at least one living child. It is revealing to consider that there is not one record of an unmarried, aristocratic Roman woman in the time of the Republic. Wifely responsibilities only intensified when the Roman Republic became an Empire under Augustus.

When Augustus came into power in 31 BCE, he felt that the Roman Empire had fallen into disarray on account of corruption and decadence; he began to emphasize the Roman virtues even more intensely in an effort to bring the society back into order. Women's role in the decadence of the past years was particularly condemned, and several paintings depict a woman exposed as symbolic of the state of the empire. Augustus also saw that there were a shortage of Roman men, largely due to the 50 years of civil war and high infant mortality rates (half of all children died before the age of ten), and implemented laws that forced increased reproduction. All women were expected to be married and have had children by the age of twenty and women who had over three children received special privileges from the state. One of the most significant changes in law was that a “univira”, a widow who never remarried, had been respected under the Republic but under the Empire a widow was forced by law to be remarried after 10 months of widowhood. One would infer from these laws that the women of Roman society would have been more restricted to the home following the laws’ implementation but in reality the reverse was true. The transition to Empire also marked an expansion in women’s rights, especially for the upper class.

Prior to 100 BCE “patria potestas” had been the rule in Rome. The Roman family and society had been highly patriarchal and a woman went directly from her father’s possession to her husband’s essential ownership. But following 100 BCE, the practice of “manus”, in which a woman’s right to life and all her possessions were under her husband’s control, was no longer implemented. In fact, it became forbidden for husband and wife to share property. Women prospered under these new conditions; in charge of their own property, it was not uncommon for women to build up a significant fortune and around this time we see that there were statues and buildings donated by women. Women were also given the right to divorce their husbands and towards the end of the Republic divorce became a common affair.

Augustus’ wife Livia exemplified this newly empowered woman. She handled property like a true entrepreneur, was previously divorced and was respected by Augustus despite the fact that she never had his child. Following Livia’s reign as empress it became common for an empress to be portrayed beside her husband in political propaganda, most notably on coins. In fact, under Augustus’ rule, and partially due to the respect that he held for his own wife, it became vogue for men to publicly praise their wives. Despite the fact that public praise of a wife was rooted in a selfish male desire to increase his own political profile (if a man’s wife was widely respected as a virtuous woman then his own political profile benefited), this new fashion has actually been historically beneficial since it resulted in the eulogies and biographies upon which we base our knowledge of ancient Roman women.

In the beginning of the Empire, expectations surrounding the education of women also changed. While education had never been a asset for women, many women became literate and well-informed about contemporary politics. It is documented that women of the early Empire were expected to advise their husbands on political affairs, even if they weren't invited to the councils themselves. While wifely advice was never publicly acknowledged, it was often heeded. As wartime outweighed peace in this period, women were often left without their men and they became increasingly capable and independent. As their independence increased, so did their involvement in politics; in 195 BCE women even organized a public demonstration in the Forum in defense of “their rights to luxury” which was essentially unheard of in antiquity.
While women’s emerging confidence was largely correlated to an increased male respect for the gender, some men were still insecure about women gaining societal power and women were often blamed for the moral degradation of the Roman Empire. Despite male insecurities, however, today we can clearly see the increasing strength of Roman women as a sign of progression within Roman society. Roman women were consistently portrayed as strong individuals; indeed, in portrayals of gods and goddesses we can see that goddesses were conveyed as equally magnificent to gods. And Roman women, too, received this same respect as long as they acted as virtuous as the goddesses themselves. Even Augustus was unashamed to be associated with feminine qualities and, to the contrary, openly associated himself with Venus through sculpture. This can be seen in the Prima Porta statue, in which he is portrayed next to a dolphin and a cupid.

In noting Augustus’ connection to Venus, I approach the subject that was most surprising to me in my study of Roman women. When I first began my research I was interested in exploring the difference between the way in which Romans respected their goddesses and the way in which they interacted with their women. However, the more information I found the more I realized that the goddesses were examples for women and that as long as women followed these models of virtue they were treated very well. Indeed, I found it remarkable how well respected Roman women were. I believe that the respect accorded to women should be taken as symbolic of the general maturity of the Roman culture; in many ways, I feel that Roman women were treated better than early women in modern society. Of course, in noting this I am failing to consider fully what Wallace-Hadrill has said about Roman society: “We are not dealing with a single, monolithic Roman world but one differentiated through time, across religion and across social divides.” In reading the whole of this paper and in examining Roman art, I encourage all to remember this quote and discourage all from making generalizations about the rights of women in Roman society. Despite these class variations, however, the strength of Roman women across all social divides should stand as an example for women of modernity and particularly those of contemporary Italian society who need an inspiration for confidence as they emerge into the public sphere.

II. Description

My presentation was given at the National Museum of Archaelogy in Naples. A lot of mosaics, frescoes and other pieces that were discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum are featured at the museum. In addition, they have a vast collection of marble sculptures. I have attached images of a couple of pieces that we saw while we were at the museum. In general, my presentation was not grounded in any site or monument.

Roman Woman Mosaic
This is a mosaic portrait from Pompeii that is now housed at the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples.
It is a very simple portrait, not focused on any particular virtue but rather on the physical portrayal of the subject.
Most likely, based on the clothing and jewelry that can be observed, the subject was a high class lady.
Also, the wealth of the subject is evident in the detail and high quality of the work; only a high class family
could afford such a piece. This mosaic was most likely displayed privately on the walls of a home.

Venus Pudica
This is a picture of the Venus Pudica at the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples. T
his sculpture exemplifies modesty. The way the sculpture is positioned to shade her body from public view
became a classic symbol of modesty and chastity, components of the cardinal feminine virtue of pudicita.
The sculpture reveals the way in which artists conveyed the virtues that women in society were expected to embody.

The Women of the Program and the Muses in Bronze
This picture is of all the fine, young ladies on the Rome 2004 program in front of the series of bronze
muses at the National Museum in Naples. Looking at these two configurations of ladies
it is clear why women are the inspiration of art throughout the ages.


Cross, Suzanne. Feminae Romanae:Women of Ancient Rome. Ancient Homes Net Ring,

Mellor, Ronald J.. “Ancient Rome”. Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004.

Nodelman, Sheldon. "How to Read a Roman Portrait". Art in America. 1975,
January/February. Pp 27-31.

Treggiari, Susan. “Women in Roman Society”. I, Claudia:Women in Ancient Rome.
Yale, 1996.

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “Chapter 1: Reading the Roman House”. Houses and Society
in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
1994. 1-16.