The female model that prevailed in Rome was that of the “matron,” a respected mother responsible for managing the home and educating the children, but without civil rights or a public role. However, the women of the so-called “women’s movement. elites enjoyed a refined education and some independence, some of whom were favored by having an important heritage while remaining absent from the public sphere. Nevertheless, all women were under the authority of men, so what were women’s rights like in Rome?
Table of Contents:
- Woman, a creature dependent on man
- Don’t reveal what you really think
- What was a Roman marriage?
- Wedding ceremony
- The position of Roman women
Woman, a creature dependent on man
Originally, great political myths defined the place of women in Roman society. On the one hand, there were women destined for marriage. Their social role was to give birth to new citizens. On the other hand, there were women with little virtue, destined for the pleasure of men, for recreational love. In patriarchal Rome, where goods were transferred according to patrilineal principles, all women were subordinate to men. They were inherently inferior and dependent on their father, husband or master.
Socially, women, like men, were divided into three groups: ingenue (who could be called free linguistic citizens, but their rights had nothing to do with those of men), freedmen and slaves. The first were women born free. The liberated women were former slaves. Slaves, on the other hand, were not quite considered people: they had a status between person and object. But they were all legally dependent on a man. Even if we imagine the case of a slave belonging to a woman, the latter would be under the care of a man, since free women were perpetual minors. They may have owned their own, sometimes even a real fortune, but it was managed by a father, husband or guardian more or less pleased with himself.
If in fact slaves and freed women were subordinate to their master, ingenue learned to play with the boundaries of law and social customs to emancipate themselves. In the senatorial class – the high Roman aristocracy – women often knew all the issues that preoccupied men. Listening to them speak, it was easy for them to form an opinion about politics and various public issues. Some women, often educated, formed opinions and revealed them to the men around them when they were not nurturing their own ambitions.
Don’t reveal what you really think
Cornelia, Gracchi’s mother, was considered a model of the ideal Roman woman. The daughter of Scipio of Africa, the conqueror of Hannibal, she has made a high name for herself. Married, mother of 12 children, she has dedicated her life to their education. But Kornelia did not want her children to be just good citizens. She raised them to rule Rome. So she positioned her sons at the forefront of the political scene, not hesitating, through incessant letters, to mobilize her friends to promote their careers. Caius and Tiberius Gracchus were eventually murdered, but their mother became a maternal example. Her success was based on her finesse of mind. She never publicly crossed the boundaries that decency set for her gender, hiding her ambitions behind the one she imposed on her sons.
The civil war that tore Rome apart in the first century BC benefited women. With the constant conflicts, morality has loosened. In the upper classes, the race for laurels has left more room for women. The lesbian poet Catullus was a model of this female elite that was slowly emancipating itself from male guardianship. Clodia, her real name, belonged to the high Roman aristocracy. Her half-brother, Clodius Pulcher, was an ardent supporter of the populares, a type of republican populist party, a close enemy of the famous Cicero. Clodia was a free spirit. Her quarrels with her husband Quintus Cecilius Metellus Celer were widely known, and the fact that she collected lovers was not for nothing. With a large personal estate managed by a guardian who was not too authoritarian and belonged to a progressive family, she refused to bend to the norms that defined good matrons. For her, there was no discreet life of a wool-spinning woman at home. She preferred love and politics. Clodia were needed for women to dare to feel free. She was not alone in this, and the end of the Republic is seen as a period of women’s emancipation.
When Augustus came to power in 27. BC, became a figurehead for a return to order. He passed a series of laws to end the disordered morality of his contemporaries. Julia’s law on marriage of orders (senatorial, equestrian and plebeian) prohibited members of the senatorial class from marrying men or women from lower social backgrounds. It was necessary to compose a strong and, above all, clean elite. To encourage Romans to have children, he developed the ius trium liberorum, the “law of three children.” All men and women had to have at least three in order for their financial penalties to be lifted and for them to have full inheritance capacity. For women, however, it had a different meaning. Mothers of three children have been legally emancipated: they are no longer perpetual minors. They could then manage their own property and dispose of themselves. Liberated women had the same right after the fourth child, and slaves gained their freedom at the fifth. This should not be seen as Augustus’ desire to emancipate women. There is no feminist desire in this decision, but a political will to revive the catastrophically low birth rate. It was unthinkable to pretend to remain a great empire without new citizens. However, the effects of this policy have been disastrous for women. Mothers from large families were reluctant to enjoy this hard-won freedom. Each pregnancy was life-threatening, at a time when the mortality rate during childbirth was estimated at 5 to 10%.
The path to freedom for Roman women was not legal. Emancipation was more a matter of influence, a field of maneuver. Paradoxically, it was in Augustus’ household that Roman women were most determined to step out of the role of good mother that society wanted them to assume. There was a shortage of men in the Julian-Claudian family, and the princesses and empresses took advantage of this to take a secure place in government. They all tried to impose their candidate for succession to become the most powerful woman in the empire.
In the Roman world, being a legally emancipated woman was not so important. Living a life of freedom required the ability to play with social codes and rules. This freedom was expressed in the ability to influence others and free oneself from the burden of the yoke of a father, husband or guardian. Latin literature has passed on to posterity many portraits of strong, seductive and somewhat devious women. They were the rebels of their time, both hated and fascinated.
What was a Roman marriage?
Roman marriage was exclusively between a man and a woman. It may seem obvious today, but in ancient times monogamy was certainly not the norm. In many ancient civilizations, men, especially rich men, had several wives. Therefore, the practice of monogamy in the Roman (and Greek) world is a remarkable fact. However, it should be noted that Romans were allowed to have concubines and that these concubines did not have the same rights as wives. Most marriages were not romantic relationships, but rather arranged unions by families seeking to maintain or improve their wealth and social status. For a marriage to be legal, the consent of the fathers of both families was required, unless one of the fathers had died or the man to be married was an illegitimate child. Marriages could not be forced by fathers, they could simply be annulled by them. The main purpose of marriage was to beget (legitimate) children and have a family. In the Roman family, fathers had full authority over their children. It was called patria potestas. They could disown their children and even sell them as slaves.
Before marriage, couples first had to get engaged in a betrothal ceremony, during which the groom would give his future wife an iron ring. Like today, there was a religious ceremony, but because religion was very different from most religions today, the religious ceremony and rituals were also quite different. For example, the night before the wedding, the bride had to sacrifice her childhood toys to the lares, which were the spirits of the family.
The wedding ceremony began with a procession led by the groom and proceeding to the bride’s home. The bride was at home wearing a simple white tunic (la tunica recta), a belt that had a special knot called nodus herculeus (which the groom would later untie), orange shoes and an orange bridal veil.
The ceremony began with the sacrifice of an animal to gain favor with the gods. This was followed by the exchange of gifts, the agreed dowry and the signing of a written marriage contract. The dowry given by the bride’s family often included jewelry, land, real estate, slaves, etc. The marriage was usually financed by the bride’s family. The couple then exchanged vows and a grand banquet was held at the house.
After the banquet, a procession led the bride to her new home. The bride had to carry a torch with earth from her former home. In front of her new home, she was offered another torch and water. Guests had to carry her over the threshold of her new home so she wouldn’t stumble (stumbling was considered a bad omen). The groom then had to ask her name. Since Roman women had no names, she replied: “Where you are Gaius, I will be Gaia.” Another brief religious ceremony was held at the new house. The next day there was an offering to lares and another smaller banquet for close relatives.
Men could divorce their wives, and fathers could not prevent such divorces. Among the reasons for divorce were adultery, infertility, drunkenness, making copies of the house keys or simply not wanting to be with the other person. Adultery was considered a sexual offense under Roman law, but harsh penalties were rarely applied. The Lex Iulia was a law introduced by Emperor Augustus at the beginning of the Empire, in part to punish adultery. For example, a cheating husband had the right to kill his wife’s lover if he was a slave or a disgrace to him. According to the law, he had to divorce his wife and accuse her of adultery. A woman accused of adultery never married again. She may also have lost part of her dowry. According to the Lex Iulia, a father also had the right to kill both his adulterous daughter and her lover.
Initially, only men could divorce their wives, but later in the Republic, women could also divorce their husbands. What is radically different from divorce today is that Roman divorces were not recorded or did not have to be approved by the church or the state. However, this applied only to men. Women had to obtain state approval. There were no public documents related to divorces.
The position of Roman women
Women married very early at the age of 15 to 20 (it was forbidden to marry before the age of 12), while men married at around 25. If a wife belonged to a wealthy family, she usually had to marry very early (just after reaching sexual maturity) and could not choose her husband, as marriages were arranged between wealthy families. They also had to be virgins to get married.
In a form of marriage called manus, the man had full control over his wife, and the wife became part of her husband’s family, thus losing inheritance rights in the old family, but also gaining new inheritance rights in the new family. Manus gradually disappeared in the last years of the Republic (147-27 BC) to be replaced by a form of marriage sine manu. In the (free) form of marriage sine manu, the woman remained a member of her old family and was under the authority of her father. In her new family, she did not receive inheritance tax. In this form of marriage, it was very easy to divorce.
Marriage was an important element in the formation of various family alliances, of which the future wife was the main asset at the time. A young woman from a suitable family could influence her future husband’s career. These customs change slightly over time. During the Augustan period (from 27 BC to 14 AD), in order to revive the birth rate, women from good homes who had more than three children would be excluded from any guardianship. Freed women (former slaves) will have access to this status after their fourth child, and slaves after their fifth. Eventually it was Emperor Claudius (41 AD to 54 AD) who abolished agnatic guardianship, placing the entire family under the authority of the pater familias.
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