FEMINAE ROMANAE:
The Women of Ancient Rome
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WOMEN IN THE REPUBLIC

The 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

From 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 Fant, 143.  

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.

Whether, 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 state.

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 of daughters.

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 husband.

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, 13.

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 world.

As 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.

Marital Discipline

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 "

  Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 6.3.9-12. Quoted in Diotima.

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 Roman women.

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 Voconia).

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.

Yet 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.

Sources:

Biography 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 Curtius/Leges.

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.

Suzanne Cross 2001-2006. All Rights Reserved.
No material may be used without the author's permission.