The Women of Ancient Rome

roman womenModern scholars have sought to assess women’s status, rights, duties, representation in the arts, and daily lives from a more objective standpoint than provided in the past. In earlier years, much of the scholars were male and were biased in a way that reflected their male-dominated world. The Ancient History Encyclopedia Online has given us some valuable insight to this topic.


When it came to Mythology, the Romans had a more neutral approach where humanity, and not specifically the male, was created by the gods from earth and water. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, does not specify whether the first human was a man or a woman. At least in a physical sense, men and women were not regarded as belonging to a different species as in the Greek world, a view often reiterated in Roman medical treatises.


The Roman family was male-dominated, typically headed by the most senior male figure. Roman women were closely identified with their “perceived” role in society. Their duty was looking after the home and to nurture a family, in particular, to bear legitimate children. Women conceived at the young age of around 20 years old – sometimes even younger, in order to ensure the woman had no sexual history which might embarrass the future husband. Within the family, women would work on handicrafts, watch after the slaveforce, and upper class females had the right to study academic subjects such as literature and philosophy.


Women were legally obliged to have a nominated male family member act in their interests. However, in actual practice, families did not always follow these rulings. Just as with many other matters, there is evidence of women running their own financial affairs, owning businesses, running estates etc., especially in cases where the principal male of the family had died on military campaign.


Roman women had a very limited role in public life. They could not attend, speak in, or vote at political assemblies and they could not hold any position of political responsibility. However, there were always exceptions in practice. Even so, women who were given political power and stance are very often represented in Roman literature as motivated by such negative emotions as spite and jealousy. Roman women did have a public life because they had to work for a living. Typical jobs undertaken by such women were in agriculture, markets, crafts, as midwives and as wet-nurses.