Women Can Too

One of the most prominent civilizations of all time is the Roman. Their influence was not just seen back during the classical era, but it is seen today as well. Many laws are taken from Roman time, their religious practices, and also their philosophical ideas. Every person in Rome had an important part to play in maintaining its greatness. Despite lacking many rights that one might see as basic nowadays, and despite many literary works claiming otherwise, Roman women had a large role in many aspects of their society. Most importantly are their influences on politics, business, and religion.

Unlike other empires during the classical era, Rome did not see women as equal to men. While any person from a conquered land could apply to become a citizen of Rome, women were not allowed to do this. Not being a citizen of Rome, a woman was not allowed to vote, serve in the military, or hold any kind of public office. A woman in Rome had no public legal rights, they did, however, have some private rights. These included being allowed to inherit land in her own name, to sell and own property, be the beneficiary of and make her own will, and get a divorce. (Padgett)

While women were not allowed to hold any sort of political office, this did not refrain any of the upper class women with powerful husbands from making suggestions here and there. Ronald Syme compares the political influence of women in the Late Republic:

… the daughter of the nobilitas could not be cheated of the real and secret power that comes from influence. They count for more than does the average senator, they might affect nothing less than an ex-consul achieved by the quiet exercise of auctoriats in the conclave of his peers…

Many women throughout Roman history have been thrown in to situations where they have held some sort of political office, and many have plotted against male rulers for their own personal gain. Livia Drusilla Augusta (58 BCE- 28 CE) was one of the most powerful women in the early Roman Empire. Livia was a loyal advisor to her husband, Octavian, and after he died her counsel was also valued during Tiberius’ reign (M.O.). Agrippina the Younger and Livilla, sisters to Marcus Aemlius Lepidus, had plotted with their brother to overthrow the emperor Caligula after his sister, and Lepidus’ wife, Drusilla, died. The plot was found out and the two sisters were exiled while their brother was executed (Glasson). Epicharis’ part in the Pisonian conspiracy where she tried to gain the support of the Roman naval fleet was captured by Tacitus. When the conspiracy was discovered Epicharis, even under torture and unlike the men who were also involved, did not give those who captured her any details (Tacitus). While Roman women were never granted full citizenship, preventing them from any sort of official legal rights, many powerful women emerged from the upper classes to fight for what they believed in.

Another area where Roman women surprisingly had a lot of influence was in the world of business. Gaston Boissier, a French classical scholar, noted that “the women appear as much engaged in business…as the men”. Since women were allowed to own property, it was not uncommon for them to participate in the management and business that any other landowner was met with. Laws made in Imperial Rome that had to do with prosecuting adulterous women allowed those “who have charge of any business or shop” to be an exception and were not prosecuted.

Aside from being a landowner and starting their own business, other popular jobs in Rome included acting, dancing, wet nurse, and prostitution. Obviously not all of these professions were as respected compared to being a shop owner. In fact, women who decided to be performers did not have much protection under the law even if they were free (Edwards).

While Roman women had no legal rights, they were still able to have a job. Unlike their political influence, however, this was not restricted to just the upper classes. Many plebian women did to have the resources to start their own business, but they managed to find other jobs that focused on their own labor. Again, these jobs might not be as respectable as one would like, but it supported the woman and whoever else she might have been helping at the time.

A third area that one can prominently see the influence from Roman women is in religion. During this period in history many different religious cults were springing up all over the place. The Romans did not mind borrowing from other civilizations as well when it came to these cults, as one can see with the acceptance of the cult of Isis which originated in Egypt (Bentley 161). And while there were many groups around exclusive for men, like the idea of Mithraism, there were also many cults exclusive for women. The cult of Pudicitia Plebeia was a cult exclusive to plebian women (Scheid). Livy writes about the foundation of this cult, and how a sacrificial altar was included. The ritual of sacrifice was usually a male role, even in little private religions, so it is interesting to see that women were changing things here and there to allow them to worship the way they wanted without being restricted by their gender. There were also cults exclusive to patrician women as well, like the cult of Ceres and Proserpina for example (McLaughlin).

It was also not uncommon for Roman women to be priestess, giving them some role in an array of rituals and religious groups. The most prominent of this group of priestesses is the Vestal virgins, priestesses of the goddess Vesta. Some of their roles included performing rituals in honor of Vesta, baking a sacred cake that was commonly used during their ceremonies throughout the year, and keeping the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum burning. There were eighteen members, while only six were considered legitimate Vestal Virgins at once. These women were hand selected between the ages of three to ten years old from prominent patrician families. Each woman served with the Vestals for thirty years: “the first ten years as novices, then ten years as actual vestal virgins, and finally ten year as supervisors responsible for training the novices” (UNRV). During these thirty years of service, the women vowed to live in chastity, and in return they were rewarded with many privileges that most other women did not have. Some of these privileges included not being subject to the father of the household, they were allowed to engage in legal contracts, they could travel around the city in a carriage, they were able to sit in on various sport activities and they even had reserved front row seats. Throughout all of Rome the Vestal Virgins were considered sacred and were respected. It was considered a great honor for a man to marry a retired virgin. People went to great lengths to make sure that their blood was not spilt, in fear of angering the gods (UNRV).

While traditionally many religious practices were led by men in ancient Rome, during the classical era many other religious groups came into view that were exclusive to certain types of people but the diversity among them was so great there was always something for everyone. Many women were put in a position of authority and respect with these various religions, which was a big improvement from before when they were not able to do much within their ceremonies.

In comparison to previous civilizations, where women did not have many rights to begin with, the Roman women made some pretty big strides. Even over the course of Rome’s history, women were able to make multiple changes. Many aristocrat women used their positions to influence their husbands and sons, for better or for worse. Many women got in to various professions, from running their own stores to selling food they had just made. During the classical era, when a diverse array of religions had spread to Rome, women found that they had a lot of power in many of these little cults as well. While there was a wide gap between gender roles in Rome, the civilization made some great improvements for women that would live on.

Latest articles