The role of women in ancient Rome
The precise role and status of women in Ancient Rome have from time to time been concealed by the prejudice behind the patriarchal mindset of writers and 19th-20th century researchers. Nonetheless, this situation has been redressed to some extent by recent scholarships in pursuit of an objective assessment of the ancient women’s status, duties, representation in arts and day-to-day lives. The Greeks upheld a creation myth where a woman was a creature inferior to a man and she was presented in the form of Pandora, a source of unbridled relentlessness and trouble. The Romans had a more impartial approach in their approach to a woman. The Romans believed that gods created humankind from earth and water, not specifying or overly focusing on sexuality. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for instance, does not state whether the first hominid was a man or a woman. As stipulated in the art during the time of the Roman Empire, men and women were not considered to belong to different species, since women were accorded respect and dignity in their social roles and positions within the family. The aim of the present paper is to determine the role of women in ancient Rome, as seen in the art of that time.
In understanding Roman women, it is important to take note of the Roman tradition, which formed in indeterminate terms the social milestones that women were required to accomplish, and the intrinsic worth that they were supposed to demonstrate. The main element that differentiates this body of cultural information from sources apart from sculptures is the fact that the Roman women would have been conscious of the duties and social roles that the mythologies were intended to impress upon them. The importance of myth and merit in creating the morals and quintessence of the Roman Empire was similarly applicable to dictating the behavior of Roman women. Women who attained these ‘Roman virtues’ were accorded due respect. These virtues and adherence to tradition depicted in Roman culture were unswerving all through the existence of Ancient Rome. Even as the rights of women continued to transform predominantly with Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire, the conception of a model woman was oddly consistent.
Therefore, before discussing the role of women in the Roman Empire as depicted by its art, it is important to elicit a firm understanding of the virtues depicted in the Roman tradition. The rules that all men were required to observe and the virtues which helped gain respect can be summarized in three Roman terms: pietas, pudicita, and concordia. Pietas refers to piety and was a requirement for all Roman citizens, although it was specifically significant for women. This feature is also demonstrated in statues that portray women with their heads concealed. Such forms of art would be exhibited in public, further cementing the idea behind this quality. Pudicita is perceived as the fundamental virtue of a woman in Rome and is somewhat more intricate than piety. Pudicita encompassed a mix of chastity, modesty, sexual fidelity and most importantly, fertility. This virtue was intricately associated with a woman’s role as a wife and mother, her true position in Roman society and was consequently of extreme importance in defining how she was regarded.
Concordia related to the woman’s place at home, which elucidated the anticipation of harmony between a husband and a wife. One of the unique elements of a woman’s life in Rome was the common respect and friendliness that was a rule in Roman marriages. This canon was particularly significant in 100 BCE, when women rights allowed them to own property. Additionally, peaceful equality was the statute in Roman homes.
Such ruling virtues were significant in determining the role of women in the Roman Empire, as exhibited most clearly in Roman tradition. Historically famous women, most of whom are familiar to all scholars who have studied Rome, exemplified these virtues. The Sabines, for instance, were the first women who were abducted from their men during the festival of Consualia. They were raped and became the original mothers and wives of the Roman Empire. Such women are constantly accredited with assisting to protect the Roman Empire. The Sabines were acknowledged in the circumstance of battle, eight years after their initial abduction. When the Sabine men came back for their women and arrived to battle with Rome, these women prevented the battle from taking place by waylaying the battlefield alongside their children, all to prevent a war between their brothers and fathers on one side and husbands on the other.
Jacques Louis David. 1799. The Intervention of the Sabine women.
In this manner, the women demonstrated the role of the balance that was played by their gender, a combination of strength and obedience in the society. Due to their intervention in the conflict, the Sabine women were acknowledged and have since stood for fortitude, bravery, determination, and honor. It is significant to note that these specific virtues were not gender based, but demonstrated the role of women in the empire, setting the bar for not only females but also the men of the Roman Empire. Ancient Roman women had authority within households and their main role in society was that of a mother and wife. Furthermore, a woman’s contentment of such responsibilities was fundamental to the way she would be treated in the society. The focus placed on responsibility fulfillment is best demonstrated in the tributes of art during the time, emphasizing wifely responsibilities like being affectionate towards husbands, bearing children and effectively performing household chores.
Moreover, Roman women played a minor role in public life. They were not allowed to participate in, speak or vote at political assemblies. The women were also not allowed to hold any political responsibility position. This aspect is comprehensible when one contemplates that much of a woman’s life was spent in her marriage life. With the minimum age of marriage being 12 years old, a woman barely experienced life outside her family. By the age of twenty, a majority of Roman women were already in their homes married, with many of them already having at least one child in their respective families.
After Augustus assumed power in 31 BCE, he was struck by the thought that the Roman Republic had collapsed into disarray because of corruption and decadence among the populations. It forced Augustus into emphasizing strongly the Roman virtues in an attempt to impose law and order on society. Furthermore, Augustus realized that Roman men were few in number because of the 50 years of civil war alongside high child mortality rates with nearly 50 % of all children dying before reaching the age of ten. This situation forced Augustus to implement certain laws that made reproduction mandatory. All women were required to be married and bear children by the age of twenty. Women who had more than three children received rewards from the state, which aimed at motivating other women to give birth to many children. Under the Republic law concerning the role of women was a “univira”, where a widow who never remarried was not appreciated. During the time of the Empire, a widow was obligated by law to marry again after 10 months of her husband’s death.
Figure 2: Livia, Emperor Augustus’ wife, symbolizing the role of women as a symbol of state. Antonio Zucchi. 1767. Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia, and His Fainting Sister, Octavia.
These developments reveal the rough transition from republic to empire, hinting that the change of laws regarding women of Roman society would result in their freedom being limited. Nonetheless, the reverse was true; and women enjoyed much more privileges. The transition to being an empire also resulted in a positive change in women’s rights, particularly for the upper class. Preceding 100 BCE, “patria potestas” had been the way of life in Rome. This implied that the Roman family and society had been male-dominant and a woman went straight from her father’s ownership to being her husband’s property. However, following 100 BCE, the practice of “manus” provided that a woman’s right to life and all her possessions was to be protected. This empowerment allowed women to have some privileges in the family. Actually, husbands and wives were prohibited from sharing property. These new rules and regulations enabled women to prosper since they were in charge of their own property and families. Women were also allowed to build up a substantial fortune since they could own and manage their own property without any for interference from their husbands.
Moreover, women were also granted the right to legally separate from their husbands. Women were no longer perpetually tied to their husbands as it was the case initially. By the end of the Republic, divorce became a usual affair in the Roman families. Augustus’ wife Livia, who was considered the epitome of the newly empowered women, demonstrated the role of women in the Roman Empire. As the wife of the emperor, she enjoyed many privileges, which served as examples of what other Roman women should become. She controlled property and was a true entrepreneur. Despite the fact that Livia was previously divorced, Augustus treasured her, notwithstanding the fact that she never bore a child. The recognition of a man depended on the well-being and care he showed towards a woman.
Following Livia’s reign as the queen, it became common for a queen to be shown beside her husband in political propaganda, most remarkably on coins. In fact, under Augustus’ reign and partly because of the respect that he held for his own wife, it became fashionable for men to openly tribute their wives. Even though public tributes to a wife were entrenched in a selfish male aspiration to enhance his own political profile, this new trend remained historically significant.
In the creation of the Empire, the education of women also transformed. Even though education had never been accorded to women previously, several women became erudite and well-versed in politics. It is acknowledged that women of the early Empire were expected to opine their husbands on political matters, even if they were not officially summoned to the councils. Although wifely counsel was never openly recognized, it was often highly regarded. Women played significant roles in influencing their husband’s decisions politically. Additionally, as wartime overshadowed peace during that period, women in the Roman Empire were frequently widowed. Hence, they became progressively accomplished and autonomous since they spent most of their lives without their husbands. As women autonomy increased, their participation in politics also intensified. In 195 BCE women were able to organize a public protest in the Forum in protection of “their rights to luxury”, which was fundamentally unheard of in ancient times. This demonstrated the new roles and empowerment that the women had attained in the Roman Empire.
Despite the fact that women’s evolving self-confidence was mainly interconnected to an improved male appreciation for sexual roles, some men still felt insecure about women attaining societal influence. Such men would blame women for the moral deprivation of the Roman Empire. Notwithstanding male uncertainties, the growing strength of women in the Roman Empire as a sign of advancement within Roman society was noticable. Roman women were constantly depicted as strong personalities, especially in representations of gods and goddesses, whereby the goddesses were portrayed to be just as magnificent as the gods. Similarly, Roman women were also given the same reverence, on condition that they acted as honorable as the divinities themselves. Even Augustus was unembarrassed to be associated with feminine abilities, publicly linking himself with Venus through sculpture. He acknowledged the rightful position of women in the society in all his engagements in public. This is evident in the Prima Porta figure, in which he is represented alongside a dolphin and a cupid. The Prima Porta figure is also significant in demonstrating the role of women in the Roman Empire, in terms of their respect for goddesses and interaction with women. Through Augustus’ symbolic relationship with Venus, it is apparent that the goddesses were illustrations for women, and provided that women adhered to these representations of virtue, they were treated very well.
Through representations of Roman history, culture and art, it is apparent that Roman women were treated respectfully. The respect accorded to the Roman women was in a manner symbolic of Roman culture. It demonstrated that Roman women were treated better in many ways as compared to women in a modern society. Therefore, in exploring Roman art it is significant to note that women were accorded respect and dignity, provided that they behaved in accordance to certain virtues. The position of women was also enhanced by the eventual formation of the Roman Empire. Initially, women were viewed as lesser beings, but through idealized representation there was inculcated a great amount of gratitude, esteem and admiration for women and their responsibilities in everyday life. Roman men neither thought of women becoming their equals nor hated them because they heeded their advice, for instance, in the Sabine conflict. According to the words of Metellus, the uncertain approach of Roman men to their women and the significant roles portrayed in art is best defined by the speech given by Augustus the emperor, when he said, “nature has made it so that we cannot live with them particularly comfortably, but we can’t live without them at all.”
David, Jacques Louis, The Intervention of the Sabine Women. Accessed March 8 2017,
Kuefler, Mathew. “The Merry Widows of Late Roman Antiquity: The Evidence of the Theodosian Code.” Gender & History 27, no. 1, 2015.
Lu, Shi-Min. “Woman’s Role in New Testament Household Codes: Transforming First-Century Roman Culture.” Priscilla Papers 30, no. 1, 2016.
Mark, Cartwright, “The Role of Women in the Roman World.” Accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.ancient.eu/article/659/.
Mosier-Dubinsky, Joy. “Women in Ancient Rome.” JCCC Honors Journal 4, no. 2, 2013.
Zucchi, Antonio, Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia, and His Fainting Sister Octavia. Accessed March 8 2017, https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/virgil-reading-the-aeneid-to-the-emperor-augustus-his-wife-livia-and-his-fainting-sister-octavia-170671
. Joy Mosier-Dubinsky, “Women in Ancient Rome,” JCCC Honors Journal 4, no. 2 (2013): 5.
. Shi-Min Lu, “Woman’s Role in New Testament Household Codes: Transforming First-Century Roman Culture,” Priscilla Papers 30, no. 1 (2016): 9-15.
. Mathew Kuefler, “The Merry Widows of Late Roman Antiquity: The Evidence of the Theodosian Code,” Gender & History 27, no. 1 (2015): 28-52.
. Lu, “Woman’s Role in New Testament,” 9-16.