Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Roles of Women in Ancient Rome

Yay, girl stuff!
Here's the deal with the roles of ancient Roman women: everybody's writing about them, trying to make the most of very limited resources, but the actual factual data is very limited. The history of Rome covers a huge timeline and a giant territory, but, since there are so few accounts of ancient Roman women, it's very tempting to take whatever bits and pieces of information survived and to force them together into creating a coherent image.

You cannot compare the situation of women in 200 BC with that of women in 200 AD, same as you cannot compare the life of a woman in Alexandria to that of a woman in Britannia. To add even more complications, most portraits we have from ancient literature are not of real women, but idealized images used to enforce the writer's point of view.

So, that being said, I'll do what everybody else is doing, create a very general image, and maybe get into the juicier details later.

Family Roles – Daughter, Mother and Wife

The place of a good Roman woman was at home (I'd say in the kitchen, but few houses had kitchens), or out in the open, but still promoting the values and the name of the family.
It probably wasn't a lot of fun in the beginning. Daughters literary belonged to their father until they were married, and then the authority was transferred to their husbands. If the husband died or divorced, the woman would return to her father. As the republic turned into an empire, growing richer and more tolerant, things changed, the way Romans liked to change things: officially everything remained the same, in reality everything was different. We know for instance about a law allowing daughters to inherit their mother's fortune, which means some women managed to acquire financial independence, and let's face it, financial independence means independence, period.
As for the family roles, accounts vary. In some, women were regarded as mere vessels for procreation. There is a story of a philosopher who thought it perfectly natural to “lend” his wife to his friend, because she was fertile and his friend couldn't have children with his previous wives, and then take her back once she fulfilled her mission. I think I've stated my opinion of Roman philosophers repeatedly on this blog.

Public Roles – Benefactors, Priestesses and Politicians

There were few public roles available for women in ancient Rome – the most famous, of course, being that of Vestals – the celebrated virgin priestesses. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, they got some of the best theater seats, and the contract was for a pre-determined duration; after a while, the Vestals were free to leave and get married. Most of them chose to stay even after their term expired (probably for the complimentary theater tickets).

In Pompeii we learn of a woman called Eumachia, who was a priestess of Venus and certainly belonged to the ruling elite. She commissioned and paid for several buildings, helped during the reconstruction effort that followed an earthquake, and the town rewarded her with a statue, so must have been a relatively prominent figure.
Those were the good public roles for women – the bad ones were those of politicians (well, not much has changed since). Romans hated women politicians. Agrippina's biggest crime is not that of having her husband poisoned, but that of attempting to greet ambassadors together with her son, Nero. Agrippina was a formidable character, but she ended up on the losers' side, so we don't hear many good things about her. Few women managed to get powerful and successful enough to force the Romans to bite their tongue and swallow their pride; most notable among them was Livia, Augustus' wife (it surely paid off to marry the founder of the empire, but also to live about ten times longer than the average life expectancy of the age).

Shady Roles – Witches, Enchantresses and Prostitutes

It's the extremes that draw the attention, so the roles we know most about today are either those in the spotlight or those from the gutters. Pompeii preserved a wealth of inscriptions detailing the prices of the local prostitutes, while the famous poisoner Locusta has a prominent spot among the women serial killers of antiquity.
Regarding the prostitutes, it's unclear how many were slaves and how many free women who chose this path (don't be too quick to judge them, the career options were limited, a dirty one is better than none at all).

Women of the Imperial Family

Being born or getting married into the imperial family was surely the quickest way to get noticed for the women in ancient Rome. Like dying your hair blonde and pretending to be a singer today. Trying to understand Roman women by looking at the imperial family is exactly like trying to understand today's society by looking at Paris Hilton.

Professional Victims

There was one certain way to get your fifteen minutes of fame – become a professional victim. Commit suicide together with your husband, raise children born by your husband's mistress, get yourself killed for something that wasn't your fault or your problem to begin with – and earn the immortal praise of the famous writers.
Octavia seemed to be the name of choice for professional victims in the first century, like Octavian's sister, married to Marcus Antonius for political reasons, then used by the augustan propaganda as an antithetic image for Antonius' mistress, Cleopatra. Another Octavia was the daughter of emperor Claudius, married to Nero (who was also her stepbrother, but those are just details) and then killed by the same – enough to turn her into the main character of a play attributed to Seneca (Seneca is obviously not the author, but that's a different matter).

Read more details about:

Foreign Rulers

If Roman women are presented as stereotypes in the literature of the age, then the foreign rulers are downright caricatures. Cleopatra of Egypt, Zenobia of Palmyra and Boudica of Britannia – images that fascinated the conservative Roman elite, in the same way that the legend of the amazons fascinated the Greeks – weird and scary things, outside the natural order. What we can do now is dust them off, try to figure out fact from fiction, and maybe shed a bit more light on the ancient Romans' concepts.

Regular Women

So, where does all this leave regular women, the millions who belonged to the middle classes and had a normal life? Pretty much nowhere. We can tell what they were wearing, eating and using for make-up, but not what they were doing or thinking.
There is enough data to figure out they were not locked in the house, like the Greek women, enjoyed a certain degree of freedom, were actively involved in the life of their cities; evidence from Pompeii shows that some could read and write and others were regular businesswomen, but there's no way of telling if these were exceptions or the rule. It's like being stuck in a huge warehouse full of colorful trinkets, in perfect darkness, and you can only light a match every half an hour to catch a glimpse of what's around you.