Women in Rome


Erin Gum ANCS 201

The lives of women in ancient Rome have been a subject of curiosity for some time. Many of our sources of information on Roman society and culture are speeches, poems, and other literature. Unfortunately, these writings were written by, and for, the leaders and aristocracy of Rome. Thus, little is said about women in such writings. When women are written about, they are often portrayed as symbols of domestic life and paragons of virtue, even being produced in artwork in the form of goddesses, as opposed to real, human women who are capable of making mistakes, leading real lives, and having real relationships, which inevitably have bumps in the road sometimes. Women are depicted on tombstones in a similar way, as chaste, affectionate, and virtuous women skilled in domestic tasks. Through other writings, mainly poetry, and erotic paintings we know that this was not always the case. Roman men certainly had mistresses and women were not always focused on housework and remaining pure and virtuous. Unfortunately, besides poetry (which can be and is often skewed and exaggerated solely because it is poetry), we do not have many testaments of real women doing things that were not deemed appropriate for them at the time.

In terms of legal rights, women were not equal to men before the law in Rome. Women received a basic education, or even no education at all, and were subject to the authority of their father before marriage and their husband after marriage. Women had no formal roles in public life because they were not allowed to vote or be involved with politics. However, some writings suggest women had informal roles in politics in their ability to influence their husband’s decisions. Women could also bring their husbands much social power, as was the case with the emperor Augustus and his wife Livia. Augustus depicted his family and often just Livia in art throughout Rome and encouraged the display of familial pride, particularly with freedmen, which gave the people a way to relate to him and thus, more social control.

Overall in society, women were expected to be dignified wives and mothers. Their role in Roman society was a very traditional role, one that consisted of taking care of her husband and children, and spinning, sewing, and weaving cloth (an extremely important skill to have as a woman). We know from writings, paintings, artwork on vases, and sculptures like funerary monuments that women did occasionally have jobs. A woman’s job typically consisted of domestic positions, such as being a midwife or a seamstress. There are a few rare examples of women being seen in other positions, like a painter or a shoemaker. These were respectable jobs women could have and, consequently, there were also disrespectful jobs for women to take in the Roman World. Actresses, barmaids, and prostitutes were looked down upon in Roman society. Although we have a basic knowledge of women in ancient Rome, there is still much to be discovered about their lives.



PBS- The Roman Empire in the First Century: Women http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/women.html

BBC- Roman Women: Following the Clues by Suzanne Dixon http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/roman_women_01.shtml

Checked for grammar and originality by Griffin Donohue on 12/20/11