Women in Ancient Rome: Wikis


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A Roman girl of the time of the Caesars. Photo by Giacomo Brogi of a bust in Rome, in the Museo Nazionale Romano - Terme di Diocleziano.

Noble Women in ancient Rome were citizens, but could not run for political office or vote.[1] Roman women had little political freedom in society, but substantial freedom outside of politics (i.e. economic), and some were outspoken and took an interest in the politics of their day. The status of a woman would vary from a fish monger with very little money to a woman of great wealth who was a daughter of and married to prominent politicians like Caecilia Metella, and those are the women more likely to have left a mark. This along with the massive changes in status women went through during Roman times makes it very hard to pin down the place of women in Roman society as a whole. Women referred to by name in the ancient sources are not as numerous as men, however very large amounts of writing has survived from the ancient world. The great historians such as Tacitus did sometimes record the names and deeds of exceptional women such as Epicharis, however it is questionable how much accounts of heroines enduring the worst torture the Roman Empire had to offer reveals about the lives typical women lived. Fortunately important historians are not the only ones who left writing about Roman Society. Roman jurists are an important source on how both men and women lived their lives because their writings are a record of the laws they lived by during the Later Republic and Early Empire. Surviving letters from prominent men (and the occasional woman) are another important source for research. Further sources include the many plays from Rome, which often survive in their original form, inscriptions, artwork, and poetry. Although men like Tacitus and Suetonius are still vital in researching Roman Society, Ovid, Juvenal, and Plautus are just as important to the research of culture and society (while they tell nothing about other aspects of Rome, i.e. warfare). The last period of the Roman Empire is very interesting, and women went through a lot of important legal and social change at that point, however there are enough changes to make it unwise to cover them here.


Roman law

"There never was a case in court in which the quarrel was not started by a woman. If Manilia is not a defendant, she'll be the plaintiff; she will herself frame and adjust the pleadings; she will be ready to instruct Celsus himself how to open his case, and how to urge his points."-Juvenal[2]

Like other aspects of the Roman legal system, the legal status of women went through many changes over time.

Under early Roman law, sometimes called Archaic Law marriages were of three kinds - sacred by the sharing of bread (conferrateo), by purchase (coemptio), and by mutual cohabitation (usus). Patricians always married conferrateo, while plebeians married by the latter two kinds. In the last type of marriage, if a woman was absent for three consecutive nights, at least once a year she would avoid her husband establishing legal control over her. This differed from the Athenian custom of arranged marriage and sequestered wives that were unable to walk in the street unescorted.

Manus Marriage was the norm before the Late Republic but became less frequent thereafter – the later Roman jurist Gauis writes of Manus Marriage as something that used to happen.[3]. Under this early form of marriage the bride passed into the potestas of her husband. Her dowry, any inheritance rights transferred through her marriage and any property acquired after marriage belonged to him. Husbands could divorce over adultery and a few cases of divorce for a wife's infertility are recorded.[4].

Free Marriage created no change in personal status for either the wife, or the husband [5]. Free Marriage usually involved two citizens, or a citizen and a Latin, or in the later Imperial period and with official permission, soldier-citizens and non-citizens. In a free Marriage a bride brought a dowry to the husband: if the marriage ended with no cause of adultery he returned most of it.[6][7] So total was the law's separation of property that even gifts between spouses was not allowed.[8]

Most Roman women married in their late teens to early twenties, though patrician girls may have married early in their teens. Noble women generally married younger than the lower class. Among the elite, fourteen represented the division between childhood and adolescence.Under the Roman law of what is usually called the Classical Era of Roman Law, marriage did not need a ceremony, it only needed a mutual will and agreement to live together in harmony Law and [9]. Under that regime marriage ceremonies, contracts, and other things where meant only to prove that a couple had, in fact, married.

Women along with men were subject to the lifelong Patria Potestas of their Pater Familias unless emancipated by him. Emancipation could follow his death: he could also grant it during his lifetime, as a gift or (more rarely) as punishment by disinheritance and exclusion from his protection. An emancipated woman legally became sui iuris (her own person), could own property and dispose it as she saw fit. If a Pater Familias died intestate the Law required the equal division of his estate amongst his children regardless of their age and sex. A will that did otherwise, or emancipated any family member without due process of law could be challenged as undutiful.[10] From the Late Republic, a woman who inherited a share equal with her brothers would have been independent of Agnatic Control.[11]

Divorce was a legal but relatively informal affair. It simply involved a wife leaving her husband’s house, and often taking back her dowry. The first recorded Roman divorce took place in 230 BC, when one Spurius Carvilius Ruga (possibly the former consul Spurius Carvilius Maximus Ruga) divorced his wife on grounds of infertility or sterility;[1] however, Roman divorces probably took place around 604 BC or earlier, according to Valerius Maximus. (see note 1 below). The frequency of remarriages among the elite was high. Remarriage was an available option for the widow or divorcé if she was still of childbearing age. However, because marriage was considered a vocation for Roman women, women who remained wedded to one man were highly celebrated for their devotion.

It must however be noted that during the Late Republic and the Principate (Classical Period of Roman Law) a man or woman could end a marriage simply because he or she wanted to and with no other reason. Because unless the wife could prove the husband was worthless he kept the children, and because property had been kept separate during the marriage by Roman Law divorce was a very easy institution under the regime of Free Marriage.[12]

Domestic abuse

Roman law did not allow for any domestic abuse by a husband to his wife,[13] and in fact Roman Law made divorce almost excessively easy by requiring no reason or cause and having issues such as property settled by keeping the property of spouses separate. As with any other crime, laws against domestic abuse can be assumed to fail to prevent it, but it is impossible to recreate a crime statistic from two thousand years ago. Most evidence of domestic abuse that survives from ancient Rome will consist of egregious examples involving the elite whose behavior was considered worth recording.

The most prominent example of an allegedly abusive husband is the Emperor Nero. Nero was alleged to have had his wife Octavia murdered, after subjecting her to torture and imprisonment. Nero then married his mistress Poppaea Sabina, whom he literally kicked to death for criticizing him. Other examples of domestic abuse exist.[citation needed]


Freedwomen were ex slaves who had become free via Manumission. In most ways they were legally identical to free women, but there are a few notes that are worth remembering, which deserves attention because of how important it would have been to Roman Life.

All freed slaves owed periods of service (often agreed on before they were freed) to their ex owners who became patrons, who in their own turn would have some obligations (such as paying for said services).

Because slaves were held to have no fathers under Roman Law freed slaves could not inherit the estates of their father.

The importance of an ex slaves service could varry greatly depending on what type of slave was freed. The services of a freedwoman who peeled potatoes may not be as important as a freed Pedagogue.

Their relationship to their ex owner was a very important part of any freed slave's life male or female, as best illustrated by a legal case we know about today, which involved the lady Calatoria Themis trying (without a legal document to prove it) to show that Iusta was manumitted by her at birth (making her a freedwoman and so liable to service), while at the same time Iusta was trying to prove (without any legal document) that she was actually freeborn because her mother was freed before instead of after her birth.[14]

Freedwomen like Freedmen could have a very high variation on their status. Caenis was a freedwoman and secretary of the Emperor Vespasian, and concubine which under Roman Law and custom was very similar to marriage [15]. However like Freedmen they could also just be a freed member of the kitchen staff still struggling to make ends meet, and in some cases still working for her ex owner.


A concubine was defined by Roman law as a woman living in a permanent monogamous relationship with a man not her husband.[16] Concubinage had very little legal consequence, and unlike marriage any children would follow the status of the mother and not fall under Patria Potestas (which to the horror of Greek observers applied equally to males as females), and because they were not married gifts would not violate the principle of separate estates and so would be permitted. There was no dishonor to being a concubine or living with a concubine and its main difference in marriage was the status of children born to it. At some point a concubine could become a wife should the intent of the parties involved change from concubine to wife. [17]

The reasons why women would be concubines instead of wives were they would usually be social "inferiors" such as freedwomen of their partners (most common reason), or from a disreputable background i.e. prostitutes, or if they were from a poor background. [18] Additionally, sometimes it would be a last resort if marriage between two loving partners lacked Conubium, or if a highborn woman had a genuine affection for a lowborn man.[19]

The Early Republic

Our sources for the early and mid republican women are very limited. Often they are moralists contrasting the women of past times who did not show any independence or act the disreputable (as they saw it) ways women of their own time did to the present. Although possibly exxagerated by moralists who wanted to "return" to the good old days, it is very clear that the position of women in Rome during the early republic was in law very low, and in practice restricted compared to the later republic and empire. Valerius Maximus celebrates how men used to be able to severely punish wives. Manus Marriage, which enjoyed it's greatest prominence at this point subjugated a woman completely to her husbands will, protected only by the possibility that the husbands male relatives and friends would side with her in a family council called to punish her, and prevented her from owning any property. Sexual restraint was not only socially desirable, but legally obligatory at this early stage as shown by the details of the rape of Lucretia including a threat to put a slave corpse over her naked corpse and claim that she was caught in the act. Even in this legendary period there are some women who clearly were defying societal convention. Cloelia defied social convention by escaping King Porsena and leading a group of other hostages in escape rather than rely on men to come to her rescue, and the mother of Coriolanus managed to in public persuade her son not to complete his treachery by taking Rome, and this did foreshadow great changes to come later on. Although the later moralists normally claimed nothing good came from it the rise and expansion of Rome brought vast amounts of money back to the city, which changed how people thought and acted. This early period of Rome was often called Mos Maiorum, but very often later Romans would call anything they favored Mos Maiorum.

Mos maiorum or the Love Poets?

The customs of the ancestors valued chastity in a woman, to such a large extent that in spite of her Pater Familias urging her not to, and other male members of her family advising her that her honor was complete and intact Lucretia killed herself after being raped. Although that example is both unusually extreme for Rome (see below) the only possible conclusion is that traditional Roman Society frowned on brazen displays of sensuality, and adultery.

The Customs of the Ancestors also mandated self restraint and a restraint against use of luxury. Although clearly from a Greek rather than Regal Period tradition refraining from luxury became a bedrock of traditional Roman Values, which is shown by how Augustus went to great pains to prove he and his family did not engage in shameless luxury, or how when Cicero goes on the attack against Clodia and her brother Clodius he makes reference to the luxuries in their houses.

During the Late Republic penalties for sexuality were barely enforced if there at all, and a new type of woman, and for that matter man appeared who did not subscribe to the traditionalist views on virtue. Catullus wished to be a slave of love (Servitum Amoris) regardless of what the old men had to say. Ovid went a step further and articulated what to do, and what not to do if you are a man searching for a girlfriend, or woman searching for a boyfriend in a famous book of his called The Art of Love. At the same time Clodia the infamous used her wealth the way she wanted, which if Cicero is to be believed was for luxury. Clodia like many Late Republican Roman Women was also very sexually liberated, a custom which some traditionalists like Augustus (who used his position as Emperor to banish his daughter Julia for her affairs) despised.

The Late Republic saw a large amount of love poetry, which paints a picture of what at least on the matter of love was a free society. Ovid in one of his poems tells his married lover he will (shamelessly by most standards) leap forward at her if she shows too much affection for her husband while they are at a banquit together [20], and furthermore his reaction to an abortion by his lover draws him to invoke Isis for her protection, although he notes that according to some he should be filled with anger [21]. In his Elegy IV he doesn't mention any virtues that from the Customs of the Ancestors [22]. The Art of Love strangely by modern standards recommends that the temple is a good place to find a girlfriend, clearly assuming tolerance for unchaste behavior. Overall women like Lesbia, and Corintha where not the same type of women as Lucretia and followed not surprisingly a different code then the one in place hundreds of years before they were born, in his short poem To Lesbia Still Beloved, Catullus, while not openly confessing to breaching a marriage does not mention a single one of the virtues valued in the Customs of the Ancestors [23].

Ovid along with other poets such as Catullus reveals a time and place very different then the Customs of the Ancestors which usually take the prominent spotlight when researching Rome. Later on in Roman History some satirical poets like Juvenal complain about many of the subjects celebrated by these late republican poets revealing that women like Clodia were still around and not being punished by society (Juvenal makes the claim of most women being like Clodia, but without his approval)[24]. Although Juvenal doesn't approve of this type of sexual and social mobility, or luxury, his mentioning and complaining about it in a famous book of Satire shows that the Custom of the Ancestors was not the only thing people valued in his time. Evidence of a lessening on luxury restrictions can also be found, one of the Letters of Pliny is addressed to the woman Pompeia Celerina praising the luxuries she keeps in her Villa [25].

Imperial Reforms

The Rome of Ovid was not a reality everybody liked. The emperor Augustus launched legislation against Adultery that was both not enforced aside from his own family and Ovid (although in all cases it was controversial so he added charges of treason and attempted murder to adultery to justify punishment), and not binding on the majority of the population (Women working as prostitutes, procuress in acting, gladiatrix, anyone branded with Infamia, women who owned or operated a trade or business[26] , along with plebians had exemptions [27]). Although hardly likely to prevent illegal sexual encounters this legislation clearly reinforced the perception of marriage meaning an exclusive sexual union. Not exempt from the list of people capable of being charged under the new legislation were Patrician and Equestrian Women who did not fall under the category of exemptions (i.e. Julia) or poets. According to Suetonius women simply entered into the professions which exempted them from prosecution. The Lex Julia didn't just punish some (limited) adultery, it also encouraged marriage, and introduced special priveledges for producing children. Unfortunately the exact Augustan Legislation has been lost but we do know that Augustus limited the range of people the unmarried could inherit from (or later jurists determined it was unfair to disinherit the Sui Heredes), and that producing children granted taxation bonuses and exemptions from certain hated tasks. Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius who has traditionally been given overwhelmingly negative press, especially by authors who have sympathy with the Republic. Seutonius depicts Tiberius rounding up women of the higher social orders registered as actresses or prostitutes or other exemptions and banishing them for adultery shortly before he retired to life of obscene levels of sexuality [28]. The bias in that account of Tiberius is obvious, but what is important to note is that Suetonius thought it was believable that Tiberius would be forcing austerity on upper class women while engaging in all manner of perversity, which reinforces the idea that the Patricians and Equestrians were the only targets of the new law, and that it was seen as less acceptable for them to have exemptions for acting and prostitution than for plebians to have those same exemptions (which would make an exaggerated reign of terror against the actresses and upper class prostitutes more believable to Romans reading the Twelve Caesars, even if it was only based on Tiberius exiling one particular actress).

Roman women in private

As a daughter, she should obey the code of pater familias which gave her father absolute power over her and all her affairs, just as it her brothers. Roman daughters were expected to be deferential towards their fathers and also remain loyal to their fathers throughout their lives, sometimes even differing with their husbands to do so[29]. By the third century AD, however, this code was no longer strictly enforced.[30]. However, displays of self-assertiveness or independence towards fathers were still disliked by Roman fathers.[31]

Another characteristic of a virtuous Roman daughter was chastity. They were expected to remain virgins until they married, and once married they were expected to stay faithful to their husbands. Chastity was so valued that virtuous women who had been violated were expected to take their own lives, such as the legendary maiden Lucretia who took her own life after confessing her rape to her father [32]. Overall, a good Roman daughter was expected to place her father and his wishes in the highest esteem and do his bidding unquestioningly.

The most important role a woman would play in Ancient Rome was the role of a wife and mother. Once married, a woman was said to pass under manus and relinquish her role as a daughter and be under direct control of her husband. Under manus, Roman women were expected to obey their husbands in almost all the aspects of their lives, though the custom fell out of favor by the first century BC.[33]. It also became common practice for Roman women to be able to own their own land, write their own wills by the fifth century BC, and appear in court as their own advocates[33] . Roman wives were expected to be perpetually pregnant, and honors were given to those who had at least three children which was considered to be a large number of children in Ancient Rome [34]. It was so important for women to produce children that Augustus passed a series of laws that were intended to raise the birthrate by outlawing the reception of inheritance to unmarried, divorced, widowed, and barren women. Women in Ancient Rome were not only valued for the number of children that they produced, but also for their part in raising children to become valuable Roman citizens. This duty was especially important during the period in which Rome was a Republic. Women were expected to bestow the values and education upon their sons to turn them into citizens that would run Rome with integrity. Thus to be able to rear her children to succeed in life, an exemplary Roman mother should be well educated herself. Wealthy Roman children were taught to read Greek as well as Latin from an early age [35]. Not only were Roman wives expected to raise their children to high moral standards but they were also expected to run the household for their husbands. A wealthy Roman matron would have slaves to manage as well as normal household duties. A virtuous wife’s life revolved around frugality, parsimony, and austerity[36] though in later years these values declined into decadence and luxury. One of the most important tasks for a woman to fulfill in the household was the spinning of wool to make clothes. This tradition was so important to Ancient Romans that wool was often used as a symbol of wifely duties and spinning wheels would adorn funerary epitaphs of honorable dead wives [37].

Ancient Roman women were not confined to their house by any means. Though the practice was discouraged, husbands would commonly take their wives on campaigns with them. Many wealthy women also toured the empire, often participating or viewing religious ceremonies and sites around the empire [38]. Rich women would travel to the countryside during the summer when Rome became too hot [39]. Roman women could gather in the streets to meet with friends or go to baths or temples on a daily basis. Wealthier families had baths in their own house, while the less fortunate went to bath houses to clean themselves and socialize. It was not acceptable for men and women to bathe together so women either attended an all female bath house or bathed at separate times than men did [40]. Wealthy women traveled around the city in a litter carried by slaves. The curtains were supposed to be closed when travelling but usually women left them open and veiled their faces [41]. For entertainment Roman women could attend debates at the Forum, various games, theatres, and by the late republic, attend dinner parties. Before the late republic women were not allowed to eat dinner with their husbands, and instead ate in private with the other women of the household. At theatres women were not allowed to sit with men. Instead they sat in the rows above, so as not to tempt the men [42]. Prominent men in Roman society, such as Cato considered it improper behavior for women to take a more active role in public life and often complained of it in his speeches, meaning that some women did indeed voice their opinions in the public sphere.[43]

Women in Ancient Rome took great care in their appearance, though extravagance was frowned upon. They wore cosmetics, made different concoctions for their skin, and took great care in arranging their hair. They spent much time arranging their hair and often dyed it black, red, or blonde. They also wore wigs regularly [44]. Women used white chalk to whiten their faces, or rouge made of lead or caramine to add color to their cheeks as well as using lead to highlight their eyes[45]. Matrons usually wore two simple tunics for undergarments covered by a stola. The stola was a long white dress that was cinched at the waist which fell to the wearer’s feet, secured by claps at the shoulder . Wealthier women would decorate their sola further. When going out women wore a palla over their shoulders which was held by a clasp at the shoulder[46]. Women of questionable morals or young women were not permitted to wear a stola, and instead wore tunics [47]. Wealthy women wore jewels such as emeralds, aquamarine, opal, and pearls as earrings, necklaces, rings and sometimes sewn onto their shoes and clothing.[48]

Education of women

Roman woman holding a stylus and wax tablets for writing. Fresco from Pompeii, c. AD 50.

Education of women began around the 2nd century BC, possibly in the household of Scipio Africanus Major and his relatives. These more liberal Romans wanted their wives and daughters educated so that their moral fibre would be improved, they themselves would be better companions to their husbands, and most importantly, so that they could better supervise the education and upbringing of their children. One of the reasons that Tiberius Gracchus Major chose to marry the much younger Cornelia was that he wanted an educated wife. Within a century, The education of elite Roman women was normal. Education meant literacy, presumably numeracy, knowledge of both Greek and Latin, and reading of the classics in both languages, and also history. Girls were educated along with boys in some households, but their lessons tended to differ as they grew older. Literary education beyond the basics of reading and writing was available to some elite girls. These girls received such education, however, not to prepare themselves for future political careers (Roman men learned rhetoric for that), but to increase their value as wives.

Occupations in Rome

"One of the most curious characteristics of that age was that the women appear as much engaged in business and as interested in speculations as the men. Money is their first care. They work their estates, invest their funds, lend and borrow. We find one among Cicero's creditors, and two among his debtors."-Gaston Boissier of the French Academy [49]

Although Roman Society did not allow for women to gain official political power it did allow them to practice most (not all) professions [50].

Most Romans, especially the poorer plebian and non-citizen families of the urbs, lived in insulae (apartment buildings) with no kitchens and would buy food already prepared. The mass of the Roman poor – whether male of female, young or old – earned a living through their own labour. The traditional Roman ideal held that Roman women of the leisured classes should spin and weave, in virtuous emulation of their simple, rustic ancestors. Poor women had to rely on the used clothing market to clothe their families.

Some obvious professions a woman could turn to would be the Wet Nurse Actress Dancer Prostitute Doctor there are even records of women as Merchants and tradesmen amongst other things.[51]

Pliny the Elder very seriously records the deeds of a sample of female painters he records with pride [52]

However serious writers recording the professions of men are very rare, and recording the occupations of women even rarer. For further reading of the occupation. Funerary inscriptions sometimes record the profession of the deceased.[53]

Furthermore women might make their jobs compliment their husbands profession. A good case in point is from a Leaden Curse Tablet asking the destruction of the household, workshop, work, and livelihood of Dionysius the helmet maker (blacksmith) and Artemis the gilder [54].

Naturally the women who had money wouldn't always be idle ladies of leisure. The Lawless Politta of the Martyrdom of Pionius the Christian Elder not only owned estates in Asia, but inscriptions praising her for the renovation of the Sardis Gymnasium she commissioned with her money have been found [55]. Examples such as the Lawless Politta who used their wealth and influence to play a part in the daily life of the Roman Empire, but never officially touched any politics who's praise can be still read in Inscription are typical of the period of the Principate, while less common during the Republic. Examples of Patrician investments in city projects, are very common for both sexes.

Aristocratic Roman Women also joined in with Aristocratic men in lending to fellow Patricians to avoid needing to borrow from a money lender. A case in point is Pliny. When he was considering buying an estate he factored in a loan from his mother-in-law as a guarantee rather than an option [56].

Being a land owner furthermore could in the ancient world be an occupation. Aristocratic men and women took their roles as land owners seriously, and being a slave owner had consequences wether the owner was male or female. During the First Servile War, Megallis and her husband Damophilus were both killed by their slaves on account of their brutality, but their daughter was spared and granted safe passage out of Sicily, along with an armed escort because of her kindness to her slaves [57].

Women running and owning Brick Production businesses is also very well documented [58]. Furthermore owning and running ships engaged in shipping corporations is well attested for women of the upper classes, although what job these women did as owners is unclear, unlike land industry was not considered an honorable profession for an aristocrat of either sex, Cicero went to the extreme of suggesting that in order to gain any respectability a merchant should buy land.

Place against the Tyrant

Although barred from all elections, and the army, the sacrifices and efforts of ancient Roman Women against "tyrants" could be equally important, and celebrated as that of the men. Tacitus immortalized the woman Epicharis for her part in the Pisonian conspiracy, where she attempted to gain the support of the Roman fleet and was instead arrested [59], once the conspiracy was uncovered, she would reveal nothing under torture, although according to Tacitus even the Senators without torture couldn't reveal everything to Nero fast enough [60]. Tacitus also praises Egnatia Maximilla for sacrificing her fortune in order stand by her innocent husband against Nero [61] There are further accounts from Appian about the heroism of wives saving husbands during the civil wars. Porcia Catonis the daughter of Cato the Younger killed herself just as her father did when the Roman Republic ended. Women could also be involved in more mundane plots such as killing the emperor with the intention of installing another one instead of the republic, as Commodus found out the hard way. Epicharis and Valeria Messalina respectively conspired against Nero and Claudius.

Roman women in public

Statue of a Roman lady from the Julio-Claudian period

In the aftermath of Roman defeat at Cannae, economic crisis provoked the passing of the Lex Oppia (215 BC) to restrict personal and public extravagance. The law limited women's possession and display of gold and silver (as money or personal ornament), expensive clothing and their "unnecessary" use of chariots and litters. Victory over Carthage flooded Rome with wealth and in 195 BC the Lex Oppia was reviewed. The ruling consul, Cato the Censor argued for its retention: personal morality and self-restraint were self-evidently inadequate controls on indulgence and luxury. Luxury provoked the envy and shame of those less well-off, and was therefore divisive. Roman women had showed only too clearly that their appetites once corrupted knew no limits, and must be restrained. Large numbers of Roman matrons thought otherwise, and made concerted public protest. In 193 BC the laws were abolished: Cato's opposition did not harm his political career. Later, in 42 BC, Roman women, led by Hortensia, successfully protested against laws designed to tax Roman women, by use of the argument of no taxation without representation.[62]

Some women (i.e. the Vestal Virgins) were able to gain respect and honor as priestesses. The primary task of the Vestal Virgins was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta; priestesses' presence was considered necessary in certain rituals. Wealthier women could also gain respect by funding these ceremonies.[63]

There were a number of women writers and poets, but while male writers may mention their work with admiration, little of it survives.

Aristocratic women managed a large and complex household. Since wealthy couples often owned multiple homes and country estates with dozens or even hundreds of slaves, some of whom were educated and highly skilled, this responsibility was the equivalent of running a small corporation. In addition to the social and political importance of entertaining guests, clients, and visiting dignitaries from abroad, the husband held his morning business meetings (salutatio[64]) at home. The home (domus) was also the center of the family's social identity, with ancestral portraits displayed in the entrance hall (atrium). Since the most ambitious aristocratic men were frequently away from home on military campaign or administrative duty in the provinces, sometimes for years at a time, the maintenance of the family's property and business decisions were often left to the wives; for instance, while Julius Caesar was away from Rome throughout the 50s BC, his wife Calpurnia Pisonis was responsible for taking care of his assets.

As for the political sway of women in the Late Republic, historian Ronald Syme has noted:

Debarred from public life but enjoying the social prestige of family or husband, the daughters of the nobilitas could not be cheated of the real and secret power that comes from influence. They count for more than does the average senator, they might effect nothing less than an ex-consul achieved by the quiet exercise of auctoritas in the conclave of his peers — and they suitably foreshadow the redoubtable princesses in the dynasty of Julii and Claudii.[65]

One notable woman was Livia Drusilla Augusta, (58 BC – AD 29), who was the wife of Augustus and the most powerful woman in the early Roman empire, acting several times as regent and being Augustus' faithful advisor. Several women of the Imperial family, such as the Empresses Livia Drusilla and Agrippina the Younger, gained political influence as well as public prominence.

Most Roman women known to us lived during the Late Republic or in Imperial Rome, partly because Roman women living in the Early to Middle Republic had little political power, virtually no legal independence (except as Vestal Virgins or in other rare cases), and were absent in official histories. However, many role models — such as Lucretia, Aemilia Paulla, and Cornelia Africana — available to Roman women lived in or were born in the Early to Middle Republic.

See also


1. Timing the first Roman divorce
Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Antiquitates Romanae, 2.25 (written c. 7 BC) wrote that "in the one hundred and thirty-seventh Olympiad, in the consulship of Marcus Pomponius [Matho] and Gaius Papirius [Maso], i.e. in 231230 BC, Spurius Carvilius, a man of distinction, was the first to divorce his wife." The cause was her barrenness; however, this divorce did not make him popular among the people. It is ironic that this would be the first divorce (as Dionysius of Halicarnassus states, based on hearsay), since the Twelve Tables (450 BC) promulgated over two hundred years earlier did make provision for divorce. According to Dionysus, Spurius Carvilius was a man of distinction; other sources (without specific citations) claim that he was a freedman (i.e. a former slave).[1]

A Roman consul by the name of Spurius Carvilius Maximus Ruga served with Manius Pomponius Matho in 233 BC; it is possible that the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (writing more than 200 years later from hearsay accounts) confused the freedman Spurius Carvilius (living circa 600 BC) with this man living in 233 BC.

Aulus Gellius in the Noctes Atticae (c. AD 150), 4.3.1 writes that "Spurius Carvilius, who was surnamed Ruga, a man of rank" [thus possibly the man who was consul] divorced his wife for barrenness in the "consulship of Marcus Atilius and Publius Valerius" (i.e. in the year 227 BC when Publius Valerius L.f. Flaccus and Marcus Atilius M.f. Regulus were consuls). However, in other accounts, Gellius varies the story in dating and is less certain of his sources. In all sources, however, it is agreed that Spurius Carvilius divorced his wife for barrenness in the first recorded Roman divorce.[2] Valerius Maximus differs, saying that one L. Annius divorced his wife (without consulting his friends) and was removed from the Senate by the censors in 307 BC. A modern writer suggest that divorces took place earlier, and were not properly regulated; hence the need to include a law on divorce in the Twelve Tables.[3]


  1. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law, pg 457
  2. ^ Juvenal Satire VI
  3. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law, Frier+McGinn pg.54
  4. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law, Frier+McGinn pg.53
  5. ^ Roman Law in Context, David Johnston pgs. 33-34
  6. ^ Roman Law in Context, David Johnston pgs 36-36
  7. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law section V
  8. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law, section 4
  9. ^ Life of Rome 90B.C.-212 A.D. J.A. Crook
  10. ^ Roman Law in Context by David Johnston chapter 3.3, and A Casebook on Roman Family Law Chapter IV
  11. ^ A History of Women in the West, Volume I, From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints Series Editor Georges Duby Series Editor Michelle Perrot Edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel, pg. 134 capacity for oneself
  12. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law, Frier+McGinn Part D, The End of Marriage
  13. ^ A casebook on Roman Family Law, Frier and McGinn, pg. 95.
  14. ^ J.A. Crook, Law and Life of Rome 90 B.C.-A.D. 212 pg 49-51
  15. ^ J.A. Crook Law and Life of Rome 90 B.C.-212 A.D. pg 100
  16. ^ Frier and McGinn A Casebook on Roman Family Law pg. 480
  17. ^ Frier and McGinn A Casebook on Roman Family Law pg. 52
  18. ^ Frier and McGinn A Casebook on Roman Family Law pg.50
  19. ^ J.A. Crook Law and Life of Rome 90 B.C.-212 A.D.
  20. ^ Ovid Amores 1.4 line 40
  21. ^ Ovid Amores 2.13
  22. ^ Ovid, Elegy IV
  23. ^ Catullus, To Lesbia Still beloved, lines 1-12
  24. ^ Juvenal, Satire VI lines 6.286-313
  25. ^ Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book 1 letter IV
  26. ^ Paul, Opinions 2.26.11
  27. ^ McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome, Lex Iulia de adulteriis Coercendis part 5
  28. ^ Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, The Life of Tiberius
  29. ^ Hallett, 139.
  30. ^ Carcopino, Jerome, Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire (London: George Routledge and Sons LTD, 1941), 79.
  31. ^ Hallett, 143.
  32. ^ Hallett, 142.
  33. ^ a b Johnson, Harold Whetstone (1903, 1932). "Forum Romanum". The Private Life of the Romans. Scott, Foresman and Company. http://www.forumromanum.org/life/johnston_1.html#17. 
  34. ^ Assa, 32.
  35. ^ Assa, 50.
  36. ^ Assa, 45.
  37. ^ Assa, 51.
  38. ^ Assa, 102.
  39. ^ Assa, 96.
  40. ^ Fowler, Robin, “The Roman Baths: Centers of Relaxation Exercise and Socializing in Ancient Rome.” Suite101, July 18th, 2009
  41. ^ Assa, 73
  42. ^ Assa, 92.
  43. ^ Livius, Titus, A History of Rome, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub, 2006), 182.
  44. ^ Assa, 60.
  45. ^ Assa, 65.
  46. ^ Assa, 65
  47. ^ Assa, 66.
  48. ^ Assa, 67.
  49. ^ Boissier Cicero and his friends a study of Roman Society in the time of Caesar available online http://www.questia.com/read/10552570?title=Cicero%20and%20His%20Friends%3a%20A%20Study%20of%20Roman%20Society%20in%20the%20Time%20of%20Caesar
  50. ^ A Casebook on Roman Family Law Frier+McGinn pg 461
  51. ^ Women and Marriage in Ancient Rome - Chapter 1
  52. ^ Pliny the Elder Natural Histories, book 35 Line 147-
  53. ^ See Ancient Roman Life as Illustrated by Latin Inscriptions by Brian K. Harvey.
  54. ^ Women's life in Greece & Rome, Lefkowitz+Fant, pg. 171
  55. ^ Christians and Pagans, Fox, Pg. 464
  56. ^ Law and Life of Rome, J.A. Crook pg.172
  57. ^ The Gracchi Marius and Sulla, A.H. Beesley, pg. 21 on the first Serville War
  58. ^ Abbott, Society and Politics in Ancient Rome: Essays and Sketches, pg. 98
  59. ^ Tacitus, Annals 15.51
  60. ^ Tacitus, Annals 15.57
  61. ^ Tacitus, Annals 15.71
  62. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah Jane, Women in Classical Antiquity
  63. ^ See Mary Lefkowitz's article, "A Woman's Place Was in the Temple", Wilson Quarterly, Winter '93).
  64. ^ Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford University Press, 1991, reprinted 2002), p. 420 online.
  65. ^ Ronald Syme, Sallust (University of California Press, 1964, reprinted 2002), p. 25 online.


  • Assa, Janine (1960). The Great Roman Ladies. New York: Grove Press. 
  • Daehner, Jens (ed.), The Herculaneum Women: History, Context, Identities (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), Pp. xiv, 178.
  • Bruce W. Frier, Thomas A. J. McGinn (2004). A casebook on Roman family law. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195161866. http://books.google.com/books?id=f19bw1D9s6gC&pg=PA3. 
  • Hallett, Judith P. (1984). Fathers and daughters in Roman society: women and the elite family. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691035709. 

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