Under Roman law ancient Roman women were regarded as the Roman man’s possession together with home, slaves and fields. They had no first name (see roman names), no right to vote, were not emancipated and were considered as dependent on a father, brother, husband or tutor. This didn’t prevent many great women to make their way to great riches and power.
As such they had no facility to make a testament either. The flip side of the coin is that much evidence points to a very different situation: the writings of poets, accounts of historians, portraits, plebeian roman art and other forms of evidence point to women who owned and ran businesses, participated actively in electoral campaigns and even financing important public works (see Eumachia’s building in Pompeii’s forum for example). Several held sufficiently powerful positions to sway the course of history and many had their portraits shown on Roman coinage or as public statues of popular divinities. On a more mundane scale women are frequently portrayed as attending public shows or co-hosting banquets at a par with their partner/husband.
Roman woman’s traditional position was that of house manager, wool spinner and clothes maker. An inscription on a woman’s tomb found in Pompeii reads “domum servavit; lanam fecit” (she ran the house and made wool). Even the great Livia professed to spin and weave for her husband emperor Augustus. However, Roman women grew increasingly independent through the 1000 years of Roman civilization; their social position changed as did their character to match, and more than a few moralising writers tell us of the “scandalous” abandon which overcame Roman matrons, particularly during the rich ages of the empire.
This leads us on nicely to making some distinction and gross generalisations between Roman women in the early origins of Rome versus women during the empire and finally women during Christianity.
Roman women during Rome’s earliest origins
Early Roman women enjoyed more social freedom than their Greek counterparts, though much less social freedom than their neighbouring Etruscan counterparts who were in many ways equals to their husbands.
The importance which women held in the earliest periods of Rome are told in a significant number of Roman myths, for example:
Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin, mother (with the god mars) of Romulus and Remus.
The rape of the Sabine women. The Romans needed women for their new city so they took them from their neighbours.
The story of Tarpeia’s betrayal, allowing Rome’s walls to be breached. She was cast off a cliff.
It is curious to note a further episode relating to when Rome ceased to be a kingdom, the Romans led by Brutus expelled King Tarquin the Proud (an Etruscan) and chose a Republican model of rule. The event which drove them to this was the rape of Lucretia: a Roman woman of the greatest esteem.
So both the foundation of the city as well as its conversion into a kingdom were driven by the force of injustice springing from rape. Whilst the first of these rapes set the divine character of Rome, the second one related to its moral steadfastness.
The Romans had numerous Roman goddesses (actually several were imported) and indeed two of the deities forming an important part of the “Capitoline Triad” together with Jupiter – Rome’s protectors were female: Juno and Minerva.
Last but not least it is interesting to note that some of the Roman artefacts which are most telling of Rome’s origins belonged to Roman women:
The Praeneste Fibula: a 7th century BC gold broach of Etruscan manufacture with an extremely early Roman-Latin inscription on it.
The Ficoroni Cista: a copper casket for jewelry and toiletry items is the oldest artefact which mentions the city of Rome. It is dated around 350BC.
Roman women during and after the Roman empire
Roman women towards the end of the Roman republic and during the Roman empire came to acquire a great deal of independence, (potential) access to power and even personal wealth. The ways in which such liberties showed through are discussed further below.
Christianity and the early Middle Ages saw a return to negative Greek-Aristotelian considerations of women although numerous women continued to wield great power, particularly within the Eastern half of the Empire (see Justinian and his wife Theodora). The position of women within Rome itself after the fall of the Roman empire was significantly affected, if anything because the major authority in the city was the bishop of Rome and the Catholic church.
The Social Structure of ancient Roman Women
Roman women were in many respects a further class of Roman society. Both upper and lower class women were generally secondary to men; a situation which saw embodiment in Roman law, such as Roman marital law and or the curious “jus osculum”: the right which the pater familias/husband/tutor had over the women in his family to check (by way of a kiss) that they had not drunk alcohol. In the earliest times this was associated with a right to punish women which could go as far as killing the woman, although this was not a common event.
This situation conditioned much of the environment within which a woman might live and indeed the trappings of womanhood:
At the top of the social pyramid of Roman women we have the Vestal Virgins who were most highly honoured, had the right to lift capital punishments as well as the right of passage even in front of magistrates. Not surprisingly they had choice seats at the Roman public games. During the age of the empire, the Roman Empress might be given a seat (and social standing) close to that of the Vestal Virgins. Failure to guard virginity was punished with death by being buried alive.
The Vestal Virgins were the only Roman women who were exempt from “Patria Potestas” ie exempt from tutelage of their father and after their 30 year period of service also exempt from that of the pontifex/king/emperor. Until the reign of Augustus, they were the only Roman women who could exercise some civil rights, such as making a will. Later in time such rights were granted to a broader range of Roman women including those with three children or freed women (liberti) with four children.
Below the Vestal Virgins (and possibly the Empress) we would have upper class matrons. Roman matrons had a number of moral duties and expectations as well as a clear social role. With time several such women came to wield considerable power and wealth well beyond that of the common man. Some evidence of this can be had from the numerous roman coins depicting women rather than men or indeed both man and woman side by side. An interesting example is an aureus by Nero showing him and his mother Agrippina together.
Independence was not limited to matrons alone: even the lower class women enjoyed the benefits of various forms of marriage and partnership which were developed through time and there are many funerary inscriptions which give clear evidence of financial independence even within the bounds of Roman marriage. A simple example of this is a typical piece of Roman plebeian art, a relief showing a family business in the wine trade, with the father and son looking after the trade and stores whilst the mother holds the scrolls of ownership and sits behind the business desk with money piled on it and dealing with the clients.
Clothing, Marriage, Wealth and Social Rank
Women might wear different types of clothing such as the Palla mantle or Stola, the women’s version of Toga. These were linked to notions of rank and moral standing. Hence, they could only be worn under certain conditions. The change in the social position of Roman women went hand in hand with the increase in available wealth, in power of the empire and (not surprisingly) with marital customs.
Ancient Roman Marriage tended to mean that the husband took possession of the wife and her belongings; so by the end of the Empire it was not unusual for rich women to avoid marriage and hence hold on to whatever inheritance they may have. It was similarly common for Roman men to search for women whom they could marry and in so doing benefit from their lineage and wealth.
Extra marital affairs also became more and more common in Roman civilization and one particularly interesting example is the case of the “Dea Bona”: Julius Caesar’s own wife was priestess of a deity reserved to women only. She smuggled her lover in to one of their women-only reunions but he was caught. Caesar saved his own political face by repudiating his wife on the grounds that she couldn’t afford to even be suspected of such a thing. As for the libertine, Caesar didn’t press any charges and made use of him as a political ally in later years.
Ancient Roman history has yielded a good number of its women to be remembered for posterity, some for their lubricious habits such as Claudius’ wife Messalina, others for their intrigue such as Nero’s mother (Claudius’ other wife) Agrippina the younger who Nero ended up murdering, not to mention Octavia, the great Livia wife of Augustus, Julia Mammea who had coinage printed with her own portrait, the poetess Sapho and countless others.
The period of empire brought with it a new kind of powerful Roman woman, of which Agrippina the elder was the prototype. Roman women, their contacts, personal wealth and lineage were instrumental in the nomination and just claim of Roman emperors to the imperial throne. The importance of this is particularly apparent during the Julio-Claudian reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius:
Julia natural daughter of Augustus and Scribonia was married to Agrippa then Tiberius in an effort to guarantee a successor to Augustus. Interestingly Julia was born on the same day that Augustus divorced Scribonia to marry Livia. Livia was at that very time in advanced pregnancy from her previous husband.
Wife of Augustus, was included in his testament, adopted into the Julian family and named “Augusta”, partly in husbandly love and gratitude, and partly in an effort to render her lineage a guarantee for dynastic succession: it worked. It is through her that the “Claudian” side of the Julio-Claudian dynasty came to be. Livia was natural mother of Tiberius, grandmother to Claudius
Julia Drusilla is a further example of women’s rise to power – sister of Caligula and named by him as successor to the throne, which clearly inspired her husband to place himself in the line of succession but on her death he had to attempt a second line of approach by wooing his late wife’s sister (Caligula’s elder sister) Agrippina the Younger aka Agrippina Minor.
The increased freedom and influence of women wasn’t restricted to the nobility and political spheres only. There were even Gladiator women (a great scandal), not to mention the Roman female goddesses and of course numerous prostitutes whether as a collective corporation or individually with varying degrees of fame and who’s names remain scratched on walls – some even in open electoral support of this or the other politician.
Famous Roman Women
Numerous women played an extremely significant role in ancient Rome’s history. The following section covers a broad spectrum of famous ancient roman women and gives some insights into each of them, their character, situation and the role they played in the fortunes of the city.
A few highly influential Roman women have been written about in other articles, for example in treating the highly critical period of Roman history which was the civil wars we cannot omit the role played by women who were related to either Augustus or Mark Antony: Fulvia, Octavia (sister of emperor Augustus and wife of Mark Anthony) and Cleopatra.
Fulvia in particular might be remembered for being the ultimate cause of Cicero’s assassination and for striking pins through his dead tongue. But this is a superficial detail and her impact on Roman politics went far deeper than her hair pins. Cleopatra hardly needs introduction whilst the quiet and demure Octavia actually turned out to be mother in law to Tiberius, great-grandmother of Caligula (and of Agrippina the Younger, described below), and great grandmother of Emperor Nero. Not bad!
More Roman women worth knowing about: Livia, Agrippina the Elder, Agrippina the Younger, Valeria Messalina, Octavia (daugher of Claudius and wife of Nero), Poppaea Sabina, Claudia Acte, Statilia Messalina.
Livia was daughter born in 58BC into a family with strong ties in the factions allied with Brutus and the pro-republican assassins against Caesar and later aligned with Mark Anthony against Octavian (aka Emperor Augustus).
It is irony that she later became Octavian’s wife, married to him when she was already six months pregnant with her second son. It was through her that the Claudian lineage came to be associated with the Julian lineage of Julius Caesar and Augustus. The “Caesars” and the Julio-Claudian dynasty is very much the result of Livia’s descendency rather than that of Julius Caesar or Augustus.
Her son from her previous marriage was Tiberius, aged 6 when she remarried and eventually became emperor after Augustus. Her second son, Nero Claudius Drusus was conceived before her marriage to Augustus and born only a few months later. Nero Drusus married Antonia minor, daughter of Mark Anthony and Octavia (Augustus’ sister); he was a highly successful general and father of Germanicus and Claudius (later emperor). This is important because we can see that through Livia, Drusus and Germanicus we have Caligula (emperor) and Agrippina the Younger: empress as wife of Claudius and mother of Emperor Nero.
In spite of her considerable wealth and success as consort of Augustus, Livia set a standard of matronly (Roman upper class woman) morality and modesty by displaying little luxury and reputedly making his clothing herself, in accordance with ancient tradition. Her marriage with Augustus held strong in spite of being barren (a single miscarriage) and she gained herself a highly important status as personal confidant and advisor to the emperor – a hitherto unseen position for a Roman woman.
Not surprisingly Livia was a highly ambitious and strong woman – the evidence of which is the predominance of her offspring and lineage in the later development of the dynasty. She outlived her acclaimed husband who on dying adopted her into the Julian family and left her a third of his wealth, the other two thirds going to his successor, her son, Emperor Tiberius. Her great wealth, unofficial power and position made her almost unassailable and a veritable force to be contended with by her son Tiberius who, it is said, retreated to Capri in an effort to escape her influence and meddling: he sent Caligula to preside at her funerals in AD29 and forbade her public honours which were proclamed much later under the reign of her grandson Claudius.
Agrippina the Elder
Vipsania Agrippina (14BC-33AD) was born of Marcus Agrippa (Augustus’ most trusted rh man) and Julia the Elder (Augustus’ only natural daughter). She turned out to be the most distinguished grandchild of Emperor Augustus, virtuous, modest, heroic and in every way a model of imperial upper class Roman women. She married the great general Germanicus (related to Mark Anthony) and was mother to nine children some of which died at an early age. Caligula and Agrippina the Younger where amongst them and through Agrippina she was grandmother to Emperor Nero. She was also sister in law to both emperor Tiberius and emperor Claudius.
Agrippina the Elder was the first in a notable line of Roman women of the imperial age who took increasingly prominent positions in public life and wielded a great deal of power in the senate as well as the army and imperial court. Whilst still closely associated in terms of the ancient morals of the traditional Roman matrons she was the first to actively participate in her husband’s public activity as a general, following him to the German frontiers, living with the legions, and sharing his fate.
She generally opposed the growing power of Tiberius’ head of the Pretorian guard Sejanus and slowly came to be mistrusted by the emperor. She refused a poisoned apple he offered her at dinner and not long after was condemned to exile together with her two sons Drusus and Nero. She was mistreated and eventually committed suicide through starvation. Her ashes and those of her sons were restored to the family burial place by her son Caligula who succeeded Tiberius.
Valeria Messalina (c.17-48AD) was the sort of woman which modern tabloid newspapers and paparazzi would have absolutely loved. Luxury, debauchery and scandal came naturally to her. She married emperor Claudius who eventually had to admit she was surpassing every limit when she publicly married another man, dowry and all. She was sentenced to death.
If you want to read the grim scandalous detail of this Roman woman you can find it in the accounts by:
Tacitus – Annals 11,30: also includes her death
Suetonius – Lives of the Caesars book 5 – Claudius, chpt. 17 & 27
Pliny the Elder – NH 10,83 – “the natural history of birds – generation of all kinds of terrestrial animals” relates
Messalina’s contest and her ability to resist 24 hours…
Juvenal – satire VI
It is debatable whether all the mud slung at her is fair or not. Certainly emperor Claudius suffered an ongoing issue with security of his throne and his marriage to Messalina didn’t seem to make his case any stronger, rather the opposite.
We should also remember this Roman woman as being the mother of Claudius’ two children: Octavia and Britannicus. Octavia married Nero whilst Britannicus essentially became Nero’s younger stepbrother through Claudius’s subsequent marriage with Agrippina the Younger (see below). Both Octavia and Britannicus were eventually killed by Nero. A beautiful cameo broach celebrates Messalina and her two children together.
Agrippina the Younger
Agrippina (AD15-59) was the beautiful daughter of Agrippina the Elder and the great general Germanicus. She can be regarded as the last in the Julio-Claudian dynasty given her own son Nero, last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, was really of Ahenobarbus lineage. True to her own blood she was extremely domineering and totally driven by the greatness of her own parents and ancestors. She eventually died by hand of her own son Nero.
The story of how Nero murdered Agrippina his mother has been dedicated a section of its own as it embodies a net break between the old model of leadership grandeur based on Republican ideals and what was to be an increasing trend of military interference in the politics of Rome (by nominating their own generals as emperors).
Women were a decisive influence in Emperor Nero’s life, character and policies. The demure Octavia was eventually done away with: clearly at odds with his exuberant artistic inclinations. The freedwoman Claudia Acte who remained faithful even when he chose to marry Poppaea and saw to his funeral. The ruthless and beautiful Poppaea who gave him a daughter for whom Nero ordered great feasts and subsequently died, deeply affecting the emperor. And of course his domineering mother a-la-Norman Bates. Though Nero’s period of rule was relatively short within Rome’s timeline it certainly remains fixed as one of the periods of greates impact and the women involved played their important roles within that.
Some basic understanding of Nero’s rise to the throne allows us to easily understand how Nero’s first marriage in 55AD to Emperor Claudius’ daughter, his own step-sister, Octavia was bound for an unhappy ending (divorced 62AD). When they married Nero was aged 16 whilst Octavia was a mere 12 and of extremely reserved character, hardly adapted to that of her artist husband. The marriage had been arranged by their parents, a form of exchange through which Claudius could perpetuate his lineage on the throne through his daughter whilst Nero replaced his son Britannicus as heir. Seven years later the two were divorced and it is not surprising that Octavia, like Britannicus, ended up dead as the two brothers had represented a threat to Nero’s claim to the throne.
Claudia Acte – almost a wife of Nero:
Nero rendered his unhappy marriage to the demure Octavia more exciting through a relationship with the former slave Claudia Acte, who had possibly been owned by Octavia herself. In spite of his mother’s opposition Nero unashamedly pursued the relationship and apparently even intended to marry her. Their relationship lasted some 3 years from 55AD through to 58AD when Nero’s preference passed to Poppaea whom he later married. It is likely that the relationship was already live before he married Octavia
Although she was later distanced from Nero, she left with a considerable fortune, presumably preserving her warm feelings for him given that she eventually provided for his funeral and burial at her own expense.
Poppaea Sabina (AD30-65)
Though the pop art image above may not give that impression, Poppaea Sabina was considered by the Romans as an exceedingly beautiful woman. She was the daughter of the woman who had been considered the most beautiful in Rome. As well as obsessed with her beauty she was clever and lacking in scruples in order to achieve whatever she might want. These qualities had a close resemblance with those of Nero’s mother Agrippina, and so put the two women in direct and dangerous contrast.
Her relationship with Emperor Nero began around 58AD whilst the emperor was still (unhappily) married with Octavia. They married within a couple of weeks of Nero’s divorce and within a further year Poppaea gave birth to a baby girl whom they called Claudia Augusta. Nero ordered great festivities and was ecstatic at the thought of having had a child who unfortunately died within four months of having been born. A year later in 64AD Poppaea was again pregnant but died in unclear circumstances, possibly due to being kicked during a fit of Nero’s rage. Her funeral was celebrated with stately pomp.
Statilia Messalina (AD35-68)
Two years after the death of his beloved Poppaea, Nero married a third time with his cousin Statilia Messalina with whom he had begun a relationship in 65AD whilst she was still married. Her husband was caught up in the Pisonian conspiracy which lead to his being sentenced to death and hence freeing up his wife for marriage with the emperor.
Statilia Messalina was clearly an extremely shrewd person as she managed to distance herself from her husband before his demise, only to reappear as a favourite of the subsequent emperor Otho (who also died a premature death). She died a peaceful death in the reign of emperor Domitian.