Thursday, 10 March 2016

Roman women

Eumachia, priestess of Venus at Pompeii


Roman marriage was a simple and private business. A man and woman were assumed to be married if they claimed to be married.
The wealthy often had formal marriage ceremonies, in which the bride traditionally wore yellow clothes, but these were not essential.The purpose of marriage was the production of legitimate children.

Women often married young, at around fourteen or fifteen. Their husbands were usually in their mid to late twenties. Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, was betrothed to her first husband when she was eleven and married at fifteen. Early marriage seems to have applied to the lower classes as well: girls in their mid-teens married men ten years older than they were. 

‘Whatever the relative freedoms of Roman women, their subordination was surely grounded in that disequilibrium between and adult male and what we would call a child bride.’ Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile Books, 2015).

However, Cicero went too far when in his sixties he married a girl forty-five years younger!

Childbirth was the biggest killer of young adult women. Two prominent deaths were those of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, and Caesar’s daughter, Julia.

The republican matron: the ideal
There was a constant tension between the ideal of the Roman matron and its reality. The ideal was a life of chastity and simplicity, in which a woman put the needs of her husband and her children before her own, and spent much of her day spinning and weaving. The reality was a world of enormous wealth, aristocratic indulgence and display, and the exercise of leadership during the absences of men on campaigns.

The legal position
Roman law decreed that all women were to be under the custody of males.

The pater familias: In childhood, a daughter fell under the sway of the male head of the household, the pater familias, whose power extended to the right to determine life or death for all the members of the household (domus). Male offspring outgrew their subjection when they came of age, but the only automatic legal exemption for women from the power of the pater familias was accorded those who became Vestal Virgins.

Upon the death of the pater familias, the custody of the daughters passed to the nearest male relative. A guardian was required when a woman performed important transactions, such as accepting an inheritance, making a testament, or assuming a contractual obligation. However, if the guardian withheld approval a woman could apply to the magistrate to have his assent forced or to have a different guardian appointed. By the late Republic tutelage over women seems to have been only a slight disability to women. Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, is reported as acting on her own initiative.

The legislation of Augustus provided a way for women to free themselves from the formal supervision by male guardians. According to 'the right of three or four children' a freeborn woman who bore three children and a freedwoman who bore four children were exempt from guardianship.

The husband: The laws of guardianship indicate that the powers of the pater familias surpassed those of the husband. The pater familias decided whether his daughter would remain in his power, or whether she would pass from his control to that of another man. The married daughter was only in the power of her husband if the marriage was contracted with manus. In a manus marriage, a wife became part of her husband's family, as though she were his daughter; she renounced her father's religion and instead worshipped at her husband's hearth. His ancestors became hers. However, a woman married without manus continued to participate in her father's cult and remained part of his family. This was the case, for example, with Julia, the daughter of Augustus. She had three husbands but remained under the authority of her father.

It is not clear whether the husband in a manus marriage held absolute power over his wife. Cato the Censor claimed that husband did have an unlimited right to judge their wives and could inflict the death penalty for adultery. However, this was a statement of theory, not necessarily of practice. Among the Stoic and Augustan authors, the power of husbands over their wives became an element in their marriage propaganda, and might not have corresponded to reality. Augustus had the reputation of being a hen-pecked husband!

Livia Drusilla,
the wife of Augustus
By the late Republic marriage without manus was common - perhaps because her family preferred to negotiate a marriage where her property remained within her family of birth. Such an arrangement gave women more freedom and was largely responsible for the instability of marriage within the late Republic. A wife who quarrelled with her husband could return to her father's house, and divorce became easy. An example of easy divorce is provided by Octavian's divorce of Scribonia in order to marry Livia; because Livia herself was married, her husband had to be prevailed upon to divorce her. Tiberius was forced to divorce Vipsania in order to marry Julia.  On the other hand, Octavia refused her brother’s request that she divorce Mark Antony when he was unfaithful to her.

The consent of both partners was necessary for a marriage but the bride was allowed to refuse only if she could prove the proposed husband was morally unfit. But some women, as they grew older and their fathers died, chose their own husbands.

Most of the divorces we read about were done for political reasons. No reason was legally required but the usual causes were sterility or adultery on the part of the wife. Caesar divorced his first wife Pompeia because of her affair with Clodius, on the grounds that his wife had to be above suspicion.  Augustus declared adultery a public offence only in women.

The Twelve Tables decreed that daughters as well as sons could inherit. Roman women could receive property as a legacy, but in an amount not to exceed what was left to the heir. The trend towards smaller families left many women very well off. By the late Republic some women were independently controlling large amounts of property, even though the laws said this was not permissible.

Patrician women seem to have been better educated than upper class Athenian women. There are many records of women's ability to read and of their love of books, and educational and accomplishments were thought to enhance a woman's reputation, though Juvenal was scathing about intellectual women. There were even female orators. Hortensia, the daughter of a famous orator, was praise for the speech she delivered in 42 BC; she spoke in the Forum on behalf of the 1400 women whose male relatives had been proscribed, and who themselves had become subject to taxation in order to pay the expenses of the triumvirs.

Lower-class women
Their lives are far less documented than those of patrician women. They included the overlapping categories of slaves, freedwomen, prostitutes, the wives of the plebs and working women. Some of them are mentioned in saucy graffiti at Pompeii.

Government policy tended to ignore poor women, seeing them as less of a threat to law and order than poor men. This is probably the reason why the corn dole was only given to men.

Women's Occupations: Both free women and slaves worked as spinners, weavers, cloth makers, menders, wet-nurses, child nurses, kitchen helps and general domestics. Because of mechanical methods for transporting water, devised by Roman engineers, fetching water was not done to the same extent as in Greece. In wealthy households, female slaves had specialist tasks as clerks, secretaries, ladies' maids, hairdressers, masseuses, readers, entertainers etc. Dorcas, the dresser of Livia, was a freedwoman.

Freedwomen were often expected to offer sexual favours to their former masters. The law allowed a master to manumit a slave in order to marry her. Slave women were automatically seen as sexual property.

The names of waitresses and prostitutes are found scribbled on the walls at Pompeii. Prostitution was recognised and taxed. Many unskilled and poor women maintained themselves by prostitution.

Women and religion
Women served as priestesses, the most important of these being the Chief Vestal and the Sibyl at Cumae. Women played a prominent role in many of the Mystery religions - the wall painting in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii apparently (but we can't be sure!) shows a woman's initiation by flagellation into a mystery cult. Married women had a particular devotion to Juno, the patron of marriage and of women in childbirth.

Ruins of the building funded by Eumachia
The best-known woman at Pompeii is the priestess Eumachia, a businesswoman whose family manufactured bricks. She was the patroness of the fullers’ guild, whose members set up her statue in the veiled form of a priestess. She donated to the town porticos and colonnades and she erected an imposing tomb for herself. Mary Beard has cautioned that we know almost nothing about Eumachia and can only guess at all the different circumstances that might lie behind the building of her monument. Most likely she was intending to advance the career of her son. As a priestess, she held public office, but no woman could hold a magistracy.