Table of content
- A little bit of context
- What was life like for women in ancient Rome?
- The differences between women of upper and lower classes of the Roman society
- Did women in Ancient Rome demonstrate for their rights?
- Famous women of Ancient Rome
- Save this article for later
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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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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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.