The Other Side of History: The Ideal Roman Woman

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Like so many people who lived on the other side of history, Roman women have left very little literary testimony behind them to help us flesh out their lives. One can only speculate about what they thought about their daily lives, and to what extent they felt exploited, denigrated, or constrained; alternatively, cherished, respected, and fulfilled.

Image of a woman painted in a fresco in Pompeii.
In ancient Rome, prejudice against women was common, and it was believed that they lacked the capacity for rational thinking. (Image: BlackMac/Shutterstock)

A Woman’s Identity, or the Lack of, in Ancient Rome

A respectable woman in ancient Rome was required to keep a low profile. A woman’s low profile is symbolized by the fact that, until quite late in Roman history, there were no real girls’ names. So, if a woman belonged to the Julian clan (or gens Julia), she would be called Julia, if she belonged to the Claudian clan (or gens Claudia), she would be called Claudia, and so forth.

An older sister would be called Julia major or Claudia major and a younger sister would be called Julia minor or Claudia minor. If there was another older or younger sister, she would be called Julia maxima or minima.

In other words, a woman’s social identity was largely defined by being first someone’s daughter and then someone’s wife.

Virtues of a Woman in Ancient Rome

Whenever a woman went out, assuming she was of respectable birth, she would be chaperoned by one or more slaves. She had to cover her body up completely, including her face. She had to wear a dress called a ‘stola’ that would reach down to her ankles. The stola was brightly colored and had multiple folds. Over it, a woman was required to wear a ‘palla’ that she had to wrap around her like a cloak.

Modesty and fidelity were the foremost virtues of a woman during that time. One of the best examples of an ideal Roman wife was a woman called Claudia who died in the 2nd century B.C. She was the ideal wife — devoted, retiring, faithful, and uncomplaining. The only task that Claudia performed was spinning, which was considered a homely activity. Even Emperor Augustus’ wife and daughter were expected to spin.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now Wondrium.

Status of Women in Rome Before Emperor Augustus’s Reign

Until the time of Emperor Augustus, there were no statues of women. If a woman belonged to the lower social orders, she would have been much less restricted in movement than upper-class women. She probably would have had to work. If a woman lived in the countryside, she would help on the farm. If she lived in the city, she had more choices—being a midwife, wet nurse, hairdresser, perfume manufacturer, basket weaver, seamstress, street vendor, actor, waitress, barmaid, or a cook. She also had the option to go into the entertainment business as a dancer, musician, juggler, mime artist, or pantomime artist.

A woman could also become a prostitute or a procuress. Brothels were common in Rome and there would not have been a shortage of work. By the 3rd century A.D., there were about 45 brothels in the city of Rome.

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Prejudice Against Women in the Roman Society

Prejudice against women was not only embedded in the way the Roman society operated, it was also enshrined in the Roman law. If a woman committed adultery, it was a criminal offense, whereas if her husband committed adultery it wasn’t.

Emperor Constantine decreed that if a woman was raped, she was automatically part responsible for the crime whatever the facts surrounding the case. Even if it could be proven that she tried to resist her assailant, she would still be guilty of what is known in present times as ‘contributory negligence’—the theory being that if she had screamed loudly enough, the neighbors would have come to her rescue and prevented the rape.

Writers and Thinkers on Women in Ancient Rome

A 1st century A.D. writer called Valerius Maximus provides his readers with several examples of women being ‘punished’ by their husbands. He tells his readers about a certain Egnatius Metellus who bludgeoned his wife to death merely for drinking wine. Valerius goes on to tell his readers that far from being charged with homicide, Egnatius did not even come in for any public censure.

According to Valerius, if women were kept in check, their minds would prevent them from scheming. It was not just Valerius who voiced such sentiments. Marcus Porcius Cato, otherwise known as Cato the Censor, a man who was revered for upholding the old Roman virtues, believed men needed to keep their wives in check.

Status of a Roman Woman Vs. That of a Greek Woman

If one looks back at history, one could say that it was preferable to be a Roman woman than a Greek woman. Unlike Greek women, Roman women were not secluded in a separate part of the house. They were permitted to leave the house more frequently than Greek women.

In Rome, if a woman’s husband invited his friends over for a banquet, she would have taken her place beside him instead of being cooped up in the women’s quarters with female slaves. And, as the materfamilias — the senior female member of the household—she would have shared with her husband joint responsibility of presiding over the domestic religion.

Status of Widows in Ancient Rome

Widows who did not re-marry, enjoyed a particular status. They bore the title of ‘univira’, which translates as ‘the wife of only one man’.

Such female virtues were held in high esteem and an epitome of these values was Cornelia, daughter of the famous general, Scipio Africanus. She was celebrated as the model of wifely and maternal sacrifice. She remained loyal to the memory of her dead husband—even to the extent of rejecting an offer of marriage from a king—and devoted her energies to educating her two sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

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The Emergence of Liberal Women in Ancient Rome

The last decades of the Roman Republic saw the emergence of a more self-assertive, independent, and liberated type of woman. However, this new public role was confined to members of the aristocracy.

A conservative Roman historian, Gaius Sallustius Crispus, commonly known as Sallust, gave a description of a Roman consul’s daughter, called Sempronia, who had an affair with a notorious social revolutionary, called Catiline, in the late 60s B.C. For Sallust, Sempronia was a threat, who saw her as stepping outside her socially sanctioned role. He goes on to associate her among a particular set of high-born women who made their fortunes as prostitutes.

Contemporary to Sempronia was Clodia—the notorious Lesbia of Gaius Valerius Catullus’ poems. Catullus wrote exquisite poetry about her, some of it highly obscene, and much of it demonstrating the control she exercised over him.

Women in Politics in Ancient Rome

Some upper-class Roman women dabbled in politics as well. By the 1st century B.C., politics was not impervious to women’s influence, even though could not vote in elections. Graffiti found on the walls of Pompeii indicate that women frequently endorsed candidates for political office.

A statue of Eumachia.
Eumachia was a public priestess in ancient Rome. (Image: G.Ferrero,The Women of the Casesars/Public domain)

A woman called Eumachia’s public profile showed what a talented and ambitious woman could achieve during that time. Eumachia was a ‘sacerdos publica’, a public priestess. The cult she administered was open to the entire citizen body, and not just to a few powerful families. She was, in fact, priestess of the most important cult in Pompeii—goddess Venus.

The Influence of Eumachia

Eumachia was also the patroness of the guild of fullers. She came from very humble origins, but inherited a fortune from her father, who was a brick manufacturer, and, as a result, she was able to marry into one of the city’s most prominent families.

She’s the exact antithesis to the image of the Roman woman presented by the epitaph to Claudia. It is difficult to imagine Eumachia taking orders from her husband or modestly averting her gaze when some men cast an eye in her direction. Her career proves that in the right circumstance a woman of talent, energy, enterprise, and means could shake off the traditional restraints that condemned the majority of women to a lifetime of submissive obscurity, however happy their marriages might have been.

Common Questions about Status of Women in Ancient Rome

Q: How was a woman’s low profile symbolized in ancient Rome?

A Roman woman’s low profile is symbolized by the fact that, until quite late in Roman history, there were no real girls’ names.

Q: How did Roman law view men and women who committed adultery in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, if a woman committed adultery, it was a criminal offense, whereas if her husband committed adultery, it wasn’t.

Q: What was the status of widows who did not re-marry in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, widows who did not re-marry enjoyed a particular status. They bore the title of ‘univira’, which translates as ‘the wife of only one man’.

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