The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Defined by the men in their lives, women in ancient Rome were valued mainly as wives and mothers. Although some were allowed more freedom than others, there was always a limit, even for the daughter of an emperor.

Not much information exists about Roman women in the first century. Women were not allowed to be active in politics, so nobody wrote about them. Neither were they taught how to write, so they could not tell their own stories.

Legal rights

We do know a little, however. Unlike society in ancient Egypt, Rome did not regard women as equal to men before the law. They received only a basic education, if any at all, and were subject to the authority of a man. Traditionally, this was their father before marriage. At that point, authority switched to their husband, who also had the legal rights over their children.

However, by the first century AD women had much more freedom to manage their own business and financial affairs. Unless she had married "in manu" (in her husband’s control, which conferred the bride and all her property onto the groom and his family) a woman could own, inherit and dispose of property.

Traditionally, these women, who had married "sine manu" (meaning she was without her husband’s control but still under the control of her pater familias), had been obliged to keep a guardian, or ´tutela,´ until they died. By the time of Augustus, however, women with three children (and freedwomen with four) became legally independent, a status known as "sui iuris."

A woman’s work

In reality, the degree of freedom a woman enjoyed depended largely on her wealth and social status. A few women ran their own businesses – one woman was a lamp-maker – or had careers as midwives, hairdressers or doctors, but these were rare.

On the other hand, female slaves were common and filled a huge variety of roles, from ladies’ maids to farm workers, and even gladiators.

Wealthy widows, subject to no man’s authority, were independent. Other wealthy women chose to become priestesses, of which the most important were the Vestal Virgins.

Influence, not power

However wealthy they were, because they could not vote or stand for office, women had no formal role in public life. In reality, wives or close relatives of prominent men could have political influence behind the scenes and exert real, albeit informal, power.

In public, though, women were expected to play their traditional role in the household. They were responsible for spinning and weaving yarn and making clothes. These were usually made from wool or linen, although wealthy women (whose servants made their clothes) often dressed in expensive, imported fabrics, like Chinese silk or Indian cotton.

Women were expected to be the dignified wife and the good mother and, while these rules could be bent, they couldn’t be broken.

The trouble with Julia

Julia was daughter to Emperor Augustus and was renowned as a clever, vivacious woman with a sharp tongue. However, Augustus was traditional and insisted that Julia spin and weave like plebeian women, to demonstrate her wifely virtues.

This was unfortunate, because wifely virtues were not her strength. In fact, Julia had a series of lovers and many people knew this.

Augustus, who was socially very conservative, was furious. He denounced her in public and banished her for the rest of her life. There were limits – even for an emperor’s daughter.

Where to next:
Life in Roman Times – Weddings, Marriages & Divorce
Life in Roman Times – Family Life

Related Links:

Cleopatra   Cleopatra & Egypt
Social Order   Social Order
The Roman Empire

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Age of Augustus

Years of Trial

Empire Reborn


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Life in Roman Times


Enemies and Rebels


The Roman Empire - In The First Century