Women have not had equal rights compared to males for millennia in practically all countries. Women were considered minors by the law in ancient Rome. To attempt to depict a typical Roman woman would always be reductive and oversimplified. Because if history has taught us anything, it is that there are men and women, not a man and a woman. History is a plural verb in conjugation. And the position of women and their place in ancient Roman society didn’t stop changing and taking on different forms from 753 BC to 476 AD.
When the legend becomes true
Mythology influenced the founding of Rome. Remus and Romulus were twins who fought over who would give birth to the most famous city in Latin. Their story has been told since 753 BC, when Romulus founded Rome. The complete lack of women in the early days of Rome is the first thing that stands out the most. Rhea Silva, the mother of Remus and Romulus, the two boys who were left behind in the Tiber, is overshadowed by the story of the she-wolf that fed the boys. While the Roman metropolis was being constructed, no evidence of women’s presence was found in the historical records.
The balance of gender in this virile and Roman equilibrium, however, is offset by another incident that would later become a legend. Women first appeared in the history of the Roman Empire with the kidnapping of the Sabine women. This event acts as a role model for later generations. The kidnapping happened soon after Romulus and his warrior brothers founded Rome.
There weren’t enough Roman women to populate the metropolis, so, to exchange some women, the Romans attempted to negotiate with the Sabines, a nearby Italic people. But the Sabines had a negative impression of this new metropolis, so they rejected the offer. These women were then commanded to be kidnapped by Romulus.
The first women to live in Roman territory and take part in city life were these Sabines. Some of them were even given the moniker “Curias” since they were able to put an end to the conflict between their husbands and their parents. Roman women learned some traditions from the Sabines, including weaving and spinning. In fact, spinning wool was their only job when they were abducted and placed in their new homes. These Sabines impacted the morality of the next generation of Roman children.
The beginnings of Roman women
Given the variety of traits that Roman women evolved, it seems impossible to create a typical portrait of a Roman lady. But there were two distinct groups: the matrons (the ideal concept of a Roman woman, usually married) and the patrician women.
Rigor and austerity were the norms among Roman women in the beginning. Clothes are the first things that come to mind, and they have a strong symbolic significance. Women veiled their heads in public to avoid showing too much about themselves. From the late Republic (133–27 BCE) to the end of the Empire (476 AD), the matrons covered their woolen stolas with a garment they call a palla that was designed to conceal the two shoulders. This one reached the level of the feet. It was intended to obstruct the mobility of a Roman woman in addition to concealing a portion of the body.
The Roman girls had always been brought up at home. Even though Livy (64 BCE–17 AD) mentions a school for females in the 5th century BCE, it would take decades before Roman girls were accepted in schools. Roman women named Vestal Virgins were dressed in an embroidered toga with a bulla (amulet) around her neck. One’s hair was tied back behind her head in a bun.
A typical Roman woman would almost cover her whole body once she married. And from early to mid-Republic, women were typically referred to by their family name.
The matron wore a few diamonds, but nothing extravagant—just enough to set her apart from a servant or a prostitute. It wasn’t until the end of the Roman Republic (around 27 BCE) that perfume and makeup were widely available. But despite the matron’s social position, there was no place for uniqueness and no right to be different when it came to clothing in general. Because the Romans originally desired to have “mothers” rather than “women.”
The matron, “the protector of the house,” was restricted to living inside the house while the man lived outside. It was improper for a Roman woman to walk around the streets. But she was not required to do menial activities at home either. Because, like their Sabine predecessors, a matron oversaw her slaves and spun or wove togas. They were women of discipline and responsibility who devoted themselves to their husbands and kids. However, their social circle was small.
Near the end of the Roman Kingdom (753–509 BC), a Roman woman always ate while sitting, while males were allowed to eat laying down. Despite some inequalities, there were no significant female uprisings in Rome. This could be related to Roman women’s general high regard.
Neither voting nor being elected were rights that applied to Roman women. Women were always considered to “belong” to a male, sometimes their father and other times their spouse. The gathering was officially forbidden for them. If there was such a gathering in place, they had to go via their spouses. A Roman woman was also not considered a citizen. According to Lactantius, Cicero (106–43 BCE) remarked this in a sententious tone in his Epitome: “What will be the misfortune of a city where women will occupy the offices of men! It is to say the credit which one grants them…”
In all the records, a Roman woman was always talked about in terms of her husband or her boys. It would take centuries until the Roman Republic (509 BCE) before they were referred to as individual women.
When it comes to relationships and marriage, Roman women were married quite young. Sexual intercourse began extremely early—around the age of 12—and while it helped with menstruation, it often resulted in physical pain that was permanently etched in the body. It’s possible that Roman society did not ponder on the finer points of love by this time. An Ancient Roman woman positioned herself more on fertility and the sexual acts were performed in complete darkness. The only purpose of a sexual encounter between Roman couples was reproduction.
Roman women’s bond with their child
The bond between a Roman mother and her early child was tenuous, if not nonexistent. The experience of becoming pregnant was a true hardship. Miscarriages were dreaded, particularly since Roman women were terrified of being accused of abortion, which was a serious crime in Ancient Rome. Due to their humility and, more importantly, their relative lack of expertise in this area, Roman doctors rarely offered assistance to expectant mothers. An estimated one in five deliveries resulted in a mother’s death.
It is difficult to describe the connection between a Roman mother and her child. The Roman woman was more filled with pride than with love. They would take great pride in their ability to give birth. In fact, only a small percentage of Roman children were able to live past their first year. Thus, a Roman dad and mom would not quickly feel emotionally attached to their child.
Even when their children became adults, the matron would still rule over them. Thus, over time, Rome started to appreciate women more when they had children, since a woman without children was seen as worthless.
A Roman woman’s position in society
At the beginning of the Roman Kingdom, which began in 753 BCE, the people of Rome were mostly the same. But new groups arose as the city expanded. Because of this, all over the land, new communities with their own traditions and ways of life grew up. The historians mostly depict the lives of the upper crust rather than the lives of the general populace.
This is why it is important to distinguish between the patrician woman from a rich family and the plebeian woman who lives in less hospitable conditions, particularly from the Roman Republic forward. The plebeians stayed more true to tradition, whilst the patricians somewhat tended to emancipate themselves.
Some religious Roman cults were either reserved for the patricians or the plebeians. For instance, the Pudicitia was a patrician-only cult. According to Livy, a noblewoman who was married to a plebeian had a plebeian Pudicitia brought into her house after learning that the cult had rejected her due to their relationship. Thus, virtue was high even among women nobles, not excluding women matrons. One could always feel the atmosphere of tension between these two types of Roman women.
Rome was dominating almost the whole Mediterranean basin at the end of the Republic (27 BCE). Many Roman men joined the newly improved professional army. These men received several distinctions. The males who abstained from fighting or were excused from military duty were cast aside; they were referred to as togatus, or plain civilians. This decision was significant since it affected a woman’s social status too.
Imported slave women disrupted Roman customs. Because they would be assigned to the merest duties, the matrons’ workload would be greatly reduced, which would aid in their freedom.
Another group of Roman women were courtesans and prostitutes. They became increasingly significant toward the end of the Roman Republic. They had always existed, but from this point on, they were more openly mentioned. The legal ability to create and dissolve relationships in Rome boosted the number of courtesans in society.
These “venal” women included many slaves and freedwomen. Dancers, musicians, and even actresses were the most sought-after. Some of them even succeeded in becoming prominent patricians at the pinnacle of Roman society. This group of women illustrates how Roman women’s roles and traditions changed through time.
Intellectual and physical attractiveness of Roman women
The “physical” development of Roman women in history is astounding, going from a person that was concealed under the Kingdom (753–509 BCE) to someone that was more revealed under the Empire (27 BCE–476 AD). The toilet of a Roman lady became a symbol of art. The importance of cosmetics and fragrances among Roman women changed throughout time. Clothes began to be designed with the intention of emphasizing the most generous contours of the female body. Mirrors were starting to be seen as vital pieces of equipment. The jewels were put on display in a way that showed off both their beauty and their wealth.
Therefore, women’s clothing in Rome was refined over time. The color, particularly purple, was being used more often. This color was obtained from a mollusk called a murex. The animal has a yellowish liquid inside of it, but when it dies and is exposed to the sun, the liquid transforms from purple to blue. These hues were quite costly and in high demand. Roman women still wore the stola and palla when it came to garments, but new fabrics like silk were now in use, and they were once again very costly.
Roman women’s hairstyles are a remarkable reflection of their development. The matrons kept their braids pulled tightly back behind their heads for a long time, but a Roman woman later began to have all kinds of hairstyles.
Some Roman women liked curls, while others created tiaras with pins, and still others built actual sculptures to stand above their heads. The morning hairdressing became inevitable. All of this laborious job was usually done by the maids.
The names of the fragrances from this era still have a certain distinction today, like Indian cardamom, nard, myrrh, and Egyptian cinnamon. Numerous Eastern scents were adorned by the Romans, perhaps with saffron or rose oil. The blushes, too, had a brief period of splendor. The color purpurissum, usually manufactured from murex, was the most valuable pigment among Roman women.
The change in Roman women’s way of life also affected schooling. Girls were now taught the fundamentals of reading and math. Even music and literature were introduced from time to time. Some girls from high society engaged in writing and eloquence. Cicero (106–43 BCE) and his wife enjoyed philosophical discussions.
Compared to the Empire era (founded in 27 BCE), Romans did not evaluate their women in the same manner as in the Kingdom (which ended in 509 BCE) or even the early Republic (509–27 BCE). A Roman woman’s value used to be determined by her virtue, but later on, Roman society learned to appreciate the intelligence of women.
A well-known Roman woman: Agrippina
Women always had a complicated relationship with authority in Rome, from the household to the highest levels of the Empire. Roman women had minimal legal rights. But under the greater autonomy provided by the Republic (founded in 509 BCE), the matron started to have servants and exercise authority without her husband. Many women began to interact directly with those in positions of authority at the upper levels.
Agrippina fully subjugated Claudius the Emperor by seizing his heart. She might have poisoned him to oversee his inheritance. But after his death, Agrippina nominated Nero, a child of her former relationship, and consigned Britannicus, Claudius’ actual successor, to the mists of history. This is one of many good examples that show how Roman women worked their way up to the top positions in Roman politics.
The powerful Roman women often rivaled each other, and they often changed the course of history. Each of them employed different tricks to accomplish their objectives. They charged their adversary with practicing bewitchment or using astrologers. If that failed, they accused each other of adultery.
However, Rome never gave up the masculinity that ran through its veins. Valerius Maximus’ dreadful statement about a magnificent lady in Memorable Deeds and Sayings reads that “her virile soul, by a perfidious error of fortune, had received a woman’s body.” Roman women were permitted to intervene in the most important matters in Roman society, but only without taking up too much space or garnering too much attention. A woman’s virility and heroism were only acknowledged if she was not Roman. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus mentions Boudica, a Breton commander who was highly regarded by all Romans by then.
These contradictions create a typical portrayal of a Roman woman in Ancient Rome. But due to the many dualities, this image will still never be entirely realized.
- Jasper Burns, Great Women of Imperial Rome (2007)
- Beryl Rawson, The Roman Family (1986)
- Caldwell Lauren, Roman Girlhood and the Fashioning of Femininity (2014)
- Bruce W. Frier and Thomas A.J. McGinn, A Casebook on Roman Family Law (2004)