Women in ancient Rome – gender and power

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Roman woman, about 50 ADThe sculptor has made her look silly on purpose to make fun of old women

Roman woman, about 50 AD. The sculptor has made her look silly on purpose to make fun of old women

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. We can see that from this speech that Livy says Cato made in the Senate in 195 BC: “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 women didn’t get equal rights with men. Roman law continued to insist 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.

Roman women: Tombstone of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker about 100 AD

Tombstone of Septimia Stratonice, a shoemaker about 100 AD

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 remained 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.

After their fathers died, Roman women could act completely independently. Unlike Greek women, Roman women had the right to inherit their parents’ property equally with their brothers. With their inheritance, they could start businesses and own property. Roman women could write their own wills, too.

Roman women: Julia Maesa

The Roman empress Julia Maesa

And despite their disadvantages, some Roman women also managed to get political power. Once in a while, Roman women served on their local town council. At the very top of the Roman political structure, Messalina and Agrippina more or less had control of the Roman Empire for a few years in the first century AD. Beginning in 217 AD, Julia Maesa and Julia Mamaea ruled the Roman empire through their grandsons and son until 226 AD. 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.

Roman schools
Roman slavery
More about Roman families

Bibliography and further reading about Roman women:

Roman food
And Roman houses
Ancient Rome
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By | 2017-09-04T10:15:54+00:00 September 4th, 2017|People, Romans|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Women in ancient Rome – gender and power. Quatr.us Study Guides, September 4, 2017. Web. April 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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