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The role and status of women in the Roman Empire is notable for its lasting impacts on Western civilization, and the way women are regarded and treated in society today still has the shadow of the ancient Roman past informing the present. The Roman Empire transformed the base of Western Civilization by acquiring and reinterpreting the culture of the Greek city-states, readymade by what Alexander the Great had already done with his quest for acquiring territory (and the societies present within them) to build an empire that would transmit the Hellenistic culture. The Greco-Roman heritage our civilization is based on includes the culture, institutions, and traditions promulgated by and during the empire which laid the sturdy foundations that subsequent and current societies refer to (and also attempt to emulate).
The study of women in the Roman Empire is an important undertaking because by examining the treatment of women in a hypermasculine, highly militaristic world, we can understand the roots of our culture, and look to history for answers on what does and doesn’t work when enacting social, legal, and political change. If we intend to say that we are society that has progressed from a male dominated worldview to a more egalitarian one, then we must be aware of the legal, familial, and cultural processes that set historical precedents for the lower status of women that has persisted throughout the centuries.
What must be kept in mind is that all institutions require reinforcement of their ideologies, or else they disintegrate of become ineffective due to convoluted oppositions within the confines of the organization. This is especially true for the justice system and legal code, since neither have meaning if what is written down and administered are not carried out in tandem by the multiple agents employed. The effects of the Roman legal system defining how domestic units are to be judged and who to pay respect to so that power can be consolidated. Caratella summarizes on page 109: “Since it’s earliest manifestation, Roman law was characterized by absolute power of the head of the family group, to which the women were subordinate (as were sons and slaves) in forms that guaranteed not even the elementary right to survival.” The organization and ideology behind the Roman family structure takes on a different meaning than the one that is typically depicted in America and other Western societies. Instead of a nuclear family of a set of parents and direct children (and even grandchildren), the Roman petrai is made up of the oldest male as the head of household, and includes his wife and all living descendants, as well as the servants and slaves and their families being subordinate. All these people lived in a large familial dwelling that was partially open air (Bradley 8-9), which reinforced the Roman notion that all life is public, and there not really being a concept of private life. The ideal Roman woman’s goal was to be a dutiful wife and mother, and was subservient to her father, which transitioned to her husband when she was later married. Both the father and husband acted as a guardian legally speaking since women were thought to be too frivolous in spirit (INCLUDE CITATION), and therefore incapable of complete free will and understanding. While Roman women were regarded as actual possessions of their male guardians throughout the run of the republic, as the centuries progressed during the Imperial Age, they acquired more legal rights in some sectors while in other sectors there was change, but not to the benefit of women. Women in Rome from the start were expected to participate in public life, unlike their Greek counterparts, who were sequestered away from the public domain and be tied perpetually to private domesticity. The Romans held the expectation that women were supposed to be a part of public life as much as men were, for things like shopping and socializing in the marketplace, but to always be in the background and not meant to contribute meaningfully in any sort of dialog or significant transaction. Their place is a comparatively subservient role than what was expected of men who came of age. As the Empire continued, the changes made in the definition and practice of guardianship gradually improved for women, though not as substantially as having their own true autonomy. Initially female widows were not allowed to have sole guardianship over their children, and the closest living male relative usually exercised guardianship over children, no matter how distantly related of young.
The treatment of names in the Roman world is also a different system than ours. There were typically three names a person could get, the praeonomen, the first name being the individual name of the person, the middle was the gens (a generation subset of the family clan), and lastly the family name, cognomen. However, most women weren’t even assigned an individual name like their male counterparts and were instead referred to as by their gen name. If there were multiple women born to that subset, than one could be referred to as “Maior and Minor (elder and younger), or Prima, Seconda, and Tertia were added” (Cantarella 124). As can be inferred from funerary inscriptions left behind, the ideal woman that garnered the most admiration for her legacy was the woman who spoke the least, and was spoke of as little as possible, whether it was positive or negative. The most notable way of achieving such admiration was when nobody knew the woman’s name, “for the Romans the glory of women required that their names never be pronounced” (Caratella 126). While it is tempting to find roots of this practice from the Etruscans, it is likely a very Roman development. The Etruscans commonly referred to women by individual names and were freely spoken of like their male counterparts. What can be gleaned from this is that the misogyny that had taken root in the beginnings of Roman society, combined with reverence for the sacred power that names held, is that women are meant to be controlled and not duly recognized like men are.
The reproductive and marital rights of women evolved over time throughout Roman history. Initially, adultery was a crime that women were heavily punshed for, but men initially didn’t endure the same consequences to the same degree. Augustus decreed in 18 B.C. the lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus and in 9 B.C. lex Papia Poppaea nuptialis, later synthesized into lex Iulia et Papia (Cantarella 122) that adultery was to be punished on an equal basis, so if a husband were to be convicted, their punishment would be on par to that of a wife who had committed adultery, a major step forward creating egalitarianism between the sexes. Death was a common retribution, if not beating, humiliation and various other degradation. The monetary value associated with women (and reinforcing the ideology of women as possessions) can be best studied through the lens of their accompanying dowries. Since the beginnings of Rome, it has been a common practice for when a woman is of age and marries into the family of her husband, that her father supply her with a way of financing her since she’s is no longer eligible for her original family inheritance, as well as being a way to maintain her upkeep within her new family since a new person to the group incurs the cost of another person consuming goods and taking up space in the household. The questions of who was the rightful owner of the dowry when the bride passed away had come into dispute throughout the centuries, with it initially being her father (if he was still alive) or her brother. However, the growing inclination to mind the justice of children had led later legal settlements to establish that the children of the mother were the first rightly heirs to the dowry, with the brother and father considered afterwards if there were no children to inherit the dowry.
The practice of child abandonment, which figured one male to every fifty females abandoned or left to starve. This contributed to a rather lopsided population in which males were able to effectively maintain more power and exert control over their female counterparts, as well as a significant population decline that would eventually bring negative economic impacts of labor shortage and be one of many factors for the shift from a polytheistic Roman worldview to the rise of Christianity. It was also regarded as the right of the male head of household to sell children into slavery or prostitution (which girls were more often than not turned to according to Dixon in “The Roman Family”), with a limit of up to three times before losing total custody of the child. This system left a fraught with abuse since these guardians would often sell the children in unofficial transactions, effectively disparaging the set limits with no accountability of the guardians or justice for the children. Mothers had to accept whatever choice these heads of the households made, regardless of their own disposition, which was often contrary to these common practices that male heads of households continued and maintained.
A unique role in the family that could only be fulfilled by women in the household was the nutrix, or what we call a wet nurse (insert citation). The wet nurse acted as a nanny for whichever child she was attending to, and was usually still involved in the child’s life past the time of weaning. She could be a freeborn woman, with freedwomen and slave women being just as common, if not more so. The wet nurse was even more integral to the child’s welfare and development if the mother had died during child birth, which was frequently the case given the largely still unsanitary conditions and medical practices the Romans were acclimated to and employed during childbirth.
The female slaves of the household were subject to do domestic and agricultural field work required of them, in addition to being sexually available to their masters for affairs not with wife (Cantarella 114). It was regarded in Roman society for men to typically partake in illicit affairs with either the slave women in the home or with prostitutes in the street, which speaks to the sexual license that society afforded to men, while threatening women with death, if not actually imposing it, for the same behavior. The Romans justified this behavior through their concern with the legitimately of heirs, which would be problematic if the wife were having sexual relations with men that were not her husband. However, there isn’t a good rationalization for the severe discrepancy between the harsh punishment inflicted on women and the leniency granted to men if a moral argument were to be made, since the crime committed is of the same severity regardless of whether it was a husband or wife. Augustus was finally able to bring some balance to the lopsided issue of adultery, and imposed harsher retribution on males to bring some accountability to the whole family for legalizing a moral code.
Women in the Roman era were regarded as either supporting the peaceful, harmonious role of homemaker who dutifully attends to the household and her husband above all else, or was seen a flagrant opposer of order if she dared to create conflict (especially as perceived in her own interests) and flouted prioritization of male power (usually having to do with property rights/inheritance). The first role was remembered fondly, if at all, with little actual legacy to speak of besides sweetness. The second archetype was dangerous, a viciously put down with any real, perceived, or contrived criticism available. The silence or character assassination of women in Roman society speaks volumes on the control that Roman men wished to exert over their female counterparts. This is most clearly illustrated with Antony’s wife Fulvia, with the height of vitriolic criticisms reaching its height when she tried to defend their property from seizure, after he had been absent for four year and eventually declared a public enemy to the state (Pomeroy 206). Cicero, in his efforts to vilify Antony, was quick to the same to Fulvia, so as to exaggerate Antony ineptness and villness that emphasizing a purportedly undesirably relations with Fulvia in which she dominnered him, making him appear all the more weak. Cicero later painted her as literally taking up the sword and shield in defense of her and Antony’s homestead, exacting a type of female androgynous stereotype that intrigued and frightened Roman men of the era. This is seen in the Romanification of the greek goddess Athena, who had originally a lot to do with war and battle strategy, but those aspects were tempered down when she was Romanized as Minerva.
Another prominent figure the Romans thought of as embodying the dangerous female archetype was Cleopatra, the last ruling Egyptian pharaoh of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty. Her affairs with Julius Caesar and Antony, in addition to being in control of a significant political power in the Mediterranean basin with a legitimate rule stretching long before the Roman and Greek states, made her one of the biggest adversaries the Roman Empire had yet to face, and her being a strong willed queen with the ability to seduce her Roman counterparts made the character assassination all the more imperative to (typically male) Roman commentators. Her being an Eastern woman in power allowed Roman writers to more firmly ground the masculine, disciplined Western society against the sensual, hedonistic Eastern society as a dichotomy in play during the civil wars of Augustus and Antony. Cleopatra’s seduction of a highly respected, top general, changing him into an Eastern convert who revelled in shirking his duty and lounging around with a mistress instead of leading troops and putting the Empire’s interests first confirmed, in the minds of Roman men, confirmed the degenerative effects of the proximity of feminine ideology running unchecked with women who acted on their own agency.
The depiction of women in historical reliefs is of particular note when considering that women make few appearances compared to their appearance on coins and statues, which are far more frequent. Women were frequently used on coins alongside men as symbols of ideas the Roman government wanted to convey and propagate throughout the empire, and the construction of statutes to celebrate women of value in public spaces was a common practice throughout the empire, so why not in the historical reliefs? By deliberately only including women in certain scenes that showed record history (usually by Roman male authors), we can glean that the inclusion of women (with children appearing alongside, who had as little regular appearance in historical reliefs as women did) in scenes of the emperor perpetuating peace by giving away rations, that if domestic spheres are at peace, that a harmonious society can flourish since it’s base rests on the private domesticity peace. In a similar vein, the depiction of women and children in the Ara Pacis Augustae, which is thought to at least partially commemorate, shows the imperial court and “is meant to signal ideal sexual and familial responsibility . . . rather than avoiding their responsibilities and following paths of pleasure and decadence” (Pomeroy 226).
The control of women in Roman history has been demonstrated to be not completely female subservient, but an ever changing mosaic of competing interests. Misogyny has definitely been a large contributing factor in Ancient Roman society, however some degrees of justice have found their way, as evidence by Augustan laws trying to bring punishments of adultery on a more even footing between the sexes, and guardianship laws becoming more lenient later in the Empire, despite the ever present intention to reinforce and maintain male dominance. We have explored the difference in nomenclature for women, female roles and how they contribute to the functioning of the patrea postesta, legal rights and how they have changed over the centuries (at least in the upper classes), the dichotomy of the submissive, ideal wife and the dangerous woman archetypes, the selective usage of their imagery in public history and what it signaled to the viewer, and greater recognitions for their contribution to society. The Ancient Romans viewed their environment harshly, and interacted with it accordingly through strict discipline and grit, and recognized that power existed within and without their society, with women reserving a special kind of influence that needed to be controlled in order to ensure a male proliferation in public life.
Bradley, Keith R. Discovering the Roman Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Cantarella, Eva. Pandora's Daughters. Translated by Maureen B. Fant, The John Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Dixon, Suzanne, The Roman Family. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., editor. Women's History and Ancient History. The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
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