The Romans



Femele athletes in bikinis

Fourth-century AD mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily, of female athletes receiving their victory awards. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The Romans believed that all women should be under the control of a guardian, who might be the father, husband, or a male relative, or someone appointed by the will of the father or husband, or by an official of the state. The only exceptions up until the time of Augustus were the six vestal virgins; after Augustus the rule was relaxed in cases of freeborn women who had had three children and freedwomen who had had four, provided that there was no husband or father to exercise control. It was customary for marriages to be arranged, and for the size of the dowry to match the social standing of the prospective bridegroom.


Mid-second-century BC urn with scenes from the lives of the deceased: centre, on military service; right, his marriage ceremony, at which the couple clasp right hands, while in his left he holds a scroll. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)

There were several ways of celebrating a marriage, of which the simplest involved the consent of both parties, without rites or ceremony. There were three others, each giving the husband legal power over his wife:

  1. By cohabiting for a year without the woman being absent for a total of three nights.
  2. By a symbolic form of purchase, in the presence of a holder of a pair of scales and five witnesses.
  3. By full ritual, in the presence of the pontifex maximus.

Betrothal ring

Gold betrothal ring (second or third century AD) showing a couple clasping right hands. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

After the second century AD a different kind of ritual emerged, which began with a formal betrothal, at which the prospective bride slipped a gold ring onto finger now known as the “wedding finger” in the presence of the guests. For the marriage ceremony itself she wore a veil of flaming orange-red, surmounted by a simple wreath of blossom.

Women in Roman times, though discriminated against, and subjected to abuse by poets such as Horace and Juvenal, were still capable of standing up for themselves when aroused. One of the most contentious pieces of Roman legislation was the Oppian Law, brought in on the proposal of the tribune Gaius Oppius after the defeat by Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC with the object of reducing spending on luxury goods. Among its conditions were that no woman should possess more than half an ounce of gold, wear a dress dyed in a variety of colours, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage in a city or town or within a mile of it except on holy days.


Horse-drawn carriage. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

In 195 BC two of the tribunes of the people proposed to the tribal assembly that the law should be repealed; two others, Marcus and Publius Junius Brutus, announced that they would veto the repeal.

While the heated debate was going on, women rushed out of their houses and blocked the streets and entrances to the forum, protesting that at a time of prosperity they too should be restored to their former splendour. The next day, joined by others from the suburbs, they mass-picketed the homes of the two Brutuses, and only agreed to cease demonstrating if the veto was withdrawn. This was done, and the motion to rescind the law was carried unanimously.


Fourth-century AD mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily, depicting prostitute with a client. It would appear that those whose only or principal source of income came from this trade were required to register with the aedile. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

In such a restricted environment it is not surprising that there seem to have been a comparatively small number of them in professional jobs.

Market stall

Market stall with cabbages, kale, garlic, leeks, and onions. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

There are, however, records of a few female doctors, clerks, and secretaries: also hairdressers, for whom training was obligatory, teachers, and the occasional fishmonger, vegetable seller, dressmaker, and wool or silk merchant.

Female gladiators

Female gladiators (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Women were expected to possess to a considerable degree that essential Roman quality of pietas, which is untranslatable except as a combination of duty, devotion, and loyalty, especially to the gods, and to one’s parents, husband, relations, and nation. None displayed it more sublimely than Pompeia Paulina, young wife of the aged Seneca, when Nero’s emissary came to order him to commit suicide, while he was at dinner.

Paulina insisted on dying with him, and they sliced open the veins in their arms with a single stroke of the knife. That was not, however, the end of the story. Because of Seneca’s age and the spareness of his frame, his blood was so sluggish that he had to cut open the veins in his legs, too. After persuading Paulina, who was streaming with her own blood, to retire to another room, he dictated a long statement to his secretaries, and then ordered his doctor to give him poison. When this did not do the trick, he had himself lifted into a hot bath and was asphyxiated by the steam.

Meanwhile Nero, hearing what had happened and being unwilling to accept responsibility for Paulina’s death, gave orders for her to be revived. While soldiers stood over them, her staff bandaged her arms and staunched the bleeding. She lived on, faithful to her husband’s memory, the pallor of her face and body testifying to the extent to which her soul had been destroyed.

Woman with child

Wall painting from the “Villa of the Mysteries”, Pompeii, depicting woman with scroll and a child reading. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

Certainly women were able to attain a degree of education and to absorb and reflect the culture of the times. Some even had some fun, as well as influence: notably Sempronia, whom Catiline earmarked as a potential recruit to his cause in 63 BC. She was of excellent family, married with children, and beautiful. She had studied Greek and Latin literature, she sang to her own accompaniment on the lyre, she danced gracefully. She wrote poetry, she was witty, she was charming, and she was a marvellous conversationalist. She was also promiscuous, broke promises, reneged on debts, and was an accessory to murder.

Woman playing lyre

First-century AD wall painting from Pompeii of a woman playing the lyre in the company of her lover, while a woman stands by. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Even more politically aware were the two imperial consorts Livia (58 BC - AD 29), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, and Agrippina the Younger (AD 15 - 59), wife of Claudius and mother of Nero -- and Tacitus implies that both poisoned their husbands. Whether or not suggestions of strings of other murders and, in the case of Agrippina, of lovers too, including her brother and her own son, are justified, both women undoubtedly manipulated the system to ensure that their sons by an earlier marriage became emperor, and both sons grew actively to demonstrate distaste for their mothers.

Onyx cameo of Livia holding a bust of the deified Augustus. In his will, Augustus formally adopted her into his line, with the name Julia Augusta. Here, Livia wears a diadem and displays attributes of several goddesses. (VRoma: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Barbara McManus)

Livia had a distinguished aristocratic pedigree. At 19, however, and six months pregnant, she was forced to divorce, or be divorced by, her husband, in order to marry Octavian, who had conveniently divorced his own wife. After they had faced down the public outcry at the circumstances of their marriage, the union, during which she received unprecedented honours, lasted for 53 years.

Though they had no children (a premature baby died), she was in other respects a traditional and successful Roman upper-class wife who even spun and wove material for her husband’s clothes. And as a traditional Roman wife, she organized the household. She also organized much else besides: she received imperial clients and provincial embassies, commissioned public buildings and dedicated them in her name, established charities, presided at banquets, and is said to have interceded on behalf of a man accused of plotting against Augustus. As a good wife should, she helped her husband with his correspondence, and altogether eased his imperial burden, while undoubtedly increasing her own influence. This unprecedented crossing of the boundary between private and public spheres made ancient historians such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio uneasy, and may be the reason for their hostility. But there had never been a Roman empress before, and someone had to lay down some ground rules.

Livia filled the position very well indeed, as is suggested by Augustus’s public recognition of her role. She was finally deified in AD 42, at the instigation of her grandson Claudius.

Agrippina was granted the title of Augusta, which even Livia had not received until after her death. Her portrait, and title, appeared on the reverse of coins of Claudius, an unprecedented privilege for a ruler’s wife during her lifetime. (VRoma: Pergamon Museum, Berlin: Barbara McManus)

Claudius may have had Livia’s role in public affairs in mind when he decided to marry his 34-year-old niece Agrippina -- he was then 59. As with Livia, much of what we know about her comes from historians to whom the notion of a woman wielding political clout was anathema.

In AD 50, her son was formally adopted by Claudius and took the name Nero. Being three years older than Claudius’s son Britannicus, he took precedence over his stepbrother, now his brother by adoption. If Agrippina was responsible for Claudius’s death in AD 54, then it may have been because her husband’s unpredictable nature made her position precarious, and because she wanted to exercise full control while Nero was still too young to do so himself.

Gold and silver coins of 54 AD carry portraits of Agrippina and Nero facing each other, but it is her inscription which encircles them: in full, “Agrippina Augusta, wife of the divine Claudius, mother of Nero Caesar”. Nero’s inscription is relegated to the reverse of the coin, round an oak wreath. (VRoma: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery: Barbara McManus)

Not only was she now the widow of a god, but in the east she was herself hailed as divine. She was, in effect, regent for her teenage son, but he was influenced still by Burrus and Seneca. Several factors, or a combination of them, have been suggested for Nero deciding, or being persuaded, to get rid of her. Nero revelled in the power that his new position gave him, and it may be that his tutors realized that the activities of Agrippina were bad for the state. Agrippina wished to be seen to be in control. In the time of Claudius, she had been used to attending meetings with foreign diplomats, but sat apart from the emperor. Now, on one occasion, it was clear as she entered the hall that she intended to sit beside Nero on the platform. Seneca managed, by quick thinking, to circumvent a major lapse in protocol, by whispering to Nero to rise and go to meet her.

By the end of 54 AD, Nero had begun to assert himself. Both heads still appear on the coins, but facing in the same direction, with Nero’s to the fore. The inscription, now, is his: “Nero, son of the divine Claudius, imperator, holder of tribunician power, consul”. (VRoma: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery: Barbara McManus)

Agrippina interfered, too, in the emperor’s emotional entanglements. Nero was also psychotic about his personal safety, and it is more than likely that fear motivated him to take the actions he did. So, after several botched attempts, the murder was contrived of a woman with a most remarkable curriculum vitae: to successive Roman emperors she was respectively great-granddaughter, granddaughter (by adoption), sister, wife (also niece), and mother.

Overview of this page [Ref: 5.3]


Women in general faced restrictions and discrimination, although there were some who managed to assert their individuality.



Female gladiators

There were certainly female gladiators, some of whom performed at the shows put on by Titus in AD 80 in the recently completed Colosseum. It would seem, from this relief commemorating the release from service in about 100 AD of Amazon and Achillia, that they fought without helmets.


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Quiz on women in ancient Rome


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Believe it or not:

Nothing, it seems, was a woman’s own. “Your maidenhead is not entirely yours: a third belongs to your father, and a third to your mother. You own the rest. Don’t resist your parents: they have handed over their rights of guardianship to their son-in-law, together with your dowry” (Catullus LXII. 63--6).


Cases are recorded of daughters of impoverished upper-class families finding men so keen to marry them that the husbands themselves provided the dowry so as not to embarrass the fathers.

Cicero so disapproved of his daughter Tullia’s third husband, Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who had been chosen by Tullia and her mother, that he contemplated dissolving the marriage by not paying the instalments on the dowry. His disapproval was justified in that Dolabella subsequently divorced Tullia, and never repaid the dowry