Roman Republic lasted from 510 BC until the conventional date of
31 BC, after the civil wars of Julius
Caesar and following Antony's defeat by Augustus. To generalize
about the lives of Roman women in a period covering 450 years is
problematical. Few written records exist from the earliest years
after the fall of the Tarquin kings, although laws do provide some
guidance to the status of Roman women. The myths and legends of
Rome's earliest existence, as codified by Livy, tell us something
about them (although more about Livy, his times, and his priorities).
For the first time, women begin to appear in Republican sculpture,
art and literature. Between the beginning and the end of the Roman
Republic, the position and status of Roman women underwent a sea-change,
from a position far closer to the closeted Greeks to the scandalous
freedoms of a Clodia or Fulvia.
"Infirmitas Sexus" and the Paterfamilias
the time of the XII Tables (ca. 451-450 BC), Roman law demanded
that all women be placed firmly under male custody and control.
Women were considered congenitally weak and frivolous by the nature
of their sex ("infirmitas sexus" and "levitas animi").
The father of the Roman household had unparalleled authority over
his wife, sons, daughters, and slaves. If he saw fit, he could have
them killed for infractions of moral law, as the first Brutus murdered
his sons for betraying Rome. Sons were never fully emancipated in
law and action as long as their father lived. Similarly, a daughter
was under her father's powerful authority ("patria potestas")
for his lifetime unless she married
by manus or became a Vestal Virgin. The authority of the
paterfamilias is without parallel in Greek or Etruscan law.
When the father died, his authority over his daughter passed to
the daughter's nearest male relative on her father's side, unless
the father had designated another guardian in his will. The guardian's
approval was required whenever a woman performed important transactions,
such as making a will, making any kind of contract or sale (including
selling land and manumitting slaves) or accepting an inheritance.
Although less stringently enforced as the Empire progressed, these
laws remained on the books until the time of Diocletian (285-305
AD). Yet, from the time of the Punic Wars to the Battle of Actium,
the Republican period is replete of male complaints against the
increasing wealth and independent behavior of Rome's women.
" 'What kind of behavior
is this? Running around in public, blocking streets,
and speaking to other women's husbands? Could you
not have asked your own husbands the same thing at
home? Are you more charming in public with others'
husbands than at home with your own? And yet, it is
not fitting even at home.for you to concern yourselves
with what laws are passed or repealed here.' "
||Livy, quoting Cato
the Censor regarding the repeal of the Oppian Law (c.
190 BC) for which many women demonstrated. Quoted in
Women's Life in Greece & Rome, Lefkowitz and
Marriages "Manus" and Otherwise
One way a daughter could escape her father's authority
was by a marriage "by the hand," manus, in which her father
literally placed control of her into her husband's hand at the time
of the wedding. This transferred the father's rights, power and
authority to her husband; it literally removed the daughter from
the kinships and inheritance of her birth family and made her a
member of her husband's family instead, especially insofar as property
rights were concerned. Her husband's ancestors became hers, as did
her husband's household gods. There was an alternative to the manus
marriage, in which a woman simply spent three nights per year
absent from her husband's home and in which she remained under her
father's authority and a part of his gens even while living
with her husband. Certainly from the last decades of the Republic,
marriages with manus were becoming increasingly unfashionable,
perhaps due to the increasing prevalence of divorce and women's
desire to retain the more dependable privileges of their father's
household and estate. Manus marriages also had some flaws
from the groom's point of view because the wife then had a financial
claim on her husband's estate.
like her father, the new husband had total authority over his wife
is not clear. Cato the Censor claimed that husbands had unlimited
power to judge and punish their wives, and could inflict the death
penalty for drinking or adultery (drinking in a woman was dangerous
because wine had connotations of religious usage, permitted only
to men, as well as its perceived encouragement to infidelity). The
testimony of historians on the husband's ultimate authority varies,
although the unlimited power of a woman's father is clear. Plutarch
states that a husband could only initiate a divorce on the grounds
of adultery, poisoning the husband's children, or counterfeiting
his keys (presumably, to let in a lover). If he divorced his wife
for other reasons, she was entitled to one-half his property, while
the other half was consecrated to the goddess Ceres.
" If you should take your
wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to
death without a trial; but if you should commit adultery
or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger
on you, nor does the law allow it."
||Livy, quoting Cato
the Elder, History of Rome, 34.3.9.
There are indications that a husband could have his
wife put to death for adultery, but only after consultation with
her male relatives. Certainly if he chose to divorce her, he was
forced to return her dowry to her largely intact, a considerable
expense. When Cicero divorced his difficult wife, Terentia, he struggled
to return the dowry with a deduction for his son's educational expenses.
Although there were specifications for a husband divorcing his wife,
a wife could divorce her husband only in severely limited circumstances,
and if she did so, due to the concept that children belonged to
the father's side of the family, she almost invariably lost possession
of her children, who remained in the father's household. This rule
derived from the obvious need of men for heirs to whom they could
pass their property, and Roman law generally favored property and
stability over tender notions of maternal rights. Society approved
the pronouncements of the writer Dionysius that marriages endured
longer and were healthier when the "wives had no other refuge" than
their husbands: Cato the Censor noted that a husband's absolute
control over his wife benefited both his marriage and the Roman
The Idealized Univira
The concept of the once-married woman (univira)
who never remarried after widowhood was universally admired
well into the Imperial period. As Valerius Maximus notes, it was
thought that "...the mind of a married
woman was particularly loyal and uncorrupted if it knew not how
to leave the bed on which she had surrendered her virginity..."
Valerius Maximus, II.1. However, multiple marriages were
the norm at least in upper-class society by the time of the late
Republic. This may have been partly due to the shorter life span
of women; throughout the ancient world the childbearing years were
extremely dangerous to women, many of whom died between age 25-35.
Husbands were frequently in need of a replacement wife following
the death of a spouse. Authorities suggest that there were noticeably
more men than women in antique Rome, although whether this is due
to childbirth deaths or the abandonment or infanticide of unwanted
female daughters can never be determined. Children were regularly
abandoned in earlier Roman history, particularly if they were deformed
or if the families could not afford another child, and some scholars
argue that daughters were abnormally subject to being exposed. Sometimes
the children died; sometimes they were picked up by slavers or sold
to brothels. In any event, there is no question that to be the mother
of Roman sons brought a woman far more honor than to be the mother
The Roman system was anomalous among contemporary
cultures because the Roman father retained more power over his daughter
than her husband did until the father's death. Both before and after
her father died, the male relations of the father were also responsible
for the guidance and welfare of any Roman wife, and their influence
often exceeded her husband's. In a marriage without manus
the wife could live under the loose guardianship of a husband, uncle,
or other male relation who did not live in the same house and whose
daily authority was more lax even than the limited control of her
Republican Rome was similar to contemporary cultures
in its emphasis on the purpose of marriage being to combine estates,
property, and political power and to create children to inherit
them, rather than on the individual affections or happiness of the
man and woman involved. The notion of a "romantic couple" was entirely
alien to an upper class Roman woman, although affection between
spouses was considered a pleasant, if uncommon, fringe benefit of
marriage. Marriages were made to transmit a family's wealth and
status and the transfer required children. Her status as a mother
was the single most important and revered aspect of a woman's life
and her husband could divorce her for barrenness. The Roman state
was martial from its inception, and a constant supply of new soldiers
was vital for its survival. Even the illiterate and powerless lower
classes were called the proletarii, "producers of manpower"
and the Lupercalia fertility festival in February remained
one of Rome's most important rites. The highest praises were lavished
not only on women who had many children, but also on the mother
as the moral template of Rome's future citizen soldiers. Her fertility
was critical to the future of the state; her ability to raise children
equal to the moral needs of the state was equally vital. Thus women
who could exemplify the virtues of Rome and who could instill it
into their sons and daughters were universally admired and held
up as examples of Rome's greatness. Thus a husband's funerary monument
to his dead wife could include the terse epitaph,
" Friend, I have not much
to stay, stop and read it.
This tomb, which is not fair, is for a fair woman.
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband in her heart.
She bore two sons, one of whom she left on earth,
the other beneath it.
She was pleasant to talk with. She walked with grace.
She kept the house. She worked in wool.
That is all. You may go. "
||Trans. R. Lattimore;
quoted by Kleiner and Matheson, I Claudia II War,
In addition to her duties to support her family's
ambitions and breed her children as true Romans, the late-Republican
woman had almost unlimited purview over the domestic household.
Although with the increased use of slaves following Rome's expansion
in the third and second centuries BC, a Roman matron was no longer
single-handedly required to weave her family's clothes, cook meals,
or teach her children, still she maintained control over increasingly
sophisticated households of children, relations, and slaves. In
addition, the growing power and wealth of the great Optimate families
(ancient families which at least one Consul in their recent backgrounds)
required increasing efforts to present a fashionable face to the
the responsibilities of women became more significant to their husbands'
prestige and political clout, so education for women became increasingly
more common. Unlike Athens, it became acceptable in Rome for girls
as well as boys to receive elemental education, to have read "improving"
Roman and Greek authors and to be able to discuss political affairs.
Boys then went on to higher studies, including rhetoric, the passport
to political careers, while women married in their mid-teens. Throughout
the Empire, however, a woman cherished her ability to read and write
both as a mark of excellence and as a sign of her status.
The separation of women enforced by the Greeks had
never been the Roman way; women were permitted to go out in public,
attend lectures and meetings, dine with guests, and conduct their
own affairs with some initiative. At the same time, as moral guardians
of the health and virtue of Rome itself, their behavior was severely
scrutinized for signs of intemperance, sexual laxity, or extravagant
(and dangerous) display.
It was considered just for a husband to physically
punish his wife for misbehavior well into the early Empire. Valerius
Maximus collected various stories from the third and fourth centuries
BC which outlined the rigors of female corrections:
"Egnatius Metellus ... took
a cudgel and beat his wife to death because she had
drunk some wine. Not only did no one charge him with
a crime, but no one even blamed him. Everyone considered
this an excellent example of one who had justly paid
the penalty for violating the laws of sobriety. Indeed,
any woman who immoderately seeks the use of wine closes
the door on all virtues and opens it to vices. There
was also the harsh marital severity of Gaius Sulpicius
Gallus. He divorced his wife because he had caught
her outdoors with her head uncovered: a stiff penalty,
but not without a certain logic. 'The law,' he said,
'prescribes for you my eyes alone to which you may
prove your beauty. For these eyes you should provide
the ornaments of beauty, for these be lovely: entrust
yourself to their more certain knowledge. If you,
with needless provocation, invite the look of anyone
else, you must be suspected of wrongdoing.' ...to
these we should add the case of Publius Sempronius
Sophus who disgraced his wife with divorce merely
because she dared attend the games without his knowledge.
And so, long ago, when the misdeeds of women were
thus forestalled, their minds stayed far from wrongdoing
Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 6.3.9-12. Quoted
The Exceptional Vestals
The Vestal Virgins were the exception to every feminine rule in
early Rome. As no quality was more admired than a woman's fertility,
unless it was her chastity, women who sacrificed their fertile years
in service to Rome's religious observances were held in the deepest
veneration and wielded significant influence. Roman tradition held
that the shrine of the goddess Vesta, closed to all men, contained
an eternal sacred flame symbolizing Rome's sexual renewal as well
as other cult artifacts connected with Rome's past and future well-being.
The Vestals, chosen and consecrated from upper-level Roman families
in early childhood, served for 30 years. They were then released
from their vows and could marry, although few did. "They
had power to make a will in the lifetime of their father; they had
a free administration of their own affairs without guardian or tutor.
. . when they go abroad they have the fasces (ceremonial rods borne
before officeholders with political power) carried before them."
Plutarch, Numa, 10. Vestals could pardon a condemned
criminal if they met him on the way to execution; it was death to
press against their litter or chair in public crowds. They had innumerable
special privileges, including having the most prestigious seats
at the theater and dining with Rome's Consuls or the Imperial Family.
The Vestals maintained the wills of every Roman citizen, including
the Emperors. A Vestal was under the authority only of Rome's high
priest or Pontifex Maximus; otherwise, she was immune from male
interference, as she had literally given her fertility for Rome's
continued well-being. But as her privileges were greater, so were
her punishments; if any Vestal permitted the sacred fire to go out
(it could only be relit under highly ritualized circumstances),
she could be scourged; on the rare recorded instances when a Vestal
broke her vows of chastity, she was buried alive with terrifying
ceremony. Although vestals were permitted to marry upon the honorable
conclusion of their thirty-year service (and many were only in their
late thirties), few did so. It is arguable that their wealthy and
privileged existence, largely free of male interference, was too
comfortable to exchange for the opposite challenges of being a Roman
wife and mother.
Cato the Censor, 239 - 149 BC
Much can be learned both of the traditional position of Roman women,
and the dangers imposed to that tradition by the temptations of
Empire, in the speeches of Cato
the Censor. Appointed to the narrow duties of Censor in 184,
Cato had been for some time the self-appointed arbiter of Rome's
moral compass. He was famous for his own time for his reactionary
conservatism, his denunciation of the decadence of Carthage and
Greece, and (among other elements) his enunciation of controls upon
Cato wrote over 150 speeches and books on agriculture and social
life; his works have come down to us only in fragments quoted by
other, extant writers. The victory over Hannibal and Carthage in
the Second Punic War was making Rome increasingly wealthy. We have
several speeches during the debates promulgating the Lex Oppia,
a sumptuary law dating from 213 BC which limited women's dress
and ornament. It enacted that no woman should have possession (including
jewelry) of more than e half an ounce of gold; it was forbidden
to wear clothing of different colors or ride in carriages inside
the city for any other than religious occasions. It was Cato's task
to preserve the purity of ancestral customs in the face of the disruption
of the Punic Wars. When a movement to repeal the Lex Oppia
arose c. 195 BC, Cato spoke forcefully against repeal. Among other
laws, he voted in 181 for the
Lex Orchia, one of many sumptuary laws attempting to
regular luxury. Since the time of the second Punic War and earlier,
laws had been passed attempting to regular what clothes women could
wear, how much jewelry they could display, or how their banquets
should be organized. In 169 BC, Cato voted for laws restricting
a woman's ability to independent inheritance (the lex
Cato supported the Puritanism of an earlier
Rome in his contempt for men who were physically affectionate to
their wives or permitted them unusual freedoms. As Censor, he expelled
Manilius from the senate on the grounds that he had embraced his
wife of many years in broad daylight in front of their daughter.
Cato noted that he, personally, never embraced his wife unless it
was thundering loudly (and that he rather enjoyed thunder). Yet
Cato forgave himself certain behaviors; upon his wife's death, he
cohabited with a teenage female slave until his son protested, then,
at age 80, married another very young woman who bore him a son.
the stories retold by Valerius or epitomized by Cato were based
on perceptions of women both genuine and false. Modesty - chastity
- fecundity - thrift - discipline - courage, were the purported
virtues of Rome's founding women derived from the earliest legends
of its past. These virtues, if they ever applied in reality, were
coming under increasing pressure well before the 1st Century BC.
Wealth was flooding into Rome from her overseas conquests in Italy,
Spain, and Carthage. Unlike Greek law, there were many loopholes
for a Roman woman to obtain control over her own dowry and family
inheritance or to overlook the control of a male guardian. The slow
agony of the Punic War (especially the war against Hannibal, which
kept Roman soldiers at war for many years at a stretch) meant that
thousands of women were required to manage estates in their male
relatives' absence. Although few Romans realized it, the Republic
had passed into its waning phase and its death-throes would mean
both a cultural and societal revolution leading to the world of
the Emperors - and their women.
of Cato the Elder . More on Roman wedding laws and customs may
be found at Ancient
Roman Marriage. Laws are linked to Bill Thayer's Lacus
Initial bust of young woman from I,
Claudia. Images of Vestal, mosaic, courtesy of B. McManus, VROMA.
Bride from grand frieze at Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, courtesy
of John Hauser's Pictures
of Pompeii. Bust of young woman from Roman Portraits in Context,
De Luca Edizioni D'Arte.