Women’s History Month – The role of women in the Ancient Roman world

Claudia Vanzo, Volunteer, Billingsgate Roman House and Baths

The Role of Women in the Ancient Roman World

Dress-pin made of a carved sapphire and wrought gold bust representing a woman with elaborate hairstyle. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Women in the ancient Roman world, including Roman London, did not enjoy equal citizen rights. That said, when we look at the historical sources we discover women who made their mark as wives, sisters and daughters of powerful men. These women navigated a challenging terrain and left a major mark on the course of events, but there are also unsung women heroes who are equally fascinating - their stories have much to teach us about the grit, determination and strategy deployed by women even though they were thought of as inferior in Roman times. Those ordinary women are documented on inscriptions and epitaphs, but often tell little else about them. Some vivid snapshots of daily life are preserved through male lenses in Latin Literary genres such as comedy and poetry. The poems of Catullus and Ovid offer glimpses of women in Roman dining rooms, at sporting and theatrical events, shopping, putting on makeup, worrying about pregnancy. The epigraphic record is also strongly biased towards the high status, for they came from a group with a tradition of publicly recording their lives and achievements. Only fifteen percent of the inscriptions found in Britain that refer to a woman reveal her to be of low status— for example, Armea, the girlfriend of a tile-maker at Binchester, and Verecunda, the actress and associate of Lucius the gladiator at Leicester, and much of this evidence is from graffiti rather than formal inscriptions. The balance is redressed slightly by the lead curse tablets found at Bath and Uley. The writing tablets from Vindolanda, Carlisle, and elsewhere, reveal fascinating details of the concerns and problems of ordinary women, such as Oconea, who had a pan stolen from her at Bath, or Tretia Maria, who was cursed by an anonymous enemy in London.

Curse written on a sheet lead tablet found in the City of London. It says “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory…” © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman women walked freely and mingled with the men of their acquaintance in a way denied entirely to their Greek sisters. They married young; 14 years old was considered the appropriate age for marriage and once married the woman would be subject to her husband’s power or potestas, but she was free to divorce her husband and to remarry should she wish to do so. As a married woman she was expected to run the household and one of the most important tasks was clothing production, a central domestic occupation. Wool was often a symbol of a wife's duties, it indicated a family’s self-sufficiency and equipment for spinning might appear on the funeral monument of a woman to show that she was a good and honourable matron.  Archaeological and written evidence have revealed that Roman women, in addition to running the home also provided services for extra income. Indeed, from inscriptions we know of two women who are recorded by their profession. As one is a priestess and the other, the previously mentioned Verecunda, an actress, but they are unlikely to be representative of all the women of the province. Some of the most common professions included hairdressing, midwifery, and shop keeping. A very select few women became priestesses or doctors. Women who practised medicine were often referred to as medicae, probably similar to midwives although it seems they not only dealt with gynaecological and obstetric work, but also in other medical disciplines. Furthermore, medicae used to be free women, who enjoyed a certain social standing, and could even earn good money by practising medicine. Women could be also trained as calligraphers, scribes and secretaries. We know through literary sources of female artists. Pliny in his Natural History gives us a list of women painters such as Iaia of Cyzicus, a famous painter and ivory engraver who worked in Rome in the late Republic. Women could also have a career as an actress, dancer or acrobat, though not all were of equal respectability. Performers such as actresses were stigmatised as infames, people who had recourse to few legal protections.

Shards of a pot decorated with panels containing dolphins, kneeling cupid and a female dancer from Stone a Grange. ©The Trustees of the British Museum

Women were not allowed to participate or enter the political arena, the only major public role reserved solely for women was in the sphere of religion; the priestly office of the Vestals. Forbidden from marriage or sex for a period of thirty years, the Vestals’ sole occupation was the correct observance of rituals which were deemed necessary for the security and survival of Rome.

Etching of the Temple of Vesta in Rome in the 18th century by Laura Piranesi. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Women are known to have owned and operated brick factories and to operate in business transactions. 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. Wealthy women were involved in business transactions and participated in funding public works as documented by inscriptions during the Imperial period. Aristocratic women lent money to their peers to avoid resorting to a moneylender. Pliny factored in a loan from his mother-in-law to buy his estate as a guarantee.

As far as the education of women was concerned, basic skills of reading and writing were taught to most girls in the Roman upper and middle classes, while some families went further and employed private tutors to teach their daughters more advanced grammar or Greek. This was intended to facilitate a girl’s future role in managing a household and to make her a more literate companion for her husband. Although very little writing by women is preserved from antiquity, that doesn’t mean that women didn’t write. Letters between soldiers’ wives, discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall, illustrate something of the busy social scene of life on the frontier and we know that Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, wrote a memoir, but which unfortunately has not survived. Some women were also celebrated for their intellectual prowess, Hortensia, daughter of Hortensius, was celebrated for her abilities as a speech maker, a profession that was traditionally the exclusive preserve of men. In 42 BC, Hortensia stood on the speaker’s platform in the Roman forum and eloquently denounced the imposition of a tax imposed on Rome’s wealthiest women to help pay for war.

Wooden writing-tablet from Vindolanda; Birthday invitation to the commander's wife Sulpicia Lepidina from her sister Claudia Severa. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Women were considered as part of the “marginalised” groups of Roman society. Nevertheless from the hidden power wielded by the women from aristocracy to the engagement of common women in business practices and various professions, the picture emerging is one of fortitude, willingness and determination deployed in order to contribute, be it from the well being of the family, to the course of the empire. The story of Rome is a male one - emperors, generals, politicians,their stories were told by males for a male audience - but the stories of noble and ordinary women are inspiring. They achieved so much in a society that didn’t fully value them, imagine what they could have done if it had been the opposite!



Allason-Jones, L. (2005). “Women in Roman Britain”, Council for British Archaeology

Rawson, B. (2010) "Finding Roman Women," in A Companion to the Roman Republic,  Blackwell

Tomlin, R (1988). “Tabellae Sulis: Roman inscribed tablets of tin and lead from the sacred spring at Bath” Oxford University Committee.