The collections

The Roman woman and her place in ancient Rome

IIt would be reductive and simplistic to try to draw a typical portrait of the roman woman. Indeed, if history teaches us one thing, it is that there are not men and women, but men and women. History is conjugated in the plural. Over such a long period, beginning in 753 BC. J.C. and which ends in 476, the feminine condition and the role of women in ancient roman society have continued to evolve and take various forms. It is these changes that we will try to explain here. Embarkation for Venus imminent!

When the myth becomes reality

Rome is as if shaped by legends. Its very foundation, in 753 BC by Romulus, gave rise to the birth of an eternal myth, that of Remus and Romulus, twins who fought to give birth to the most famous Latin city. If, at first glance, one notices one thing, it is the total absence of women at the beginnings of Rome. The wolf eclipses the female presence of Rhéa Silva, mother of the two brothers abandoned in the Tiber. Moreover, in the early days, the future Roman city was built in the total absence of women. The latter in Rome is - from the start - as a parenthesis when it comes to serious business. The founding myth will be made without them ...

But another event, which will in turn become legend, counterbalances the balance of the sexes in this virile and Roman balance. The abduction of the Sabines marks the entry of women into the development of the future Empire. It will also serve as a model for subsequent generations. The kidnapping would therefore have taken place shortly after the founding of the city by Romulus and his brothers in arms. The problem is quite simple: the Romans lack Romans to repopulate the places. They will try to negotiate with the Sabines, a neighboring people, in order to obtain the exchange of some women. But the Sabines take a dim view of this new emerging city. They categorically refuse. Romulus then orders that the Sabine women be removed since they are refused.

The latter are the first women to settle in Roman lands and intervene in the life of the city. They manage to stop the hostilities between their husbands and their parents, we even give the names of some of them to the Curies [i]. The Sabines also transmitted practices to the future Romans, such as those of spinning and weaving. Indeed, during their kidnapping, they had accepted their fate on the condition that they were honored in their husband's home and that they would have no other work than that of spinning wool. Thus, it is these famous Sabines who will influence the customs of their descendants, who will then be qualified as Romans. Does myth influence reality.

Austere beginnings

Drawing the typical portrait of the Roman woman seems unthinkable in view of the multiple characteristics developed by the Latin fairer sex. From the matron to the noble wife, a world separates them. In addition, from the Royalty to the Empire via the Republic, the condition of the latter has continued to change over time.

In the beginning, rigor and austerity are required in Rome. First visible element, clothing. In public, women cover their heads so as not to reveal anything about themselves. On their woolen dresses, the stolla, the matrons throw a cloak called a palla which takes care to conceal the two shoulders. It falls to the level of the feet, modesty obliges. In addition to hiding part of the body, it aims to hinder movement. The symbolic force of the coat is powerful!

From the start, the girl is brought up in the home. It would take centuries for her to attend school, although Livy mentions a school for girls in the fifth century. The uirgo, that's its name, wears an embroidered toga covered with a bulla that covers its neck. Her hair is pulled back and put in a bun behind her head. When taking a husband, the Roman wife conceals almost the entire body, as we have seen above. The matron has some jewelry, but nothing too luxurious, just enough to differentiate her from a slave or courtesan. It was not until the end of the Republic that makeup and perfume appeared in abundance. Through the clothes of the matron, we easily perceive the social role that we want her to play: no room for originality, no the right to be different. In the beginning, the Romans wanted mothers, not wives.

The matron, guardian of the home, is confined inside her home while the man lives outside. Strolling the streets for a woman is indecent. However at home, she is exempt from servile tasks. The matron directs her maids and weaves togas or spins wool, like her ancestors the Sabines. A woman of order and duty, she lives for her husband and her children. His social life is limited. Another significant trait, she dines seated, while the man begins, at the end of the Royalty, to lie down to eat.

Even if nowadays, this condition seems harsh to us, the period does not know any uprisings or female revolts of great magnitude. This is perhaps also due to the great respect that surrounds them, which slightly improves their situation.

Male guardianship

From a legal point of view, Romaine does not have the right to vote, nor of course, the eligibility. She always "belongs" to a man in her family, sometimes to her father and sometimes to her husband. They are strictly forbidden to assemble. If they have a request to present it is through their husbands that they must go. They are also not counted among the citizens. According to Lactantius [ii] in his Epitone, Cicero would have pronounced this sentence in a sententious tone: "What will be the misfortune of a city where women will occupy the offices of men!" ". This shows the credit we give them ...

It is no coincidence that the woman does not belong to herself. In all the texts she is always defined in relation to her husband or her sons. Filia for her father, uxor of her husband or even to watch such. We will have to wait centuries and the Republic for us to start talking about them as femina.

Regarding the relationship, the girl is married very young. Sexual intercourse is therefore very early - around 12 years old - and although it then facilitates menstruation, it often causes physical suffering that is inscribed for life in the flesh of the body. It is likely that the Roman does not dwell on the subtleties of love. The sexual act takes place in the dark, the woman places herself more ferarum, on all fours, because tradition wants this position to be more fruitful. The sexual act between spouses has no other goals than that of procreating.

In The Constance of the Wise, Seneca perfectly sums up the conception that the Romans have of the Romans "The female sex is made to obey, the male to command". Thus in Rome, the "weaker" sex is at the command of men.

The relationship to the child

The bonds between mother and young child are weak, if not nonexistent. Pregnancy is experienced as a real ordeal. Births are frequent. Miscarriages are feared, especially because the Roman fears that she is suspected of abortion, a real crime in Rome! Doctors hardly assist pregnant women because of their modesty and especially their relative incompetence in this area. It is estimated that one in five births is fatal for the mother.

As for the relationship even with the child, it is complex to define. The Roman feels more pride than affection. She is proud to have the power to give birth within her. Indeed, the life of the child is fragile, few of them reach the age of one year. Thus, father and mother avoid emotional attachment. It is only when the child manages to cross the first years of his life, that we allow ourselves to have interest and even love for him.

The matron reigns supreme over her children, even when they have reached adulthood. In this regard, Rome begins to respect the woman when she becomes a mother. As unfair as it may seem to us these days, in Rome, a woman without children is deemed unnecessary.

Women of Rome

At the beginning of the Royalty, the population of Rome was relatively homogeneous. But, as the city grows, new groups emerge. Some climb to the top of the pavement, others remain - as always - in the pit. Thus we see groups appearing with different customs and practices. The historical sources generally describe life taking place in the higher spheres, rarely that of the people themselves. This is why, especially from the Republic, it is advisable to differentiate the patrician from wealthy backgrounds, from the plebeian who knows harsher conditions. The latter remains more faithful to traditions, while the patrician tends towards a certain emancipation.

At the religious level, certain cults are either reserved for the patrician or the plebeian. This is the case with Pudicita, a cult usually reserved for patricians. Livy relates that a patrician, married to a plebeian, angry that she was refused this cult because of her union, had a plebeian Purity introduced to her. By this strong gesture, the latter was able to show that, even among patricians, virtue was high, no offense to the matrons. In passing, we notice the climate of tension between these two classes of women. Let us also note the will among people of the plebs to imitate people of high society, but the converse is also true when it comes to virtue, all this for the benefit of severe morals.

Towards the end of the Republic, Rome reigns supreme over almost the entire Mediterranean basin. A professional army appears and a number of men enlist. The latter are covered with honors. The men who do not enlist, or who are exempt from service, are relegated to the background, they become togatus, in other words simple civilians. This change is important since it changes the condition of women. In fact, when her husband has left for the campaign, she must take charge of her household. If the man does not leave, the wife does not understand why she would not benefit from an equivalent power.

In addition, women-slaves who are brought in from abroad, are disrupting habits. This is also a common phenomenon. The influx of foreign women has always benefited the natives. These new arrivals are destined for the most menial tasks. Thus, the work of matrons is considerably lightened and promotes their release.

At the end of the Republic, another category of women gained momentum, that of courtesans and prostitutes. Although they have always existed, the novelty lies in the fact that, from now on, it is no longer a secret. The facilities that there are now to make and break a union, in fact multiply the number of courtesans. Cicero even encourages men to let pass the "fever of juvenile passions [iii]". Many of these "venal" women are slaves or freedmen. The most coveted are dancers, musicians and actresses. Some even manage to rise high in society with important patricians. Be that as it may, this category of women clearly reflects an evolution in the morals of the fairer sex in Rome and the place that it is given.

Beauty, physical and intellectual

From a body that is concealed under the Kingship to a body that is exhibited under the Empire, the “physical” evolution that women have known is remarkable. Make-up and perfumes are taking more and more place in the beauty paraphernalia at the disposal of the Roman. Similarly, clothing is evolving and now seeks to highlight these generous curves. Another significant element, the mirrors become obligatory instruments. The jewels are worn proudly, they are at the same time the mark of a great refinement but also the sign of a powerful wealth.

As we said, the way of dressing is perfected. We began to work with more precision on the dye, more particularly the purple, which was very popular. It is extracted, for example, from a mollusc called murex. This animal has a whitish liquid in its body. When it dies and under the action of the sun, it turns purple to indigo. So these colors are extremely sought after, and therefore expensive. Regarding the cut of the garment, we continue to wear stola and palla. But new materials like silk appear. All of this obviously comes at a cost.

One of the most revealing signs is, without doubt, that of the evolution of hairdressing. If the matrons have long kept their braids tight behind their heads, we begin to imagine all kinds of hair fantasies. To caricature, each dynasty knows its hairstyle! Some like curls, others form diadems adorned with pins and others erect real sculptures above their skulls. The morning "hairstyle" step extends over time and becomes inevitable. Of course, it is the maids who take care of this hard work ...

The names of the perfumes of this period still retain a certain prestige today: Egyptian cinnamon, spikenard, myrrh, Indian amom ... So many scents from the East and adapted to Roman, sometimes embellished with oil of rose or saffron. The eyeshadows also had their moment of glory. The most popular: purpurissum, always made from murex. The eyes also knew their little secrets to shine even better.

The changes also concern education. Girls now receive the basic skills of arithmetic and reading. Some are even initiated into music and literature. In high society, some of them even practice eloquence and literature. Cicero likes to philosophize with his wife ...

Anyway, the Romans no longer judge their wives in the same way as under the Royalty or even under the beginnings of the Republic. Cicero even writes that it is frowned upon to be "a man whose gaze disdains beauty, whose smell, touch ... are insensitive, who closes his ears to all kindness [iv]". Previously, a Roman woman was esteemed according to her virtue. Now we award beauty prizes and know how to appreciate the intelligence of women.

Women at the top

In Rome, the woman / power relationship has always been ambiguous, starting with the home to go to the top of the Empire.

From a legislative point of view, the latter has few rights. But the reality is quite different. With this empowerment under the Republic, the matron began to own servants and command in the absence of her husband. Likewise, in the socially higher spheres, many women meddle in power, often directly. These women in the shadows, who lead behind the scenes, play with their influence with the greatest.

Agrippina seizes the heart of Emperor Claudius and manages to dominate it completely. She is likely to poison him even to manage her inheritance. As a result, it puts forward Nero, the fruit of his previous union, relegating to the meanders of oblivion Britannicus, heir son of Claudius. One example among others which reflects quite well the evolution of women in the upper layers.

The relationships between these powerful women make and even break history. Each goes its own way to achieve its end. In turn, they accuse their opponent of engaging in bewitching practices or of consulting astrologers! If that doesn't work, never mind, they denounce adultery!

But Rome is not immune to the machismo that flows through its arteries. Thus the terrible words of Valère Maxime in his Memorable facts and words about a remarkable woman "whose virile soul, by a treacherous error of fortune, had received a woman's body". Thus, we authorize the right of women to interfere in the highest affairs, without however taking enough space to become visible and especially to attract recognition. Virility and heroism in women are only admitted when they are foreign, like Tacitus who makes Bouddica, a Breton general speak: "Woman, it is my destiny stopped to conquer or to perish at the war. Free for men to live and be slaves. "

Between shadow and light, admiration and fear, it is the paradoxes and the opposites which can sketch a semblance of the portrait of the Roman woman. But, this "portrait" remains impossible to achieve perfectly, so many dualities are: patrician / plebeian, city / country, slave / freed, matron / courtesan ...

To enter the universe of the romaine we must get rid of our vision of the world and the relationships that men and women maintain today. But it is also this mystery, this obscure clarity which envelops the Venus of Rome, which makes them eternal and fascinating, even today.

Indicative bibliography

- Pierre Grimal, Life in Rome in Antiquity, PUF, 1994.

- Guy Achard, La Femme à Rome, PUF, 1995.

- A.-M. Verilhac and C. Vial, Woman in the Mediterranean world, Works of the Maison d'Orient, n ° 19, Lyon.

[i] Thirty constituent units of the city

[ii] 250-325

[iii] For Caelius, 48

[iv] For Caelius, 42

Video: Why Female Gladiators Were Polarizing Figures in Ancient Rome (January 2022).