Exploring the Fabulous and Feisty Roles of Women in the Patriarchal Roman Society

Exploring the Fabulous and Feisty Roles of Women in the Patriarchal Roman Society

Similar to historical accounts of other civilizations, Roman history was also a glorification of male dominance and patriarchy. However, certain exceptionally influential roles of women in Rome shed some light in celebration of womanhood despite the patriarchal prominence. Although women in ancient Rome were deprived of their position in politics, socially they were recognized and possessed a considerable power. This article is an exploration of women in Rome in the aspects of mythology, family relations, religion, social structure, legal facets and politics.

In the sphere of mythology, Romans had a neutral approach towards women as opposed to that of Greek mythology, which condemned the existence of women through the myth of Pandora, who they recognized as the bringer of the destruction of mankind. One of the most famous early episodes of Roman mythology that depicts the attitudes towards women is the rape of the Sabine women. In the mythological story the abduction of women from tribes by the first Roman settlers to claim them as their wives, provoked the tribes to declare a state of war. However, the abducted women led by Hersilia, a wife of a Roman and a daughter of a Sabine (a member of an ancient Italic tribe) stood between her husband and father, holding her baby to prevent bloodshed. This mythological story discloses how Romans have considered women’s emotions, such as empathy which was not considered as a weakness but a strength. This evokes the importance that was given to women as the root of linking families in Roman society.  Thus, Roman mythology has credited the existence of women amidst the exercising of chauvinism in Roman society.

The rape of the Sabine women.
The rape of the Sabine women.

Women in Roman society played a potent role in family relations. Although the authority of the family was exercised by males, women maintained their roles as mothers and wives. Regardless of gender however, the family encouraged aristocratic women to educate themselves which is a stark difference when compared to other contexts of patriarchal societies.  Education was not regarded as a privilege decided by gender but by social class and wealth. For example, as history points out Cornelia Matella, the young wife of Pompey the Great, was admirably able in music and intellectually well developed with the knowledge of Geometry, Philosophy and literature. Thus, Roman history provides exceptions in patriarchy with the right of education to women. The most prominent factor regarding women’s role in family structure is that Romans considered women as responsible and intellectual. This is because women in Rome have successfully held responsibility in decision making, controlling property and protecting the family during the absence of their husbands during the periods of war.  It is interesting to know that Julius Caesar’s wife had taken care of his property during her husband’s absence.

In the sphere of religion, women took more public roles as Priestesses in Isis and Vestal Virgins. Vestal Virgins became the most prominent representatives of women. They served for thirty years in the cult they belonged to and participated in religious ceremonies and sacrificial rituals which were typically reserved for men. Through these women gained public status, religious recognition and privileges along with political influence as well to some extent. Excluding women in religious rituals due to their gender is a common issue in a patriarchy but Roman women stepped out of these norms to have a status in the Roman society.  Women in Rome also had a role in Christianity, where Helena’s conversion to Christianity had a major influence in bringing Christianity to Rome. Today she is considered as a saint and called Saint Helena.

Roman women were neither confined to their houses nor were they isolated, but were allowed to socialize. Women chose to engage in public bathing practices, social gatherings and religious festivals to be more socially active and associate with other people. To a certain extent, it can be accepted that in the context of Roman society, women were welcomed and recognized. Roman women enjoyed their lives freely unlike the women that grew up within Greek cities like Athens. However, it’s important to note that these social privileges existed not because of gender equality, but because of their inferior economic position within society, which meant women within the lower reaches of society had more freedom in comparison to their upper class counterparts.

Roman women at social gatherings.

In the political sphere, women in Rome had no power over debate or vote however, there are exceptions where women were influential in politics. Although women could not hold any office (as a senator) in the Roman government, women had the power of influencing men in politics. Livia Drusilla is an exceptional example, as she became an influential and faithful advisor in state matters as the wife of Augustus. Julia Agrippina, the great granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, was an empress in Roman history, who functioned as an advisor as well. Roman literature represents these women as motivated and also criticizes men’s relations in politics in a bad will. In that fact, politically influential women were celebrated while men still exercised paramount power in politics.

Domestic abuse and marital pressure against women are contemporary issues in a modern context where patriarchy prevails.  Roman law and culture were a total contrast to the conventional notion regarding this matter at the time as Romans protected women against domestic abuse and harassment. Roman women had their own land and they could even write their own last will. This was initiated by Roman law to ensure the independence of women in the society. Moreover, a woman could refuse the marriage by proving the bad character of her groom. Even after marriage, women could use their family name instead of their husbands’ name. These norms were established to normalize divorce due to domestic abuse and to protect women’s dignity in society. In the late republic, divorce was a legal right given to Roman women and the dowry had to be refunded to ensure the independence of women after the divorce in Rome.  As Plutarch mentions in his biography of Cato, “the man who struck his wife or child, laid violent hands on the holiest of holy things, also he taught it more praiseworthy to be a good husband than a good senator”, this reveals how domestic abuse was condemned and disallowed, and that better treatment for women was considered as a norm in the society. Although patriarchy dwelled in Roman society, women were protected by the law and the social norms as well.

Women in Roman history had prescribed roles within the Roman Society. Although women were overshadowed by the patriarchy in the Roman society, they stepped out of the stereotypical gender roles of mother or wife and it is an interesting fact to note that Roman law and their society also celebrated women and their achievements. Although we are in the 21st century, inequality and abuse against women is still a persisting issue that has yet to be solved. Roman history is the best route to go through the fabulous, feisty and fierce roles of women in a patriarchal context.

– Rtr Thilini Chandrarathne

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