Women in ancient Rome had no political rights. They could not vote or make public speeches. They were forbidden to participate in two of the central activities of the Roman state—politics and war. They were expected to devote their attention and energy to their households, and their most important responsibility was having children.
Yet Roman women were not entirely shut out of public life. Some women were indirectly involved in politics through the influence they had on their husbands. Others conducted financial business. Throughout Rome’s history, women held important religious offices. Upper-class Roman women had more freedom than their Greek counterparts, who almost never left their homes. Cornelius Nepos (ca. 99-24 B.C.), a wealthy Roman who wrote the first surviving Latin biographies, compared the roles of Greek and Roman wives in his Lives of the Famous Men:
For what Roman is not asked to take his wife to a dinner party? Or whose wife is not prominent at home or not involved in society? In Greece things are far different. For neither is a wife invited to a dinner party, except of relatives, nor does she pass her life except in the inner part of her house, which is called the women’s quarters, where a man is not welcome, save for a close relation.
Roman men did not consider women their equals, but they did not limit a woman to the inner chambers of her home. Much of what is known about the lives of Roman women comes from histories, poems, plays, and letters written by men. These documents tell something about the activities in which women engaged. But almost nothing is known about the feelings the women had about themselves and their lives.
Women's Rights and Roles. Traditional Roman standards of behavior for women were quite rigid. For example, one husband in early Rome divorced his wife because he learned that she had gone outdoors with her head uncovered, and another divorced his wife because she had gone to the games without telling him. Roman men living around 100 B.C., in the period of the later Roman Republic*, wrote with approval of the high standards that their ancestors had set for female behavior. They believed that their ancestors had had greater control over their wives than they had. Even in early Roman history, however, women moved about in the outside world.
The historian Livy described some of the limits on women. “No offices, no priesthoods, no triumphs, no symbols of office, no gifts, no spoils of war can come to women,” he wrote. Although women could move about somewhat freely and participate in some public activities, the center of their world was—or was supposed to be—the household. The writer Tacitus said that a woman’s duties were “to manage the house and look after the children.” Some Roman women, however, did more than keep house. Terentia, the wife of the orator* Cicero, ran an impressive financial empire and invested in apartment buildings, farmland, and other properties. Under the law of the early republic, a woman could not engage in business or own property independently of her husband, father, or guardian. These limits gradually loosened, however. By the time Rome had become an empire, the law still reflected the belief that adult women needed male guardians, but people generally ignored this rule.
Some areas of public life, however, remained off-limits to women. Women did not serve in the army, and Romans considered it improper for a woman even to watch military maneuvers. Although women held no public offices, some women were involved in politics in other ways. Fulvia, whose third husband was Mark Antony, openly supported some political leaders and opposed others and even commanded troops during a rebellion in 41 B.C. Many Roman writers found such behavior odious and unwomanly. Yet the Romans realized that women helped shape public life by setting examples of behavior for their sons, who would one day govern the state. Within their families, Roman politicians accepted, and even encouraged, women’s interest in politics. Outside the family, however, a politician’s career suffered if word got around that he was influenced by his wife. Still, many women exercised political power through their influence on sons, husbands, or lovers. Servilia, described by Cicero as a woman of “high intelligence and great energy,” was connected with Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Cato the Younger, and other leading figures in the Rome of her day. Later, when emperors ruled Rome, women in the imperial* family sometimes controlled the emperors. Agrippina, the mother of Nero and the sister and wife of two other emperors, was the power behind the throne for many years. Partly because the Roman people disliked and distrusted ambitious women such as Agrippina, these women had less power and influence after the A.D. 100s.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* orator public speaker of great skill
Only under unusual circumstances could a woman make a speech in court or in front of an assembly. Men did not like the idea of a woman addressing a public gathering, even when she had little choice—for example, if she had no one to argue her case in court and chose to appear on her own behalf. Roman women occasionally gathered in public for political reasons. The most famous public demonstration of women occurred in 195 B.C., when women took to the streets to urge the government to cancel a law that banned certain kinds of finery, such as silk and jewelry. The Roman historians who wrote about this episode had mixed feelings about such political action. They felt that women should take such a step only when it involved a patriotic action on behalf of the state.
State religion was one area in which Roman women played a public role from very early times. The best-known religious women served in the temple of Vesta. These Vestal Virgins, as they were called, appeared at many public ceremonies and performed various rituals. The most important ritual was tending the fire at Vesta’s altar, which the Romans believed determined the fate of Rome—the empire would survive as long as that fire remained lit.
Most priests, even priests of female deities*, were men. However, the wives of some priests shared their husbands’ duties. Romans also had religious festivals for women. Twice each year married women of the upper classes gathered at the home of one of Rome’s leading public officials for the festival of Bona Dea, a goddess worshiped by Roman women. Men were strictly forbidden to witness the Bona Dea ceremonies. One of Rome’s biggest scandals occurred when a young man disguised himself as a woman and tried to sneak into the festival.
Proper Womanly Behavior The finest quality that a Roman woman could possess was pudicitia. For an unmarried girl, pudicitia meant sexual purity. For a wife, it meant faithfulness and devotion to her husband. Romans cherished stories of women who exhibited this quality. In one story, a woman who had been raped killed herself in shame even though her husband did not blame her for what had happened to her. Another story concerned Paetus and his wife Arria. When the emperor Claudius ordered Paetus to end his own life, Paetus hesitated. Arria took his dagger and stabbed herself to set an example, saying, “Paetus, it doesn’t hurt.” These and other stories show that the Romans thought it was a woman’s duty to sacrifice herself to protect her sexual purity or to help her husband.
One special form of pudicitia concerned remarriage. Romans gave their highest praise to women who had only one husband in their lifetimes. However, few women could win that praise in a society where girls married young, husbands often died while their wives were still young, and divorce was common and easy to obtain.
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* deity god or goddess
A GOOD WOMANS LIFE
One Roman's tribute to his wife, honoring a happy marriage of more than 40 years, shows what significance women could play at the end of the Roman Republic. As a young woman, his wife had brought her parents’ murderers to justice and saved her inheritance from greedy relatives. When powerful enemies wanted to kill her husband, she helped him escape, secretly provided him with supplies while he was in hiding, and managed their estate, defending it from a band of looters. The couple later enjoyed a good life, but they had no children. When the wife suggested divorce so that her husband could have children with another woman, he refused—and mourned her when she died before he did.
The Romans prized obedience in a woman. Even a woman who was sharp-tongued and unruly at home was supposed to be quiet and obedient to her husband in public. To act otherwise was to bring shame upon the husband. Roman plays and other literary works often made fun of bossy wives.
The Romans also admired the virtue of pudor, which means decency or proper behavior. A woman, they thought, should be modest and should show self-control in all situations. Moralists were quick to criticize any woman who failed to behave in a calm and reasonable way. They claimed that women were naturally weaker than men and that this weakness made them more likely to give way to greed, sexual desire, or jealousy. Whenever men relaxed their control over women, they believed, the women exploded into unseemly behavior—such as meddling in the business of men.
In general, the Romans expected women to devote themselves to domestic matters. A woman’s highest reward was the praise she would receive after her death for having lived up to her family’s expectations. But Cato recognized the power of women when he wrote, half humorously, “All men rule over women; we Romans rule over all men; and our wives rule over us.” (See also Antonius, Marcus; Family, Roman; Marriage and Divorce; Women, Greek.)