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Roman women and ancient business

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Portret kobiety rzymskiej
Anselm Feuerbach, Half-Length Portrait of a Roman Woman

Women in the Roman world did not have the same position as men; e.g. they could not vote in assemblies or hold public office. On the other hand, they could own land, write their own wills, and testify in court. However, this independence was limited.

Roman law, since the times of the law of the XII Tables, made women incapacitated: at home, they remained under the care of their father – pater potestas or their husband after marriagemanus. However, during the 2nd BCE – 2nd century CE it was customary that a woman usually did not come under the authority of her husband. Moreover, in 46 CE, the Senate passed the senatus consultum Velleianum law that forbids women from making surety or from making any commitments themselves.

A woman, in the case when her father was dead and was not under the authority of her husband, had to have her guardian (tutela mulieris or tutor) throughout her life, who acted as an authorization in the case of a transaction, a will or any other contract under oath. The guardian was a kind of security for her interests. It was an adopted law and it has been mentioned many times in ancient sources.

It should also be noted that under the rule of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) law was introduced that abolished the obligation to have a guardian if a woman had given birth to a sufficient number of descendants (three children in the case of a free woman and four in the case of a freedman).

Roman tablets

Our knowledge about the participation of Roman women in the finances of the ancient world comes largely from the preserved wooden tablets (tabulae), covered with wax, on which information about concluded transactions and financial obligations was written. To our times, among others, 153 such tablets were found in the house of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii.

Other tablets were also found in Herculaneum or in a Roman villa between Naples and Salerno. Especially in this second place, known as the “Archive of Sulpicii”, almost 300 tablets, dating back to the 1st century CE, have been discovered, mostly describing the transactions made in the small port of Puteoli. Researchers to this day are not sure whether the representatives of the Sulpicii family were argentarii (bankers with broader financial powers) or faeneratores (moneylenders). At any rate, it is certain that they were descendants of the liberated people who created a truly impressive financial business.

Interestingly, 127 tablets have so far been thoroughly analyzed in Sulpicia’s house, 23 of which mention women in transactions. It is noteworthy that these are not just Roman women of high society; we are dealing with a slave (serva), a freedwoman (liberta) or a housewife (domina). What can we read from the plates? For example:

  • Patulcia Erotis, liberta, confirms that she received 19,500 sesterces in the auction where her item was auctioned. As it turns out, it was a really impressive amount, as it allowed to buy almost 40 tons of grain.
  • Marcia Fausta, liberta, took a loan of 2,000 sesterces from a representative of Sulpicia.
  • freeborn Caesia Priscilla owed 24,000 sesterces to the Sulpicii family.

The only surviving plaque with the so-called The triptychonu (a document of three tablets) shows us an interesting transaction/contract made by a slave at the behest of his mistress. The pledge (stipulatio) was made by a certain Pyramus, one of the slaves of the high-ranking matron Caesia Priscilla. On the tablet, we can read that the slave is making a promise aloud. Gaius – a Roman jurist from the 2nd century CE – presents this type of oath on the principle of question-answer:

An obligation is verbally contracted by question and answer, as for instance:
“Do you solemnly agree to give it to me?”
“I do solemnly agree.”
“Will you give it?”
“I will give it.”
“Do you promise?”
“I do promise

Gaius, Institutions, 3.92

As you can see, in ancient times, people were obliged to keep the contract not only in writing, but also orally. Certainly, however, the need to have material evidence dominated, hence the agreement was written on tablets.

Returning to Pyramus – banker Gaius Sulpicius Faustus paid him 4,000 sesterces, demanding a promise to return his money earlier; it was the so-called mutuum (loan). This proves that Roman law was very flexible and even allowed slaves to mediate transactions/operations. Probably a high-ranking Roman woman wanted to avoid rumours about herself or appearing in public at a banking representative.


The common belief that Roman women are inactive in the public sphere is incorrect. Naturally, they did not have a similar situation to men, but by using the law in a proper way, they could run their own business, take care of finances and borrow. The death of her father did not mean that the woman would automatically pass under her husband’s potestas and could remain completely independent by receiving a legal guardian or having the necessary number of children.

Women of high society did not show up in person for financial operations but rather enlisted the help of their freedmen or slaves. Probably the consent to “direct” contracting resulted from the fulfilment of the requirements of Augusta’s legislation regarding the number of children. Women with a lower status probably appeared in person, and if the fertility requirement was not met, they were accompanied by their guardians.

  • Paul J. du Plessis (red.), New Frontiers. Law and society in the Roman world

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