Were women oppressed in ancient Rome?
Roman women lived under many restrictions that did not apply to Roman men. Roman women knew that men were treating them unfairly, and they did not like living under special rules.
“This is the smallest of the injunctions laid on them by usage or the laws, all which women bear with impatience: they long for liberty; or rather, to speak the truth, for unbounded freedom in every particular.” (Livy 34.2.13-14).
Roman law treated women badly.
Roman women didn’t get equal rights with men. The law insisted that women could not be emperors, or be in the Roman Senate, or govern a province, or join the army. Men could beat or rape their wives, just as they beat and raped their slaves.
A Roman woman could divorce her husband, but generally he kept the children. Women who were slaves were frequently physically and sexually abused, and often saw their children killed or sold away from them.
Women’s rights in ancient Rome
On the other hand, Roman women did gain some rights that other women living at the same time did not have. At least some Roman girls were able to go to school, and some women continued to college-level educations.
When women got married, they were still technically under the power of their fathers and not their husbands. So their husbands had no legal right to make them do anything. Women didn’t take their husband’s name, either.
With their inheritance, they could start businesses and own property.Roman women could write their own wills, too. They could choose to leave their property to whoever they wanted; they could choose to favor one child over another, or to leave their business to their partner instead of to their children.
Women’s work in ancient Rome
Their jobs were not that different from the jobs women have today, except that women were not generally school teachers. There were women in ancient Rome who were shoemakers and seamstresses, pharmacists and bakers. Many women worked as midwives or wet nurses.
Many other women worked as waitresses in restaurants and fast food joints. Some women were professors at universities, or doctors.
Women and farm work
Like men, many women did farm work. Women planted seeds. They weeded with long hoes. Women didn’t generally scythe the grain, but they stacked it to dry. By the time of the Roman Empire, most people probably had their flour ground at larger mills. So most women didn’t grind grain into flour at home anymore. That must have been a relief!
Women and textile work
Mostly, by this time, women didn’t make the clothes for their own families at home. People bought their clothes in stores. Instead, women worked at home doing piecework, or in textile factories, spinning and weaving to make cloth to sell. Some of these factories belonged to the government. Probably women also did a lot of nalbinding – a kind of early knitting.
Political power for Roman women
Despite their disadvantages, some Roman women also managed to get political power. Once in a while, Roman women served on their local town council.
Messalina and Agrippina
The Severan Women
Another occasion where women were able to get power in ancient Rome came a hundred and fifty years later. Beginning in 217 AD, Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea ruled the Roman empire through their grandsons and son until 226 AD.
Pulcheria and Galla Placidia
It took another two hundred years for women to get into power again. The empress Pulcheria kept control of the eastern Empire from 414 to her death in 453 AD. And her niece Galla Placidia controlled the western Empire for several years as well.