Women in Ancient Roman Society

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

When we look at the society today, we see men and women on equal planes, achieving great heights together. However, if one looks at how women, especially Roman women, were treated in the ancient times, one would be greatly surprised. It was quite amazing that, until the 1970s, women were being told that their bodies were feeble, their brains deficient, and their emotions unstable.

Ancient Roman people in a gathering.
In the ancient Roman society, women were treated differently from men. (Image: Marzolino/Shutterstock)

The Fickleness of the Female Mind

In ancient times, Roman laws often referred to the infirmitas sexus—the infirmity of the female sex—and the levitas animi—the fickleness of the female mind. It was believed that women didn’t have the prerequisites for rational thinking. They were considered weather vanes rather than actual, rational beings.

The poet Virgil sums this view of women in a line that he uses for of the ill-starred Dido, the Queen of Carthage: “Varium et mutabile semper femina est”, which means, “A woman is an unpredictable and fickle creature”.

There was no doubt that most men in ancient Rome would have agreed with him. And, one of the ways that Roman women manifested their ‘infirmity’ or ‘fecklessness’ was by wasting money on frivolous things.

The Oppian Law

Ancient Roman toga in purple fabric and a golden border.
Roman women were prohibited from wearing dresses with purple borders, as purple dye was very expensive. (Image: Vectorpocket/Shutterstock)

In 215 B.C., the Roman men, who were over-taxed, passed the Oppian Law, named after Gaius Oppius, the tribune of plebeians who instituted it. This law limited Roman women’s allowance to half an ounce of gold and prohibited them from wearing dresses with purple borders as purple dye was very expensive. It also prohibited women from riding a carriage except on a long journey. The Oppian Law was passed one year after Rome’s catastrophic defeat at Cannae at the hands of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal. It was later repealed, but one can learn a lot about male prejudice toward women from it.

Learn more about being a Roman soldier.

The Christian View of Women in the Ancient Roman Society

When it came to views on a woman’s place in the society, some Christians were no better than the pagans.

In the 4th century A.D., Saint Jerome said this about women: “If your wife has a bad temper or if she’s stupid or if she has a birthmark or if she’s haughty or if she has foul breath—you’ll only learn these things after marriage… You always have to be telling her how beautiful she looks. If you so much as look at another woman, she feels rejected. You have to bow down before her and call her ‘my lady’ and you mustn’t forget her birthday… It’s worse if she’s pretty than if she’s ugly because then you have to be constantly on your guard.”

So, according to Saint Jerome, it was better to be alone with God than in the company of a woman. This comment, however, was founded in hypocrisy as he moved about in a coterie of well-educated women when he was in Rome. He was also accused of having a non-marital relationship with one of the women.

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

Views about Women on the Gynecological Front

During the ancient times, the Romans and the Greeks shared the same views about a woman’s physiological aspects. In the 2nd century A.D., Galen, the foremost medical writer of Roman times, described women as ‘less perfect’ than men on the grounds that their bodies were colder.

Even Herbert Spencer, the prominent Victorian biologist and social scientist argued that female evolution had stopped, “at a stage before man’s to preserve vital organs for reproduction.” He implied that women should not tax their brains because it would most likely render them infertile. Similar views were shared by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle as well.

Learn more about practicing Egyptian religion.

Ancient Roman Families: The Position of Women

In ancient times, a daughter in a Roman family was under the domination of the oldest male ascendant, known as ‘paterfamilias’, which literally means ‘the father of the family’. The paterfamilias had the right, in theory at least, to kill a daughter, if she disobeyed him.

His sons, too, were subject to him in the same way, but they were automatically emancipated on his death, whereas the daughters would become subject to a replacement paterfamilias. It was not just the daughters’ fate; a wife, too, was subject to the power or potestas of the paterfamilias. A woman could never escape male domination.

Marriages in Ancient Rome

A scene from an ancient Roman wedding showing a very young girl as the bride.
In ancient Rome, a girl could be betrothed or even married before she reached puberty. (Image: Massimo Todaro/Shutterstock)

In ancient Rome, there were many ways in which a woman was slighted by the law. When the children were ready to get married, it was the husband who got to choose their marriage partners. A husband may take his wife’s recommendation into consideration, but he was under no obligation to do so.

If a woman married into a prominent upper-class family, there was a good chance that her daughter would be used as a pawn to form a political connection with some other prominent upper-class family. A deal of this sort was called an ‘amicitia’, or ‘friendship’.

One of the examples of such an arrangement was Julius Caesar’s only daughter, Julia’s, marriage to Pompey in order to form an amicitia, even though Pompey was six years older than his father-in-law.

In ancient Rome, a girl could be betrothed or even married before she reached puberty—something that was more likely to happen if she belonged to an aristocratic family. It was Emperor Augustus who humanely fixed the minimum age for marriage for girls at 12. Previously, there had been no minimum age.

Women not just had an insignificant position within their own family environment, but also outside it. The times were tough, to say the least, for women in ancient Rome

Common Questions about Women in Ancient Rome

Q: According to the Oppian Law, what was a woman’s allowance in ancient Rome?

The Oppian Law limited a woman’s allowance to half an ounce of gold in ancient Rome.

Q: Who was Galen? How did he describe women?

Galen was medical writer in ancient Rome in the 2nd century A.D. He described women as ‘less perfect’ than men on the grounds that their bodies were colder.

Q: What did ‘amicitia’ refer to in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, when a woman born in an upper-class family was used as a pawn to form a political connection with some other prominent upper-class family, the arrangement was known as an ‘amicitia’, or ‘friendship’.

Keep Reading
Was the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun Murdered?
The Peculiar Case of Gerald of Wales Liking and Disliking Irish Music
The High Middle Ages: The Reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen