Ancient History & Civilisation



ROMANO-GRECIAN WOMEN LIVED IN A WORLD dominated by a very clear male view of them and their place, a view formulated by the elite for themselves, but shared widely by ordinary men as well. However it worked itself out in real life, the ideal is well expressed by John Chrysostom, who in describing the division of male and female focus in the community reflects thinking throughout classical antiquity:

A woman’s whole role is to care for children, for her husband, and for her home … For human activity is divided into two spheres, one pertaining to life outside the home, and one to life within it; as we might say, ‘public,’ and ‘private.’ God assigned a role to each sex; women have the care of the home, men of public affairs, business, legal and military activities – indeed, all life outside the home. For a woman cannot let loose a spear, or shoot an arrow; rather she can do the spinning, weave fabric, take on all the other domestic tasks – and do them splendidly. She is not able to speak in the town council, but can speak her piece regarding household matters. In fact, she often has a better grasp of the needs of the home than the husband does. Although she can’t perform public duties, it is a beautiful thing to raise up fine children, who are the light of our lives. She is able to discipline female slaves who need it, and to keep the entire household on the right track. She removes all concerns and frees her husband from all worries as she takes care of the larder, wool spinning, cooking and clothing needs, and all the other tasks unsuitable for husbands. In fact, she can do these better than a husband could, even if he tried to take over these tasks. (The Kind of Women Who Ought to be Taken as Wives, 4)

Within this ideal, the Romano-Grecian world inserted the affirmation of the physical and mental inferiority of women into every possible interstice of life. Few males would have disagreed with Plautus when he wrote in his play The Bacchae (41), Miserius nihil est quam mulier (‘Nothing is more miserable than a woman’). So deep was the feeling that only men were worthy that it could generate a scene such as that in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, where Mary the mother of Jesus must become a man in order to succeed:

Simon Peter says to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of The Life. To this Jesus replies: Behold, I myself shall fill her with the Spirit and so make her male, in order that she shall also become a Living Spirit like you males. For every female who becomes male shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’ (Thomas 114)

In Artemidorus, there is often misogyny, such as the male being associated with the right, female with the left (Dreams 1.21); or dreams of changing from male to female being bad (Dreams 1.50). In general, the dream interpretations and astrological charts are steadfastly male-oriented and referenced. Men pervasively assumed that women were weak and needed protection from financial or physical manipulation. They were thought to be physically weak; to be disabled by child-bearing; to be inexperienced (which of course they were, in ‘men’ things); dependent on male relatives or guardians for actions regarding property, law, etc.; gossipy, emotionally unstable, fickle, vulnerable, and libidinous.

Nonetheless, within this male analysis, women’s actions and attitudes are also praised. The exchange between Aurelia and her husband Aurelius is one of the most touching in Latin epigraphy. The husband speaks:

I am Lucius Aurelius Hermia, freedman of Lucius, a butcher working on the Viminal Hill. This woman, Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius, who went before me in death, my one and only wife, chaste of body, faithfully loving a faithful husband, lived equal in devotion with no selfishness taking her from her duty.

There is an image of Aurelia looking lovingly at Aurelius. Aurelia answers:

This is Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius. I alive was called Aurelia Philematio, chaste, modest, ignorant of the foul ways of the crowd, faithful to my husband. He was my fellow freedman, the same now torn from me – alas! He was in truth and indeed like and more than a father to me. He took me on his lap a mere 7 years old – now after 40 years I am dead. He flourished in all his doings among men on account of my faithful and firm devotion. (CIL 1.01221 = CIL 6.9499 = ILS 7472, Rome)

Aurelia Philematio exemplifies an ideal woman when she is praised for her modesty, excellence, moral uprightness, and loyalty; she expresses these ideals herself, but since her husband outlived her and set up the gravestone we can assume the sentiments are his, although she may well have shared them. In Richmond Lattimore’s collection of Greek and Roman epitaphs, women are most often typified as beautiful, lovable (dear, sweet, lacking in quarrelsomeness), fertile, chaste, and keeping the house well. The core values of women in epitaphs are thus loyalty, chastity, and hard work. And certainly they must know their place; they are not to be uppity in the presence of men. Rather they should ‘learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent’ (1 Timothy 2:11).

A woman was a means to an end, and she probably thought of herself in this way. The end was a family unit that would provide heirs and thus a way to pass on property. Although there were ancillary possibilities for activity (in commerce, for example), any woman who would have and could have chosen one of these as her primary goal in life was a rara avis indeed. As I move into the world of women it is well to recall that their outlooks as expressed in their own words – their individual subjectivity – is lacking in almost all of our literary and archaeological sources. Epitaphs (if we allow ourselves to believe that some are actually composed by women themselves) and papyrological material are the main exceptions. But even in these I do not find opposition to the male views or alternatives to the male positioning of women in society and culture. Although our modern sensitivities find this situation somewhat unsettling, the response should not be speculation about secret desires and aspirations to liberation which lie forever hidden from us, but rather consideration that there were no such secret desires or aspirations at all. So far as we know or, on comparative evidence, can even readily imagine, there were no alternative lifestyles and aspirations either offered or considered – no inkling that Romano-Grecian women ever conceived of a world different from the one they were born into, ever had a thought-basis from which to consider alternative arrangements. The prudent way to proceed is to assume that women accepted their what to us might seem oppressed condition and sought to live it out in the most satisfying way possible, sometimes pushing the limits, most often living within them, sometimes rebelling against them, but never overthrowing them. Within this conceptual framework we can construct a useful and realistic picture of ordinary women and their mind worlds.

It is true that women did not participate in the classic elements of public life. They did not have legal standing; they could not vote and were excluded de facto from advanced education. But on the other hand, as we look at women living according to the elite and male model, but in their own realities, we will see women functioning well in a much wider world than the elite picture presents. Their letters from Egypt show women in charge and women with strong minds. They do not show women as shrinking violets or left to house management, cooped up in a women’s quarter. Indeed it is regrettable that these letters actually tell little of many things such as ‘secret’ thoughts might reveal. Their often elliptical nature gives the sense that the authors do not want others who might read the letter to know what exactly is being talked about. There is little of the ‘sharing’ that goes on in the letters of Cicero, for example. But the general impression is one of women in charge of their lives in a positive, proactive way.

Women appear outside the house on a routine basis. They shop. They run errands. They participate in public religious ceremonies. They also make their presence known in the fairly frequent public disturbances. Philo in railing against just such activity testifies to women taking part in street riots:

If any woman, hearing that her husband is being assaulted, being out of her affection for him carried away by love for her husband, should yield to the feelings which overpower her and rush forth to aid him, still let her not be so audacious as to behave like a man, outrunning the nature of a woman; but even while aiding him let her continue a woman. For it would be a very terrible thing if a woman, being desirous to deliver her husband from an insult, should expose herself to insult, by exhibiting human life as full of shamelessness and liable to great reproaches for her incurable boldness; for shall a woman utter abuse in the marketplace and give vent to unlawful language? … But as it is now, some women are advanced to such a pitch of shameless-ness as not only, though they are women, to give vent to intemperate language and abuse among a crowd of men, but even to strike men and insult them, with hands practiced rather in works of the loom and spinning than in blows and assaults, like competitors in the pancratium or wrestlers. And other things, indeed, may be tolerable, and what any one might easily bear, but that is a shocking thing if a woman were to proceed to such a degree of boldness as to seize hold of the genitals of one of the men quarreling. For let not such a woman be let go on the ground that she appears to have done this action in order to assist her own husband; but let her be impeached and suffer the punishment due to her excessive audacity, so that if she should ever be inclined to commit the same offence again she may not have an opportunity of doing so; and other women, also, who might be inclined to be precipitate, may be taught by fear to be moderate and to restrain themselves. (Philo, Special Laws 172–5/Yonge)

Of course there was a wide variety of public experience according to local customs. Some women were more stay-at-home than others, and customs in such things as dress varied as well, for we know that in some places women went out veiled (Petronius,Satyricon 14, 16) and in others even complete body covering was the norm. In all things women needed to be careful not to cross the boundaries of ‘decency’; for example, although women attended religious gatherings with their husbands, Paul instructs them not to speak, but rather to wait until they get home to ask them about things (1 Corinthians 14:33–5). But in the end in households with few or no slaves, and these households were many, it was simply impractical to sequester women away from the world. They would have needed to be out in the market buying and perhaps even selling, and taking care of household needs. Even in her own home she was not sealed off. The writer of the letter of Timothy states that preachers get ‘into households and capture weak women. Burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, she will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Timothy 3:3–7). Evidently, a woman’s life exposed her to a fairly broad spectrum of experiences.

Fundamentally, the vast majority of women were committed to making a household and family successful. The oft-repeated ideal of spinning wool and keeping a good house corresponds to the norm in pre-industrial societies in general. Although there were some other options available, every girl was taught from the youngest age that marriage was the future to be expected and desired, along with children. When a woman internalized this teaching, she gained a certain steadiness in her life, and if she stuck to it would find reassuring guidance, examples, and precedents in dealing with any problems she encountered. As she matured from a young bride to mother to ‘elder matron’, gaining in age and experience, things valued in the culture, her influence within the household gradually increased. Throughout her life, however, legal and customary standards did mark her off from the world that males knew. As previously noted, she had no legal standing and so a guardian was needed except in unusual circumstances if she was to engage in public transactions such as making a will, a sales contract, or other legal obligation, as in the case of Aurelia Ammonaion from Oxyrhynchus:

[request] To Gaius Valerius Firmus, Prefect of Egypt, from Aurelia Ammonaion. I ask you, my lord, to give me as guardian Aurelius Ploutammon in accordance with the lex Iulia et Titia and the Decree of the Senate. Dated in the consulship of our lords Philippus Augustus for the second time and Philippus Caesar. (AD 247) [response] In order that … may not be absent, I appoint Ploutammon as guardian in accordance with the lex Iulia et Titia. I have read this. (Rowlandson, no. 140)

Escape from this legal disability came with three children (four if a freedwoman). An educated woman, Aurelia Thaisous, petitions for this right:

… [Laws long ago have been made], most eminent Prefect, which empower women who possess the right of three children to be mistresses of themselves and act without a guardian in whatever business they transact, especially those who know how to write [in actuality, a legal irrelevancy]. Accordingly, as I too enjoy the happy honor of being blessed with children and as I am a literate woman able to write with a high degree of ease, it is with abundant security that I appeal to your highness by this my application with the object of being enabled to accomplish without hindrance whatever business I henceforth transact, and I beg you to keep it without prejudice to my rights in your eminence’s office, in order that I may obtain your support and acknowledge my unfailing gratitude. Farewell. I, Aurelia Thaisous also called Lolliane, have sent this presentation. Year 10, Epheiph 21.

[response] Your application shall be kept in the [office, i.e. ‘on file’]. (Rowlandson, no. 142)

But the combination of child mortality, ignorance of legal rights, and a heavy male hand must often have discouraged thinking in these terms.

Marriage and sex

Even at the lower end of the stratum I am calling ‘ordinary,’ the culturally embedded desire to have children in order to continue a family and the need of a helpmate to enhance survival chances pushed men and women to marriage. This relationship is illustrated by a dream interpreted by Artemidorus: ‘If a man changes into a woman it is fortunate for a poor man … for he will have someone to take care of him, as a woman does.…’ (Dreams 1.50). That women shared the desire for marriage with men can be seen from one of the questions posed in the Predictions of Astrampsychos: ‘Am I going to marry and is it profitable for me?’ (Rowlandson, no. 247). Women sought to know what sort of husband they would have. Carmen 2.3–4 lists through various nativities the sort of husband(s) a woman might end up with: no marriage at all; a series of husbands; an old man; ‘her grandfather or paternal uncle or maternal uncle or one of those possessing relationship to her’; an overbearing man; a stranger soldier; a man well known in his town; a philanderer. Although marriage was the goal, married life itself might hold ‘disgrace, debauchery, and destruction,’ and divorce might be sought owing to alcoholism or deceit and quarreling. But such possibilities would not have curbed the desire to marry in the first place.

Some might even pursue an unwilling man and marry him:

A man dreamed he was being pursued by a woman whom he had known for a long time; she was trying to wrap him up in a cloak – the one called a paenula in Latin – ripped down the middle seam. Finally, very unwillingly he was overcome. This woman, being in love with the man, married him against his will. After a few years she divorced him – all foreseen by the rent cloak. (Artemidorus, Dreams 5.29)

And she might use magic to reach her goal:

(I bind) Aritokudes and the women who will be seen with him. May he not marry any other woman or young maiden [than me]. (Gager, no. 23)

I invoke you, who shook the entire world, who breaks the back of mountains and casts them up out of the water, who causes the whole earth to tremble and then renews all its inhabitants. I invoke you, who make signs in the heaven, on earth and on sea, to bring Urbanus, to whom Urbana gave birth, and unite him as husband with Domitiana, to whom Candida gave birth, loving her, sleepless with desire for her, begging for her, and asking that she return to his house and become his wife … (Gager, no. 36)

In order for marriage to be legal for a Roman citizen it had to have four elements: both partners needed to be free, without legal restrictions that prevented marriage, to be of the age of puberty, and to have the consent of relevant parties (i.e. the man, the woman, and their parents). There was no requirement to seek authoritative permission or to register a marriage with any official or even to have any religious ceremony or communal celebration (although both usually occurred).

An essential part of every marriage was the dowry; for ordinary people the amounts were often absolutely small, but presumably appreciable within their local economy. For example, Jane Rowlandson offers a number of Egyptian documents: no. 252 gives a dowry for what appears to be an ‘apparently humble village family’ wedding valued (in clothing and jewelry) at 200 drachma; no. 127 has a contract with about the same value of dowry in jewelry and dress; no. 128 amounts to 200 drachma, and a ‘house and lot’ are to be sold to raise this amount when the wife demands its return; no. 129 has something over 240 drachma in clothing, jewelry, and 120 drachma in cash; no. 132 seems to be just 72 drachma in (informal) dowry. Compare the dowry of an elite (no. 141), which amounts to half a talent of gold in goods, jewelry worth 1500 drachma, clothing valued at 5000 drachma, and 4 talents and 2000 drachma in cash.

As a dowry had to be returned in the case of divorce, it provided some little leverage over the husband, who often needed these resources and/or hoped to inherit them. Thus a woman was understandably possessive of these dowries. She might go into a rage over misuse by her husband: ‘the bride’s dowry is damaged, and she will be furious with him like the burning of fire because of women, and the marriage will be with this thing’ (Carmen 2.1). And a wife was not slow to demand (or just take back) a dowry in divorce disputes. In Plautus’ play Aulularia, Megadorus goes on and on about how wives with dowries control and order about their husbands, and he praises the idea of no dowries in order to keep women in their place (Pot of Gold 475ff.).

Although a dowry might provide some leverage in a marriage relationship, a woman was almost always under some male’s authority. Before marriage it was her father’s; after marriage, it is not clear whose authority the wife was normally under, husband’s or father’s, but the usual living arrangement was for the wife to move in with the husband. Would she have worried about competing authorities? Artemidorus gives the interpretation of the following dream: ‘A man dreamed that his sister was dragged away from her husband by her father and given to another in marriage’ (Dreams 5.43). If this were not possible in real life, the dream would have no meaning to the interpreter. But how common was this? Rowlandson, no. 138, gives a case of a father claiming under Egyptian law the right to take back his daughter, now married, against her will. The Roman authorities reject this as too harsh, however – and note that as they are under Egyptian (i.e. Greek) law, not Roman, patria potestas (the absolute power of a father under Roman law) is not recognized. In the petition, the wife claims to have presented documents ‘all proving that women who have attained maturity are mistresses of their own persons, and can remain with their husbands or not as they choose; and … are they not subject to their fathers …’ One of the prefects being appealed to ruled, ‘The decisive question is with whom the married woman wishes to live.’ It would seem that tradition was on the side of women de facto lying under the control of their husbands, not of their fathers, and that once married, the husband’s home became practically irrevocably her own.


3. Affection in marriage. Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philematio describe a beautiful marriage relationship on her tombstone: ‘This is Aurelia Philematio, freedwoman of Lucius. I alive was called Aurelia Philematio, chaste, modest, ignorant of the foul ways of the crowd, faithful to my husband. He was my fellow freedman, the same now torn from me – alas! He was in truth and indeed like and more than a father to me. He took me on his lap a mere 7 years old – now after 40 years I am dead. He flourished in all his doings among men on account of my faithful and firm devotion.’ (CIL 1.01221 = CIL 6.9499 = ILS 7472, Rome)

Although love could be a part of a marriage, romantic love was not an essential and perhaps usually not any part of that relationship. Romantic love was looked upon with suspicion, masking true nature, as in the fable of the ‘weasel as bride’:

A weasel fell madly in love with a handsome man. Aphrodite, mother of all desires, granted her wish to be changed into the form of a woman so beautiful that it would be impossible for him not to love her. The instant the man of her choice saw her, he was consumed by a violent passion and desired to take her for his wife. The wedding feast was well underway when a mouse scooted by. The bride jumped from her luxurious couch and began to chase after it. The wedding feast ended in an uproar. Love had played out his jest well. But he left, beaten by basic Nature. (Babrius 32)

Gnomic utterances also disparage romantic love as misleading. It is hard to know whether the passionate graffiti of Pompeii represent romantic love or masculine conquest; for example ‘Vibius Restitutus lay here alone and yearned for his Urbana’ (CIL 4.2146) – but, if the same Restitutus, it wasn’t only Urbana he longed for: ‘Restitutus often deceived many girls’ (CIL 4.5251). Whatever young swains wrote on walls, marriage was too important to be left to romantic whims; family continuity and property were at stake, even in poor families, and certainly among ordinary folk.

Although the basic expectation for women in proverbs and elsewhere in popular literature is to be the focus of family – and they are denied any role outside that unit (for example they are ridiculed as being un-soldierlike) – marriage itself could involve a whole gamut of experiences for both husband and wife. The ideal was a life without conflict, one in which there was never a quarrel; this is attested on many, many tombstones, such as:

This is the gravestone Gaius Aonius Vitalis set up for Atilia Maximina, she of purest spirit, an incomparable wife, who lived with me without any quarrels for 18 years, 2 months, and 9 days, having lived 46 years, leading a life of honor and good name, my everlasting solace. Farewell. (CIL 5.3496 = ILS 8457, Verona, Italy)

Or this:

Pompullius Antiochus, her husband, set up this gravestone to Caecilia Festiva, his dearest, sweet wife, hard-working and well-deserving, who lived with me 21 years without a contrary word. (CIL 9.3215 = ILS 8433, Corfinio, Italy)

A marriage contract from Egypt indicates monogamy on both sides, respect, sharing of responsibilities, and so on. Ideally, then, there was respect, if not love, mutual cooperation, as well as fidelity on both sides of the marriage. But, in fact, strifeless marriage was often not on the cards: Artemidorus notes that a man dreaming of marriage ‘portends upheavals and scandals. For marriage cannot be conducted without disorder’ (Dreams 2.65). The Carmen makes this clear too, as Dorotheus’ nativities predict such things as a man marrying an agreeable wife, happiness for the father of a child, or, conversely, ‘disaster and disgrace because of women and anxiety and grief because of them.’ Or perhaps the wife will turn out to be a whore, or a sign ‘indicates the badness of the marriage from men and women so that his life will revolve in grief and misery because of women …’ (Carmen 2.1).

Despite the overtly male-dominated nature of marriage, women were active partners and certainly not pushed into the background. The wife’s basic duty was to maintain the house, including foodstuffs and clothing, and raise the children. This expectation carries over into Christianity. Around AD 200, St. Clement notes that a woman ‘is destined for pregnancy and housekeeping’ (Miscellanies (Stromata)–60.1 – Rowlandson, no. 51). But a wife had many expectations beyond or intertwined with home management and child-rearing. Most of all, she was expected to uphold certain standards. In Plautus’ Amphitryon he has Alcmena say:

As for me, I don’t think of my ‘dowry’ the way it is commonly conceived. I think of it as modesty, a sense of shame and controlled desires, fear of the gods, love of parents, harmony with relatives, compliance with your wishes, ever ready to do good to others, ever useful in praiseworthy deeds.

SOSIA: Good God! If she is speaks truly, she is a paradigm of the very best. (Amphitryon 839–43)

There is exaggeration for comedic effect, but the portrait is essentially the same as the one we see on epitaphs of excellent women. Chastity was particularly praised. An inscription from Rome speaks for numerous evocations of the high value placed on a wife’s moral uprightness:

Titus Flavius Flavianus set up this monument to Papinia Felicitas who lived 25 years, 5 months, and 25 days. She was a wife most virtuous and chaste, incomparable among women. (CIL 6.23773 = ILS 8441, Rome)

Or this from North Africa:

Postumia Matronilla was an incomparable wife, a good mother, a devoted grandmother, chaste, devout, hard working, frugal, efficient, watchful, responsive, life-long partner to one man only, whose bed alone she ever shared, a matron full of industry and good faith, who lived 53 years, 5 months, and 3 days. (CIL 8.11294 = ILS 8444, Zaatli, Jabal az, Tunisia)

Household management is exemplified by Papinia’s inscription as well, with her efficiency and frugality praised along with other virtues; her loving care within the family always had to be foremost in a good wife’s mind. Although presumably some ordinary men adorned their women as advertisements of their wealth, as the elite did, modesty usually included dressing in an appropriate manner. Women were urged to ‘adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire …’ (1 Timothy 2:9; see also 1 Peter 3:3–4). And last but certainly not least, a wife was to maintain good relations with her husband. Beyond the banal ‘we never had a quarrel’ of the ideal conjugal pair, the picture of a wife’s place was clearly one of submission to her husband. Artemidorus says that wives are bad when they ‘bark or bite’ (Dreams 2.11), i.e. talk back to their husband/master. ‘Likewise [i.e. like the slaves relating to their masters] you wives, be submissive to your husbands …’ advises the male author of 1 Peter 3:1. However, the husband was not to take advantage of this submission, but rather was to be considerate of his wife; he urges men to ‘live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex …’ (1 Peter 3:7).

Not only is she to uphold standards, she is to teach younger women and children to do so. Older women are to teach younger the proper way to behave, namely to love their husbands, children, be sensible, chaste, domestic, kind, and submissive to their husbands – see Titus 2:4.

The traditional elite view was that Roman marriage was a cold relationship arranged by adults for their children, its purpose and heart being procreation and the protection of family resources and influence; within this the wife ‘lay back and thought of Rome,’ while the man exercised his sexual virility not just on her, but also on concubines, whores, and slave girls. This view never quite fit with the expressions of a warm, sustaining family life found in funeral inscriptions and elsewhere outside the elite’s literary constructs – or even, in some instances, within those constructs. But still, even though there is no direct access to the Roman marital bed, it is possible to say with a fair degree of confidence that in social and religious conventions alike the purpose of sex in marriage was less enjoyment than procreation.

Nevertheless, sex is certainly a normal part of a woman’s life in marriage. It reflected the dominant/submissive cultural pattern of that institution, but within that habit was the possibility, even the necessity, that a wife would be a good sexual partner. If the literary version of a wedding song composed by the elite poet Catullus captures the actual, normal essence of advice for the bride, her submissive sexual role is clear: ‘Bride make sure that you do not deny what your husband asks for, or he will go elsewhere to seek it’ (Poems 61.147.49). Artemidorus confirms this attitude for ordinary people:

To have intercourse with one’s willing and submissive wife – one not reluctant regarding sex – this is a good thing in the judgment of all. For the wife represents for the one who dreams the craft or profession from which he derives pleasure, or over which he rules, as also he controls his wife. For the dream portends profit from such things, as men on the one hand take pleasure in the acts of Aphrodite, and, on the other, take pleasure in making a profit. But if a wife is reluctant or does not offer herself, this is a sign of the opposite. (Dreams 1.78)

It is easy to imagine ‘old wives’ advising young brides to do what the husband wants, ‘men will be men’ – an acknowledgment of the psychological element of sex in marriage along with the procreative aspect. The raw explicitness of assumedly chaste females’ exposure to male sexuality, whether in rituals such as the Lupercalia or the genitalia greeting them as they shared the male baths in the ritual of the Virile Fortune (Ovid, Fasti 133–56), was a reminder that the male was the master and creator, the female the receptacle; submissive she must be.

Overt allusions to sex were found all around. In Pompeii, for example, the notice ‘here lies happiness’ (hic habitat felicitas) is written above and below the symbol of male sexual and protective power, the phallus (CIL 4.1454). But men were more or less free to express their sexual drives with slaves and prostitutes; women were not. So ‘respectable’ women’s sexual pleasure was restricted to marriage. And enjoy sex she certainly could – and, indeed, must if conception was to take place. Medical writers from Hippocrates to Galen to Soranus linked female orgasm, or at the very least a positive attitude toward intercourse, to conception. So within the fundamental function of a married woman – procreation – enjoying sex was not only permitted, but hoped for.

The range of enjoyment naturally varied from ‘doing one’s duty gladly’ to reveling in sexual excess. Paul’s attitudes at 1 Corinthians 7:2–6 exemplify a wife’s experience of sex as a ‘duty’:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent … (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:3–6)

Galen endorsed this sort of restrained although at least potentially still enjoyable connubial sex when he praised Christians’ ‘restraint in cohabitation,’ and again among the elite Seneca praised the under-ardent wife. If the elite Lucretius is to be believed, the less passionate rear-entry position was preferred for conjugal intercourse:

And how the pleasing pleasure is taken is also of very great importance, for wives are thought to conceive more often through intercourse after the manner of wild and domesticated animals, because thus with breasts down and genitals raised, the male seed can reach where it needs to go. (On the Nature of Things 4.1263–7)

The ‘missionary position’ was too apt to lead to useless, excessive passion, and to coitus interruptus as a way to avoid pregnancy:

Sexually stimulating movements are of absolutely no use to wives. For a woman keeps herself from conceiving – even fights against it – if she enthusiastically encourages a man’s penetration by the movement of her hips and makes him ejaculate onto her writhing bosom. For she turns the furrow from the plowshare and keeps the seed from falling where it should. (On the Nature of Things 4.1268–73)

Toward the other end of the spectrum of conjugal sex, Publilius Syrus has a saying worth repeating: ‘A compliant wife turns a man against whores’ (Maxim 492). Considering the sexual skill of at least some prostitutes, this might have set the bar fairly high for some couples.

While wives could enjoy ‘natural’ sex, in general ‘deviant’ behavior (any sexual activity beyond procreative) was frowned upon in the conjugal bed. Phaedrus in one of his fables notes: ‘Then using the same material, Prometheus made a woman’s tongue from the substance of her private parts. This is what produces the shared connection to obscene acts of both’ (Fables 4.15). But some married couples clearly engaged in oral sex: Firmicius in one of his astrological castings notes that a sign indicates a husband and wife ‘practice impure intercourse,’ probably referring to oral sex (Mathesis 6.31.38–9). And Artemidorus is clearly aware of the full range of sexual activity, as he writes of married couples in dreams performing the whole array of standard and deviant sexual positions and acts, although his interpretations always rely on the basic principle that domination is good, subordination is bad.

The extent that lesbianism entered the life of ordinary women is impossible to gauge, but certainly such experiences existed. As Pseudo-Lucian writes:

Come now, epoch of the future, legislator of strange pleasures, devise fresh paths for male lusts, but bestow the same privilege upon women, and let them have intercourse with each other just as men do. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man. Let wanton lesbianism – that word seldom heard, which I feel ashamed even to utter – freely parade itself, and let our women’s chambers emulate Philaenis, disgracing themselves with Sapphic amours. (Affairs of the Heart 28/MacLeod)

Artemidorus provides evidence that lesbianism was practiced by the general population, as the possibility of a woman possessing another woman appears in his work:

If a woman penetrates another woman, she will share her own secrets with the one being penetrated. But if she does not know the one penetrated, she will attempt frivolous undertakings. If a woman is penetrated by another woman, she will be divorced from her husband or widowed. Nevertheless, she will learn the secrets of the one doing the fucking. (Dreams 1.80)

Such matter-of-fact notation of lesbianism is balanced by others who held that female same-sex relationships were to be avoided, as for example Paul, who criticized polytheistic women as ‘exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones’ (Romans 1:26).

Women in the household

Beyond the basics of the sexual life in marriage, a woman had many sources of joy and pleasure. As I have already pointed out, because of intense and effective acculturation, and the lack of alternate acceptable patterns of behavior, a woman would not have questioned her role; this acceptance led to a large measure of emotional security and, once she had established her worth and so position by bearing children, she encountered few fundamental problems her upbringing had not prepared her to deal with effectively. Traumas of childlessness, of barrenness, of childhood mortality must have come aplenty. But the psychological support system was ready to deal with these ‘expectable’ reversals, and a woman was seldom alone.

The most essential activity of marriage was the concentration of the parents on children. It is so fundamental that for the early Christians motherhood was woman’s special gift, her path to eternal life: ‘Woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty’ (1 Timothy 2:15). Although as in any society there would be aberrant behavior, in the normal course of things, a mother loved her children. A letter from Egypt is eloquent in its care and concern and worry:

Isidora to Hermias her lord brother, very many greetings. Do everything you can to put everything off and come tomorrow; the child is sick. He has become thin, and for 6 days he hasn’t eaten. Come here lest he die while you’re not here. Be aware that if he dies in your absence, watch out lest Hephaistion find that I’ve hung myself … (PSI 3.177, Oxyrhynchus, second and third centuries AD/Bagnall & Cribiore)

Hard reality could impinge, however. The exposure of children is one of the most difficult things for moderns to come to terms with in the ancient world. Although it was opposed by Jews and Christians, the habit was ingrained and widespread throughout society. Still, it is hard to imagine the calculus of a family including the intentional abandonment, perhaps to death, of their own infant. These decisions perhaps affected women more than men. And certainly the result punished girls more than boys. A famous letter from Egypt testifies to this reality:

Hilarion to his sister Alis, very many greetings. Also to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are even now in Alexandria. Do not worry. If they actually set out, I am going to remain in Alexandria. I ask you and beg you, take care of our little one, and as soon as we get our pay, I intend to send it up country to you. If, among the many things that are possible, you do bear a child and if it is a male, let it be, but if it is a female, cast it out. You have told Aphrodiaias, ‘Do not forget me’; but how can I forget you? I ask you, then, not to worry. Year 20, Pauni 23. (Rowlandson, no. 230)

So here is combined a clear love of a child (‘take care of our little one’) and a steely determination to get rid of the next, if it be a girl (‘if it is a female, cast it out’). Although there were contraceptives and miscarriage-inducing treatments available for ‘family planning,’ the surest way to keep the wanted child and get rid of the unwanted one was abandonment. So exposure continued to be a useful option throughout antiquity, however agonizing a particular decision might have been for a particular woman. Even if a child was raised, a desperate family situation could lead to selling the female into prostitution to get money for food and clothing, another wrenching decision.

Turning to a happier aspect of a woman’s life, she would have had many opportunities for socializing outside the home and family. There is every indication that she maintained a strong interconnectivity with other women. She would visit relatives and friends; there were family events to plan and go to; going to market fell to her since most ordinary people would not have had a slave to do this, or other daily chores outside the home such as retrieving water from the local fountain and gossiping along the way. And, of course, there were religious ceremonies to attend to, not only within the household, but beyond it at the neighborhood cult centers and larger sanctuaries nearby – perhaps even a pilgrimage to a fairly distant site now and again. These many religious occasions of all sorts ‘got women out of the house’ and provided sometimes solemn, sometimes raucous opportunities for celebration. This socializing was stigmatized by males as an opportunity for at best frivolous gossiping and at worst malicious slandering; they often assumed that heavy drinking went along with it. Early Christian literature is particularly fond of pointing out and criticizing these alleged weaknesses. While the author of Titus tells older men to be sensible and serious and temperate, he tells older women not to be slanderersand addicted to wine; by this he emphasizes these two ‘womanly’ failings: gossip and boozing (Titus 2:3). Those women who are seeking leadership as deacons must be ‘serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things’ – temperateness has been mentioned among male qualifications too (1 Timothy 3.2), but slander is not insinuated as emanating from males (1 Timothy 3.2–4). And widows are singled out as particularly susceptible to the social weaknesses of sex, gossip, meddling, and heavy drinking: ‘But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not’ (1 Timothy 5:13). This conception of female irresponsibility is part and parcel of the downgraded opinion of women in general that pervades the male culture. But with the hostility and suspicion set aside, one finds a picture of women networking to maintain contact with one another, exchange information, and create an environment in which important decisions regarding themselves and their families can be made.

While men worried about the social habits of their women, the women themselves had a more serious list of concerns. Their primary worry was about health – their own and that of their loved ones – and the welfare of various family members. The letters of women written on papyrus focus on these two issues in addition to concerns about business operations, an emphasis that points once again to the active role women played outside the home as well as within it. It is no surprise that women dwelled on health issues, especially their own. The frequent mention of female death in epigraphy and letters points to how common death in childbirth must have been; historically, this has always been a primary cause of female mortality. It must have been on a woman’s mind constantly as the cultural expectation to bear children played itself out.

Dreams were interpreted to help the pregnant woman with her worries. Artemidorus notes how common stillborn births were:

If a pregnant woman has a dream that she is giving birth to a fish, when born the child will only live a short time, for every fish dies when it is taken from its natural environment. (Dreams 2.18) Parental support and assistance were also crucial:

Mother NN to Ptollis, Nikandros, Lysimachos, Tryphaina, greetings. If you are well, it would be as I pray to the gods to see you well. I received the letter from you in which you inform me that you have given birth. I prayed to the gods daily on your behalf. Now that you have escaped [from danger], I shall pass my time in the greatest joy. I have sent you a flask full of oil and … mina of dried figs. Please empty the flask and send it back to me safely because I need it here. Don’t hesitate to name the little one Kleopatra, so that your little daughter … (P. Münch. 3.57/Bagnall & Cribiore)

As children grew, worries over their health and safety and education were normal and frequent. The letter from Isidora to her brother quoted above is eloquent. The following letter expresses the concerns of a grandmother for her daughter and grandchildren – as well as a complaint about nonsupport!

Eudaimonis to her daughter, Aline, greetings. Above all, I pray that you may give birth in good time, and that I shall receive news of a baby boy. You sailed away on the 29th and on the next day I finished drawing down [?the wool] … Your sister Souerous gave birth. Teeus wrote me a letter thanking you so that I know, my lady, that my instructions will be valid, for she had left all her family to come with you. The little one sends you her greetings and is persevering with her studies. Rest assured that I shall not pay studious attention to God until I get my son back safe. Why did you send me 20 drachmae in my difficult situation? I already have the vision of being naked when winter starts. Farewell. (P. Brem. 63/Bagnall & Cribiore)

A further worry attested by letters is concern about widowhood, with its implications of powerlessness. If the widow was young, she had possibilities, as the author of the letter to Timothy attests: ‘So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes …’ (1 Timothy 5:14). But to judge by the evidence from Egypt, most widows were older and few remarried – perhaps the risk of childbearing was too great, perhaps men looked to younger women and despised widows; when in the tale of Cupid and Psyche embedded in Apuleius’ Golden Ass Venus berates Cupid for disrespecting her, she says he is treating her with the contempt reserved for widows (5.30). Whatever the specific reasons, nonremarriage seems to have been a widespread phenomenon. A widow’s powerlessness was widely acknowledged, and her position often precarious; life as a widow was not in general something to look forward to. But although widows were universally seen as disadvantaged, in need of help and protection, and easily taken advantage of, some widows at least managed well in their new condition. Artemidorus gives the following dream interpretation:‘… the second woman will lose her husband and will manage her household alone, being, in fact, both wife and husband at the same time.’ This indicates that in widowhood some women carried on just fine without a man in the house.

There was also worry for the safety of loved ones who were traveling:

Eutychis to Amertrion her mother, many greetings. Before everything I pray to God to find you well. I want you to know that I came to the Tyrannion on the 30th of Tybi, and I could not find any way to come to you, because the camel drivers refused to go to the Oxyrhynchite. Not only that, but I went up to Antinooupolis for a boat and did not find any. So now I consider bringing my loads to Antinooupolis and staying there until I find a boat and sail down … Greet for me all in the house and all our friends; I’ll be coming to you soon. I pray for your health. (P. Oxy. 14.1773/Bagnall & Cribiore)

Indeed, these letters reveal that women traveled to an astonishing extent, whether to visit family (especially to help in child birthing), to do business, or to attend to land owned abroad. They thought nothing of setting out on the road (or river, as the case might be). Elsewhere, other, equally mobile women appear, such as Prisca/Priscilla (Acts 18:1–3); she and her husband were from Pontus, had lived in Rome, and were in Corinth when Paul stayed in their home. But travel always occasioned worry, and it is no surprise that a large number of dreams interpreted by Artemidorus involve possibilities for good and not-so-good things happening while on a journey.

Egyptian households were in large measure made up of extended and multiple families; I take this pattern as normal across my geographical area because they closely resemble in general what is expected of a preindustrial culture and, specifically, what has been found throughout the Mediterranean in premodern times. In Egyptian documents we find about 60 percent of households living as extended and multiple families, with 35 percent as conjugal (nuclear) families, and only 5 percent of people living as solitaries with no family. In this environment, with a large number of people usually sharing often constrained living conditions, it is little wonder that the papyri are full of family drama. Children were especially prone to inspiring concern and worry. In this fragmentary letter, for example, a mother writes to her own mother about a daughter who is causing her grief:

Heliodora to my mother, many greetings. I am strongly embittered toward you because you did not even deem me worthy of receiving news through a letter of yours. From the time when I went away from you, many troubles have been inflicted upon me by my daughter. See how much she provoked to anger the landlord and his neighbors and then was vexed at him. She stripped me of everything and got hold of my gold jewels and my earrings and gave me a [worn] tunic so that … Invoke the god for me so that he would pity me. Do everything to send my brother to me. I am going to Senepta with Hermous. Do not send me…: what I have is enough for me. Salute all my brothers and the people who love you. I pray for your health. (SB 16.12326/Bagnall & Cribiore)

Intra-family tensions abound; intergenerational issues frequently come to the fore. Here a mother lectures her son on how his wife, her daughter-in-law, is to blame for problems, and how she twists him around her little finger:

To Kopres [from his mother], greeting. I know your quick temper, but your wife inflames you when she says every hour that I do not give you anything. When you came up, I gave you small coins because I received some grain; but this month I could not find [anything] to give you. I am keeping nothing back from you because I trust you in everything. Your wife says in fact, ‘She does not trust you’ … Nobody can love you, for she shapes you according to her advantage … (SB 3.6264/Bagnall & Cribiore)

A wife was expected to tolerate faults of a husband that moderns might think quite serious (e.g. alcohol abuse, gambling, or womanizing). This despite the fact that ‘objectively’ such behavior could easily threaten the property and well-being of the family’s children. A good wife simply ignored a husband’s dalliances with slaves and prostitutes; his use of them might even be beneficial if she disliked him or wished to have fewer children. She was only concerned when there was true adultery or open concubinage, which threatened her position and that of her children. But a husband’s neglect often went beyond sexual straying. Violence and abuse were very common. The abusive relationships in family and marriage swirling around the life of Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, give a good picture of this. Her life as given in the Confessions presents wife abuse as pervasive in her town of Thagaste – her own experience with her husband, Patricius, is replicated over and over again in the households of other women in the town, most of whom show bruises from their encounters with their husbands. Augustine’s family is a member of the local elite (his father, Patricius, is a town councilor), so Monica’s experience is not that of an ordinary woman. But there is no reason to suppose that male attitudes toward wife abuse in marriage would be any different among nonelites and the poor. Note the threats of violence and strong language of Petronius at Satyricon 74–5 concerning Trimalchio and wife:

Then for the first time (but not the last) our good times were thrown into confusion. For now when a cute lad had entered along with other servants, Trimalchio grabbed him and began to give him long kisses. And so Fortunata [Trimalchio’s wife], in order to emphasize her rights at law, began to swear at Trimalchio, calling him a filthy fellow and a disgrace who couldn’t control his lusts. The final insult she hurled was, ‘You dog!’ Trimalchio was offended by the insults and hurled a cup at Fortunata’s face. She screamed as though she’d lost an eye and put her trembling hands to her face. Scintilla was alarmed as well. She pulled her terrified friend to her bosom to protect her.

This shows Trimalchio’s essential vulgarity despite his wealth – thus Petronius, at least, thought that the subelite behaved like this. In The Golden Ass, too, a husband angered at being cuckolded would have done violence to his wife if a friend had not convinced the wife to go away until the husband’s anger had cooled – a tactic that would have met with Monica’s approval, while the beating itself falls within the acceptable, as Artemidorus’ interpretation of a dream shows: ‘To strike someone is auspicious, so long as you have authority over them – except in the case of a wife; for if she is struck, it means she is committing adultery’ (Dreams 2.48).

A letter on papyrus is eloquent about an abusive husband:

To Protarchos. From Tryphaine, daughter of Dioskourides. Asklepiades, to whom I am married, persuaded my parents, although I, Tryphaine, was unwilling, to give me to him as my caretaker, and … [Asklepiades] entered into the marriage, [?receiving] also on my behalf a down payment on my dowry consisting of clothing worth 40 drachmas and 20 drachmas of coined silver. But my accuser, Asklepiades, since he kept going off throughout the marriage for no reason, squandered the aforementioned goods, abused me and insulted me, and, laying his hands on me, he used me as if I were his bought slave … (Rowlandson, no. 257)

Abuse is even recorded on a couple of gravestones. One Iulia Maiana is described as having been slain in a domestic argument:

Julia Maianae, a highly honorable woman, was murdered at the hands of a most cruel husband. She lived married to that man for 28 years and they had two children, a boy, 19, and a girl, 18 years old. O Faithfulness personified! O Duty itself! Julius Maior, her brother, set this up to a sister so sweet, along with Ingenuinius Januarius her son. (CIL13.2182 = ILS 8512, Lyon, France)

And as can been seen from the following example, a family set up a monument to a sixteen-year-old wife who, it says, had been murdered, hurled into the Tiber by Orfeus, her husband:

Restutus Picenesis and Prima Restuta made this gravestone for Prima Florentia, their dear, dear daughter, who was thrown into the Tiber river by her husband, Orfeus. The man named December set this up to one who lived only 16 years. (IPOstie-A, 210 = ISIS 321)

Women had to fear violence in other aspects of their lives, too. A letter from Egypt tells of an employer who beat an employee’s wife:

When I was calculating accounts with Bentetis, son of Bentetis, a shepherd of Oxyrhynchus in the same division, and when he wanted not to pay me, but to cheat me, he behaved in an insulting manner to me and to my wife Tanouris, daughter of Heronas, in the aforesaid Areos Kome. In addition, he also pelted my wife unsparingly with hard blows on every part of her body he could, although she was pregnant, so that she gave birth to a dead fetus, and she herself lies in her bed and is in danger of her life. (Rowlandson, no. 229)

And women also could be in danger from fellow citizens:

From Hippalos son of Archis, public farmer from the village of Euhemeria of the Themistos division. On the 6th Tybi, while my wife Aplounous and her mother Thermis were bathing, Eudaimonis daughter of Protarchos, and Etthytais daughter of Pees, and Deios son of Ammonios, and Heraklous attacked them, and gave my wife Aplounous and her mother in the village bath-house many blows all over her body so that she is laid up in bed, and in the fray she lost a gold earring weighing three quarters, a bracelet of unstamped metal weighing 16 drachmas, a bronze bowl worth 12 drachmas; and Thermis her mother lost a gold earring weighing two and a half quarters, and … [text becomes fragmentary] (Rowlandson, no. 254)

A wife used the weapons of reason and self-controlled restraint in the face of a husband’s tantrums and abuse. Monica, St. Augustine’s mother, presents another way of dealing with abusive husbands: manipulating them. The language of slavery is often used to describe the relationship of husband and wife, and in a hostile relationship the strategies of a slave in avoiding beatings would serve a wife well. As slaves were wise to be obsequious, so wives: ‘The upright wife runs her home by paying attention to her husband’s wishes,’ says Publilius Syrus (Maxim 108). They were advised to practice blanditiae from an early age, wheedling, and like means as a way to deal with the men in their lives.

As a last resort there was the possibility of divorce. Sometimes this was motivated by bad circumstances of a marriage, such as infidelity or abuse, but sometimes by what was apparently mutual consent, as this letter from Egypt shows:

To Promachos from Zois, the daughter of Heraclides, along with her legal guardian, her brother Irenaeus son of Heraclides, and also from Antipater son of Zeus: Zois and Antipater agree that they are separated from each other with the agreed upon marriage arrangements null and void … Zois has received from Antipater by his own hand from their common household that which he held in dowry, namely clothing worth 120 drachmas and a pair of gold earrings. As of this moment the marriage contract is completely invalid … and from this time on it will be legal for Zois to marry any man and for Antipater to marry any woman, with both free from any threat of legal action. (BGU4.1103)

Finally, in responding to a crisis in a marriage, or simply to the whims of fortune, women were perfectly capable of taking things into their own hands, leaving a husband, and taking up with someone else, whatever the ‘legal’ situation:

To Claudius Alexandros, centurion, from NN son of Panetbeous, public farmer from the village of Theadelphia. The wife with whom I was living [and by whom] I have begotten a child, becoming dissatisfied about her marriage with me, [seized] an opportune absence of mine, and left my house … Months ago, without a so-called [?divorce], taking away her own goods and many of mine, among which were a large white unfulled cloak and an Oxyrhynchite pillow, and a striped dilassion [a garment], materials for two chitons, and other farmers’ working implements. And although I have many times sent to her seeking to recover my things, she has not responded or returned them, and yet I am supplying to her the cost of support for our child. Besides, having now learned that one Neilos son of Syros from the same village had lawlessly taken her and married her, I submit [this petition] and request that she and Neilos may be summoned before you in order for me to be able to obtain legal redress and get back my things and be helped. Farewell. (Rowlandson, no. 137)

Women in the economy

The most striking thing about the economic role of Roman women of all classes and incomes is that they kept the household functioning. Their duties ranged from mundane chores to sometimes complicated commercial dealings. Hierocles, a second-centuryADphilosopher, seems to describe a peasant household. The women do wool work, cook, make bread, light fires, draw water, make beds, and carry out some things around the house that require physical strength: grinding corn, kneading dough, cutting wood, getting wood, moving large containers around, and shaking out bedcovers. Women also help out in the fields and with harvesting when they are needed. This picture is very congruent with that given of a similar life in Galilee. The attested jobs done there include baking bread and selling it in the market; keeping a shop; helping with agricultural work, especially during the harvest; selling produce from the home, as well as delivering it to the market for sale; and being wet nurses. The Mishnah lists a woman’s work in the home as (in order): grinding corn, baking, and laundering; preparing meals and nursing children; making her husband’s bed; and working wool; but notice that tasks that must have been done (e.g. sweeping out, cleaning up, keeping lamps and fires, purchasing supplies in the market, and doing the household accounts) are not mentioned here. For each slave brought into the house, one of these listed tasks might be deleted, in order, although Gamaliel felt that wool working should be done no matter what, to avoid idleness.

The oft-quoted epitaph of Claudia echoes this sentiment; she kept the house and worked at wool:

Visitor, I have a little something to say to you; stop and give it a read. This is a common tomb for an uncommon woman. Her parents gave her the name, Claudia. She loved her husband with all her heart. She brought forth two children. One she left above the earth, the other below. Her conversation was lovely, her gait was graceful. She managed the household. She wove in wool. I have spoken. Go on your way. (CIL 6.15346 = ILS 8403, Rome)

Weaving was so much seen as a quintessential wifely thing that ‘A woman dreamed that she finished her weaving. She died the next day. Since she no longer had work, she no longer had reason to live’ (Artemidorus, Dreams 4.40). Food preparation was also central, as was childbearing and care. The need for many children to offset high infant mortality meant that women were completely socialized into their role as child-producers from their typical age of menarche, fourteen, until fertility tapered off by thirty and ended in their mid forties.

Despite the fact that work such as this in the home was central to the vast majority of women’s lives, females in their attested roles as home managers never appear in images on grave reliefs, which is curious, since the fact of fine household management – working in wool, and other roles – is often mentioned in words in grave epitaphs. For example, Amymone, who died in Rome, is praised by her husband as most good and most beautiful, as a wool spinner, as dutiful, modest, pious, faithful, frugal, chaste, and a stay-at-home – but her image on the gravestone does not illustrate actual duties (CIL 6.11602 = ILS 8402). For some reason there was a hesitancy to show women engaged in the jobs that were so highly valued in the culture in general.

The importance of wool weaving extended beyond the household. In addition to providing material from which to make clothing, a woman could produce a surplus that could be sold. This ‘cottage work’ was crucial to the survival of poor households, as Apuleius’ story illustrates:

This indigent fellow, pressed down by desperate poverty, managed to stay alive by doing construction work for a few asses a day. He had a wife who was just as poor, but infamous for her insatiable lust. [the wife’s lover visits her while the husband is out; the husband returns unexpectedly; the wife brazenly challenges him] … ‘Just look at you, acting like you have nothing to do, ambling about with your hands in your pockets, not going to work like you usually do to help us get by and put some bread on the table. And here I am, wretch that I be, working my fingers to the bone day and night spinning wool so that at least we can have a lamp to light our miserable hovel.’ (The Golden Ass9.5)

But ordinary women wove as well. John Chrysostom notes that a woman should make cloth at home, but if she didn’t she could buy other women’s cloth; these women sold it themselves, vending it in the markets (Against Those Men Cohabiting with Virgins9,PG 47.507). And also from Egypt there are many contracts and documents illustrating the participation of women in weaving both as a cottage industry and within a manufacturing environment. Women could even own and run whole weaving establishments (Rowlandson, no. 205). Women doing piecework at the loom to earn a meager wage had a very long history –one can even point to a Homeric simile:‘… and as some honest, hardworking woman weighs wool in her balance and sees that the scales be true, for she would gain some pitiful earnings for her little ones’ (Iliad 12.433–5). In Egypt, a whole family including mother and wife sought such employment:

Apollophanes and Demetrios, brothers, craftsmen in all the skills of weaving women’s clothing, to Zenon, greetings. If you please and you happen to have the need, we are ready to provide what you need. For hearing of the reputation of the city and that you, its leading man, are a good and just person, we have decided to come to Philadelphia to you, we ourselves and our mother and wife. And in order that we might be employed, bring us in, if you please … (Rowlandson, no. 201)

So besides cottage labor, women worked outside the home. How many did so is impossible to say, but the notices of their work are common enough. Susan Treggiari’s study of occupations shows that men were attested in six times as many occupations as women; it is telling, in addition, that a woman’s gravestone mentions an occupation only one time in a hundred. In Artemidorus’ dream book and the astrological handbooks, women’s occupations are also mentioned much less frequently than men’s, although such jobs as actress, midwife, nurse, priestess, cleaning lady, and prostitute are noted. It is not hard to say why this is. Work was not seen as an integral part of a woman’s identity, so it did not feature so much in advice on such things as marriage, family, and children. Treggiari notes, ‘Women appear to be concentrated in “service” jobs (catering, prostitution); dealing, particularly in foodstuffs; serving in shops; in certain crafts, particularly the production of cloth and clothes; “fiddly” jobs such as working in gold-leaf or hair-dressing; certain luxury trades such as perfumery. This is a fair reflection of at least part of reality.’ As previously noted, she estimates that only 1 percent of the epitaphs of women mention an occupation; this small number is actually consonant with the evidence from preindustrial Brazil where, in the middle of the nineteenth century, notorial registry records show that only about 3 percent of women listed some occupation outside the home.


4. Women at work. A merchant aids a customer purchasing slippers at the felt products shop of Verecundus. She is probably his wife, aiding in the business.

Natalie Kampen’s investigations of images of women working concludes that contrary to the realistic portrayal of males in occupations, women are always presented in a mythologized or allegorized context, i.e. not as actual artisans. As Treggiari notes, inscriptions show that they existed as artisans, and texts corroborate that women performed ‘production jobs’ – for example, a woman’s letter from Egypt states that she ‘works with her hands’ (Rowlandson, no. 130) – it is simply that they are not portrayed in this way in primary imagery. There are also no images of women working in the fields or running a large business. Kampen suggests that this was because doing a job was not appropriate to the mythology of womanhood as the homebody/manager, and even speculates that such work outside the home lowered a woman’s status. If this is so, then it is evidence that the homebody image of women extended down into the artisan class.


5. Women at work in a shop. Two women assist customers purchasing fruits and vegetables.

An interesting discrepancy is that women are shown realistically as vendors. Why? Kampen speculates that the unequivocally outside-the-home nature of vending (compared with, for example, cloth merchandizing, which might be confused with work done at home) meant that men and women could be represented by the same sort of iconography. But the relatively modest amount of imagery as well as the few mentions on inscriptions are probably due to the supplementary nature of this sort of work – that is to say, to judge by comparative material from other preindustrial cultures, a woman’s work outside the home was not normally carried out in the role of the primary wage-earner, although special situations, such as the death of the husband, could change that picture in individual cases.


6. Cooperating at work. A wife keeps the books, the husband slices the meat. A butcher shop in Rome.

The census returns from Egypt corroborate this; of all the declarations, not a single female gives an occupation. Surely this does not mean that women did not work, for there is much evidence that they did; but only that it was not thought of as a separate act worthy of recording. The apprenticeship contracts from Egypt were also mostly for boys; although slave boys and slave girls do appear, there are no freeborn women who can be identified as such. Probably, therefore, such girls were not intentionally targeted by families as potential workers; rather, (wealthier) families maintained the ideal of daughters-future-wives being based only at home, while other (poorer) families assumed that girls would upon marriage help out in the husband’s work however and whenever possible, but without formal training. Indeed, Treggiari also points out that when a woman is mentioned on an inscription she is usually paired with a man, presumably her husband in most cases; she interpreted this to mean that they worked together. An inscription from North Africa is eloquent about how important the wife ‘helpmate’ could be to a man’s business:

Urbanilla, my wife, lies here, a woman of complete modesty. At Rome, she was my companion and associate in business dealings, sustained by her frugality. With everything going well, she returned with me to my homeland. Ah! Carthage ripped my wretched companion from me. There is no hope of living without such a wife. She managed my household and she gave me good advice. Taken from the light, pitiable she quiet lies enclosed in marble. I, Lucius, your husband covered you in marble here. Fate’s chance gave this woman to me on the day we were born. (CIL 8.152, Sommet el Amra, Tunisia)

A partnership such as this is also represented by the merchant couple Aquila and Priscilla, dealers in tents at Rome and Corinth in Acts 18:1. Evidence from Egypt shows that women were not only helpmates, but actual owners of enterprises. The letters and documents on papyrus show ordinary (as well as elite) women engaged in owning and dealing in agricultural land (Rowlandson, no. 180), in wage work (Rowlandson, no. 130), in business ownership and in lending (Rowlandson, nos. 182–4, 190), in leasing camels and purchasing (Rowlandson, nos. 186–7, 192) – in fact, in many of the aspects of business that were associated with males. The second-century AD dossier of Tasoucharion shows a woman deeply involved in the details of business transactions. There is no indication of her station, but the modest items of business would point to an ordinary woman. Artemidorus’ dream book notes women in business as well: a woman ‘who has something for sale’ and who will ‘sign a contract’ for it is noted (2.66); and a woman signing a contract for sale is mentioned in passing, as if this was usual (4.30).

Lest it is still thought that Egypt represents a peculiarity, graffiti from Pompeii once again collaborate that evidence and remind us that Egyptian material deserves to be widely applied. A woman named Faustilla is a moneylender, as she takes jewelry as a pawn for a loan:

July 15th. Earring left with Faustilla as collateral. For a loan of two denarii [= 32 asses] she took as interest one bronze as from the sum of 30 [?32] [asses]. (CIL 4.8203)

This or a different Faustilla also took a loan, apparently in a bar, for this was scribbled on the wall:

November. From Faustilla, 8 asses in interest for 15 denarii. (CIL 4.4528)

Other activities seem more expectable for females. Midwifery by definition is a female domain. Doctors male and female might be available, but for the ordinary person the midwife would be the expert to call in for childbirth. There are many contracts for wet nurses from Egypt. Most of the contracts are for hire to nurse foundlings; there are few notices of hiring for free persons’ children – but when these are the clients, the wet nurses are paid more (Rowlandson, no. 231). Domestic help is mostly female, too, when it is not provided by slaves. The habit of trading the services of a woman, often a daughter, for a monetary loan is well attested in Egypt, although it is not clear how widespread this was in the empire as a whole.

On the public stage, women were active in ‘male’ businesses, as we have seen, but traditionally they were restricted to certain less reputable occupations. Literally on the stage, some women were engaged in performances and other entertainment. The contract from Egypt for a dancer and castanet players illustrates this:

Sosos son of Sosos, Syracusan of the epigone, has hired himself to Olympias … from Attika [?Athenian], dancer, acting with Zopyros, son of Marikkos [?], Galatian of the epigone, as her guardian, to work with her as a flute-player for 12 months from the month of Hyperberetaios of the 16th year for a wage of 45 bronze drachmas per month. And Sosos has received in advance from Olympias 50 bronze drachmas. He shall not fail to appear at any festival or any other engagement at which Olympias is present and he shall not provide service for anyone else without the authority of Olympias. The keeper of the contract is Olympichos, son of Herodotos, Kleopatreus … (Rowlandson, no. 215)

Such employment, like innkeeping and working as a bar girl, easily transmuted into the main occupation of women outside the household, prostitution. I discuss this in a later chapter.

Some women specialized in fortune-telling, other forms of advice (the ‘wise woman’), and magic. The elite Pliny the Elder attributes to the common people – our ordinary folk – a firm belief in the power of women and their herbs and potions; he thought that knowledge of charms and magical herbs was the singular specialty of women (Natural History 25.5.10). Magic was often resorted to in problem solving, and lovers frequently went to ‘old hags’ to talk about their love issues (see Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius7.39, for example). But their expertise extended far beyond advice to the lovelorn, as Philostratus again illustrates when he has the religious figure Apollonius of Tyana speaking to an Egyptian critic:

… there are certain old women who go about with sieves in their hands to shepherds, sometimes to cow-herds, pretending to heal their flocks, when they are sick, by divination, as they call it, and they claim to be called wise women, yea wiser than those who are unfeignedly prophets. (Life of Apollonius 6.11, also 3.43/Conybeare)

Lucius, the protagonist of The Golden Ass, runs afoul of just such an expert sorceress, although she is in fact a member of the local elite, not an ordinary woman. Interestingly, the sorceress is often portrayed as a procuress as well – a conjunction of two independent female professions. The connection is the assumed use of philters by prostitutes to gain and keep customers.

Although presumably wise women and prostitutes did not join associations, there is evidence that other women working outside the home did. This environment would have given them good opportunities to mix with other women, and with men. They were probably allowed into trade guilds only rarely, but certainly they were members of funerary associations and sometimes they were officers. One all-female group is even attested to, the ‘gathering of women’ found at Lanuvium in Italy (CIL 14.2120); this was probably a household burial or cult association though, with restricted membership. Beyond these, there is much evidence for women (along with men, i.e. mixed groups) in religious associations. There was egalitarianism among the regular members, while they were stratified vertically by officers and, at the top, founders or patrons. So rich and poor, masters and slaves, men and women, free and freed could be together; an example is the membership of the religious association worshiping Zeus at Philadelphia, which included men and women, freeborn and slaves. Before males came to dominate the early Christian communities, women could hold roles as teachers and other leaders; for example, the woman Jezebel was an influential prophetess and teacher, allegedly of immorality, in the church at Thyatira (Revelations 2:19–23). These women leaders were probably just continuing the accepted roles that women had in preexisting non-Christian associations in their communities.

Outside the town, we find women actively engaged in agriculture. In Egypt, by the Roman period, about a third of landowners were women, owning between 16 and 25 percent of the land. Clearly the fact that almost all women needed a guardian to conduct business and make legal contracts did not slow them down in terms of carrying out economic activity. Here a woman purchases land for her daughter:

To Aelius Aprodisios, strategos, from Ptolemais daughter of Agenor son of Philiskos from Oxyrhynchus city, mother of Claudia Areia, through the scribe Hermes. I wish to purchase for my daughter, Claudia Areia and however she styles herself, from the properties put up for sale near the epoikion [settlement] of Artapatou in the middle toparchy [district], from the allotment of Simias, 16 arouras [10+ acres] of katoikic [private] land … and ownership shall remain with Claudia Areia and her descendants and those acting for her. (Rowlandson, no. 171)

These women not only owned land, but actively oversaw the agricultural arrangements and work:

Thais sends greetings to her own Tigrios. I wrote to Apolinarios to come to do the measuring in Petne. Apolinarios will tell you how the deposits and public duties stand; what name they are in, he will tell you himself. If you come, take out six artabas of vegetable-seed and seal them in sacks so that they are ready, and if you can, go up to search out the ass. Sarapodora and Sabinos greet you. Do not sell the young pigs without me. Farewell. (Rowlandson, no. 173)

As landowners, they actually go themselves and collect rents (Rowlandson, no. 172). Others hired male agents, who sometimes defrauded them, ‘despising [the woman’s] lack of business sense’ (Rowlandson, no. 177). And poorer women actually worked for wages in agriculture:

I, Thenetkoueis daughter of Heron, Persian woman, with as guardian my kinsman Leontas son of Hippalos, agree that I have received from Lucius [Bellenus Gemellus, the owner of the olive press] the 16 drachmas of silver as earnest money, and I shall carry in the oil-press from the day you bid me, receiving from you, Lucius, wages at the same rate as the other carries, and I shall do everything as agreed. (Rowlandson, no. 169)

Other documents show women employed as winnowers. So just as other women worked as weavers in establishments, some rural women were hired directly to work in the fields.

Women controlling their lives

A woman’s legal status clearly demarcated a position of disadvantage before the law. She was not a person at law and could not except in rare instances represent herself as a legal entity, being always in the power, under the legal authority, of a male. However, the legal system could be worked. A compliant male relative could represent her interests; she could instruct a legal guardian to make her will; she could represent herself in court if her own person or property were at issue; she could even, if she qualified and knew her rights, obtain full legal personhood by being the mother of, depending on her status, three or four children. Women used these mechanisms in the system to participate fully in property ownership, making contracts and wills, and other activities. In fact, adult women from all classes except the high elite received fully a fifth of the judicial decisions recorded from the early second to the end of the third centuries AD. Women also appealed to the law in adversity, sometimes using the ‘poor little me, a weak woman’ ploy to gain sympathy from the male legal world, which actually believed such to be true. The best evidence for all this comes from Egypt, but is also relevant to women’s experiences elsewhere in the empire. Nevertheless, women in all probability did not in general seek solutions to their issues in the legal system. Like other ordinary people, they used an array of other approaches, for the legal system was corrupt, clumsy, and dominated by elite males – all reasons to avoid it if possible. Of course, documents do not show this – the documents themselves are the products of those women who did engage with the system – but indications can be gleaned that show how women managed.

In marriage the possession of a dowry, as well as male relatives available for support, helped to mitigate the husband’s domination of a marriage. In most instances, what the husband wished came to be; but in extreme situations divorce was always possible as a way out. The dowry, moreover, served to remind the husband of his economic interest in the relationship; even a dowry that was very small by elite standards could make a big difference for an artisan or small businessman. Children were also a protection. The cultural standard of marriage and family, plus the practical and hubristic desire to have heirs, gave a woman some leverage in the relationship, since her active and passive participation were required. In some situations the partnership of man and wife that was the ideal actually existed; in less ideal situations the realistic importance of the wife as mother, household manager, and helpmate in economic activities was not lost on men, and gave women leverage. And in other instances a woman’s contributions to the family went beyond those of the helpful wife: the ownership of land, the inheritance of significant resources, the connections a wife might bring through her family were all chits that sat waiting to be called in if a husband acted too independently in matters the wife deemed important to her and her family’s welfare. And the strong bond of affection and camaraderie which existed in many relationships should not be neglected. Arranged marriages – the norm in the world of ordinary people – were usually far from cold. The assumption that a couple would grow into a relationship was often realized in reality. Cultural expectations, family pressures, and the bond of children all combined to create a situation in which the marriage would work.

When these failed, a woman could resort to pressure of various kinds. As noted, she could bring the weight of relatives to bear; she could remind her husband, perhaps none too subtly, of her economic importance. But she could also resort to charms and spells to control her husband and her situation. Indeed, men often felt that magic was the most dangerous weapon in a wife’s armory, a corollary to their feeling that women in general had recourse to magic to get their way in interpersonal relationships – a tacit and unacknowledged admission of the powerlessness of women to confront them in their own ‘manly’ world.

These magic spells – bought in the local magic shop, written on slips of papyrus, or simply spoken – were indeed a major weapon for women against the perils of their world, whether in personal or physical trials. One could purchase an individualized spell, or have recourse to general resources such as directing Homeric verses toward specific ills. A papyrus records such a use of verses from the Iliad, for example, to deal with a woman’s menstrual problems:

… the wrath of Apollo, the lord who strikes from afar [Iliad 1.75]. This charm, spoken to the blood, heals a bloody flow. If the patient gets well and is ungrateful, take a pan of coals, put [?the amulet on it] and set it over the smoke. Add a root, and also write this verse: … for this reason he who strikes from afar sent griefs and still will send them [Iliad 1.960].

In such need, women also could have recourse to action magic, as opposed to charms. The healing of a woman with a ‘bloody flow’ in Matthew 10:20–22 is an example of such recourse to magic, for the woman who suffered sought out Jesus, a person with access to supernatural power, in order to find a cure for her ill.

In marriage, as previously noted, the asymmetrical power relationship of husband and wife could be righted by the wife’s use of magic – a thing to be feared and, indeed, in this instance prohibited in the marriage contract:

Thais, daughter of Tarouthinos, swears … I will not nor shall I prepare love charms against you, whether in your beverages or in your food … (Rowlandson, no. 255)

In another instance, magic solves a family problem. A woman whose son had been possessed by a demon for two years came to Apollonius; she begged him to rid her son of this curse. Apollonius wrote a letter to the demon threatening severe action if he did not quit the boy, and gave it to the woman; presumably the demon, when served with the letter, left the boy for good (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 3.38). And of course women had recourse to that ever popular use of spells, for love, whether to force a male’s attentions:

I will bind you, Nilos alias Agathos Daimon, whom Demetria bore, with great evils … you are going to love me, Capitolina, whom Peperous bore, with a divine passion, and you will be for me in everything a follower, as long as I wish, in order that you may do for me what I want and nothing for anyone else; that you may obey only me, Capitolina; that you might forget your parents, your children, and your friends … I, Capitolina, possess the power, and you, Nilos, will give back the favors, when we meet …I shall insert this pledge [into its box] in order that you might carry out all the things written on this slip of papyrus, for this is why I am summoning you, my divinities, by the violence that constrains you and the compulsion. Bring all things to completion for me and leap in and snatch up the mind of Nilos, to whom belong these magic articles, so that he may love me, Capitolina, and that Nilos, whom Demetria bore, may ever be with me at every hour of every day. (Rowlandson, no. 285)

Or another woman’s affection:

… demon set on fire the heart, the liver, the spirit of Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, with desire and love for Sophia, whom Isara bore. Compel Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, to be thrown, for Sophia, whom Isara bore, into the bath-house, and you become a bath-woman, burn, inflame, set on fire her soul, her heart, her liver, her spirit, with desire for Sophia, whom Isara bore, drive Gorgonia, whom Nilogenia bore, drive her, torture her body night and day, force her to be an outcast from every place and every house, loving Sophia, whom Isara bore, she, given away like a slave-girl, handing herself and all her possessions over to her … (Rowlandson, no. 286)

Religion also provided weapons a woman could use to control her environment. Her exclusion from the male social world and most specifically from leadership in state and community-wide religious rites was partly compensated for by social interaction gained during religious activities. Festivals were a reason for extended families to get together, and so for women to renew ties and mutual support. They were often direct participants in these festivals, not merely bystanders. The thronging procession in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis described in the previous chapter gives a taste of the drama and excitement of such participation. And in Heliodorus’ novel An Ethiopian Story (5.15), we find that during a festival in honor of Hermes, with public sacrifice and a banquet, the women eat together in the temple and then dance a hymn of thanksgiving to Demeter, while the men eat in the temple forecourt and afterward sing and pour libations. Festivals were so common in the Romano-Grecian world that it is easy to forget the many opportunities they gave for women to gather, to celebrate, and to interact.


7. Female entertainers. Female as well as male dancers are shown on this textile from late antique Egypt.

But beyond peripheral participation in the cults, what is thought of as ‘official’ religion was largely closed to ordinary women. It was otherwise with regard to cults that could solve a woman’s problems. The multiplicity of sanctuaries and votive offerings related to pregnancy and childbirth indicates the active role of women in these rites; healing divinities also got much attention. And although it is hard to say how prominent women were in the nonstate, noncommunity-oriented cults such as Isis and Christianity – expectation, and the reality, would be that men led these, as in other nondomestic religion – the impression is that these appealed because they were more open to participation by women, rather than leaving them to be bystanders. This very openness provided women with more support in their daily concerns. The prominent role of Isis as a strong, protective, family-centered Mother, the woman who featured in the Gospel narratives, and appeals to family ideals so prominent in early Christian literature, for example, resonated as women sought ways to deal with issues in their lives. In sum, although women were not leaders in cultic activity beyond the household, they found a steady source of mutual aid in the social networking that festivals and worship allowed, and solutions for their daily problems in specific cultic rituals and activities.

When challenged on their own turf, women could take the offensive to protect their own interests. Far from the Mediterranean, but in a story that surely reflects the aggressiveness of women there, Philostratus has Apollonius tell of an Ethiopian village ravaged by a satyr:

… when suddenly they heard loud shouts from the village as the women there screamed and called to each other to take up the chase and capture the thing (Life of Apollonius 6.27)

Although this is fiction – unless we want to believe in satyrs – women in real life could act with the same aggressiveness when their interests were at stake. Earlier in this chapter I quoted the evidence from Philo that women in Alexandria were violent participants in riots. In that graphic passage, women were in the street, cursing their foes and assaulting them, too. Women were also present in the theaters, shouting along with their male kin, when those venues were used, as so often, to harangue and punish disturbers of the peace and worse. Their voices were heard.


I have provided much evidence for the active role of ordinary women in their own lives, in the lives of their families, and in life beyond the household, including business contracts, landowning and management, and public socioreligious activities. Within their culture they were not child-producing drones, or mere ornaments. Their activities were woven vividly into every inch of the cultural cloth. This is exactly as should be expected. The elite could and did as much as possible to keep its women as accouterments rather than as partners. But in the world of ordinaries the ‘luxury’ of closeted, protected women did not exist. All hands were needed to keep the household running smoothly (under good circumstances) and to earn enough to keep the wolf from the door (in more straitened ones). The outspokenness of women, the leverage they had in various ways in their lives with husbands, their economic contributions, their role in the socialization of the next generation: while all these things had to exist within the culture of male domination, the latitude for action and influence was great. It is too much to speak of ‘liberation’; Romano-Grecian culture was unliberated by any modern standard. But as in other preindustrial societies, ordinary women pulled a lot of weight, had a lot of influence, and were strong partners with their husbands or other males in making life choices.

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