Women in Ancient Rome

women ancient rome

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Last year this month, a big company reached out to us at Live Virtual Guide asking if we could custom our Ancient Rome Ruins live virtual tour for their virtual corporate event.

They wanted to celebrate International Women’s Month by taking a themed online experience about Women in Ancient Rome.

That sounded so interesting and exciting, so I started my research to get some detailed women information to include into our Virtual Walk through Ancient Rome ruins tour.

What came up from my research was super interesting and a little unexpected..

What was life like for women in ancient Rome? Ancient Rome was so sophisticated and advanced for the time. Was it the same for women’s conditions?

Which kind of women were considered role models? Who are the most famous women of the time? And which locations of Ancient Rome are connected to the most important events related to women?

You’ll learn the answers to all of these questions and much more in this article, so keep reading!

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Statue of Venus in the museum of Palazzo Massimo

A little bit of context

Before discovering the women of Ancient Rome, first we need to imagine their context. The time span of the ancient Roman legacy is over 1000 years, which means the traditions and circumstances varied a lot over time. Therefore an ancient Roman woman of the first years of the Roman monarchy was in very different conditions than an ancient Roman woman in the imperial period.

In fact, when Rome was a monarchy (since its foundation in 753 BC, until 509 BC), women were sitting in the corner in silence and they could not even join the banquets where men were participating.

On the other hand, after the republic and the beginning of the Roman empire (27 BC), the conditions of the ancient Roman women are comparable to women today!

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What was life like for women in ancient Rome?

During the Roman empire, women could divorce, and you could find a lot of women that divorced multiple times.

During the republican period, marriage was always in favor of the husband, because the woman went from the jurisdiction of her father to the jurisdiction of her husband, as if she was a pet or an object.

In this context, women could not divorce from their husbands, while he could repudiate her for any reason, even for the most insignificant one..

This changed during the empire. In fact marriage became sine manu, which meant that the jurisdiction of the woman remained with her family, and didn’t transfer to her husband. This meant that women could then also repudiate their husbands, which resulted in women to be way more independent.

Divorce and children in Ancient Rome

Later on divorce became socially accepted and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Divorce in the Roman empire was very easy: it was enough that either the husband or the wife pronounced a specific formula in the presence of a witness.

In the meantime the senate also promulgated laws allowing women to independently manage their inheritance and their properties.

Also important to note is that women, especially in the upper classes, deliberately refused to have kids. Why? 

Considering the multiple divorces they went through during their lives, kids could represent a problem.

Also, childbirth was way more risky than today, and women were risking their lives every time they gave birth to a baby. 

This resulted in families adopting grown-ups, just for the sake of preserving their descent, without taking too many risks.

When it came to sociality, women in the Roman empire were informed, they read a lot and they were able to participate in any discussion on any topic.

Therefore we now have a picture of the women in the Roman empire: free to divorce, free to manage their belongings, without the shame of being repudiated.

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The differences between women of upper and lower classes of the Roman society

Was the above applicable to ALL the women of the ancient Roman society? Not at all.

The situation for women of the lower classes of society was very different. In fact they still lived in the old concept of woman, which belonged to the monarchy and republican period.

While women in the upper class discussed politics and read books, women of the lower classes lived a completely different life.

Poor women could get married even at 10 years of age! In that case the family made an agreement with the husband, forbidding sexual intercourse with the girl.

Why were they getting married so early? 

This was due to the fact that child mortality was very high, about 20%. During the first year of life it reached 40%! 

Therefore, because so many of these kids were bound to die, it was considered wise to start making kids as soon as possible, and to make as many as possible.

So imagine how much physical effort these women’s bodies had to endure, one pregnancy after the other. Which is also why the upper class women did not want to have kids, to preserve their body shape.

Now that we have a picture of what it meant to be a woman in ancient Rome, let’s pick some of the most famous women events and female personalities of Ancient Rome.

Did women in Ancient Rome demonstrate for their rights?

Yes, they did! To mention two of the most famous demonstrations for women’ rights, we need to imagine the most important square of ancient Rome: the Roman Forum.

This was the place where in the 2nd century BC, women for the first time took the streets, actually took the forum for the abrogation of a law, the so-called lex Oppia

This law forbade women the possession of jewelry and other status symbols, because they were seen as the cause of the decadence of society.  

Another demonstration took place in the Roman Forum in the 1st century, led by the first woman lawyer of Ancient Rome, Ortensia.

On this occasion Ortensia stood for 1400 women who were asked to pay the costs of the wars. One of Ortensia’s main points was that they can’t charge women, if women have no word in war or political matters. She appealed to the principle of “No taxation without representation”, that’s why she is remembered to be way ahead of her times!

Unfortunately this demonstration only partially succeeded. Eventually only 400 out of 1400 (less than a third) women had to contribute economically. However, since this episode, the senate banned the legal profession for women.

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One of the streets of the Roman Forum, where the Ancient Roman women demonstrated

Visit the very places where these demonstrations took place! We’ll take you right there, from wherever you are! Click here

Famous women in ancient Rome

When I was thinking of strong women in the history of Rome to mention in this article, at first I thought “well, there’s a lot of famous Roman women”! 

But then I’ve realized that overall those women fell into two precise categories:

  • the perfect Roman woman: obedient daughter, loyal wife, loving mother, perfect at weaving
  • the crazy loose evil woman that eventually kills his husband

So I wondered, how is it possible that all the women remembered in ancient Roman history fit into those two categories? Is there really nothing in the middle?

I had to answer that question, so I’ve made some research and this is what I’ve noticed:

  • ancient Rome history is mainly written by men
  • historians used these women’s stories to publicly promote the good and the bad example of woman

This was quite limiting for a woman, but some of the smartest women used this limitation to their advantage!

They made sure that they followed those models to have visibility and therefore be able to accomplish things.

There are two women in particular that I’d like to mention today: Cornelia and Livia. They both made sure they strictly followed the perfect Roman woman model. Society appreciated them because they even brought that to the next level. For example, they never cried publicly when their sons died, nor they were wearing any jewelry. Even though they were rich and their visibility and power came and started from that.

Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi

Jules Cavelier - Cornélie
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We remember Cornelia as the mother of the Gracchi. Her sons, Caius and Tiberius, became tribunes (an important political position) and that promoted an agricultural reformation that would equally distribute lands, and would not allow wealthy owners to own more than a certain amount of land. Obviously many rich people in Rome did not appreciate this and eventually Tiberius was assassinated. As well as his brother Caio that became tribune after his brother and continued promoting the same laws. 

None of these laws carry Cornelia’s name, but there wouldn’ be any of these laws without Cornelia and her dedication.

Why?

Because she was the one that raised those two kids in such a stimulating and intellectual environment, which inspired the mission of her two sons.

Who was Cornelia?

Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and wife of Tiberius Gracchus. She lived between 190 BC and 110 BC.

Cornelia and Tiberius had 12 children, 9 of which died when they were still little. The surviving kids were two boys, Caius and Tiberius, and one girl, Cornelia.

Cornelia’s husband, Tiberius, died and she ended up alone with her three kids. Historians remember her as the perfect role model for widows and a great and proud educator for her kids.

Cornelia was a type of woman that no one ever saw in Rome before.

She was a great intellectual and she often organized social and cultural gatherings in her own house. 

Her gatherings were so exclusive, that some of the most important personalities of the political scene, artists, philosophers used to take part in them. 

Basically she brought together the best of the best of the Roman society of the time in terms of experience, intelligence and power. People that had their influence on the topics which were then discussed in the senate.

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Some context of the times before we continue. 

In that period, agriculture was in the hands of the big landowners, which exploited their slaves’ work to the limit. Therefore small and medium landowners could not hold the competition and they were in difficulty.

In the meantime the Roman society was relying a lot on raids outside of the borders of the Republic, and on the exploitation of slaves within the borders.

Therefore the amount of slaves increased exponentially, lowering the labor cost and causing unemployment among the Romans.

The sons of Cornelia: Tiberius and Caius

This is where Tiberius Gracco, son of Cornelia comes into the scene. Because in 133 BC he became tribune of the plebs.

Tiberius grew up with radical ideas, which he nurtured in his mother’s cultural gatherings. He claimed that the Italian peninsula would have fallen apart if agriculture remained in the hands of the big landowners. That was unavoidable if Rome kept exploiting the slaves while the working class lived of idleness and subsidies.

To fix the situation, Tiberius proposed an agricultural reformation that would equally distribute lands, and would not allow wealthy owners to own more than a certain amount of land. Obviously many rich people of Rome did not appreciate this, and eventually they assassinated Tiberius. Same thing happened to his brother Caius who became tribune after his brother and continued promoting the same laws. 

Therefore Cornelia lost her last two sons.

She anyway continued with dignity nurturing culture in her house until her old age (she lived over 90 yo!).

We need to imagine that in ancient Roman society, fitting the role of the perfect married woman was the only way to gain visibility through the public appreciation of men. The historians and politicians of the time highlighted role models like Cornelia to preach how a Roman woman should have behaved. And as a side effect, those women, like Cornelia, that represented that model, had the power to have an influence on the course of events.

Livia, the very “first lady” of the Roman empire

Livia Drusilla, wife of Emperor Augustus, Basalt, ca. 31 BC, Moi, Auguste, Empereur de Rome exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris - 14464530489
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After Julius Caesar, the Roman republic was over. His successor was Augustus, and he restored the power, centralizing it into one person: the emperor. August founded the empire, the Roman empire, and he was the first emperor.

After the republic, Augustus brought everything into a more individualistic focus. 

There was still a senate, but it didn’t have the same power as in the republic. 

There was one emperor, and this emperor ruled from his imperial house.

And the house, the household was the place for women to be in Ancient Rome. So as a consequence, women were involved in political matters because these political matters were happening in the household. 

During the empire of Augustus, women’s roles had a shift. This happened with the first “first-lady” of the Roman empire, Augustus’ wife: Livia.

Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, d. 19 CE, National Archeological Museum, Madrid (2) (29253621072)
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Where did Livia live? Take this virtual tour with us and we’ll show you the exact location! 😉

We can compare Livia’s role to the one of a counselor for Augustus. Someone that is there and influences the emperor’s decisions. Even though she wasn’t officially appointed a role.

Roman historians have always remembered her as the perfect Roman woman. 

She was a loyal wife, she never lost her temper, she never abandoned herself to a messy desperation when her son died, she was always supportive to her husband. Always very humble and modest. Never showed any drama publicly.

And most of all, people remembered her because she was kind, she was listening to people’s pledges and bringing them to the imperial house for attention.

On the other hand, other historians depicted her as a woman with a rare hunger for power. Some suggested she was the one killing all Augustus’s heirs so that her first son from her previous marriage could succeed Augustus as an emperor. We will never know if she actually did that.

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The frescoes of the Villa of Livia, which you can visit at Palazzo Massimo

Conclusions

What we can observe here is that Ancient Roman women never had any official political role. However the wealthiest ones, especially if closer to the emperor, could actually influence the course of some important matters. 

This influence was happening only provided that they would observe the set standards of the perfect Roman woman. Because they had to gain visibility first, and to gain visibility they had to first of all, be wealthy, and second, they had to receive the appreciation of the male counterpart. Because the Roman men used the “good” Roman women as demonstrations of good examples for other women to follow.

So we don’t know if Livia’s behavior was coming from her natural way of being, or if she forced that to maintain her position. So the paradox is, to gain independence and visibility, Roman women had to follow the standards set by men.

Dive into history and visit the places that you read about in this article! Check our curated, intimate and interactive online tours of Ancient Rome

And if you want to plan a visit in person, check these Walks guided tours of the Roman Forum, Palatine hill and Colosseum.

Biography:

  • “Impero”, Alberto Angela
  • “Storia di Roma”, Indro Montanelli
  • “La donna romana”, Francesca Cenerini

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Written by Federica

Creative director of Live Virtual Guide. Her favorite things are gelato, pizza and the hidden gems of Rome.
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