Women in Ancient Rome

Categories: Ancient RomeWomen

Contrary to other similarly advanced societies of the time period, ancient Rome held a more open view of women. Despite holding very little direct power, women were able to influence more than just societal beliefs but even reshaped religion and politics. The Romans never saw women as inherently inferior or biologically lesser than men. In fact, Roman creation myths never followed the “first man, then women” structure, referring to gender very little. Even in medicine women were treated with the same care as men, not considered hysterical or otherwise for exhibiting normal human pain.

Also, compared to their contemporaries the Greeks, Romans did not see women as sexual beings but rather pinnacles of chastity and the pure. Mirroring the more humanized perception of women in Roman society, some wealthy women held great influence in politics. In 195 bce, wealthy women held a political protest in response to war rationing. While maybe not the nobelist of causes, their action and the subsequent reaction demonstrates that those in power listened to women and their concerns.

As the Republic marched on, women became further integrated into society. The youth followed their female peers and began to redefine love, reshaping Rome for the future. But when the Republic fell and the ensuing civil war ended those in power looked for someone to blame. Emperor Augustus used increased female freedom and the redefinition of societal morality as as a scapegoat for post war instability and heightened class tensions, thus instituting harsh and harmful reforms which subsequently set the fight for independence and autonomy in Rome back indefinitely.

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Prior to Augustan reforms, women in Rome held an immense amount of power for the time– albeit with some caveats– and were constantly fighting for more. Women acted in a similar role to a daughter following marriage. Perhaps the best way to describe female independence is as paper autonomy, not actual freedom. For example, women were allowed financial freedoms but were required to have a male guardian to actually manage their funds. Additionally, while women could inherit and own property, men such as famous philosopher Cicero successfully argued that they should be forbidden from actually managing them. However, it was kept legally separate, allowing women to keep money and property following a divorce. In contradiction to Greek beliefs, women were not seen as sexual beings, just mothers & wives. This was because of how common male-male relationships were and how they were not perceived as any different than male-female relationships. Rather than fulfilling a sexual role in marriages, women were symbols of purity. With a more chaste role in society, women gained religious power, particularly through the creation of Vestal Virgins. Vestal Virgins acted as caretakers of Vesta’s flame, an eternal fire that as long as it was lit, Rome could never fall. Such a large power being assigned to women was rare. But with such power comes consequences. Any failure to maintain the flame or a loss of virginity would cause a Vestal Virgin to be buried alive, returned to Mother Earth. Closer to the turn of the century, the Roman youth discovered romantic love. Prior to their discovery, relationships were seen as social contracts for financial, social, and political gain. As wealthy young men began to pursue relationships with poor women, they prompted a discussion and eventual discovery regarding the true meaning of relationships. Public ideals slowly shifted to include non-traditional relationships and women in some kind of power prompting dissent among those with more traditional values.

Emperor Augustus used increased female freedom as a scapegoat for post-civil war instability and heightened class tensions in order to impose himself as the moral authority. Augustus, originally a general and the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, became an extremely successful statesman and eventual emperor after a long civil war. Following the war, Rome was become increasingly unstable. Augustus used the political and social unrest, particularly surrounding shifting morals from traditional ideas to forward thinking freedoms to push himself as the moral savior of rome. Rather than just listening to the people and focusing on improving the quality of life, Augustus saw it as an opportunity to reposition himself as more than just the leader of politics but as the moral authority. As Will Durant best said: ‘He destroyed his own happiness by trying to make people good as well as happy; it was an imposition that Rome never forgave.’ His formerly popular reforms caused an imbalance of classes in Rome as the wealthy people were having less children and the newly freed slaves began to dominate more. Additionally, in 100 bce, Romans discovered romantic love. As marriage was for reproduction and financial gain, many young men rebelled and pressured socially unrealistic relationship for the sake of personal comfort.

Augustan reforms fell back onto more orthodox values which permanently stifled the growth of equality in ancient Rome. Thus, in order to enforce morality on the women, who in his eyes had strayed from traditional familial values, Augustus created strict reforms on marriage and womanhood. The majority of these laws primarily impacted women, relegating them to only wife and mother. All woman were required to be married from 20-50, men 25-60. He offered incentives such as governmental favor and increased freedom to married men and woman who had multiple children. He also forbid the inter-class marrying. Adultery laws only impacted women, as men were allowed to sleep with whomever they wanted. Women on the other had would be banished to islands for doing so. The laws were unpopular and actually created more problems with people exploiting them for financial gain and young teenagers being married off. Even his own daughter Julia was punished. Choice was eradicated, along with the newly discovered love. Rich women had more children. His plan was successful on paper, but made him extremely unpopular. The restrictive laws only caused a further devolution of the former perceptions of marriage, often forcing people into unhappy and unsuccessful unions marred by violence and unrest. Regardless, Augustus continued on. By attacking women and equality, Augustus positioned himself as the savior of Rome from chaos and immorality.

In response to political and civil unrest following a civil war, Emperor Augustus targeted increased power among women and shifting social values as threats to Roman morality, positioning himself as a savior. Before Augustus’ intervention, women held a surprising amount of power for the time. Despite being forced to be male dependent, women achieved unprecedented political and religious influence. Augustus used this and inter-class relationships prompted by a discovery of romantic loves as a scapegoat for post-civil war instability and heightened class tensions. Effectively, Augustus instituted himself in a position of moral authority over the Roman people, leading him to become an unpopular ruler. His reforms, all filled with far more traditional values, squashed much of the progress made towards gender equality and personal freedoms. It is highly likely that with his intervention, the fight for gender equality was set back hundreds of years.

Works Cited

  • “Augustan Reformation” Women in Ancient Rome, Women in the Ancient World. http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/augustanreformation.htm
  • Cartwright, Mark. “The Role of Women in the Roman World.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 26 Jan. 2019, www.ancient.eu/article/659/the-role-of-women-in-the-roman-world/.
  • Greenfield, Peta. “Who were the Vestal Virgins, and what was their job?” TED-Ed Media. Video.
  • Frank, Richard. “Augustus’ Legislation on Marriage and Children” California Studies in Classical Antiquity Vol. 8, University of California Press. Article. 1975 https://www.jstor.org/stable/25010681?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
  • Karras, Ruth Mazzo. ‘Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek & Roman Sexualities’ The American Historical Review, JSTOR, October, 2000,
  • https://www.jstor.org/stable/2651412?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents McCormack, Laura. “The Women’s March: Rome”. History Today. History Today. 8 January
  • 2018 https://www.historytoday.com/laura-mccormack/womens-march-rome
  • “Julia: Daughter of Augustus” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Britannica. 1 January 2019 https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julia-daughter-of-Augustus
  • ‘Women in Ancient Rome.’ Women in Ancient Rome. Women in the Ancient World. www.womenintheancientworld.com/women_in_ancient_rome.html

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Women in Ancient Rome. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/women-in-ancient-rome-essay

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