Women in Ancient Rome

Today, March 8, the day of Women’s Day, I want to dedicate my appointment on Friday to the story of the condition of women in ancient Rome…


Domiseda, casta, univira, lanifica. These were the Latin attributes that characterized the matron, the perfect woman in ancient Rome. She was pretty, refined, played the zither, jumped, was devoted to one man, was the lady of the house, she kept herself pure, spun fabrics and wool.


Roman Matron in a Reconstruction (Credits: capitolivm.it).


In the ancient Rome, the woman had no rights whatsoever. She had no money and her word counted less than zero, so she could not testify at trials. She went from the potestas of the pater familias (or of her brother) to the manus of her husband. And if her husband died, she would slowly let herself die too. The literature is full of testimonies of desperate women who threw themselves into the funeral pyres of their husbands or who let themselves starve to death on their grave.

Yet, starting from the late Republican age (second half of the first century BC), we see, precisely through literature, a change in the condition of women. A perfect example is Lesbia / Clodia, the woman loved by Catullus, the famous Latin love poet. Wife of Quintus Cecilius Metellus Celere and sister of the tribune Publius Clodius Pulcro, was certainly not an angel of the hearth! Cicero, in the famous Pro Caelio Rufo, sketches her out as a ruthless, immoral woman with easy customs. Yet, according to the malelinguishers of the time, Cicero himself, after having publicly insulted her, did not resist her charm. In her, all the characteristics of the perfect Roman matron are summarized, but at the same time, the image of a woman who was the creator of her own destiny is outlined. Master of her life, Lesbia, with cunning, skill and charm, keeps politicians, poets and powerful men of the time in check.


Clodia and Catullo (Credits: lacooltura.com).


And women, in fact, are making more and more space on the historical-political scene of Rome. Very often, they even cause great headaches to their fathers! How can we not think of Julia, the exuberant daughter of the Emperor Augustus? While the first Roman emperor passed a whole series of laws on marriage and chastity, Julia delighted in intrigues and festivities at court. And the embarrassment of poor Augustus was such that he had to exile her to the beautiful island of Ventotene, off the coast of Terracina (LT).


Julia Major, daughter of Augustus (Credits: panorama.it).


The model of the caste and upright Roman matron was now beautiful that went when Petronius, in the first century AD, wrote the fairy tale of the Matron of Ephesus. The poor and unfortunate lady of Ephesus, as per script, was tortured in her husband’s tomb. And she cried and really intended to starve to death at the tomb of the poor man. After a couple of days, a soldier, called to do some work in those parts, threw a piece of bread and that, after the first resistance, accepted. Well, gentlemen, the two became intimate and while they were enjoying themselves, someone stole one of the crucified corpses from which the soldier had been called to watch. How did it end? Well, the matron had her husband’s body attached to the cross!


Widow of Ephesus. Scene from Fellini’s Satyricon (Credits: youtube.com).


More and more free and unscrupulous, the women of Rome are manoeuvring the fate of the empire: They choose the new emperors (Livia, Augustus’ wife, obliges her husband to choose her son Tiberius, born from another marriage, as his successor), deceive and kill “uncomfortable” husbands (Agrippina poisons Claudius with a plate of mushrooms to put her son Nero on the throne), annihilate amorous rivals (Sabina, wife of Hadrian, according to the gossip of the time, killed the beautiful Antinous, favorite of her husband), hold the ranks of the empire (Giulia Mesa, Giulia Mamea, Giulia Soemia were very close to some of the Severi).


Agrippina and Nero (Credits: studiarapido.it).


This quick overview certainly does not outline all the many aspects related to the female condition in ancient Rome (I should write a full book only about divorce for example), but it just wants to be a quick contribution on the history of our ancestors … I hope you enjoyed it!
See you next Friday!


Posted by Sara Pandozzi

Leave a Reply