Matrons, Plebeians And Prostitutes, The Women Of Ancient Rome
Rome was the very essence of a male dominated society, being militaristic, proud, go-getting and determined on expansion. The man of the house, the Paterfamilias, was the head of the family with absolute control over his wife and children, and in earlier times he even had the right to kill, in certain circumstances, without suffering punishment for it. The Roman woman of status carried the feminine form of her family’s name, even if there were several daughters within that family. The daughters would be differentiated by diminutives or by nicknames. This was further evidence of the lack of individuality allowed to women. So where did the Roman woman fit in, both within the family unit and in the wider social world?
Roman children enjoying a bath in an affluent private villa, by Ettore Forti (19th century) (Public Domain)
As a child she would be taught obedience and her duty towards her natural family, which carried the expectation that she would do nothing to disgrace herself or them. If from a wealthy family she would have her marriage arranged for that family’s political or financial benefit, with sentiment pushed aside, and it would be an arrangement from which children, to carry on the name of the husband’s family, would be expected. If the marriage proved to be barren, then the husband could “adopt” a son to carry on the family name, often from another branch of the same family. Adopting a daughter would have been very unlikely.
Adopting a baby was also less likely to be agreed, as the Romans, essentially pragmatic, preferred to see what they were getting, what the young man to be adopted was likely to become, and whether he would be a suitable family heir, therefore the boy would usually be an adolescent. Daughters were certainly useful in furthering the family’s fortunes through their marriages, when they were of age to leave their paternal home.
An evening at the temple, by Ettore Forti (19th century) (Public Domain)
The only women in ancient Rome who were sui iuris or in their own hand, were the Vestal Virgins. Contrary to popular misconceptions, there were only ever six of these privileged women at any one time. They were chosen as small girls, from prominent families, and their lives would be protected and controlled by the Pontifex Maximus, under whose jurisdiction they fell.
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Lynda Telford writes historical articles and is Events and Projects Officer for the Yorkshire Branch of the Richard III society. As a member of the Roman Society her first book concerns the Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. She is the author of five books, including 'Women of Medieval England' , 'Women of the Vatican' and her latest Women of Ancient Rome for Amberley.
Top Image: Roman Street Scene by Ettore Forti (late 19th century) (Public Domain)
By: Lynda Telford