Women and the Family
Women in Rome were traditionally viewed as levitas animi or weak in mind and were therefore usually kept under the close scrutiny of a male guardian. They were carefully regulated not only by their fathers and husbands, but also by laws and social confinements. However, this is not to say that women played an inferior role to men in Roman history. Their social and political contributions to Roman history go far beyond that of child production.
Women and the Family
Fathers and Daughters
In the Roman family structure the
paterfamilias held power over every member of his family, both
sons and daughters alike. He held the power of both life and death
over his children as long as they remained under his potestas, which for
girls was almost the majority of their lives. The supposed "law of
Romulus" gave fathers the right to raise only one daughter, after
which they could either chose to keep or kill the other daughters
(Pomeroy, 1975: 162). Girls never came of age in Rome, but were
always subject to the authority of their fathers or another man. In
some cases they were even subject to the authority of their brothers.
Livy recounts this for us in the story of
Horatia, sister of the three Horatii brothers. Her brothers
had challenged the three Alban Curiatii brothers to single combat.
Only one of the Horatii brothers survived and killed his sister for
mourning for the death of one of the Alban Curiatii brothers who was
her fiancée, rather than mourning for her dead brothers. The
brother was commended for his actions rather than punished because he
acted in the best interests of the Roman state. The father "judged
his daughter to have been killed rightly: had things been otherwise
he would have exercised his father's right and killed his son
himself"(Livy, 1975: 1.26). Apparently, preservation of the state
came before the life of a child, and had the father judged that his
son had not acted justly he would have killed him as well.
Daughters and Marriage
Roman women were married at a very young age. They were legally allowed to be wed at the age of twelve or thirteen, when they began puberty and were capable of bearing children. While boys were eligible for marriage at the age of fourteen, they usually were married after their tour of duty in the army at about thirty five. Marriages were arranged with the hope that the union would benefit both parties socially, economically, and politically. In this way daughters could be used as pawns and traded in return for better allies. Many men took advantage of the political status they could gain by marrying the daughter of a powerful man. Pompey married Aemilia, daughter of Sulla to fulfill his own ambitions. At the time they were both married to other people and Aemilia was pregnant. Later Pompey was then wed to Julia, the daughter of Caesar. However, the opportunities the union would provide both sides were evidently worth the trouble (Hallett, 1984: 141).
Roman marriages also made use of the dowry as part of the marriage ceremony. Fathers endowed their daughters with a dowry for the upkeep of the woman while the couple was married. Though the money was intended for the woman, she had no control over how it was spent by her husband. The size of the dowry corresponded to the social status of the daughter and often times served as an incentive for a man to marry her. When a woman married she left the potestas of her father and came under the control of her husband's paterfamilias as a daughter or filiae loco. However, this changed in the Republic depending on the type of marriage in which the couple was engaging.
From the early Roman Republic there are several form of marriage in which the women had little control. One of the earliest forms of marriage is called confarreatio. This was a ceremonial marriage in which sacrifices were made to Jupiter and was presided over by the flamen Dialis and the Pontifix Maximus. The right hands of the couple would be joined while they sat on chairs over which a sheep's fleece was thrown. The woman was received into the man's house with fire and water at the threshold. Confarreatio was a very solemn and public transaction that had to take place in front of at least ten witnesses in order for it to be legitimate. This type of marriage was most likely for patrician families because it would be doubtful that plebeians could afford the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony (Corbett, 1930: 76).
Another form of marriage from the early Republic was coemptio. In this type of marriage the woman was passed from the manus of her father and into that of her husband through an imaginary sale. This sale had to take place in front of no less than five witnesses, all being Roman male citizens above puberty. The woman was made into an object and "purchased" by her groom from her father. Under this type of marriage the woman essentially lost her identity and her legal existence was suspended, as she was now seen as a daughter to her husband. All of her possessions also belonged to her husband as long as the marriage remained in tact.
Under the usus form of marriage the woman remained under the control of her father and only came under the manus of her husband after a year of cohabitation. However, a woman could avoid this transfer of control if she spent three nights away from her husband's house. This type of marriage gave women a measurable amount of freedom since they technically were not under the manus of their husbands nor were they still living with their fathers. However, they still could not own property or participate in financial matters without the supervision of a male. This type of marriage became obsolete around the third century BCE with the growing popularity of the sine manu marriage (Ward, 1988: 13).
Sine manu marriages were common beginning in the third century BC. In this type of marriage the wife was not considered to be a part of her husband's family, but rather remained under the manus of her father. Though she still was under his authority she lived away from him, and her husband had no formal authority over her either, just as in the usus marriage. Her property in this so called "free marriage" remained separate from that of her husband's. If her father died she became sui iuris and was legally independent from her husband. However, she still had to enlist the aide of a tutor to conduct any financial transactions and therefore still needed a man.
Marriages in Rome were for the production of legitimate heirs, which is why marriage was only offered to citizens (Craik, 1984: 30). The primary task of women in marriages was the bearing of children. Some of their other duties included supervising the slaves, caring for the children, cooking, and weaving cloth. Again, these duties would vary depending on the social statues of the woman. Women in Rome were not confined to the back of the house, but rather took an active part in social activities. Women even received guests and went to dinner parties with their husbands.
The institution of marriage could be dissolved by the paterfamilias at any time and women sui iuris were also able to initiate divorces. One of the consequences of divorce was the returning of the daughter's dowry in full. It was this fact that helped to keep husbands from divorcing their wives too hastily. Plutarch claims that a woman could only be returned to her family if she were convicted of adultery, had stolen hi s keys, or had poisoned his children (Corbett, 1930: 11). For the crime of promiscuity the woman was returned to her family, while her lover was subject to death if they were caught in the act. If a woman stole the key of her husband it was assumed that she had done so to gain access to the wine cellar. It was a tradition in the early Republic for male relatives to kiss their women at every opportunity to ascertain if they had been dri nking, at it's most extreme crime punishable by death. The poisoning of the children was grounds for divorce since technically the wife had no claim on her offspring and was therefore tampering with her husband's property. Women could also be returned to their families if they proved to be barren. It was also considered the woman's fault if she were unable to produce children, but it never occurred to the men that they could be the cause. The Roman matron Tur ia even offered to grant her husband a divorce because she could not produce children. However, he did not accept her offer and remained married to her throughout her life (Kebric, 1997: 118-119). Women could also be divorced and forced to re-marry for political gain, as we have already seen.
Women in Law and Politics
Legal Status of Women
In the Rom an Law of the Twelve Tables the woman remained in the condition of a daughter or was always under the tutelage of one man or another. Roman women, were viewed as mentally weaker than men and therefore it was necessary to keep a close eye on them. They were not allowed to participate in financial matters without the supervision of their leg al guardians.
However, a woman sui iuris could take control of her own money and property without the help of a tutor, though she still had to have one. The tutor could only advise her and did have the power to stop her in certain circumstances. Also, his consent was necessary for transactions res manicipi, which were transactions concerning agricultural property. On the other hand, she did not need his permission to partake in transactions res nec manicipi, which was just about everything else. She could also request a new tutor if she desired. Initially women were not allowed to write wills either, but this soon changed and became the first legal right to be had by women (Joshel, 1992: 46). A woman first had to gain the permission of her guardian, which was difficult if her tutor was an agnate relative because it was to him that the property would automatically go if he did not grant permission.
Women and Laws
Women in Rome, though they did not have many legal rights, played a very large part in the legal and political life of the city. They found ways around the laws confining them, ways which were often times illegal themselves. The Poisoning Trials of 331 BCE is just one example of how women took charge of their situation and came together as a group. A strange plague was afflicting men, the cause unknown until a slave woman revealed the truth to Fabius Maximus. In truth women were brewing poisons they claimed to be curative. Twenty or more matrons were forced to drink these potions as proof; all of them died. Shortly thereafter one hundred and seventy more women were brought to trial and convicted. This was the first time women had been tried publicly, rather than returned to their families for punishment (Bauman, 1992: 14). Though it is uncertain why these women poisoned their husbands one possible explanation could be the restrictive nature of early marriages. If a woman was not able to get a divorce she had few other methods of dissolving an unhappy marriage.
Another example of women taking charge in a situation displeasing to them would be the repeal of the lex Oppia in 195 BCE. The Oppian Law was passed in 215 BC during the second Punic War and said "that no woman should have more than a half ounce of gold or wear a multi-colored garment (especially with purple) or ride in a carriage in the city or town within a mile of it, unless it was a public religious festival." (Livy, 1971: 34). This was not necessarily done to suppress women, rather to save money to help pay for the high costs of the war. However, twenty years later the law was still in effect. The women of Rome gathered together in the Forum and tried to speak to the senators. When that did not work they spoke to the husbands of other women. The mingling of married women with men for political purposes was highly irregular in Roman social custom and an event that made most of society very uncomfortable. This behavior continued until the law was repealed, but not until after Cato the Elder said "If you allow them to seize these bonds one by one and wrench themselves free and to be placed on equal terms with their husbands, do you think that you will be able to endure them? The moment they begin to be your equals, they will be your superiors." (Livy, 1971: 34). Undoubtedly Cato was not the only man to fear the possible equality of women.
The last two centuries of the Roman Republic witnessed the greatest change in the status of women because of the large number of wars fought during this time. Lengthy wars forced many women out of traditional constraints because there were not enough guardians to go around. Under the lex Atilia women were supposed to apply for a new guardian if there's was called away to war. However, this law was difficult to regulate due to the decreased manpower so many women began acting on their own behalf (Corbett, 1930: 14). In 216 BCE after the battle at Cannae, a wealthy woman by the name of Busa received at her private home in Canusium ten thousand men who had escaped the battle. There she gave them food, clothing and money coming from her own pocket. So as not to be out done by a woman, the town of Venusia supplied equipment for the equestrians and infantry at the expense of the public (Evans, 1991). Women also came together on behalf of one another in Rome after the defeat at Cannae to beg the senate to pay the ransom for the captured soldiers. Though their request was not granted, it is yet another example of women coming together on their own to fight for a common cause.
Though Roman women had no true political power, they could exert themselves through their men. One such woman was Co rnelia, mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. She was a wealthy univira who raised her children on her own, accepted full responsibility for the education of her sons and handled her property without the help of a tutor. She was a Roman matron held in high regard and who had a great deal of influence over her sons (Bauman, 1992: 44). In the later Republic we have women such as Clodia and Servilia. Clodia was not viewed in a very favorable light socially, she was often referred to as "the bargain- basement Clytemnestra"(69). Despite this reputation she was the driving force behind the trial of Caelius Rufus, who she claimed was responsible for the poisoning of Dio of Alexandria. However, in the end her testimony was torn to shreds by Cicero through the insinuation he made about her sexual promiscuity and therefore the validity of her testimony. Servilia occupied a political position few women in the Republic ever experienced. She was the half sister of Cato of Utica, mistress to Caesar, and the mother of Brutus. She was also an ally of Cicero and had a hand in finding a suitable husband for his daughter. Servilia also acted as a intermediary between Cicero and Caesar when Caesar was in Gaul (73). At no other time in the Republic did a woman yield as much political power as Servilia nor did anyone use it as well as she did for personal gain.
Women and Work
During the Roman Republic women were responsible for a variety of jobs, a role which also was an extension of their greater freedoms due to war. Women could be maidservants which included services masseuses, beauticians, hairdressers, clothing folders, and escorts for Roman matrons. For the majority of this type of work no formal training was necessary and the positions tended to be filled by freed women rather than free born. Women could also work along side their husbands as saleswomen (Evans, 1991: 121). Virtually the only marketable skill held by free women was that of weaving and manufacturing of cloth. Hence there are a number of women working in the clothing trade. One of the earliest positions held by Roman women was that of mid-wife. The physician Soranus had a few suggestions on the appearance and disposition of a mid-w ife: the woman should be literate, unsuperstitious, keen witted, have a good memory, physically fit and have soft hands (123). However, it would have been very difficult for women to live up to these high standards and were lucky that Soranus was only making suggestions and not legal perameters. Wetn ursing was another job in which freed women and occasionally free women found themselves employed. Soranus also had his list of requirements for this profession as well: women should be in their twenties or thirties, already having given birth to two or more children, healthy and plump in frame, a ruddy complexion, medium size breasts with a large supply of milk, she should refrain from sex and alcohol and above all should be Greek (128). Wealthy Roman families wanted their children to be exposed from the earliest available moment to the highest form of culture, for that was how they saw the Greeks. Women could also seek employment in the entertainment field. Young, girls could find work as mimes, music players and dancers. They could make a fairly decent living this way. Unfortunately this profession often times led to prostitution, the other oldest form of female employment in Rome. Since prostitution was legal, it was also widely available which made it an easy profession in which to find employment.
Women and Religion
Roman women also played a large part in the
religious functions of their city, a function which often times
turned political. Women were involved in religious ceremonies and
cults, some of which were formed for political and social reasons.
The men of Rome used religion and new cults as a means of preserving
the virtues of the Roman matron by imbuing a cultic deity with the
same virtues. One such cult was the Cult of Venus Verticordia, which
was established around 215 BCE due to the second Punic War. In this
cult women were encouraged to remain faithful to their husbands,
though they were away at war. It was meant to deter adultery and
other sinful acts. In this way men were still able to uphold the
virtues and morals of their women even though there were few men
around to regulate their actions (Corbett, 1930: 22).
Another such cult that upheld the high moral standards of the Romans was also a cause for a class struggle between patrician and plebeian women around 295 BCE. The shrine of Pudicitia Patricia was located in the Forum Boarium and was only open to patrician women. This cult was meant to maintain the chastity and modesty of Roman matrons, but was not open to women of the lower social classes. A patrician woman named Verginia married a plebeian man named L. Volumnius Flamma, which is the first recorded instance of mixed marriages. Since she married below her station she was banned from the shrine, therefore she decided to dedicate a shrine to Pudicitia Plebeia at her house and urged plebeian women to compete with their wealthier sisters in chastity (Bauman, 1992: 15).
The most outstanding and long term religious position held by women was the role of Vesta l Virgin. This was a position of considerable social status and political influence. The state cult of Vesta was served by virgin priestesses whose main function was tending to the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta, though they were also a part of agricultural and fertility rites. Girls were enrolled as Vestals between the ages of seven and ten and were required to serve the state for thirty years. This would typically cover the years in which the woman was capable of bearing children. Though this may seem like a long employment, the Vestals enjoyed the greatest amount of freedom of any Roman woman. They were not permanently bound to any males and were not under the authority of their paterfamilias once they became a Vestal. However, this did mean that they was unable to inherit from their fathers, but they were the only Roman women allowed to make a will without any supervision. They were also the only Roman women allowed to ride in a carpentum, a two wheeled wagon and enjoyed better seats at games and dramatic performances than typical women did. Many Vestals chose to remain in the service of the state after their term was up so they could keep their liberation. However, women also suffered the most extreme punishments for misconduct and were subject to political prosecution. If a Vestal was found to be unchaste she could suffer the penalty of burial alive, but this punishment was only used about ten times in the thousand year existence of the Vestal institution. The Romans believed that the welfare of the state also hinged in the purity of its women and therefore blamed the Vestals for situations they obviously had no control over. The Vestals were blamed for the overwhelming defeat at Cannae. Though they did suffer persecution, they also had the power to change laws that directly affected them. Previously the fate of the Vestals was decided by the Pontifix Maximus, but after the trial of three Vestals for unchastity in 114 BCE, for which the priest gave an inconsistent ruling, the law was changed. The Vestals Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia were tried for unchastity, for which they were all guilty, but Aemilia was the only one punished. The Vestals revolted and a tribune named Sex. Peducaeus initiated a law stating that the trial of a Vestal now had to be carried out by the Quaestio Peducaena and that the Pontifix Maximus could no longer act against the Vestal alone, but rather had to try Vestals in a court of law (Bauman, 1992: 54).
There were also cults established for the protection of female fortunes. The Cults of Fortuna were responsible for the fruits of the earth, female physical maturation and sexual fulfillment. When the girls were young they were under the protection of Fortuna Virginalis, but when they were married, their protection was transferred to Fortuna Primigenia. She was the patroness of motherhood and childbirth. One of the other cults of Fortuna was that of Fortuna Virilis, which concerned itself with the fertility and sexuality of women. It is unknown if respectable women participated in this aspect of the cult since some of the rites took place in public baths and included sexual relations out of wedlock. It was this practice caused a bit of tension within the Roman society since pre-marital sex and coed nude bathing went against Roman female virtues.
Another cult which gained public attention for its disregard for Roman virtues was the Cult of Bacchus. In 186 BCE a woman named Paculla Amnia began to initiate men into the cult, previously it had been strictly female. Not only did she initiate men, but she held initiations five times a month instead of the customary three times a year. What caused the biggest stir and the reason for consular investigation was the fact that the rites of the Bacch anals took place at night. The Roman people did not like the idea of unmarried men and women partaking in religious rites together under the cover of darkness. The Cult was investigated and many women were condemned for unchastity, fornication, and promiscuity (Corbett, 1930: 27). They were turned over to their families, and many of them were put to death for their crimes.
Though women were sometimes punished for their roles in religion, they were also praised. It was the Roman matrons who in 204 BCE were responsible for bringing the oriental goddess Bona Dea to Rome. She was imported under the direction of the priestess at Delphi and was thought to be the answer to the growing problem of Hannibal and the Punic Wars.
Though women lived in a world of male domination and enjoyed little personal freedom, we should avoid making the mistake of concluding that they were unhappy under these circumstances. The majority of the primary sources we have from Rome were written by men so we only have a vague idea of how women must have felt. What we do know is that women did attempt to make changes in social and religious policies when they felt so inclined and were able to express themselves in a variety of different ways.
More Links to Sites on Women:
Women's Life in Greece and Rome
Biographies of Roman Women
Women in Roman Society
Bauman, Richard A. Women in Politics in Ancient Rome. New York, New York:
Routledge Press, 1992.
Corbett, Percy E. The Roman Law of Marriage. Oxford, London: The Oxford
University Press, 1930.
Craik, Elizabeth M., ed. Marriage and Property. Great Britian: The Aberdeen
University Press, 1984.
Evans, John K. War, Women, and Children in Ancient Rome. New York, New York:
Routledge Press, 1991.
Hallett, Judith P. Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society. Princeton, New Jersy:
The Princeton University Press, 1984.
Joshel, Sandra. Work, Identity, and Legal Status at Rome. London: University of
oklahoma Press, 1992.
Kebric, Robert B. Roman People. London: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1997.
Livy. The Early History of Rome. Penguin Classics, 1971.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York, New York
Schocken Books, 1975.
Ward, Roy B. "Women's Liberation in the Early Roman Empire". Paper presented to
Women's Studies Colloquim, Miami University, 1988.