14 November 2008

The Women of Ancient Rome

It can be difficult to dig and then come up with an accurate depiction of what life would be like for Roman women. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the lack of material written by the Roman women themselves. All of the books and histories we have from Ancient Roman times were written by men. Still, from what we can gather, whether it be from manuscripts or letters, histories or tombstones, the following are Roman women's lives.

"[Roman Women] were the fundamental instrument for the transmission of culture...it was their job to prepare their [children] to become cives romani ..." Ibid

This quote points out an important thing that was central to Roman women's lives in whatever station of life. They were not only the child bearers but the child raisers, and as such were extremely important in passing on Roman values about life, family, patriotism - you name it! In this we can see a stark contrast between the Greeks and the Romans; Greek men, and even the Greek government, took charge of the children and their education/upbringing from the earliest age possible. We have an extreme picture of this in Sparta. However in Rome, the mother was seen as an integral part of society. In the home and on the mothers laps future statesmen and rulers were created.

Although women did not have the right to vote in Ancient Rome, and although there were times of more or less legal restriction, in Rome we can see a pattern of family loyalty and respect which, when combined with Christianity's enabling power to love, can very well be described as what our country needs right now. Rome's women were in general expected to be quite, gentle, keepers of the home, chaste, obedient, and respectful to their husbands. They were encouraged to marry and have children, to contribute to society by raising the next generation of orators, lawyers, business men, and even emperors. While it is true that there are countless stories of adultery and abuse, marital problems and divorce, this is not because, as so many historians believe, women were oppressed and unhappy in a man centered world. It is because the Romans needed the Gospel and its power in their lives. The women needed more than duty, tradition, and social norm to spur them on in their womanly duties; they needed a devotion to Christ and the words of Paul to give them true purpose and desire for their homes. And the men needed Christs love for the church in their relationships with their wives.

After giving the subject some thought, I have decided to try and stay on the happier side of things. One hears so much about the horrors of Roman marriages, and the oppression of women's rights. It is time perhaps to take a look at the kinder side of things, the probable joy and contentment found by many of the Roman women of those Ancient times in keeping their home and being a good wife. Unlike the majority of credited historians opinions, I choose to believe that their were more happy and fulfilled women in those days, than there are in the world today.

Roman women, it is true, had few legal rights. They did not have control over their own money, being considered to simple to manage such affairs, and they not allowed to vote. On a lighter, and perhaps even amusing note, they were not allowed in earlier times to drink wine. Yet despite these things it is possible for women to lead "happy" and "successful" lives. Below are listed some of the stations and roles which women inhabited in Roman society; included are the expectations and responsibilities they would have to fulfill.

Stations and Differences of Class

Noble Women:

Noble woman came from, well, noble families. They were often those who could trace lineage to one of Romes former consuls or Emperors either through blood or marriage. These women were society's elite and attended banquets, festivals, and great occasions with pomp. At the gladiatorial games they had the better seating at nearly ground level.

For all this however, they had very little distinguishing them from common Roman freed women; from the plebeians of the lower classes. Both were focused on the home, on being a good wife, on making their husbands successful, on bearing children, and on raising strong children - especially sons. How true the Latin saying rings, et genus et formam Regina Pecunia donatur. (Queen money brings both family and beauty)

There were several things which marked a difference between a noble women and free women. For one, Noble women usually tried to have more children than the lower class did. This was mostly because of the added pressure to provide an heir. Also the mortality rate of children was so high that even after having a son a noble women would want to have another lest the first die. It was common for only three children out of ten to survive childhood. Another thing that marked a difference between the classes was that on no account was a Noble woman to work outside of the home. It was considered highly improper and menial for the woman to help provide the families income, although in poorer families there was often little choice.

Some of the richer Roman women did run their own businesses and own property, especially towards the middle and end of the Empire. This was certainly not the norm but it did happen.

Free Women:

Free women were not nearly so confined as women of the patrician ranks. They often had to work alongside their husbands in many diverse forms of business out of necessity. There were no day cares and only some could afford to keep slaves, so the children had to learn to take care of themselves from an early age. Some of the outside occupations a free women might take on would be, maid work, hairdressing, escorts for wealthy women, laundering, and even field work. It all depended on where the women lived and what her particular talents might be.

Usually free women had less children than nobility. Allot of this was due to the inability for a family to support many children. It was in these poorer families that the practice of exposure was more common. Weak, sickly, and malformed babies, or unwanted females children, were left by the Father on the mountain side to die. The mother had no choice in the matter.


Now we have come to the bottom of Roman society. To be not only a women but a slave was probably as inferior a sphere as one could inhabit. Slaves were under the complete control of their masters whims and held few rights. They were not allowed to marry or vote, even in the mans case. Eventually under Romes better rulers laws were passed punishing the maltreatment of slaves, a master could even be tried for homicide if he killed one of his slaves. This seems pale in comparison however to what happened if a master was killed by a slave, if this happened all his household slaves, sometimes over a hundred, were put to death.

Under Nero slaves were given the ability to complain in court if they were mistreated. Antonius Pius ruled that if a slave was mistreated he could be freed. Children born to a slave woman who had once been free and then sold into captivity were allowed the status of a freeman/woman.

All in all, life as a woman slave could be hard and probably more servile than a mans. But this was not always so. Some women slaves had good mistresses and were eventually freed. When this happened they often had more ability to make their own decisions than their mistresses could.

Womanly Roles


Roman wives were a defining feature of Roman society. They are renowned for their calmness, their loyalty, and their stoic acceptance of life. They were what made society go round. They rocked the cradles of all Romes greatest leaders, and had the ability to make or break the men in their lives. We have examples of women like Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar; she was a women of great strength and trustworthiness whom her husband confided in. On the other hand we see Julia, Augustus daughter by a previous wife; a woman known for her scandalous behavior and the shame she brought her husband. A virtuous and faithful wife was highly sought in Rome; though this is somewhat ironic given the double standard when the husbands are considered.


Roman Mothers were usually devoted to their children. If a woman had a son she might even give her wealth and dowry to further his interests. Daughters were taught all the things they needed to know to become a good wife and mother, from their mothers good example and careful training.

Despite the mothers great influence in her family, for good or evil, it was the father or Pater Familias who had legal control in all decision making. A mother could not save a child if the Pater Familias decided that he must die or be sold into slavery, whether at birth or even as an adult. The Pater Familias was the head of the "clan" so to speak, even when his sons were married and moved away he held jurisdiction over them. They could not make important decisions or even truly posses any wealth until their father died, then each of them became their own Pater Familias.


Daughters did not usually live in their fathers home long enough to play a very important role in household affairs. Because people died younger (40 - 50 was old) they married younger. A girl child's sole purpose in life was to learn all the she could from her mother about running a household and becoming a good wife. It was customary for girls to marry between the ages of twelve and fourteen, though in richer families they sometimes delayed marriage until later. The marriage was arranged by the father for social and monetary purposes, romance was rare and the couple frequently did not meet until their wedding day. Once married the father still had jurisdiction over his daughter and could even force her into a divorce if a bettor suitor came along. But the children belonged to their father and to his family.

Richer girls received higher education than poorer ones. Part of this is because Roman men did want compatible wives who could converse and understand his life. Despite this however a belief persisted that women had inferior minds and could not be expected to be truly intellectual or competent in anything other than the home.

Now that we have seen into the lives of Roman women is it possible to believe that they were happy and valued in the society they lived in?

This is a difficult question considering the little we know in general from actual women. But it is not only possible, but probable, that most Roman women led happy and content lives. Although they did not have as many "legal" rights as women, they did involve themselves in politics sometimes and it seems enjoyed doing so. Although they did not have control over many of the basic decisions concerning life which we have today; there is good reason to believe that most men were good husbands and their wives were at once respectable and valued. There is something elusively calling about the Roman Matrons role in society. Something which makes us want to take a second look at the sphere in which she lived. Who can say what Rome would be remembered as in our minds today if it had not been for those devoted, strong, and honest mothers and wives who placed their fingers in the hands of their men and gently altered the course of history? We may not have all their names in the history books. We may not have "speeches and discourses" from the women of Rome. And we may not know them the way we do Cicero, or Caeser, or Regulus.

There is one thing to be said though. We see Roman women in the lives of Roman husbands and sons. We see them when a boy grows up to become Romes first citizen. We see them when wars were stopped, when laws were changed, when books were written. They live in the accomplishments of the men they raised and nurtured. They were central and vital to the society they lived in, to the sphere they lived in, the home. Are you?

10 November 2008

Emperors on Parade!

...Here comes a parade of Emperors from Rome! Some, like Nero and Titus are well known to you. Others like Galba are perhaps not so well known. Nonetheless this parade is dedicated to bringing you into a closer acquaintance with Romes Emperors from 54-80 AD

...Nero; 54-68 AD

..Nero's float is lavishly decorated with magnificent mosaics featuring himself as a god. This Emperor is obviously greedy and grasping. He is known for his wasteful expenditure of public taxes on his own unparalleled palace - a building covered with gold. It has been reported by the writer Suetonius that when Nero's "golden house" was finally finished the emperor said "Good, now I can live like a human at last!"

..A sickening spectacle, almost to horrendous for us to describe, also adorns the side of Nero's float. Christians accused of starting fires in Rome and of being disruptor's of the peace, have been covered in tar and tied to poles. Nero is using them as human torches. It is said that he put these "human torches" all around his palace gardens while holding vast parties for Romes elite. ( As a side note, Nero was the last of the Augustinian emperors)

...Galba; 68-69 AD

..Emperor Galba had an extremely short reign, not even a year. I suppose this is why his float is so hastily thrown together. Even the ribbons look bedragled.

..Galba came to power through intrigue. You see, after Nero's death there was a scrabble for the throne. No one knew who should be emperor since Nero had been the last of the Augustinian line. 69 AD is known as the "Year of Four Emperors", with Galba as the first. Galba gained his position through bribing the Praetorian guard; in a few months the Praetorian guard grew tired of Galba and had him murdered. We will let his float pass on without further notice.

...Otho and Vitellius; 69 AD

..This is one mixed up float, it can't seem to make up its mind. Half of it is dedicated to Otho and the other half to Vitellius! It seems the people of Rome couldn't decide who should be their emperor.

..In the end Vitellius killed Otho in battle but ended up loosing his own life to Romes new choice, Vespacian.

...Vespasian; 69-79 AD

..Okay, this float is a little better. At least we know who its for.

..The Emperor Vespasian was a good choice for the Roman people as far as stability goes. He had two sons to continue the line when he died. We call this family the Flavian Dynasty. Vespasian was also a just and strong leader. During his reign many people were granted Roman citizenship and the great Colosseum began to be built.

...Titus; 79-81 AD

..Titus was a warlike man and his float clearly shows it. The side are lined with Roman shields and Jewish spoils. It was this Emperor who captured the city of Jerusalem and desecrated the temple. He brought back all the riches of the Jewish temple for his own building projects, gold marble, bronze, and precious jewels.

..During Titus rule the Colosseum begun by his father was finished. Titus also commissioned a great arch, called the Arch of Titus, which commemorates his victories over the Jews. It still stands today.

...Domitian; 81-96 AD

..Once again we detect signs of an arrogant and self seeking Emperor. Domitian was Titus' younger brother and the last of the Flavian Dynasty. His float is lavishly decorated but very unpopular with the people. looking around we see anger and rioting, the Roman Senators seem particularly displeased. The Praetorian guard walk along happily however, Domitian was their choice. Despite his guards protection though, Domitian was assassinated in 96 AD

...Nerva; 96-98 AD

..Nerva was the first Empera brought to office without the say of the Praetorian Guard. The people and the Senate had had enough of greedy and biased Emperors. This time they chose a humble Lawyer named Nerva who was known for honesty.

..Emperor Nerva respected the Senate and they appreciated him for it. He opened up the ability for men in other parts of the empire to become a part of the Roman Senate. In history he is known as the first of the "Five Good Emperors".

...Trajan; 98-117 AD

..Rising from the middle of Trajans float we can see a tall pillar called Trajans column. On it is celebrated the Emperors many victories in Romania and the Middle East. Under Trajan the empire reached its greatest extent.

...Hadrian; 117-138 AD

..Hadrian was the first non-Italian Emperor to rule Rome. He was adopted from Spain by Trajan to become his heir.

..His float is surrounded by a miniature replica of Hadrian's Wall, a massive building project in Britain and Germany. Hadrian was concerned over how large the Empire was when he came to office. How could he protect Rome's borders?

..After spending over half of his rule surveying Romes many provinces, Hadrian decided to let many of the territories go. He also built fortifications to keep Romes enemies out.

...Antonius Pius; 138-161 AD

..A large and sumptuous float approaches us next. Antonius Pius ruled Rome when she was at the height of her power. As we see the float draw closer we notice it is wobbling though. War is on the horizon as barbarian hordes gather distantly.

...Marcus Aurelius; 161-180 AD

..Marcus Aurelius was by necessity a warrior. He had to be a strong and active leader for his people. During his reign the barbarians began to make advances which could not be ignored. Then a plague struck the land killing thousands of people. The world was watching closely, Marcus Aurelius was the last of Romes "Five Good Emperors".

03 November 2008

A Typical Roman : Free Laborer

...Free Laborers were men who were not slaves yet they worked for other men. They were generally from the lower class, men who were not wealthy enough to own their own slaves or posses their own business. Fishermen were free laborers, as well as artists, masons, entertainers and actors. "Free" does not mean that they provided unpaid services, rather it denoted that these men were not slaves but Roman citizens or Roman citizen wannabees.
...What would life have been like for a single free laborer without much wealth in imperial Rome? Lets say our man is twenty and a Roman citizen, his profession is overseeing slaves building projects, and his family is of the old Roman stock; devoutly religious, patriotic, and superstitious.
...A typical day begins before the sun is fully up. Our laborer lives on the third floor of an apartment building. The lower floors are reserved for wealthier folks, and their rooms are much more spacious than the Laborers. As the man makes his way down the creaky stairs he is reminded of the fact that the third floor was an afterthought, designed hastily to bring in more money from poor tenants. It was not unusual for the structures to collapse around their inhabitants heads; but one must live somehow! It was a necessary risk. Lives are cheep in Rome.
...Outside the sun is slowly climbing and market stalls are beginning to open. Lazy slave girls yawn and irritated pedagogues hurry their young charges to school. Because out laborer comes from a poorer family he received very little education, some of the basics - about the equivalent of eighth grade.
...Breakfast consisted of a small loaf and some cheese, the man promised himself a more substantial meal later in the day. For now he was late and made himself walk quicker, all the while trying to avoid the great stinking piles of human and animal refuse which lined the streets.
...He arrived just in time to take his place at the head of a work gang of slaves; he would oversee their labor and carefully watch for signs of insubordination which would be promptly settled with his whip. The job payed a good amount, and other than standing under the fierce heat all day and barking orders until his throat was hoarse, out laborer found that it was pretty easy made money. At least he was not one of those slaves breaking their back in Nero's new building project, rebuilding Rome to ten times its former glory after last years terrable fire. The laborer sometimes wandered had started the fires himself, but he would never dream of saying so aloud - no, far better to let the blame rest where the emperor had placed it, with the Christians.
...Later that day, as evening was coming close, the laborer walked back to his dwelling. On the way he stopped to buy a fig cake and some wine. He thought of the onions and cheese he had in his room and grinned anticipating his coming feast. Of course, his meager fare was nothing like the sumptious festivals Nero had been conducting lately. Our man only hoped the emperors indulgent actions continued, he would like more free bread and gladitorial shows. of course, some in the senate resented Nero's behavior and reckless spending; and there was the widespread slaughter of the Christ-followers to think about. But those Christians defied the gods and would bring down judgement on Rome, the man shivered and muttered a prayer to Jupiter. What if things went bad?
...O well, if this job failed him he could always become a gladiator. Not so comforting as assuring a thought.