How important was a woman’s role in the family in Rome and what was her Status in society?
In this essay I am going to look at how women affected the society of Rome. I will explore their responsibilities in the home and their duties as wife and mother. I will also focus on marriage and divorce in Roman times and the status women had at the time comparing the rich and poor women. I will be examining the evidence I find in poems, books and pictures in order to support the points I will make.
I will firstly focus on marriage, in this topic I will cover engagement, ceremonies and traditions of the time.
Engagement was a lot more complicated than today as in wealthy families the custom was an arranged marriage where the girls father would have chosen a suitable man for his daughter, the decision was not based on character but more his families social status. This was because the fathers main aim was for the daughter to achieve a high social status so that his family would not loose their status. We can see this in this quote
“What prospective son-in-law ever appeared acceptable if he was short of cash to match the girls dowry?” (Juvenal:Satires III.160)
There was a formal method for engagement which included written documentation signed by witnesses. We can see from the picture an engagement ring which would have been worn on the third finger just like today. The engagement or betrothal ring shows two clasped hands joined together.
There was also an engagement party (sponsalia) where both families made speeches to find the advantages of the relationship but unfortunately engagements were often broken off.
The ceremony of the wedding was planned with great care avoiding any unlucky days such as days linked with Roman disasters that may bring bad luck to the couple. The most common time for weddings was late June. On the morning of the wedding the bride gave her family her childhood possessions this represented her moving on to a new family. Her hair was styled and held in place with ribbons and she wore a long gown (usually a jacket or tunic) held in place with a traditional knot tying a belt around her waist. She wore a headdress made from flowers which sat on her head and she would have also worn a veil but it would not have covered her face. At the start of the ceremony an animal would have been sacrificed to draw the god’s attention to the proceedings. Then the couple signed the marriage contract along with the witnesses. The bride would then have been led to the altar by her bridesmaid (pronuba).
Then the bride and groom joined right hands as shown in the picture. The picture also shows the typical clothes worn by the bride at the wedding as I explained previously. This was very traditional and a significant act in the ceremony. Then the vows would have been given and after this the reception would begin. The celebrations usually finished in the early hours after a lot of food and wine had been consumed. When it was time for the couple to go home the couple were followed by torch bearers and flute players through the streets. The guests and any passers by would shout greetings and good wishes whilst the husband scattered coins around him and children gathered these up. Once at their house the bride would smear fat on the doorposts then her husband would pick her up and carry her across the threshold. This usually did not happen if it was the second marriage for either the bride or the groom. Instead there was a less elaborate ceremony with fewer guests.
From this we can see there were many traditions in engagement and the wedding ceremonies, some like today but others completely different, it has showed me that women didn’t have as many rights to decide who they married especially if they were in a richer class.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Next I am going to explore divorce which is the opposite to marriage. I will look at who gets custody over the children and the woman’s rights along with how frequently divorce happened in Rome. Marriages failed for many reasons in roman times the main reason being childlessness but there were others such as constant quarrelling and objectionable behaviour. Cicero wrote about his brother and wife;
“We lunched at Arcanum. When we arrived, Quintus said quite politely, “Pomponia, you invite the women and I will call the slaves together.” There was nothing to get angry about in my opinion, either in what he said or in the way in which he said it. But, so that everyone else could hear Pomponia replied, “Me? So, I am just a stranger here,” just because Quintus had made the lunch arrangements without telling her, I imagine… We sat down to eat, but she refused to join us and when Quintus sent her some food from the table, she sent it back.” (Cicero: ad Atticum 14.3.5)
Here the woman is pursued as being in the wrong but is this just a brother sticking up for his sibling. Maybe she was at fault but she is shown as a child as if that is what she is always treat as. This incident along with others may have led to that couple divorcing but if it did we can’t really say whose fault it was.
Marriage was not a binding legal agreement but only a declaration of intent to live together therefore divorce was the declaration of intent not to live with one another. All that was legally required was a declaration in front of seven witnesses that you were going to divorce. Because of this divorce was very common especially in the upper class. If divorce went ahead then the wife was entitled to her full dowry and the family protection of her father. If she had been independent of her father before marriage then she was allowed her independence back. She was not allowed custody over their children as men were seen to be more powerful. Women in Rome who were only married once were seen to be more respected than those who had been married more times as we can see from this quote:
“A woman who is really happy and virtuous never marries more than once” (Seneca: On marriage)
If a woman had only been married once she was known as a “univira” and she could officiate at formal marriage ceremonies.
Next I am going to explore the woman’s responsibilities in the home, their were many jobs to be done just like nowadays but life was even harder then as women were expected to keep the house and look after children but at the same time always be at their husbands beck and call and look after the family finances.
One main job of the wife was to provide children co that the family name was continued, childlessness was a big reason for divorce so it was important for the woman to have children. Antenatal care was very limited; this meant that there were many risks to mother and child during birth. Many women died at very young ages because their bodies could not cope and there was a lack of medical help. Some mothers would have had the help of midwives as shown in the picture:
If the family were rich they usually had household staff and they were managed by the women in the house. These slaves had a much better life than some as they were usually accepted into the family and did not have to live in harsh conditions like some other slaves. In the earlier roman times even the noble women had to look after their own children and this was very much a respected thing to do but in later times the slave girls of richer families were expected to take on this role instead of the mother as it says in this quote:
“For in the old days each man’s son, born of a chaste parent, was brought up not by a hired nurse but at his mother’s knee. Her chief glory was looking after the home and being a slave to her children…but now the child once born is handed over to a silly little Greek slave girl.” (Tacitus XXVIII29)
This quote shows the disrespect for slaves but also how as time passed the role of the richer women changed. In the poorer families the wife had to look after the children and also work in the house or on the fields. Once the children were about seven years old the boys usually went to school. They learnt about basic subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic. They learnt this from school masters who set up schools in rented rooms or in their own houses. If they went on to secondary school they would learn the literature of the Greeks and the Romans, like Homer and Virgil or they would learn arithmetic, history, geometry and astronomy. Schooling was not able to be given to everyone and again the richer families had this privilege. Only girls from richer background had an education otherwise they would learn from their mothers how to sew or work in the fields. This picture shows a woman with a shopping list waiting in a butchers shop to buy food for her family:
Rich women did not work and a lot of their time was spent organising dinner parties therefore they shopped for food themselves and house staff cleaned and prepared the house. The wife gave house staff their jobs and made sure everything was in order. There were lots of preparations in order to have a dinner party. The wife did not only have to organise the food but also seating arrangements and drinks for each course. The dinner was made up of three courses. The first course, usually the starter would either be eggs prepared in different ways or salads, vegetables, shellfish or even snails. Some richer hosts provided a mixture of these starters. The main course was usually a meat dish and depending on the wealth of the family this dish varied. In very wealthy households meat such as lamb, beef and pork were never eaten but more unusual meats such as venison, porpoise, mullet or flamingo were eaten. The dinner would usually end with a desert such as fruit, cake or a pudding. When the guests had been given a tour around the house and had some entertainment they said their farewells and the host’s slaves accompanied the guest’s home. Women were not meant to drink much at dinner parties but some wine was allowed, they were also not allowed to recline and had to sit upright next to their husbands. This painting from Pompeii shows a woman attending a dinner party with her husband:
Women also had household slaves to look after them these were their maids and this picture shows four maids attending to their mistress’s hair:
The hairstyles of that time were very elaborate and women usually had their hair tied back. In the morning a richer woman would spend a long time preparing herself after the maids had arranged her hair she would apply perfume and makeup. Cosmetics were made from a mixture of soot and bear fat used to blacken eyebrows and red blusher made from wine dregs.
Women were always meant to show respect to their husband and be interested in their lives, Pliny wrote this:
“She is very sharp, careful with the housekeeping money and she loves me, which is proof of her virtue. She takes an interest in my literature because of her love for me...she sets my poems to music and also sings them, taught not by some musician but by love, the best teacher of all.” (Pliny the elder)
This shows that Pliny respects his wife because she respects him but this relationship seems slightly one sided as he doesn’t give any other good traits about her therefore it shows women in Rome were not really respected by their husbands but their husbands used them to achieve a higher social status. Another quote is from a Roman tombstone:
Wife of Marcus
Most good and
Home-loving” (CIL, VI. 11602)
This quote shows the qualities this woman’s husband found desirable in her so obviously once women are dead they are missed by their husbands and are shown more respect then when they were alive. Another quote shows a different view of marriage as come wives realise they were not being treat the way they thought they should be:
“What is the good of setting a guard on a woman when there are so many theatres in Rome, when she enjoys the chariot races, when she attends the festival of Isis, when there is always a sick friend to visit.” (Ovid:Amores)
According to Ovid some women try to escape from their husbands in desperation for more freedom in their lives, this shows the women were not free and did not have the respect they were due for all their hard work. Men believed women were irrational, light minded and not to be depended on but they were quite the opposite, women should have been respected much more and women nowadays are really very privileged as we are usually respected and mostly equal to men.
When women did manage to get out of the house they were allowed to partake in some leisure activities. Women were allowed into the bath houses but only in the mornings before the men arrived. The bath houses were cheap to enter and free for children. Firstly they would undress and enter a cold room for a dip then they would go to a warm room and then into a very steamy hot room. A slave would sometimes massage your skin with oil then scrape it off with a scrigil. Usually people would go back into the cold room or even outside for exercise. The baths gave people a chance to relax and chat with friends or have a bite to eat. Another favourite activity for the women was shopping, just like nowadays it was very popular. The shops were slightly different and there was not so much choice. Common goods available in a Roman shopping street include, a comb, a mirror, a swan to eat, a pillow and fancy glassware and pottery. There were no supermarkets so women went from store to store looking for things to buy. The money used was coins and on one side was the emperor’s head. Women were also allowed into the chariot races, here they could sit in their families with men and women together, the races were very exciting and thrilling to watch with up to twelve chariots racing in the first race. The women were also allowed at the theatre but this was so popular to the Romans that women were not allowed to sit on the front row incase they tried to run away with the actors. At the theatre they enjoyed tragedies, comedies, pantomimes and mimes, some of these were very rude or very violent.
These occasions were very important to the Romans and everyone in the towns got involved, days when some of these events were held were like the equivalent of our bank holidays.
Next I am going to explore what role women played in society and politics. As we have already seen women were more seen and not really heard or respected and this is similar throughout the roman society. Women could not vote in local elections and neither could they follow a career in politics or the law. It did not matter whether they were patricians or plebeians they still had no power in the republic. They could, however influence their husbands and sons decisions giving slight power behind the scenes. The reason they themselves were not allowed to vote was that the Roman men believed as I have already explained that a women’s role was in the household. Some women did own property and even run businesses but this was quite rare. Some women also played an important public role in religion, as priestesses or vestal virgins.
After analysing all the research on women I am going to conclude my essay. I found out a lot on the lives of women in Rome and I have also found out that it was harder for some of them than it was for others.
This essay has shown me that women these days are very lucky as we a re respected by men most of the time.
To start off with I found out that women are often pushed into marriages which seems very cruel, their marriage ceremonies are similar to ours with vows being given and taken by the bride and groom.
After marriage it is clear that men wanted their wives to give birth so that the family name could be carried on into the future. If this could not happen marriages split and this was obviously a main reason for divorce. Throughout the essay I saw a theme which was that men wanted their wives to boost their social status therefore they had to be of the right class and be very interested in what their husbands liked.
Rich women had the use of household slaves but they also got to attend and prepare for dinner parties. I realised from this men again liked to have a good time but the women had to prepare for it and also were not even allowed to drink much at their parties. Women may not have been respected much when alive but from tombstones I found out that there were once dead. This seems slightly strange as I believe they should have always been shown respect but the rules were obviously different in the Roman day.
The women were sometimes allowed to have a good time and they did all have social lives like their husbands but this depended again on how wealthy they were. As I explored women I also found out there was a lack of resources for the poor, this shows they had less education as they obviously could not write down what conditions were like for them but I am sure they had even harder lives than the rich. The did not have much of a role in the whole of the society as they could not vote, this suggested to me that the Romans did not really want to know the views of the women as they were second class citizens to them.
Overall from this essay I saw the harsh way women were treat by the men of the Roman society. Life was not all bad as long as they had money but without this life must have been very tough. Women were obviously important to the Roman society but was this purely because they could give birth to children? Hopefully not as a lot of women contributed greatly and this is how the Roman women should be remembered.
Word count: 3194
Penelope to Poppaea (Anne Haward
Life in Ancient Rome (Simon Adams)
Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Mike Corbishley)
Ancient Rome (Peter Chrisp)
OCR Source material for GCSE Latin on Topic 5