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 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 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.
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?