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Being a woman in Antiquity



The Roman woman

According to Roman law, women were born under their father’s guardianship. Once married, their status was variable: the wife could stay her father’s ward or become her husband’s, depending on the chosen matrimonial regime. A woman did not have her own independence.

Marriage played an important part in cultivating different family connections, of which the bride was the key asset. A young woman from a good family could have a major influence in her future husband’s career. 

These habits did slowly evolve through time. Under the Augustan Age (from 27 BC to 14 AD), in order to increase the birthrate, women from the nobility, who had had more than three children, were liberated from all guardianship. The freedwomen (ex-slaves) would be entitled to the same status after their fourth child and the slaves after their fifth. It’s only under the emperor Claudius (from 41 AD to 54 AD) that this type of guardianship (which places the entire family under the rule of the pater familias) will be abolished.

In the 2nd century AC, women can write their own testaments and become heiresses… They are allowed to get divorced and remarried, although, in case of adultery, they lose part of their inheritance.

It is noteworthy that the women’s status varied and was adapted according to the region. Thus, what was applicable in Italy could slightly vary in the provinces.

Even if, in general, women had a background role, there were some important offices in Roman society that were held by women. For instance, it was the case for the role of Vestal (priestess devoted to the Goddess Vesta) and the flaminica (priestess devoted to the worship of the Empress). These priestesses assumed a first-class public office, mainly honorary, thusly contributing to their family’s prestige.

In Nyon, an inscription mentioning one of these flaminicae, Annia Sabina, was found during the amphitheater’s digs and is now visible in the Roman Museum. This inscription was carried out by the priestess in honor of her father, who was a high dignitary of the colonia.

Apart from these honorary charges, we know very little of the professional activities of women, in particular concerning women of modest backgrounds. Since they were mostly housekeepers it was their job to weave wool in the household. This is proved by the many reliefs and scales and other tools used for weaving found in dwellings. Some women were midwives and some were even doctors, dentists or surgeons. Somme freedwomen or slaves who were nannies could become governess. Slaves generally served as servants or worked in the fields. Some women evidently helped their husbands in their craft activities. And let’s not forget about the women that had the oldest job in the world…

It’s through grave markers that we get most of the testimonies on the role of women and their status. These testimonies, often laudatory, brag about their qualities as daughters, mothers or wives, summarizing the main role they had to play as a Roman women. Sometimes, mainly in the upper classes, their virtues were hidden behind those of a masculine relative.

But there are some stelae, that were either erected by a wife to her late husband, or the other way around, that bore personal inscriptions which are proof of a deep attachment and a mutual recognition within the couple.

Thus, the roman woman’s status is relatively complex: even if they are under their husband’s guardianship for a long period of time and they live in the shadow of a patriarchal society, there are a lot of testimonies of women looking for more independence and appreciation. We could mention the empresses Livia and Agrippina, who managed to implement their sons as emperors in order to keep, to some extent, their place within the imperial regime. But these very rare examples show that women, from high ranked families, applied their power, first and foremost, by plotting.

Even if they were dependent on their society and its standards, the traces left by roman women show us that number of them didn’t want to be confined to their domestic chores…

Flore Higelin
Guide and auxiliary at the Roman Museum of Nyon, PhD (in progress) in classical archaeology

 

Something to read:

-  R. Bernard, Les femmes en Gaule romaine : (Ier siècle avant J.-C. - Ve siècle après J.-C.) (Paris 2009)

- V. Dasen, N. Saudan (dir.), La médecine à l'époque romaine : quoi de neuf, docteur ? (Lyon 2012)

-  G. François, La femme romaine au début de l'Empire (Arles 2013)

-  R. Frei-Stolba, A. Bielman, Femmes et vie publique dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine (Lausanne 1998)

-  V. Girod, Les femmes de Rome étaient-elles vraiment libérées ?, National Geographic Histoire et Civilisations, [En ligne] : https://www.nationalgeographic.fr/histoire/les-femmes-de-rome-etaient-elles-vraiment-liberees

-  A. Pelletier, La femme dans la société gallo-romaine (Paris 1984)

-  C. Schucany, M.-F. Meylan Krause, Vivre au quotidien, in : L. Flutsch et al. (dir.), Quand la Suisse n’existait pas, le temps des romains, SPM 5 (Bâle 2002) 248, 285-289,

Data sheets:

Spindle                  Honorary inscription

 



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