Women in ancient Rome rarely make the headlines of Roman history. But when they do it is a depiction presented largely through the eyes of men, which is often prone to idealization and sensationalism. Roman women are praised for their beauty and virtue, cunning and dishonesty in equal measure, with little middle ground.
The Roman male gaze focused on three main archetypes: the wife, the domestic matron, and the sexual object. The seven women presented here cover the full social range, from the Roman empress Livia, to the freedwoman Regina and the mother Agrippina the Younger. On the surface, each fits into at least one of the archetypical categories. But digging deeper into the details of their lives often reveals a more complex and multi-faceted character. Here are seven women in ancient Rome who embodied all of these traits.
The Role Of Women In Ancient Rome
Women in ancient Rome had the legal status of ‘minors in law’. This put them on a par with children and marginally above slaves. Most free born women were under the legal control of a man, normally a male relative. This power was known as patria potestas, which translates roughly as ‘fatherly power’. The only real exceptions to this were priestesses, such as the Vestal Virgins.
In the republican era, this power could transfer to the husband, often accompanied by a financial sum. Roman women had little economic or practical freedom. Instead, their fundamental role, in the eyes of Roman society, was to provide legal heirs for their husbands. They were also expected to run the everyday life of their household and manage everything from slaves to making clothes. By the imperial era, women could inherit property, which, particularly if their husbands had died, allowed them greater financial liberty.
Agrippina The Younger: Ruthless Mother Of Rome
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Of all the imperial women in ancient Rome, Agrippina the Younger (AD 15–59), is perhaps the most notorious. Agrippina had an impressive royal pedigree. She was the sister of Emperor Caligula, the niece and wife of Emperor Claudius and the mother of Emperor Nero. At the tender age of 13 Agrippina the Younger married Gnaius Domitius Ahenobarbus and bore him one son, Nero, in AD 37. She was highly ambitious from a young age. At 24 she was convicted of being involved in a political conspiracy and banished into exile. Her uncle, Emperor Claudius, brought her out of exile and married her in AD 49.
Agrippina the Younger was now Roman empress, also known as ‘Augusta’, a title of which she was particularly proud. However, both Claudius and his heir Britannicus soon died, within a year of each other. The historical sources imply that Nero and Agrippina had arranged to have them poisoned.
Nero, aged 16, was now free to reign as emperor. But, initially, it was Agrippina the Younger who took control of important political and military decisions. But as Nero grew older he became irritated with his mother’s interference. After Agrippina’s disapproval of his latest mistress, he decided to have her murdered. Strong-willed to the end, she survived an attempted drowning by swimming ashore. But Nero’s freedman, Anticetus, stabbed her to death in March AD 59.
Most of what we know about this infamous Roman empress comes from the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. Tacitus describes her as a woman of ‘feminine rage’ and ‘natural greed’, while Suetonius even refers to her as ‘incestuous’. However, these men had their own literary and political agendas. It is quite likely that much of what we know of Agrippina the Younger today is a vastly exaggerated account of an ambitious mother with misplaced ideals.
Livia Drusilla: The First Roman Empress
In 39 BC, Livia Drusilla (58 BC–AD 29) married Gaius Octavius. In 27 BC, Octavius would become Emperor Augustus, first ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and founder of the Roman Principate. Livia Drusilla became the first Roman empress. She and Augustus were devoted to each other and remained married until Augustus’ death in AD 14.
Augustus elevated Livia to a status rarely seen with later emperors. She was his wife but also his advisor and confidante. Aided by Livia, Augustus set in place a number of conservative reforms of Roman society. He launched an ambitious building program for temples in Rome and introduced legislation promoting family values. Livia appears to have been the ultimate example of the ideal wife in early imperial Rome. She was beautiful, intelligent, and loyal, with strong moral principles.
Some sources view Livia as manipulative and overbearing. These opinions were perhaps largely fuelled by the fact that she had risen to a position of relative power. Many men thought that power was dangerous for women in ancient Rome.
Some years after her death in AD 29, Livia was deified like her husband before her. She became a symbol of the univira. This term roughly equates to ‘a one-man woman’. It was an ideal to which all Roman women were expected to aspire. She never remarried after Augustus’ death and was closely involved in the administration of his posthumous cult.
Livia left an impressive legacy in her wake. She was not just the first Roman empress but she was also the first woman in western history to have been officially commemorated over an extended period of time. Her image can be found today on numerous state-sanctioned coins, statues, and paintings.
Julia The Elder: Rebellious Imperial Daughter
Julia the Elder (39 BC–AD 14), was the only daughter of Emperor Augustus and step-daughter of the Roman Empress Livia. Her early years were spent living in accordance with the strict, conservative values of Augustus and Livia. This period perhaps sowed the seed for the rebellious nature of her adult life.
Julia was married three times. Her third marriage to her step-brother Tiberius, the future emperor, was a very unhappy union and she is said to have had multiple affairs. Many of the historical sources focus on her promiscuity. Seneca even claims that she acted as a prostitute in the streets, taking many ‘clients’ in a night.
In 2 BC, Julia was arrested for treason and adultery in a scandal which rocked the imperial household. Julia’s social circle included those who thought Tiberius was an unfit successor to Augustus. She was convicted of being a conspirator in a plot to assassinate him.
Augustus was the man who many believed had brought a sense of virtue and justice back to Rome. He could not be seen to be lenient towards his daughter. Instead of having her executed, he exiled her to the tiny island of Pandateria. In AD 4, she was moved to Rhegium and was given a small allowance. When Tiberius became emperor he withdrew his ex-wife’s financial support and left her destitute. She died of malnutrition in AD 14 and was not even allowed to be buried in the family tomb.
While Julia is often associated with scandal, the satirist Macrobius presents a different picture of her. He describes her as witty, popular, and of a great intellect, with a particular passion for Latin literature. It is argued by some scholars that she had an involvement with the love poet Ovid. Ovid was also exiled by Augustus, perhaps due to his relationship with Julia.
Clodia: Medea Of The Palatine And Poet’s Muse
Clodia Pulchra is another of the many women in ancient Rome who were readily condemned by scandal. Born around 96 BC into an ancient noble family, she married into another family of long lineage in her union with Metellus Celer. She was also the sister of the notorious Publius Clodius Pulcher, who became tribune of the plebs in 58 BC. Clodius was a violent troublemaker who made many enemies during his tenure, notably the orator and politician Cicero.
In 56 BC, Cicero acted in the defense of Marcus Caelius Rufus. Caelius Rufus had conducted an open affair with Clodia while she was married. After it ended, Clodia accused him of attempting to poison her. During the trial, Cicero launched a vicious attack on Clodia, perhaps largely due to his personal feud with her brother. He is said to have nicknamed her the Medea of the Palatine and accused her of incest with her brother.
A rumour spread through Roman high society claiming that Clodia had slept with half of Rome during her marriage to Metellus Celer. One of her most famous liaisons is believed to have been with the poet Catullus. We do not know for sure but Clodia is the most likely candidate behind the pseudonym ‘Lesbia’ in Catullus’ poetry. This created a poetic link between Clodia and the Greek poet of Lesbos, Sappho, who was a great inspiration to Catullus.
Catullus charts the course of his relationship with Clodia, from the early flames of passion to the anger and despair at their parting. His poems are one of the earliest Latin examples of personal, lyric poetry where the poet examines his innermost thoughts on love. This work went on to inspire countless poets, from Virgil to W. B. Yeats. Clodia is therefore at the heart of one of the greatest innovations in western poetry.
Boudicca: Queen Of The Iceni And Enemy of Rome
Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus and queen of the Iceni. The Iceni were a tribe belonging to a client kingdom of East Anglia in Roman Britain. Client kingdoms were set up in various Roman provinces around the Empire. They were semi-autonomous but also had obligations to Rome. Prasutagus died in AD 60/61, in his will he left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and Emperor Nero. Not long after, Roman officials visited the Iceni, ignored the will and attempted to take power for themselves. They beat Boudicca and raped her daughters. Once the men left, Boudicca plotted her revenge.
She waited until the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, and his legions were occupied in the west of Britain. Then, with help from the Trinovantes, a local tribe, the Iceni launched their revolt against the Romans under Boudicca’s command. Unlike women in ancient Rome, women in Roman Britain were embraced as leaders in war.
At first, Boudicca and her forces were very successful and invaded Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans). The historian Tacitus suggests that over 70,000 people were killed during the attacks. Roman officials were treated particularly harshly and many were tortured to death. The Roman governor Paulinus soon heard of the revolt and marched eastward with a large number of skilled legionary soldiers. His men outnumbered the Iceni and quickly defeated them.
Instead of surrendering, Boudicca is said to have drunk a vial of poison. She preferred to die by her own hand, rather than become a Roman slave.
Boudicca’s courageous story has captured the imaginations of many artists and writers throughout the centuries. She was apparently even a source of inspiration for the British queen Elizabeth I. She stands as a symbol of freedom and female strength, and as one who dared to defy the might of Rome.
Regina: Freedwoman Of Roman Britain
In 1878 in the North East of England, archaeologists excavated one of the most fascinating Roman tombstones ever discovered in Britain. The tombstone, pictured above, has a detailed but heavily worn relief carving of a seated woman with an epitaph inscription below. This inscription is in two languages: Latin and, unusually, Syrian Aramaic. What exactly was an Aramaic inscription doing in the north of England?
The text answers some questions for us. The woman depicted is Regina from the Catuvellauni tribe, a freedwoman and wife who was 30 years old when she died. The dedicator of the tombstone is her husband, Barates of Palmyra, Syria. Barates has chosen to honour his wife in both Latin, the official language of Roman Britain, and Palmyrene Aramaic, his native tongue. It is likely that Barates was a merchant or army official who relocated to Britain where he met or bought Regina.
Accurate details about the lives of women from the non-elite sections of Roman society are hard to come by. Regina’s tombstone is an excellent example of why that is.
The imagery surrounding Regina combines Roman and Syrian elements. The emphasis on her jewelry is a Syrian motif. Regina is wearing bracelets and a necklace and her hand rests on a locked jewelry box. The items around her have Roman connotations. In her lap is a spindle for spinning wool and at her feet is a basket of wool to be worked on. This image of spinning wool is an idealised representation of the Roman matrona.
But there is nothing to represent Regina’s home tribe, the Catuvellauni, from whom she was presumably sold into slavery as a young girl. Her tombstone is therefore a striking example of how women in ancient Rome had identities and ideals imposed upon them with little space remaining for self-representation.
Cornelia: Chief Vestal Virgin Of Rome
Vestal virgins were a unique category of women in ancient Rome. Their status as priestesses granted them certain freedom but also imposed strict limitations upon them. Vestals were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. Therefore, one of the Vestals’ main duties was to keep alive the flame of Vesta, housed within her temple in the Forum. If the flame went out it was considered to be a terrible omen for the city.
Vestals were expected to be sexually pure and therefore did not marry or have children. They were not under the protection of a man which allowed them greater freedom than other women in ancient Rome. However, there were also great sacrifices to be made. Vestals were selected as children and went to live in the House of the Vestals near the Forum. They would remain there for 30 years. Throughout this time they were expected to abide by their vow of chastity.
In around AD 90, in the reign of Emperor Domitian, Cornelia the Chief Vestal at the time, was convicted of violating this vow. Pliny the Younger tells us that Domitian, as emperor and head priest, found Cornelia guilty in her absence. She was denied the right to prove her innocence and was sentenced to death. Domitian decided to reinstate one of the most barbaric forms of execution in the Roman world – she was to be buried alive. Her ‘lover’, named Celer by Pliny, was to be publicly flogged to death.
Pliny argues that Cornelia was likely innocent of her ‘crimes’ and was the victim of Domitian’s violent desire to bring back traditional moral values. His obsessions and cruelty resulted in him later being erased from official state records in a process known as damnatio memoriae.
On the day of execution, Cornelia was taken to the Campus Sceleratus, an underground chamber outside the city walls. Just before she entered she is said to have caught her dress on a rock. As the priests moved to assist her, she declined their help and walked calmly into the chamber to meet her unjust death with dignity and grace.
Understanding Women In Ancient Rome
The details of the lives of these seven women can tell us a lot about the experiences of women in ancient Rome. In many ways, these women led quite different lives from one another. But what unites them is that they were all women living in a man’s world. We must remember that the images and historical portrayals of these women that we have today are shaped by the men who created them. They have had identities, social ideals, and injustices imposed upon them, which has arguably obscured their true selves. Despite this, however, these seven fascinating women from the past have still continued to shine their own lights some two thousand years later.