When we look at the status of women in Ancient Rome, there is always a great dismay whenever we go through the records of their status in society. Several sources and chronicles which mention the roles of women in ancient roman society, several works which mention them as wives and mothers. But not one of those works; neither journal, nor philosophy is written by a woman living in those times.
There is no record in history about the perspectives of women living in the society. There is no true record of how they viewed themselves, their purpose in the grander scheme of things. There are sources however limited they may be which delve into the scope of these questions, which give a glimpse into the lives of roman women. Understanding their lives is essential to seeing how we view women in modern society. And it provides an important insight for us to endeavor to avoid the same mistakes again.
Whenever we speak of the status of roman women it is essential to trace back to the time of the Greeks. The foundation of the Roman Empire at the time was based on Greek culture. At the time the two qualities considered to be primarily attributed to women were courage and chastity. Although women were considered not as physically able as men, the inspiration they provided to the men in their lives gave them merit.
Chastity however was taken as a symbol of status thus Greek men would keep their women in their homes. They were of the viewpoint that their home was the most suitable environment for them as it kept them away from corrupting influences. If the women left their home they would enjoy less honor and status in comparison (Dimand and Nyland).
Subsequently their status in Rome changed throughout the period of Roman history. In the beginning, during the expansion of the Roman Empire, much of the aristocracies from the upper levels of Roman history were the only women who were educated and given positions of power. Poorer women on the other hand enjoyed much greater freedoms than their aristocratic counterparts. Unlike the noble women of Rome the poor were free of many of their social restrictions prohibitions.
Women at the time were subject to the control of the men in their lives (Shelton). Wealthy women were confined to their homes never knowing about the outside world. They would be married usually at the age of 12 sometimes less due to the decreased life expectancy at the time. They would be married without their consent and simply partake in the duties of the daughter, the mother and the wife (Treggiari). They had a duty to ensure that the son knew about his culture and guide him when he grew up into the political spectrum. The daughters were taught primarily to create a new generation of wives who would carry on these duties.
Women from the lower classes however could choose to marry and was free of the social judgments of society. However they faced many hardships such as illiteracy and poverty. However all women were equal in being given the title and duty of the child bearer. They were required by custom to have as many children as possible to feed the requirements of the roman army. The men at the time also had the right to reject the newborns if they so wished. Dying in the process of childbirth was common among the women of the time (Lefkowitz and Fant).
Women in Rome had no political rights. Men could not vote without owning property and women as a rule were forbidden from voting. Once however the women began to take part in public life they became more concerned with asserting themselves rather than maintaining traditions. At this time Rome became a wealthier nation and thus certain women abandoned their duties and traditions and began seeking new activities.
Women worked alongside men as nurses, wet nurses, midwives, dancers, musicians or any service that would cater to the upper class in Roman society (Cross). Prostitution was a profession that existed in more of a moral vacuum in roman society than it does today. Often the lowest classes were forced or sold into the trade or even chose the profession themselves since it was profitable (Cross).
Women also existed as slaves alongside men. However they were never sent to do physically draining tasks such as the gallows or the mines. Rather they were kept in the homes of aristocrats to serve them as concubines. The reputation of a slave was the lowest in roman society. However if the slave did manage to earn enough money then she could buy her own freedom (Pomeroy).
Today it can be clearly seen how western society has evolved from the ideals of the Roman Empire. The rights of women over time have improved greatly than what they were at time. However socially and politically women are still viewed by the same societal conceptions as the Romans. Although there are many radical and free thinkers in society today, much of the female role have been confined to what it always was the daughter, the mother and the wife.
Women though having rights to partake in the political process, work in any environment and get an equal education are still considered to be primarily the source of chastity and courage for men. Like before women from the lower social order of society do not have as many expectations of them as those from the middle class or the upper class. The aristocracy exists today as it has for hundreds of years and is still mired in the same traditional values as always.
Men are often favored over women in the workplace, they earn more than women. Although change does come in society when needed it is slow and only with sufficient protest. As in Ancient Rome prostitution and other forms of sexual gratification are still primarily attributed towards women. The aspect of slavery also still exists in the form of human trading. The concept of arrange marriages is also well and alive in the Indian sub continent, a tradition which has endured despite the increased rights of women in Indian society.
When viewing Roman history as it was and contemporary society as it is. It’s truly remarkable to see that nothing has really changed in the world. The rights of women are still dictated more by religious doctrine, culture and male preconceptions as it always was., even though women have been given more rights than they ever have enjoyed at any point in history. One cannot help but realize that at the end of the day women are always where they have been for the past thousands of years, behind men acting as their support.
Cross, Suzanne. The Forgotten Woman: Working Romans. 2009. 30 April 2009 <http://web.mac.com/heraklia/Dominae/Forgotten/index.html>.
Dimand, Robert William and Chris Nyland. The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought. Australia : Edward Elgar Publishing, 2003.
Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.
Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Treggiari, Susan. Roman Marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.