From Ancient Peoples
Women in Ancient Rome
|The heroic suicide of Porcia, daughter of Cato and wife of Brutus, as pictured by the 17th-century painter Elisabetta Sirani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Life was hard in the Ancient World: death, disease and hunger lurked around every corner. Women of Rome on the bottom rungs of the social ladder were too busy working and earning a living. However, outside of the lower classes women could not work but, more often than not, they did not want to do so. In fact “work” was seen as something to be done by slaves and low class people who did not know any better. These women were demanding and getting greater freedom. Some men objected, of course, but their cries of protest were in vain. Emperor Augustus introduced a series of laws to promote traditional values but even he was unable to stem the tide of progress even within his own family.
Generalisations on the status of women in the ancient world are always difficult, and never more so than in the case of Rome where theory and practice were often so far apart. Many Athenian men seem to have regarded their wives as at best essential inconveniences, but Roman men placed a very high value on marriage, home and the family and this made quite a different society and its treatment of women.
At no time in Rome’s history were women allowed to hold public office or work in the government. Respectable women were not supposed to be wandering around alone outside, but somehow they did manage to have a life beyond the home.
Childhood and Education
Girls are depicted in Roman art playing numerous games including ball games, hula hoops and knuckle bones. Dolls are often found in children’s tombs. These dolls were also dedicated to goddesses like Diana and Venus as girls matured.
Many girls went to public primary schools and were educated alongside boys. Children from elite families, both male and female, seem to have been taught Greek as well as Latin. Children of both genders learned to behave socially by attending dinner parties and other events. Girls as well as boys participated in religious festivals; both girls and boys sang formal compositions in choirs, for instance, at the Secular Games in 17 BC.
Among the upper classes, women seem to have been well-educated, some highly so, and were sometimes praised by the male historians for their learning and cultivation. Cornelia Metella, the young wife of Pompey the Great at the time of his death, was distinguished for her musicianship and her knowledge of geometry, literature, and philosophy. This degree of learning indicates formal preparation. But because women took no official part in public life, the lives of boys and girls began to diverge dramatically after they formally came of age, and memorials to women recognize their domestic qualities far more often than intellectual achievements. The skills a Roman matron needed to run a household required training, and mothers probably passed on their knowledge to their daughters in a manner appropriate to their station in life, given the emphasis in Roman society on traditionalism (mos maiorum).
There was no marriage registry, nor was there any need for a state appointed person with the power to declare the couple to be married. Only four things were necessary: the bride and groom must be free citizens and be past the age of puberty; they must intend and consent to being husband and wife; and they must have the consent of any relevant guardian. The bride must then be escorted into her new husband’s home, and it is this deed that completed the marriage. Written documentation of a wedding was not necessary. Sleeping together did not make a marriage, and separation did not break one up; what counted was the intent of the individuals involved.
The typical “bridal dress” was a hem less tunic (tunica recta) with a double knotted woollen girdle around her waist. A saffron coloured cloak (palla) was worn over the tunic and her sandals were often dyed the same saffron colour. Six pads of artificial hair (seni crines) separated by narrow bands protected her own hairdo. The outfit was completed by a flaming orange veil (flammenum) that covered her head and the upper part of her face.
The bride, surrounded by her family, welcomed the groom and his family and friends to her home and then she led them to the place of the ceremony. A pig or other animal was sacrificed. The auspex examined the entrails and asserted that the auspices were favourable and that the gods approved of the marriage. This unofficial position, whose duties began and ended with the one wedding, was held by a family friend who was expected to agree regardless of what he imagined seeing inside the sacrifice. If there was a marriage contract, the bride and groom signed it and ten witnesses chosen from the two families attached their seals to it. The couple then exchanged their vows.
Later, when night had fallen, there was a noisy procession from the home of the bride to the home of the groom, and, as noted above, this was the moment they legally became husband and wife. There might have been flute players and torch bearers. Three young boys led the bride while bridesmaids carried her distaff and spindle, symbols of her role as spinner and weaver for the new household. Very often the bride was carried across the doorstep of the groom’s house, for it was considered to be very unlucky if she tripped on her way in.
Women and their Dowries
A dowry, or dos as the Romans called it, was a part of most marriages. The Roman version of this very common institution probably began out of a desire to get the bride’s family to contribute a share of the costs involved in setting up a new household. The dowry gave the bride’s family a reason to stay involved. In the early Republic the daughter often passed into the control of the groom’s family and the children certainly belonged to the husband and not the wife. Without a substantial investment in the dowry it would be tempting for the family of the bride to have little more to do with her, and a valuable dowry that could be withdrawn at will helped offset the power the law gave to the paterfamilias.
The father was more or less required, either by custom or law, to provide every daughter with a dowry appropriate to his means. If he were unable to do so a relative or a family friend might offer to provide one. If the woman were independent she could contribute her own property. The dowry was handed over to the husband or his paterfamilias as the bride’s contribution to the establishment of a new household.
Under Classical Roman law either the husband or the wife could demand and get a divorce without offering any reason beyond a simple desire to end the marriage. The record is silent on the need for paternal permission for those still in patria potestas, but certainly for childless couples divorce was otherwise quite simple, requiring little more than notification in the presence of witnesses that the marriage was over and that husband and wife now lived in separate premises.
What happened to divorced wives? Those who could simply took their dowries and went home. Women with money and those without but still possessed of looks or charm had no trouble finding new husbands, for in the absence of adultery there was no stigma attached to the divorcee. There must have been divorced women long past the flush of youth with little wealth, and no family, but we have no way of knowing how many or what happened to them.
Women and Adultery
Augustus’ reforms were made to encourage marriage, promote childbirth and discourage adultery. Men between the ages of 25 and 60, and women between 20 and 50 had to be married. If a woman’s husband died she had 2 perhaps 3 years to remarry; and a divorced woman had about 18 months. Single people were restricted from inheriting. This would therefore only really affect the rich elite of Rome that expected to inherit wealth from their parents. Special privileges were given to women with more than 3 children. Men of the senatorial class were forbidden from marrying freedwomen, actresses, pimps, prostitutes or adulteresses.
Adultery was considered as a sexual relationship between a married woman and a man not her husband. The marital status of the man was irrelevant. So serious was the act that a man who came upon such an outrage might be forgiven if he responded with violence. A man who caught his daughter in such circumstances in his own home was allowed to kill her lover. In a similar situation a husband could kill the man only if he was infamous. The law said that he could not kill his wife, but that if he did so he should be punished less severely.
These provisions were not new with Augustus. He was simply taking what had been a long standing right in Roman practice, codifying it and putting on some limits. For example, there was no right to kill unless a man actually witnessed the act of adultery and it happened in his own home. What was new with Augustus was taking what had once been a civil matter and turning it into a criminal matter.
A husband was required to divorce an adulterous wife or face charges of pimping. A woman convicted of adultery lost half of her dowry and a third of any other property she possessed and was then banished to an island.
These laws were certainly unpopular and were probably failures as well. Tacitus, writing a century later, certainly thought so, and even Augustus in the end bemoaned the inability of his generation to come up to the ancient standards.
There is no sign of women complaining about the new legislation, but the protests from men were certainly loud and clear, and devious methods were soon found to circumvent the law. Those who needed a wife to collect an inheritance married quickly and then divorced just as quickly. Some men got betrothed to girls so young that it would be years before they were old enough to marry. There was little Augustus could do about the marriage today, divorce tomorrow, routine to collect a legacy but he could and did limit the age at which betrothal was possible to seven and shorten the maximum legal length of a betrothal to two years, probably offering some benefit to the girls and women who were the victims of these practices.
An interesting victim of the anti-adultery law was the Emperor’s own daughter, Julia, who was banished as an example to all.
Augustus was married three times but those marriages produced only one child, a daughter, Juli. She attracts the attention of the historian only because she was the daughter of Augustus. Nevertheless, her story is fascinating because of the light it shines on the lives of upper class women at the beginning of the Empire.
The Emperor had divorced Julia’s mother before the birth in about 39 BCE. Julia’s first husband died after only two years when she was just 16 years old. Hoping for a grandson to groom to take over the reins of government, Augustus arranged for her to marry Agrippa, his general and close friend, a rich man more than double her age. Rumour had it that she enjoyed many affairs during the marriage. Agrippa died after 9 years, leaving Julia wealthy enough to live as she pleased until her father stepped in and arranged yet another marriage, this time with Tiberius, son by another husband of the Emperor’s wife. Julia’s third husband, like the others before him, had been forced by Augustus to divorce an earlier wife in order to be free to marry the Emperor’s daughter. Julia had not wished to marry again and simply resumed her many affairs.
Augustus had shamelessly arranged three marriages for his daughter in order to suit his own political ends. Though he had simply taken it for granted that that was the Roman way, he really did love her, but Julia’s behaviour was putting him in a very difficult position. The moral reforms that Augustus had insisted on making law required a father to act if a husband was unwilling or unable to curb a wife’s adultery. With each new affair public pressure on Augustus increased. He had to make an example of her or rescind the entire family values program.
Julia was banished to a barren island. Her daughter, also called Julia, took up her mother’s ways and was sent into exile by her grandfather to an island in the Adriatic.
Tiberius eventually became Emperor and allowed his ex-wife to move to a somewhat less inhospitable island where she remained until her death.
Women and Divorce
With the permission of any relevant guardians a man and woman could declare themselves married as long as both were past the age of puberty, so it seemed not unreasonable that if one of the parties withdrew consent then the marriage was over. Any man or woman who wished to do so could become divorced simply by sending the partner a letter or even by declaring in front of witnesses that the marriage was over. There was no such thing as joint marital property and any children of the marriage belonged to the father, so there was little to argue about.
If the husband initiated the divorce he had to return the full dowry. Particularly large dowries were a major impediment to divorce as a high financial penalty had to be paid by the one who initiated it. The bigger the dowry the more power the wife had in the relationship as long as she remained chaste. If the wife (or in some cases her father) initiated the divorce, the husband was allowed to keep one-sixth for each child up to three plus, if applicable, another sixth for her adultery.
The first major change came with the Augustan Marriage Laws. A husband was required to divorce an adulterous wife or face charges of pimping, and the financial penalty against her was increased to half of her dowry and a third of any other property she possessed. On top of that she was then exiled to an island. We have no way of knowing how well this law was enforced but there was no change in the ability of either partner to get out of a marriage that had not been tainted by adultery.
By the Third Century many in Rome were having serious reservations about the ease with which people could get out of a marriage. Some were concerned about the impact divorce was having on children, but others simply felt that society had a vested interest in preserving existing relationships and objected to the idea that a husband or wife could break up a marriage when there was no compelling reason. Late in his reign, 331, Constantine issued an edict imposing serious penalties on unilateral divorce except in certain circumstances. If a woman divorced her husband without proving him to be “a murderer, a preparer of poison, or a disturber of tombs” she was to lose her entire dowry and be deported to an island. Similarly if a man divorced his wife without proving she was an “adulteress, a preparer of poison or a go-between,” he had to return her dowry. If he should remarry, his ex-wife was allowed to come into his home and seize his new wife’s dowry. Note that Constantine’s law imposed penalties but it did not invalidate the divorce. The new law did not affect divorces that were agreeable to both partners.
Roman wives were expected to bear children. However, by the 1st century AD avoided breastfeeding their children and instead hired a wet nurse.
The extent to which Roman women might expect their husbands to participate in the rearing of very young children seems to vary and is hard to determine. Family-values traditionalists such as Cato appear to have taken an interest: Cato liked to be present when his wife bathed and swaddled their child.
Roman women were not only valued for the number of children that they produced, but also for their part in raising and educating children to become good citizens. To rear children for successful lives, an exemplary Roman mother needed to be well-educated herself.
One of the Roman women most famous for their strength and influence as a mother was Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi. Julius Caesar, whose father died when he was only a young teen, had a close relationship with his mother, Aurelia, whose political clout was essential in preventing the execution of her 18-year-old son during the proscriptions of Sulla.
Wealthy women travelled around the city in a litter carried by slaves. Women gathered in the streets on a daily basis to meet with friends, attend religious rites at temples, or to visit the baths. The wealthiest families had private baths at home, but most people went to bath houses not only to wash but to socialize, as the larger facilities offered a range of services and recreational activities, among which women were not excluded.
For entertainment women could attend debates at the Forum, the public games (ludi), chariot races, and theatrical performances. By the late Republic, they regularly attended dinner parties, though in earlier times the women of a household dined in private together. Conservatives such as Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) considered it improper for women to take a more active role in public life; his complaints indicated that indeed some women did voice their opinions in the public sphere.
Though the practice was discouraged, Roman generals would sometimes take their wives with them on military campaigns. Caligula’s mother Agrippina the Elder often accompanied her husband Germanicus on his campaigns in northern Germania, and the emperor Claudius was born in Gaul for this reason. Wealthy women might tour the empire, often participating or viewing religious ceremonies and sites around the empire. Rich women travelled to the countryside during the summer when Rome became too hot.
Women were present at most Roman festivals and cult observances. Some rituals specifically required the presence of women, but their participation might be limited. As a rule women did not perform animal sacrifice, the central rite of most major public ceremonies, though this was less a matter of prohibition than the fact that most priests presiding over state religion were men. Some cult practices were reserved for women only, for example, the rites of the Good Goddess (Bona Dea).
Women offered advice and schemed in the background, and on occasion they demonstrated in the open, but they were denied public office and a role in the government. A few exceptions existed in matters of religion.
With never more than six at a time, the position of Vestal Virgin was hardly a career opportunity for the average woman and it had little real power, but it possessed prestige rivalling that of most magistracies and provided benefits and a lifestyle unavailable to any other woman in the land. Whenever there was need for a replacement, the chief pontiff would choose 20 well born girls between 7 and 10 years of age who showed promise of developing great beauty and talent. To give the goddess the opportunity to express her preference, the final winner was chosen by lot.
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