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As I’ve been listening to the radio (yes, talk radio) discuss various interpretations of different laws I got me thinking how long this variation has taken place. I realize that there are 2-sides to every coin, so there’s always to arguments to each opinion.
Further still, what (if any) were the differences with the law for men and women. That’s why today we’re taking a look at Roman women and the law!
Although the rights and status of women in the earliest period of Roman history were more restricted than in the late Republic and Imperium Rōmānum, as early as the 5th Century BC, Roman women could own land, write their own wills, and appear in court.
The historian Valerius Maximus devotes a section of his work On Memorable Deeds and Speeches to women who conducted cases on their own behalf, or on behalf of others. These women showed ability as orators in the courtroom, even though oratory was considered a defining pursuit of the most ambitious Roman men.
One of these, Maesia Sentinas, is identified by her origin in the town of Sentinum, and not, as was customary, by her relation to a man. The independent Maesia spoke in her own defense, and was acquitted almost unanimously after only a short trial because she spoke with such strength and effectiveness.
Since these characteristics were considered masculine, however, the historian opined that under her feminine appearance, she had a “virile spirit” and thereafter she was called the “Androgyne”. Maesia’s ability to present a case logically, carefully and vigorously suggests that while women didn’t regularly plead in open court, they had experience in private declamation and family court.
Afrania, the wife of a senator during the time of Sulla, appeared so frequently before the Praetor who presided over the court, even though she had male advocates who could have spoken for her, that she was accused of calumnia.
An edict was consequently enacted that prohibited women from bringing claims on behalf of others, on the grounds that it jeopardized their pudicitia, the modesty appropriate to one’s station.
It has been noted that while women were often impugned for their feeblemindedness and ignorance of the law, and thus in need of protection by male advocates, in reality actions were taken to restrict their influence and effectiveness.
Despite this specific restriction, there are numerous examples of women taking informed actions in legal matters in the Late Republic and Principate, including dictating legal strategy to their advocate behind the scenes.
An emancipated woman legally became sui iuris, or her own person, and could own property and dispose of it as she saw fit. If a pater familias died intestate, the law required the equal division of his estate amongst his children, regardless of their age and sex.
Having already previously discussed marriage, divorce, remarriage and concubinage there is no need to repeat these major legal states for women. So, let’s move on to some other major topics.
A will that did otherwise, or emancipated any family member without due process of law, could be challenged. From the late Republic onward, a woman who inherited a share equal with her brothers would have been independent of agnatic control.
As in the case of minors, an emancipated woman had a legal guardian or tutor appointed to her. She retained her powers of administration, however, and the guardian’s main if not sole purpose was to give formal consent to actions.
The guardian had no say in her private life, and a woman sui iuris could marry as she pleased. A woman also had certain avenues of recourse if she wished to replace an obstructive tutor.
Under Augustus, a woman who had gained the ius liberorum, the legal right to certain privileges after bearing 3 children, was also released from guardianship, and the Emperor Claudius banned agnatic guardianship.
The role of guardianship as a legal institution gradually diminished, and by the 2nd Century BC the jurist Gaius said he saw no reason for it. The Christianization of the Empire, beginning with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th Century AD, eventually had consequences for the legal status of women.
Classical Roman law did not allow any domestic abuse by a husband to his wife, but as with any other crime, laws against domestic abuse can be assumed to fail to prevent it. Cato the Elder said, according to his biographer Plutarch, “that the man who struck his wife or child, laid violent hands on the holiest of holy things.
It is said Cato thought it more praiseworthy to be a good husband than a good senator.” A man of status during the Roman Republic was expected to behave moderately toward his wife and to define himself as a good husband.
Wife beating was sufficient grounds for divorce or other legal action against the husband. Domestic abuse enters the historical record mainly when it involves the egregious excesses of the elite.
The Emperor Nero was alleged to have had his original wife (and stepsister) Claudia Octavia murdered, after subjecting her to torture and imprisonment. Nero then married his pregnant mistress Poppaea Sabina, whom he kicked to death for criticizing him.
Some modern historians believe that Poppaea died from a miscarriage or childbirth, and that the story was exaggerated to vilify Nero (as if he needed help in that subject).
The despised Commodus is supposed also to have killed his wife and his sister.
“One of the most curious characteristics of that age,” observed French classical scholar Gaston Boissier, “was that the women appear as much engaged in business and as interested in speculations as the men.
Money is their first care. They work their estates, invest their funds, lend and borrow.
We find one among Cicero‘s creditors, and a pair among his debtors.” Although Roman society did not allow women to gain official political power, it did allow them to enter business.
Even women of wealth were not supposed to be idle ladies of leisure. Among the aristocracy, women as well as men lent money to their peers to avoid resorting to a moneylender.
When Pliny the Elder was considering buying an estate, he factored in a loan from his mother-in-law as a guarantee rather than an option. Women also joined in funding public works, as is frequently documented by inscriptions during the Imperial period.
The “lawless” Politta, who appears in the Martyrdom of Pionius, owned estates in the province of Asia. Inscriptions record her generosity in funding the renovation of the Sardis gymnasium.
Because women had the right to own property, they might engage in the same business transactions and management practices as any landowner. As with their male counterparts, their management of slaves appears to have varied from relative care to negligence and outright abuse.
During the First Servile War, Megallis and her husband Damophilus were both killed by their slaves on account of their brutality. Their daughter, however, was spared because of her kindness and granted safe passage out of Sicily, along with an armed escort.
Unlike landholding, industry was not considered an honorable profession for those of senatorial rank. Cicero suggested that in order to gain respectability a merchant should buy land.
Attitudes changed during the Empire, however, and Claudius created legislation to encourage the upper classes to engage in shipping. Women of the upper classes are documented as owning and running shipping corporations.
Trade and manufacturing are not well represented in Roman literature, which was produced for and largely by the elite, but funerary inscriptions sometimes record the profession of the deceased, including women.
Women are known to have owned and operated brick factories. A woman might develop skills to complement her husband’s trade, or manage aspects of his business.
Artemis the gilder was married to Dionysius the helmet maker, as indicated by a curse tablet asking for the destruction of their household, workshop, work, and livelihood. The status of ordinary women who owned a business seems to have been regarded as exceptional.
Laws during the Imperial period aimed at punishing women for adultery exempted those “who have charge of any business or shop” from prosecution.
Some typical occupations for a woman would be wet nurse, actress, dancer or acrobat, prostitute and midwife. Obviously, not all positions were of equal respectability.
Prostitutes and performers such as actresses were stigmatized as infames, people who had recourse to few legal protections even if they were free. Inscriptions indicate that a woman who was a wet nurse (nutrix) would be quite proud of her occupation.
Women could also be scribes and secretaries, including “girls trained for beautiful writing,” that is, calligraphers. Pliny gives a list of female artists and their paintings.
Most Romans lived in insulae, and those housing the poorer plebian and non-citizen families usually lacked kitchens. The need to buy prepared food meant that takeaway food was a thriving business.
Most of the Roman poor, whether male or female, young or old, earned a living through their own labor.
Women could neither hold political office nor serve in the Exercitus Romanus, but the mythology of the Republic recognized the patriotism, virtues, and self-sacrifice of women and censured self-serving and treacherous behavior. As for the political sway of women in the Late Republic, historian Ronald Syme has noted:
“Debarred from public life but enjoying the social prestige of family or husband, the daughters 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 auctoritas in the conclave of his peers — and they suitably foreshadow the redoubtable princesses in the dynasty of Julii and Claudii.”
Both survived the turbulence of the time to enjoy a long marriage. During the civil wars that ended the Republic, Appian reports the heroism of wives who saved their husbands. An epitaph known as the Laudatio Turiae preserves a husband’s eulogy for his wife, who during the civil war following the death of Julius Caesar endangered her own life and relinquished her jewelry to send support to her husband in exile.
Porcia, the daughter of Cato the Younger and wife of Brutus the assassin, came to a less fortunate but (in the eyes of her time) heroic end. She killed herself as the Republic collapsed, just as her father did.
The rise of Augustus to sole power in the last decades of the 1st Century BC diminished the power of political officeholders and the traditional oligarchy, but did nothing to diminish and arguably increased the opportunities for women, as well as slaves and freedmen, to exercise influence behind the scenes.
One notable woman was Livia Drusilla Augusta (58 BC – AD 29). The wife of Augustus and the most powerful woman in the early Roman Empire, she acted several times as regent and being Augustus’ faithful advisor.
Several women of the Imperial family, such as Livia’s great-granddaughter and Caligula’s sister Agrippina the Younger, gained political influence as well as public prominence.
Women also participated in efforts to overthrow the emperors who abused their power. Shortly after Caligula‘s sister Drusilla died, her widower Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and her sisters Agrippina and Livilla conspired to overthrow Caligula.
The plot was discovered, and Lepidus was executed. Agrippina and Livilla were exiled, and returned from exile only when their paternal uncle Claudius came to power after Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD.
Women could also be motivated by less than noble causes. Claudius’s 3rd wife Valeria Messalina conspired with Gaius Silius to overthrow her husband in the hope of installing herself and her lover in power.
Tacitus immortalized the woman Epicharis for her part in the Pisonian conspiracy, where she attempted to gain the support of the Roman fleet and was instead arrested. Once the conspiracy was uncovered, she would reveal nothing even under torture, in contrast to the senators, who were not subjected to torture and yet raced to spill the details.
Tacitus also praises Egnatia Maximilla for sacrificing her fortune in order to stand by her innocent husband against Nero.
Women and the Military
Classical texts have little to say about women and the Roman Army. Emperor Augustus disallowed marriage by ordinary soldiers, a ban that lasted nearly 2 centuries.
However it has been suggested since the 1980s, that wives and children of Centuriōnēs lived with them at border and provincial forts. In the early 1990s, shoes in women’s and children’s sizes were found at Vindolanda, along with bronze plaques, awarded to provincial soldiers whose 25 years of service earned them Roman citizenship, that mention their wives and children.
Likewise, in Germania, further evidence of this practice was discovered in the form of brooches and shoes. Trajan’s Column depicts 6 women amongst the soldiers who are attendants holding sacrificial offerings at a military religious ceremony.
We hope you can come to your own conclusions as to how fairly women were treated in Ancient Rome as compared to modern times. Hopefully you’ll come back soon to see what we have in store for you.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
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