Ancient Roman Women: A Look at Their Lives

by Moya K. Mason

Roman Woman, 2nd Century AD

Any historical investigation into the lives of ancient women involves individual interpretation and much speculation. One can read the ancient sources concerned with women and their place in society, but to a large degree, they are all secondary sources that were written by men about women. No ancient journals or personal diaries written by Roman women were uncovered, so it is not known what their hopes and dreams were, or if they had any. What Roman women felt about most political issues and the numerous wars and upheavals is also a mystery. Nor can we read about what women thought of slavery, marriage, or the fact that they had no legal rights over their children or even themselves. The scope is truly limited, but many questions can still be asked and considered, such as: what was the role of Roman women in their society? Were they considered citizens who had personal freedoms, or were they sequestered away and given little or no education? Was individuality and personal choice a part of women's lives, or were they overshadowed by the patriarchal society of which they were a part? The answers may be difficult to uncover, but they are important questions to ask when one realizes that so much of Roman civilization went on to lay the foundation of our own modern society. Understanding the past makes the present that much clearer and hopefully provides insight into the future, thereby helping society not to make the same mistakes again.

When looking at the sources for ancient Roman women, it is quickly evident that most of them deal with the aristocracy. It was men from the upper classes who received the best education and the best positions in society, and this enabled them leisure time to reflect on their world and to write about it. As is the case with most people, they wrote about their own experiences and when it came to women, it was their own relatives and wives they wrote about. Certainly, aristocratic women and those from other upper levels of Roman society did not make up the majority of the female population, but it is pieces of their lives that we have to look at. Evidence for what poorer women suffered during the Roman Republic and the Empire is very fragmentary, however, women of all economic levels shared one overwhelming pervasive role and responsibility, no matter the social position they possessed: that of child bearer.

Women, or more correctly, girls, were usually married by the time they were twelve years old, sometimes even younger.(1) In our modern world, this seems scandalous, but everything must be put into societal contexts. Life expectancy was very different in ancient Rome compared with today. Granted, some people would die of old age, but the majority only reached their twenties and thirties,(2) if they were lucky. Girls married very young. Many died in childbirth or because they were weakened from having too many children without reprieve.(3) A funerary inscription to a woman named Veturia provides a good example of this: she was married at eleven, gave birth to six children, and died at twenty-seven.(4) Women were expected to have as many babies as they could because they were never sure how many of the children would reach maturity.(5) Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, gave birth to twelve offspring, but only two boys and one girl survived.(6)

Aristocratic families wanted male children to carry on the family name and lineage,(7) and expected their wives to be perpetually pregnant.(8) Infertility was actually grounds for divorce, and women would often offer a divorce so that their husbands would have the opportunity to have children with someone else.(9) Women from the lower classes would not be expected to have as many children because they did not have the means to support them.(10) These women may also have worked outside the home to help support their families.(11) Their husbands would still want a son to carry on the family name and if they were a rural family, to help work on the farm. But certainly there was a difference between the higher echelon of Roman society and the lower classes: Upper class women had more children.

Women did not have a choice between having children or not. They also could not overrule her husband if he chose to expose a newborn. Many female infants were exposed by their families because they could not carry on the family name and they also required a dowry at the time of their marriage.(12) Eva Cantarella in Pandora's Daughters, states:

The earliest power that the father could exercise over a filias familias was that of exposure. At birth, in a highly symbolic rite, newborns -- male and female -- were deposited at the feet of the father. He -- without explanation or justification -- either recognized the child as his by picking it up, or withheld his recognition by leaving it where it was. The recognized child became a member of the familia; the unrecognized child was abandoned to the river or left to die by starvation.(13)

Most of the exposed were girls, but some were sickly or weak-looking males.(14) On an Oxyrhynchus Papri, a letter from a husband to a wife instructs her to let the infant live if it is a boy; [but] "if it is a girl, expose it."(15) It was as simple as that. This practise of exposure greatly reduced the female population, as did the neglect of girls. Augustus was so concerned with the decline in Roman population, particularly in the aristocracy, that he passed both the Julian Laws in 18 BC and the Papia-Poppaean Laws in 9 AD. These laws placed penalties on celibacy and not marrying, and rewarded marriage and having children. Neither set of laws really helped to greatly increase the population of Rome.(16)

Although the role of women in ancient Rome was primarily child-bearing, women also played an important role in raising the children.(17) This differed greatly from the Athenian tradition which placed both the cultural and educational aspects of raising boys exclusively in the hands of men. In the Roman world, women were encouraged to teach their children Roman culture.(18) When the boys grew up, the mother would spend both her money and time to advance their political careers.(19)Even the girls would receive this sort of home education because they would be expected to teach their own children one day.(20) In The Elements of Oratory, Quintilian reports that Cornelia, mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, played a major role in their education and cultivation.(21) Roman women had children, but they were not exclusively "tools of reproduction"(22) -- they "were also a fundamental instrument of the transmission of a culture ... [and] it was their job to prepare them to become cives romani ... "(23) Who were they preparing to become Roman citizens? Were only the males given citizenship, as was the case for centuries in Athens? This is a difficult question to answer.

In the introduction of As the Romans Did, Jo-Ann Shelton discusses how the Romans "took the remarkable action of granting Roman citizenship to every free person within the borders of the Roman Empire."(24) It does not sound as if women were excluded. In Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, Richard A. Bauman says that "the public position of women was so unfavourable that it has even been doubted whether they were Roman citizens. The doubts are unfounded ..."(25) So it seems that they had a higher position than Athenian women, who were not considered citizens. They did have something in common: neither was allowed to vote or to participate in political activities. This applies primarily to the Republican Period, since the kings made the decisions during the Monarchy and the Emperor had the final say during the Roman Empire. In Augustus' time, the assemblies began to fade into the shadows. Regardless of the laws, inscriptions uncovered in Pompeii from the first century AD prove that women had an interest in politics. An example, painted on the side of a house states: "Nymphodotus, along with Caprasia, asks you to vote for Marcus Cerrinus Vatia for the aedileship."(26) Another, found on the side of a wine shop reads: "Caprasia along with Nymphius -- her neighbors too -- ask you to vote for Aulus Vettius Firmus for the aedileship; he is worthy of the office."(27)

Women had more than a passing interest in politics years earlier when the Romans initiated the Oppian Laws. These laws prohibited women from buying any luxury items such as jewelry or expensive clothes(28) -- they could not buy anything that cost any amount of money. The government felt that there would be more money available to fight Hannibal. The women went along with this because they were willing to do their share for the war effort, but twenty years later, they tried to have the law repealed.(29) Livy, in his A History of Rome, explains how the women poured into the Forum, where the assembly was under way. They were trying to convince their male relatives to vote in favour of the repeal. One of the opponents of the repeal gives us some insight into what some men felt about the incident. Marcus Porcius Cato wonders "what kind of behaviour is this, running around in public and blocking streets and talking to other women's husbands? ... it is not right, even in your own homes for you to concern yourselves about which laws are passed or repealed here."(30) The law was abolished and women had won a victory. It showed them that they had strength in numbers. One can only imagine the scandal it caused within families. This incident makes one wonder what other things were off limits to women. Where could they go when they left their homes?

It seems as though they regularly attended Roman public baths, since bathing "was a recreational activity enjoyed by people of all ages, sexes, and social classes."(31) There were often separate baths for women and men, but if not, women bathed in the morning and men in the afternoon. This was an integral part of the lives of most Romans, and for the upper classes, so were dinner parties. Women were able to accompany their husbands to these affairs, which could vary from quite ordinary functions to wildly fantastic ones such as the kind the character Trimalchio presented in Petronius' book The Satyricon. One notes that women were present for the festivities and that Scintialla arrived with her husband Habinnas, having just left another banquet. (32)

Women were also able to attend religious festivals, such as the Ambarualia and the Lupercalia.(33) Women could also attend amphitheatre events like gladiatorial matches and circuses. There is even evidence that women fought as gladiators,(34) but they were not allowed to be seen on stage as actors.(35) Ovid, in his Love Affairs advises men that the racetrack is a good place to meet women, which is evidence that they could even attend those events.(36) It is very intriguing that Roman women who had so few legal rights could also possess so many personal freedoms. Roman women were certainly not sequestered away in gynaeconitis as Athenian women were in Greece. Sarah Pomeroy, in Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, points out that "Roman women were involved with their culture and were able to influence their society ... Roman women dined with their husbands and attended parties, games, and shows."(37) Eva Cantarella makes some similar observations:

The Romans did not believe that women should be shut up in a special part of the house or that they should be forbidden to dine with men or go out in the street ... Perhaps the liberality of the Romans toward their women is not altogether accidental. Given their duties, women had to participate in some way in men's lives in order to assimilate their values and become more faithful transmitters of them.(38)

Girls did receive some informal education in their homes and learned to read and write. Both mothers and fathers had a role to play in the transmission of Roman culture and education to their children, however, it was frowned upon for women to become too educated, as can be seen in Juvenal's writings. He scoffs at women who have opinions on Homer, grammar, and ethics, and he implies that these sorts of women have forgotten their place in society by being so knowledgeable. It was not their place. (39) Women were already finished their educations and having babies when their male contemporaries were practicing eloquence or studying philosophy abroad in places like Athens. Of course, this would only apply to males from upper class families. Women from the lower classes received enough education to assist them in running small businesses and working as dressmakers or salespeople in the markets.(40)

A dichotomy existed within the lives of Roman women. They did have some personal freedoms, but they had little chance for individuality or personal choice. They were under the constant supervision of their fathers, male relatives, and husbands, who regularly kissed them on the mouth to find out if they had drunk wine.(41) Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and they could be punished by death. In Memorable Deeds and Sayings from the first century AD, Maximus tells us how Egnatius Metellus beat his wife to death for drinking wine.(42) It was believed that wine caused women to have adulterous relationships, which were very common since so many marriages took place for political or economic reasons, not for love or passion. Women found to have committed adultery could be put to death by their fathers or guardians.(43) Women often married men who were much older than themselves. They married whoever they were told to.

Another controlling device used against Roman women was the practise of not allowing them to have personal names. Instead, a woman took her father's middle name or nomen and feminized it. From a Roman woman's name you could tell who her father was and therefore, her position in society. (44) Women existed within their families and had no identity of their own. Their fathers had absolute control over their lives and could even sell them into slavery or force them into a marriage and out of one, too.(45) Some women were forced to get a divorce because their fathers had found more lucrative and prestigious families for them to marry into. If they had children at the time of the divorce, women were forced to leave them behind. When marriages dissolved, women had no legal rights concerning the offspring and often never saw them again. Marriages were often without manus, meaning that the father kept the property of his daughter and would therefore, retain a hold over her wealth. A marriage with manus gave power over the woman to her new husband, as well as ownership of her property. In either case, Roman women were not permitted to do anything they wanted with their own money, since personal wealth is always equated with power. Of course, there were some exceptions. Mothers could spend money on their sons' political careers or education. One can also read about Cicero's wife, Terentia, who had personal wealth and made land investments on her own. That was only because she had a very agreeable guardian who gave his permission. It would seem likely that women with wealth would have more power over their lives, but this would very much depend upon her father or guardian or husband. Women were expected to have a legal guardian because they were not considered smart enough to act in their own best interest. When Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, was widowed, she refused to marry again and as a result, made her own decisions, but this was very rare. The only real power that most women possessed was over their personal interactions within the circle of their friends and family. Women had to know their place, remain modest, be tireless, and both loyal and obedient to their families - emotionally, physically, and financially. That was what Roman men were looking for in a wife. (46)

So it is evident that women had certain prescribed roles to play within Roman society: child bearer, mother, daughter, and wife. They were considered citizens, but they were not permitted to vote or participate in government procedures. If they did try, it was frowned upon. Some women were more educated than others. All had some personal freedoms. Lower class women could work, but upper class women were expected to meet the expectations that their families had set out for them and stay at home. None of the women really had their own identities or an array of personal choices put before them. There are always some exceptions and there must have been women considered very radical in their time. Women were always overshadowed by the men in their lives because Rome was a very patriarchal society, built on a peasant culture and on the old customs of mos maiorum.(47) Quoting Ennius, Cicero said, "the strength of Rome is founded on her ancient customs as much as on the strength of her sons."(48) Roman women might have had it better than Athenian women, but that's not saying much. Rich or poor, most died young. One can only hope they had a few pleasures that were never documented by the men who wrote about them. Some did get involved in the rites of Bacchus(49) and probably did enjoy themselves a great deal for short periods of time, before they were caught.

We will never know what the women of ancient Rome thought about their inferior social position or what they thought about the many layers of separation that existed between themselves and Roman men. The ancient Roman world was a very patriarchal culture, with men holding all the positions of power. Women and children really did not have many rights. In reality, life must have been difficult for the majority of people in Rome considering all the years of war and conquer. Life wasn't very easy for anyone. Although the Romans were not pioneers in social equality, the civilization had a great influence on both men and women who came later. They were building an empire and as the legendary H.I. Marrou stated in his book, A History of Education in Antiquity:

If Greek civilization in its turn had remained the jealously guarded preserve of a few Aegean cities, it too would have disappeared long ago, without renewing, as it has, the face of the earth. And the fact that it has fulfilled its destiny is largely due to Rome. Rome's historic function was to complete the work begun by Alexander, and plant Hellenistic civilization from the Sahara to the lochs of Scotland, from the Euphrates to the Atlantic; and to give it such deep roots that it could withstand the storms of Teuton and Slav invasions, and the Arab invasion, if not that of the Turks. It is this profound labor, ensuring the renaissances of the future that constitutes Rome's real honor and imperishable glory.(50)

Related Papers

Ancient Athenian Women: A Look at Their Lives
Courtesans and Kings: Ancient Greek Perspectives on the Hetairai
Annotated Bibliography of Women in Classical Mythology
Roman Slavery: Social, Cultural, Political, and Demographic Consequences
Humble Beginnings, Glorious Destiny: A Look at Roman Art
Roman and Etruscan Wall Paintings of the Tarquinia Tombs and Pompeii


1 Jo-Ann Shelton. As the Romans Did. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) p. 37.

2 Ibid., p. 292.

3 Ibid.

4 CIL 3.3572.

5 Shelton, p. 292.

6 Ibid., p. 24.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 CIL 6.1527, 31670 (1LS 8393).

10 The Law Code of Theodosius 11.27.1.

11 Shelton, p. 306.

12 Ibid., p. 27-28.

13 Eva Cantarella. Pandora's Daughters. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987) p. 115.

14 Shelton, p. 27.

15 Oxyrhynchus Papri 744 (Select Papyri 105).

16 A.D.A., pp. 174, 184, 187; Dio Cassius, Roman History 54.16.1-2; and Tacitus, Annals 3.25.

17 Tacitus, A Biography of Agricola 4.2-4.

18 Ibid.

19 Quintillian, The Elements of Oratory 1.1.6-8, 15-17, 20.

20 Shelton, p. 300.

21 Quintillian, 1.1.6-8, 15-17, 20.

22 Cantarella, p. 134.

23 Ibid.

24 Shelton, p. 3.

25 Richard A. Bauman. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. (London: Routledge, 1992) p. 2.

26 Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 152.

27 Ibid.

28 Shelton, p. 299.

29 Ibid.

30 Livy, A History of Rome 34.2.2, 2, 8-11, 14.

31 Shelton, p. 31.

32 Petronius, The Satyricon.

33 Shelton, p. 33.

34 Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 213.

35 Shelton, p. 35.

36 Ovid, Love Affairs 3.2.1-14, 19-26, 33-38, 43-59, 61-84.

37 Sarah Pomeroy. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) p. 189.

38 Cantarella, p. 134.

39 Juvenal, Satires 6.434-456.

40 Shelton, p. 35.

41 Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.23.

42 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds & Words 6.3.9.

43 A.D.A., p. 113-116, 123, 126.

44 Cantarella, p. 87.

45 Shelton, p. 18.

46 Lefkowitz and Fant, p. 23.

47 H.I. Marrou. A History of Education in Antiquity. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1956) p. 231.

48 Cicero, Resp. V, I.

49 Livy, 39.8, 9, 14, 17, 18.

50 Marrou, p. 293.

Copyright © 2024 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

Back to: Resume and More Papers