Women in Ancient Rome

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20120225-MosaicVilla_Romana_de_La_Olmeda_Mosaicos_.jpg Roman women were somewhat better off than their housebound Greek counterparts. They could leave the house with chaperons, were allowed to socialize with their husband's house guests (Greek women were not) and they could attend public events like dramas and gladiator competitions although they usually had to sit in seats reserved for women. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

Roman women were expected to raise children, serve their husbands, and perform duties that slaves did: fetch water, cook, weave. They weren't supposed to drink. Cato said the reason men kissed women on the cheek was to make sure they hadn't been drinking.

The stereotype of upper class Roman women was not all that different from stereotype of their modern upper class counterparts. Some spent the morning putting on make-up and choosing the right dress and spent the afternoon shopping and organizing the household for a dinner party.

Book: "Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity" by Sarah Pomeroy, a classics professor at Hunter College in New York; “The Roman Mother” (1988), “The Roman Family” (1992) and “Reading Roman” Women (2001) by Suzanne Dixon

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Sources on Roman Women

Suzanne Dixon wrote for the BBC: “Where do we look for Roman women? The traditional answer has been - in Latin literature; that's to say in the histories, poems, biographies and political speeches composed by, and for, élite men. Few women, however, feature in this literature, and when they are included, it is often to make a point about modern morals or the importance of home life. These women are symbols, not 'real women'. [Source: Suzanne Dixon, BBC, March 29, 2011. Dixon is from Australia and has held lecturing positions at both the Australian National University and the University of Queensland. Her published books include The Roman Mother (1988), The Roman Family (1992) and Reading Roman Women (2001) |::|]

“State inscriptions are another possible source of information but, like Roman history books, they seldom mention women. Roman tombstones and statue bases celebrate women, but in a formulaic way (as do our modern-day equivalents), so they do not usually bring individual women to life for us, and it seems that all Roman children were sweet, all wives were chaste, all marriages were argument-free. |::|

20120225-Fresco Pompeii 514px-Pompejanischer_Maler_um_40_v._Chr._001.jpg “And even when these ancient inscriptions do appeal to us, there is the possibility that we are over-influenced by a sentimental portrait, which leaves out all the complexities of living relationships. Roman paintings and sculpture present yet another avenue to the past. Women's portraits in the Roman tradition are often quite realistic, but they, too, fall into certain patterns, and sometimes individual heads seem to have been imposed on standard bodies. |::|

“Archaeology offers a different perspective, and Pompeii in particular is famous for having preserved for centuries, under lava, the details of the everyday life of the town. Nearby Herculaneum also shows us houses and flats, workplaces, bars and shops that are seldom even hinted at in the rather rarefied literature of Roman times. |::|

“Collecting evidence about Roman women's lives involves ranging over completely different kinds of information, and sifting each piece carefully, with due attention to the purpose of each source and the bias or ignorance of its author. A love poet, for example, wants to express his feelings about a real or imagined beloved, not to give you a rounded portrait of a real woman - while a son mourning his mother's death will mention only her virtues.” Also: “Bear in mind that the great majority of these sources are not authored or commissioned by women, but by men who are striving to make a particular point.” |::|

Status of Women in Ancient Rome

The Senate passed a law in 195 B.C. allowing women to ride in carriages and wear dyed clothes. Under Augustus (63 B.C.- A.D. 14), women had the right to divorce. The veiling of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium. Susan B. Matheson, curator of ancient art at the Yale Art Gallery, told the New York Times, ''Although women could not vote or hold office, they could own property and many were very wealthy. Some empresses dedicated temples, other buildings and statues of themselves. They were patrons of the arts.''

Jana Louise Smit wrote for Listverse: “Ancient Rome wasn’t an easy place to be a woman. Any hopes of being able to vote or of following a career was about as possible as a modern person trying to pluck a diamond out of thin air. Girls were sidelined to a life in the home and childbirth, suffering a philandering husband (if he was so inclined), and having little power in the marriage and no legal claim to her children. “However, because child mortality was so high, the state rewarded Roman wives for giving birth. The prize was perhaps what most women dearly wanted: legal independence. If a free-born woman managed three live births (four for a former slave), she was awarded with independent status as a person. Only by surviving this serial-birthing could a woman hope to escape being a man’s property and finally take control over her own affairs and life.”[Source: Jana Louise Smit, Listverse, August 5, 2016]

Positive Side of Being a Women in Ancient Rome

Silver Favourites by Alma-Tadema
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Position of Women. With her marriage the Roman woman reached a position not attained by the women of any other nation in the ancient world. No other people held its women in such high respect; nowhere else did women exert so strong and beneficent an influence. In her own house the Roman matron was absolute mistress. She directed its economy and supervised the tasks of the household slaves, but did no menial work herself. She was her children’s nurse, and conducted their early training and education. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Her daughters were fitted under their mother’s eye to be mistresses of similar homes, and remained her closest companions until she herself had dressed them for their bridal and their husbands had torn them from her arms. She was her husband’s helpmeet in business as well as in household matters, and he often consulted her on affairs of state. She was not confined at home to a set of so-called women’s apartments, as were her sisters in Greece; the whole house was open to her. She received her husband’s guests and sat at table with them. Even when she was subject to the manus of her husband, the restraint was so tempered by law and custom that she could hardly have been chafed by the fetters which had been forged with her own consent. |+|

“Out of the house the matron’s dress (stola matronalis) secured for its wearer profound respect. Men made way for her in the street; she had a place at the public games, at the theaters, and at the great religious ceremonies of state. She could give testimony in the courts, and until late in the Republic might even appear as an advocate. She often managed her own property herself. It is interesting to note that the first book of Varro’s work on farming is dedicated to his wife, and intended as a guide for her in the management of her own land. The matron’s birthday was sacredly observed and made a joyous occasion by the members of her household, and the people as a whole celebrated the Matronalia (the Roman “Mother’s Day”), the great festival on the first of March; presents were given to wives and mothers. Finally, if a woman came of a noble family, she might be honored, after she had passed away, with a public eulogy, delivered from the rostra in the Forum. |+|

Negative Side of Being a Women in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “It must be admitted that the education of women was not carried far at Rome, and that their accomplishments were few, and useful and homely rather than elegant. So far as accomplishments were concerned, however, their husbands fared no better. Even in our own country, restrictions on elementary education for women existed originally and were removed very slowly. For instance, it is told that in New Haven, in 1684, girls were forbidden to attend the grammar schools. |+|

Pepetua, a famous Christain martyr

“It must be admitted, too, that a great change took place in the last years of the Republic. With the laxness of the family life, the freedom of divorce, and the inflow of wealth and extravagance, the purity and dignity of the Roman matron declined, as the manhood and the strength of her father and her husband had declined before. It must be remembered, however, that ancient writers did not dwell upon certain subjects that are favorites with our own. The simple joys of childhood and domestic life, home, the praises of sister, wife, and mother may not have been too sacred for the poet and the essayist of Rome, but the essayist and the poet did not make them their themes; they took such matters for granted, and felt no need to dwell upon them. The mother of Horace may have been a singularly gifted woman, but she is never mentioned by her son. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The descriptions of domestic life, therefore, that have come down to us either are from Greek sources, or else they deal with precisely those circles where fashion, profligacy, and impurity made easy the work of the satirist. It is, therefore, safe to say that the pictures painted for us in the verse of Catullus and Juvenal, for example, were not true of Roman women as a class in the times of which they write. The strong, pure woman of the early day must have had many to imitate her virtues in the darkest times of the Empire. There were noble mothers then, as well as in the times of the Gracchi; there were wives as noble as the wife of Marcus Brutus.” |+|

Women’s Names

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “No very satisfactory account of the names of women can be given, because it is impossible to discover any system in the choice and arrangement of those that have come down to us. It may be said that the threefold name for women was unknown in the best days of the Republic; praenomina for women were rare and when used were not abbreviated. More common were the adjectives Maxima and Minor, and the numerals Secunda and Tertia, but these, unlike the corresponding names of men, seem always to have denoted the place of the bearer among a group of sisters. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

It was more usual for the unmarried woman to be called by her father’s nomen in its feminine form, with the addition of her father’s cognomen in the genitive case, followed later by the letter f (filia) to mark the relationship. An example is Caecilia Metelli. Caesar’s daughter was called Iulia, Cicero’s Tullia. Sometimes a woman used her mother’s nomen after her father’s. The married woman, if she passed into her husband’s “hand” (manus) by the ancient patrician ceremony, originally took his nomen, just as an adopted son took the name of the family into which he passed, but it cannot be shown that the rule was universally or even usually observed. Under the later forms of marriage the wife retained her maiden name. In the time of the Empire we find the threefold name for women in general use, with the same riotous confusion in selection and arrangement as prevailed in the case of the names of men at the same time.”

Manus: Power of the Husband Over His Wife

Women were regarded as the property of a man. When they reached marriageable age they had two options: to be married with “ manu” , which meant she belonged to her husband, or without “ manu”, in which she still belonged to her father and could inherit wealth for him or be repossessed by him.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The power over the wife possessed by the husband in its most extreme form, called by the Romans manus. By the oldest and most solemn form of marriage the wife was separated entirely from her father's family and passed into her husband's power or “hand” (conventio in manum). This assumes, of course, that he was sui iuris; if he was not, then she was, though nominally in his "hand," really subject, as he was, to his pater familias. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Any property she had of her own—and to have had any she must have been independent before her marriage—passed to her husband's father as a matter of course. If she had none, her pater familias furnished a dowry (dos), which shared the same fate, though it must be returned if she should be divorced. Whatever she acquired by her industry or otherwise while the marriage lasted also became her husband's (subject to the patria potestas under which he lived). So far, therefore, as property rights were concerned, manus differed in no respect from the patria potestas: the wife was in loco filiae, and on the husband's death took a daughter's share in his estate. |+|

“In other respects manus conferred more limited powers. The husband was required by law, not merely obliged by custom, to refer alleged misconduct of his wide to the iudicium domesticum, and this was composed in part of her cognates. He could put her away for certain grave offenses only; Romulus was said to have ordained that, if he divorced her without good cause, he should be punished with the loss of all his property. He could not sell her at all. In short, public opinion and custom operated even more strongly for her protection than for that of her children. It must be noticed, therefore, that the chief distinction between manus and patria potestas lay in the fact that the former was a legal relationship based upon the consent of the weaker party, while the latter was a natural relationship independent of all law and choice. |+|

Virtuous Women in Ancient Rome

Rape of Lucretia

Suzanne Dixon wrote for the BBC: “We know of good women from literature, legend, coins and statues but, above all, from the many epitaphs that have survived from Roman Italy - such as the following, concerning 'Claudia'. |“'Stranger, my message is short. Stop and read it. This is the unlovely tomb of a lovely woman. Her parents gave her the name Claudia. She loved her husband with all her heart. She bore two children, one of whom she left on earth, the other beneath it. She had a pleasing way of talking and walking. She tended the house and worked wool. I have said my piece. Go your way.' (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, CIL 6.15346) [Source: Suzanne Dixon, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Bereaved Romans often praised their mothers, wives and daughters on their tombstones, although their words were usually much briefer than this famous epitaph from Italy in the late second century B.C. Often, however, they did echo the key feminine virtues mentioned in the epitaph, those of affection, good housewifery and chastity. Wool work was very much a symbol of a good woman. |::|

“Every Roman schoolchild also learned the story of another good woman, Lucretia, who attracted the unwelcome attentions of a tyrant by her beauty and her domestic industry (working late at night at the loom). Her rape and subsequent suicide was said to be the origin of the Roman revolt against the Etruscan monarchy, and the foundation of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. The story is told by the historian Livy in his first book (late first century B.C.). |::|

“Augustus instigated the practice of holding up the women of the imperial family as inspiring models of virtuous womanhood in the first century AD. Later emperors carried it further and in the second century A.D. empresses such as Sabina (wife of the emperor Trajan) were depicted as embodying, for example, pietas (family feeling). |::|

“Faustina the younger, wife of Marcus Aurelius, often featured on coins symbolising various virtues, while Marcus's daughter-in-law, Lucilla, was particularly associated with modesty. |::| Letters and epitaphs tell of the particular grief of Roman parents if a girl died before marriage - and they seem truly to have delighted in their living daughters. The first and second century writer Pliny the Younger (Letter 5.16) paints a touching portrait of his friend's daughter, Minicia Marcella, who died at the age of 13. |::|

Ancient Roman Women as Sex Objects and Adulterous Wives

Suzanne Dixon wrote for the BBC: “Roman poetry is the main basis for (mis)information about adulterous Roman wives or glamorous mistresses. Propertius (who flourished 30-20 B.C.), Tibullus (48-19 B.C.) and Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) wrote love poems in the first person, each about a named mistress, following the lead of Catullus (c.84-54 B.C.), who had written short lyric poems about 'Lesbia'. These poems are set in a kind of fantasy world, and had a great influence on later European poetry. |[Source: Suzanne Dixon, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

“To give just a flavour of his style, perhaps the most famous poem (LXXXV) by Catullus is: 'I hate you and I love you. Perhaps you ask how I can? I don't know, but I feel it to be true and I am in torment.' Scholars have speculated that the 'Lesbia' he addressed in some poems was the elegant widow Clodia, who was attacked by the orator Cicero in court (in his defence of Caelius, 56 B.C.) for her loose living, but I think that is wishful thinking. |::|

“Ovid's delightful short poem about a rendezvous with the imaginary 'Corinna' in the evocative half-light of the afternoon has inspired many poets. Marlowe's version is great poetry, and a good rendering of the Latin. Here is an extract: 'In summer's heat and mid-time of the day To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay ... Then came Corinna in her long loose gown, Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down ... Stark naked as she stood before mine eye, Not one wen in her body could I spy. What arms and shoulders did I touch and see, How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me, How smooth a belly under her waist saw I, How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh. To leave the rest, all liked me passing well; I clinged her naked body, down she fell: Judge you the rest, being tired she bade me kiss; Jove send me more such afternoons as this!’ [Source: Ovid, Loves (Amores) 1.5] |::|

The second-century satirist Juvenal devoted his longest poem to the horrors of marriage. It is a gallery of awful married women whose vices (such as body-building and correcting their husbands' grammar) include committing adultery with men, women and even donkeys! It's racy reading, but not exactly reportage. |::|

“At a pithier level, the eruption of Vesuvius over Pompeii in A.D. 79 caused a whole range of everyday comments about women to be preserved, although needless to say we don't have the women's version of the stories uncovered there. We have a graffito from a Pompeian workshop which describes the cloth-worker Amaryllis in lewd terms. And a famous exchange on a pub wall records some banter between a weaver, Successus, and his mate, Severus, over the unrequited passion of Successus for the lovely barmaid Iris (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, CIL 5.1507; 4.8259). Less romantically, a customer at another pub claimed to have made love with the landlady (CIL 4.8442). |::|

“Other depictions of women can be seen in the various erotic paintings on Pompeian walls. Some of these paintings are apparently in-house advertising in brothels, and others are simply for domestic entertainment. Certainly Roman men attended brothels or frequented streetwalkers, while most prostitutes would have been slaves, and doubtless had short and miserable lives. It is known for sure that married men and women had affairs - even after the emperor Augustus made them illegal. But the Roman orgy is a modern invention (not even Juvenal thought of such a thing). Sorry if that's a disappointment. |::|

Working Women in Ancient Rome

Suzanne Dixon wrote for the BBC: “People did not always work for a wage in the ancient world. Most people worked on the land and in the home, while upper-class men and women supervised households and estates. Although there were specialist cloth shops, all women were expected to be involved in cloth production: spinning, weaving and sewing. Slave and free women who worked for a living were concentrated in domestic and service positions - as perhaps midwives, child-nurses, barmaids, seamstresses, or saleswomen. We do, however, have a few examples of women in higher-status positions such as that of a doctor, and one woman painter is known. [Source: Suzanne Dixon, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

“How do we know about women's work? From men saying in print what women should be doing - poets (like Virgil), and philosophers (like Seneca), and husbands praising their dead wives on tombstones not only for being chaste (casta) but also for excelling at working wool (lanifica). |::|

“We can also learn about women's work from pictures on vases and walls (paintings), or from sculptural reliefs on funerary and public art. Septimia Stratonice was a successful shoemaker (sutrix) in the harbour town of Ostia. Her friend Macilius decorated her burial-place with a marble sculpture of her, on account of her 'favours' to him (CIL 14 supplement, 4698). |::|

“Graffiti such as the ones on the wall of a Pompeian workshop record the names of women workers and their wool allocations - names such as Amaryllis, Baptis, Damalis, Doris, Lalage and Maria - while other graffiti are from women workers' own monuments, usually those of nurses and midwives (see CIL 14.1507). |::|

“Women's domestic work was seen as a symbol of feminine virtue, while other jobs - those of barmaid, actress or prostitute - were disreputable. Outside work like sewing and laundering was respectable, but only had a low-status. Nurses were sometimes quite highly valued by their employers/owners, and might be commemorated on family tombs.” |::|

Concubines in Ancient Rome

Michael Van Duisen wrote for Listverse: “A concubine in ancient Rome was slightly different from that of the traditional variety. First off, a man could only have one concubine at a time, and was not allowed to have a concubine if he was already married. In addition, the relationship between a man and his concubine had legal standing and was considered a step below marriage, though there were specific legal differences. [Source: Michael Van Duisen, Listverse, February 13, 2014]

“In fact, most women who became concubines were only not wives due to social standing, or a man’s wish not to complicate the inheritance of his wealth due to a previous marriage. Children born from concubinage were considered illegitimate; however, the father was still expected to provide for them while he was alive. Also, the concubine herself was not elevated to the same social status as the man—as opposed to a wife—and she was banned from worshiping Juno, the goddess of marriage.

The following are some laws pertaining concubinage from the Corpus Iuris Civilis [The Code of Civil Law] produced in the A.D. 530s by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian' (A.D. 482-566). The texts here date back particularly to the time of Augustus [ruled 27 B.C. - A.D. 14] who was very concerned about family matters and ensuring a large population. The selections comes from a digest that contain the opinions of famous lawyers - Marcianus, Paulus, Terentius Clemens, Celsus, Modestinus, Gaius, Papinianus, Marcellus, Ulpianus, and Macer.

Book XXVI. Title VII. Concerning Concubines: Ulpianus, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book II. Where a freedwoman is living in concubinage with her patron, she can leave him without his consent, and unite with another man, either in matrimony or in concubinage. I think, however, that a concubine should not have the right to marry if she leaves her patron without his consent, since it is more honorable for a freedwoman to be the concubine of a patron than to become the mother of a family. 1) I hold with Atilicinus, that only those women who are not disgraced by such a connection can be kept in concubinage without the fear of committing a crime.... 3) If a woman has lived in concubinage with her patron, and then maintains the same relation with his son or grandson, I do not think that she is acting properly, because a connection of this kind closely approaches one that is infamous, and therefore such scandalous conduct should be prohibited. 4) It is clear that anyone can keep a concubine of any age unless she is less than twelve years old. [Source: “The Civil Law”, translated by S.P. Scott (Cincinnatis: The Central Trust, 1932), reprinted in Richard M. Golden and Thomas Kuehn, eds., “Western Societies: Primary Sources in Social History,” Vol I, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), with indication that this text is not under copyright on p. 329] [Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

Paulus, On the Lex Julia et Papia, Book XII: Where a patron, who has a freedwoman as his concubine, becomes insane, it is more equitable to hold that she remains in concubinage. Opinions, Book XIX: The woman must be considered a concubine even where only the intention to live with her is manifested., Opinions, Book II: An official who is a resident of the province where he administers the duties of his office can keep a concubine....Modestinus, Rules, Book I: Where a man lives with a free woman, it is not considered concubinage but genuine matrimony, if she does not acquire gain by means of her body.

Marcianus, Institutes, Book XII: The freedwoman of another can be kept in concubinage as well as a woman who is born free, and this is especially the case where she is of a low origin, or has lived by prostitution; otherwise if a man prefers to keep a woman of respectable character and who is free born in concubinage, it is evident that he can not be permitted to do so without openly stating the fact in the presence of witnesses; but it will be necessary for him either to marry her, or if he refuses, to subject her to disgrace. 1) Adultery is not committed by a party who lives with a concubine because concubinage obtains its name from the law, and does not involve a legal penalty; as Marcellus states in the Seventh Book of the Digest.

Juvenal Misogynist View of Roman Women

William Stearns Davis wrote: “About 100 CE. a keen and bitter satirist delivered himself as follows against the women of Rome. Some of his charges are clearly overwrought; but there is no doubt that the Roman ladies often abused the very large liberties allowed them, and that divorce, unfaithfulness, wanton extravagance, and many other like evils were direfully common. Also the women were invading the arts and recreations of men — a proceeding the present age will view more leniently than did Juvenal.”

On women in general, the satirist Juvenal (c.55-c.130 A.D.) wrote in Satire 6 exc L: “Eppia, though the wife of a senator, went off with a gladiator to Pharos and the Nile on the notorious walls of Alexandria (though even Egypt condemns Rome's disgusting morals). Forgetting her home, her husband, and her sister, she showed no concern whatever for her homeland (she was shameless) and her children in tears, and (you'll be dumbfounded by this) she left the theatre and Paris the actor behind. Even though when she was a baby she was pillowed in great luxury, in the down of her father's mansion, in a cradle of the finest workmanship, she didn't worry about the dangers of sea travel (she had long since stopped worrying about her reputation, the loss of which among rich ladies' soft cushions does not matter much). Therefore with heart undaunted she braved the waves of the Adriatic and the wide-resounding Ionian Sea (to get to Egypt she had to change seas frequently). [Source: Diotma, Women’s Life in Greece & Rome by Mary R. Lefkowitze and Maureen B. Fant]

Cleopatra, much despised by Romans, and Caesar

“You see, if there's a good reason for undertaking a dangerous voyage, then women are fearful; their cowardly breasts are chilled with icy dread; they cannot stand on their trembling feet. But they show courageous spirit in affairs they're determined to enter illicitly. If it's their husband who wants them to go, then it's a problem to get on board ship. They can't stand the bilge-water; the skies spin around them. The woman who goes off with her lover of course has no qualms. She eats dinner with the sailors, walks the quarter-deck, and enjoys hauling rough ropes. Meanwhile the first woman gets sick all over her husband.

“And yet what was the glamour that set her on fire, what was the prime manhood that captured Eppia's heart? What was it she saw in him, that would compensate for her being called Gladiatrix? Note that her lover, dear Sergius, had now started shaving his neck, and was hoping to be released from duty because of a bad wound on his arm. Moreover, his face was deformed in a number of ways: he had a mark where his helmet rubbed him, and a big wart between his nostrils, and a smelly discharge always dripping from his eye. But he was a gladiator. That made him look as beautiful as Apollo's friend Hyacinth. This is what she preferred to her children and her homeland, her sister and her husband. It's the sword they're in love with: this same Sergius, once released from service, would begin to seem like her husband Veiento.

“Do you care about a private citizen's house, about Eppia's doings? Turn your eyes to the gods' rivals. Hear what the Emperor Claudius had to put up with. As soon as his wife thought that he was asleep, this imperial whore put on the hood she wore at night, determined to prefer a cheap pad to the royal bed, and left the house with one female slave only. No, hiding her black hair in a yellow wig she entered the brothel, warm with its old patchwork quilts and her empty cell, her very own. Then she took her stand, naked, her nipples gilded, assuming the name of Lycisca, and displayed the stomach you came from, noble Brittanicus. She obligingly received customers and asked for her money, and lay there through the night taking in the thrusts of all comers. Then when the pimp sent the girls home, at last she went away sadly, and (it was all she could do) was the last to close up her cell-she was still burning, her vagina stiff and erected; tired by men, but not yet satisfied, she left, her face dirty and bruised, grimy with lamp smoke, she brought back to her pillow the smell of the brothel.

“Isn't there anyone then in such large herds of women that's worth marrying? Let her be beautiful, graceful, rich, fertile, let her place on her porticoes her ancestors' statues; let her be more virginal than the Sabine women (the ones that with their dishevelled hair brought the war with Rome to an end); let her be a phoenix on earth, something like a black swan-but who could stand a wife who has every virtue? I'd rather have (much rather) a gal from Venusia than you, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if along with your great excellence you bring a snob's brow and count your family's triumphs as part of your dowry.

“All chance of domestic harmony is lost while your wife's mother is living. She gets her to rejoice in despoiling her husband, stripping him naked. She gets her to write back politely and with sophistication when her seducer sends letters. She tricks your spies or bribes them. Then when your daughter is feeling perfectly well she calls in the doctor Archigenes and says that the blankets are too heavy. Meanwhile, her lover, in hiding shut off from her, impatient at the delay, waits in silence and stretches his foreskin. Maybe you think that her mother will teach her virtuous ways-ones different from her own? It's much more productive for a dirty old lady to bring up a dirty little girl.

“There's hardly a case in court where the litigation wasn't begun by a female. If Manilia can't be defendant, she'll be the plaintiff. They'll draw up indictments without assistance, and are ready to tell Celsus the lawyer how to begin his speech and what arguments he should use.

“Who doesn't know about the Tyrian wrappers and the ointment for women's athletics? Who hasn't seen the wounds in the dummy, which she drills with continual stabbings and hits with her shield and works through the whole course of exercise-a matron, the sort you'd expect to blow the trumpet at the Floralia -unless in her heart she is plotting something deeper still, and seriously training for the actual games? How can a woman who wears a helmet be chaste? She's denying her sex, and likes a man's strength. But she wouldn't want to turn into a man, since we men get so little pleasure.

“Yet what a show there would be, if there were an auction of your wife's stuff-her belt and gauntlets and helmet and half-armour for her left leg. Or she can try the other style of battle-lucky you, when she sells her greaves. Yet these same girls sweat even in muslin, even the thinnest little netting burns their delicacies. Look at the noise she makes when she drives home the blows her trainer showed her, at the weight of her helmet, how solidly she sits on her haunches (like the binding around a thick tree), and laugh when she puts her armour aside to pick up her chamber-pot.

“You ask where these monsters come from, the source that they spring from? Poverty made Latin women chaste in the old days, hard work and a short time to sleep and hands calloused and hardened with wool-working, and Hannibal close to the city, [7] and their husbands standing guard at the Colline Gate-that kept their humble homes from being corrupted by vice. But now we are suffering from the evils of a long peace. Luxury, more ruthless than war, broods over Rome and takes revenge for the world she has conquered. No cause for guilt or deed of lust is missing, now that Roman poverty has vanished. Money, nurse of promiscuity, first brought in foreigners' ways, and effete riches weakened the sinews of succeeding generations. What does Venus care when she's drunk? She can't tell head from tail when she eats big oysters at midnight, and when her perfume foams with undiluted wine, when she drinks her conch-shell cup dry, and when in her dizziness the roof turns round and the table rises up to meet two sets of lights.

“An even worse pain is the female who, as soon as she sits down to dinner, praises Vergil and excuses Dido's suicide: matches and compares poets, weighing Vergil on one side of the scale and Homer in the other. Schoolmasters yield; professors are vanquished; everyone in the party is silenced. No one can speak, not a lawyer, not an auctioneer, not even another woman. Such an avalanche of words falls, that you'd say it's like pans and bells being beaten. Now no one needs trumpets or bronzes: this woman by herself can come help the Moon when she's suffering from an eclipse. As a philosopher she sets definitions on moral behaviour. Since she wants to seem so learned and eloquent she ought to shorten her tunic up to her knees and bring a pig to Sylvanus and go to the penny bath with the philosophers. Don't let the woman who shares your marriage bed adhere to a set style of speaking or hurl in well-rounded sentences the enthymeme shorn of its premise. Don't let her know all the histories. Let there be something in books she does not understand. I hate the woman who is continually poring over and studying Palaemon's treatise, who never breaks the rules or principles of grammar, and who quotes verses I never heard of, ancient stuff that men ought not to worry about. Let her correct her girl-friend's verses she ought to allow her husband to commit a solecism.

“Pauper women endure the trials of childbirth and endure the burdens of nursing, when fortune demands it. But virtually no gilded bed is laid out for childbirth-so great is her skill, so easily can she produce drugs that make her sterile or induce her to kill human beings in her womb. You fool, enjoy it, and give her the potion to drink, whatever it's going to be, because, if she wants to get bloated and to trouble her womb with a live baby's kicking, you might end up being the father of an Ethiopian-soon a wrong-coloured heir will complete your accounts, a person whom it's bad luck to see first thing in the morning.

More Misogyny from Juvenal

Juvenal (c.55-c.130 A.D.) wrote in Satire VI (xi.199-304, 475-503): The Women of Rome:
“Now tell me — if you can not love a wife,
Made yours by every tie, and yours for life,
Why wed at all? Why waste the wine and cakes,
The queasy-stomach=d guest, at parting, takes?
And the rich present, which the bridal right
Claims for the favors of the happy night,
The platter where triumphantly inscroll'd
The Dacian hero shines in current gold?
If you can love, and your besotted mind
Is so uxoriously to one inclined,
Then bow your neck, and with submissive air,
Receive the yoke you must forever wear.
[Source:William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 224-225, 239-244, 247-258]

“To a fond spouse, a wife no mercy shows
But warmed with equal fires, enjoys his woes.
She tells you where to love and where to hate,
Shuts out the ancient friend, whose beard your gate
Knew from its downy to its hoary state:
And when rogues and parasites of all degrees
Have power to will their fortune as they please,
She dictates yours, and impudently dares
To name your very rivals for your heirs.

“"Go crucify that slave." "For what offence?
Who=s the accuser? Where=s the evidence?
Hear all! no time, whatever time we take
To sift the charges, when man's life's at stake,
Can e'er be long: hear all, then, I advise!" —

“"You sniveler! is a slave a man" She cries:
"He's innocent? - be it so, - tis my command,
My will: let that, sir, for a reason stand."
Thus the virago triumphs, thus she reigns
Anon she sickens of her first domains,
And seeks for new; — husband on husband takes,
Till of her bridal veil one rent she makes.
Again she tires, again for change she burns,
And to the bed she lately left returns,
While the fresh garlands and unfaded boughs,
Yet deck the portal of her wondering spouse.
Thus swells the list - "Eight husbands in five years"

“A rare inscription on their sepulchers!
While your wife's mother lives, expect no peace.
She teaches her with savage joy to fleece
A bankrupt spouse; kind creature! she befriends
The lover's hopes, and when her daughter sends
An answer to his prayer, the style inspects,
Softens the cruel, and the wrong corrects. . .

“Women support the bar, they love the law,
And raise litigious questions for a show,
They meet in private and prepare the bill
Draw up instructions with a lawyer's skill,
Suggest to Celsus where the merits lie,
And dictate points for statement or reply.

“Nay more, they fence, who has not marked their oil,
Their purple rugs, for this preposterous toil?
Equipped for fight, the lady seeks the list
And fiercely tilts at her antagonist,
A post! which with her buckles she provokes,
And bores and batters with repeated strokes,
Till all the fencer's art can do she shows,
And the glad master interrupts her blows.

“The house appears like Phalaris' court,
All bustle, gloom and tears.
The wretched Psecas, for the whip prepared,
With locks disheveled, and with shoulders bared,
Attempts her hair; fire flashes from her eyes,
And Awretch! why this curl so high? she cries.
Instant the lash, without remorse, is plied,
And the blood stains her bosom, back and side.
Another trembling on the left prepares
To open and arrange the straggling hairs
To ringlets trim; meanwhile the council meet,
And first the nurse, a personage discreet,
Gives her opinion; then the rest in course
As age or practice lend their judgment force,
So warm they grow, and so much pains they take,
You'd think her honor or her life at stake,
So high they build her head, such tiers on tiers,
With wary hands, they pile, that she appears
Andromache before; — and what behind?
A dwarf, a creature of a different kind!”

Yale Exhibition on Women in Ancient Rome

On the roles of Roman women expressed in the exhibit ''I Claudia: Women In Ancient Rome,'' at the Yale University Art Gallery, Diana E. E. Kleiner, a professor of classics and history at Yale said, ''While historians have examined surviving written sources for evidence of Roman women's lives, works of art have never before been used to generate the story of what it meant to be a woman in ancient Rome.' Kleiner wrote ''Roman Sculpture'' (Yale University Press, 1992) and has done research on women's contributions to Roman society based on archeological material and works of art. [Source: Bess Liebenson, New York Times, November 24, 1996]

The exhibit featured objects ranging from life-size marble portrait statues and reliefs to coins, jewelry and children's toys placed in historical, political and social contexts in three settings — a house, a forum and a cemetery representing the domestic, public and funerary realm. In Roman house with an atrium and fountain are statues of a family — mother, grandmother, children, even a dog. Nearby, children's toys are displayed, along with jewelry and marriage and divorce contracts. In the realm of the dead are funerary reliefs, commemorative urns and marble coffins.

Susan B. Matheson, curator of ancient art at the Yale Art Gallery, told the New York Times, ''Although women could not vote or hold office, they could own property and many were very wealthy.Some empresses dedicated temples, other buildings and statues of themselves. They were patrons of the arts.''

There is a sculpture of Livia (58 B.C.-A.D. 29), the first Roman Empress, and Augustus, the Emperor, and their sons. ''I like to think of the public realm as one in which we explore associative power — power that women got primarily through their connection to important men like the emperor,'' Ms. Kleiner said, pointing out a marble portrait of Antonia, daughter of Augustus's sister Octavia and Mark Antony, and also mother of the Empress Claudia, the fourth Empress of Rome. Elaborate hair styles, articulated in this and other portraits, are shown to be imbued with political and social messages, rather than simply being a matter of fashion.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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