When a girl was born into a Roman family, it was announced to the world by decorating the door with colourful bands. The beginning of a girl’s life (and a newborn male child) depended on the father’s acceptance. The father must consider if the family could afford another child and if a change in the previously written will would be necessary. As a sign of accepting the father would lift a newborn child off the floor, where a midwife left it, or walk away, abandoning it. On the eighth day from birth, a purging ritual was made and the father’s name was given to the child, but in female variation, e.g. Julius – Julia, Terentius – Terencia; an ordinal had been added in case of younger daughters’ name, e.g. Julia Tertia (Julia the Third). That was the beginning of a woman’s life in Rome, which purpose was to be married and become a mother.
When a Roman girl was growing up, if she was from a wealthy family, then she was placed under the care of a warden, which nursed and nurtured her. When she grew up a little, she started walking to school, which, which is worth mentioning, was coeducational. She learned basic Latin and various other arts there. When she was 12 years of age her paths parted from boys and purer children. Then the father could employ tutors that taught her classical writing and other skills, like dancing or singing.
Why were women married? Mainly for the dowry (it was a quick way to get rich) and to beget legal offspring that could inherit and let the community exist. During the empire, the marriage took on new meanings; under the influence of Stoic philosophy and submission to the emperor, men began to control their drive. Getting married no longer served only to get rich and give offspring, but to take pleasure in love and was considered a duty of a legitimate citizen. Most often, however, conjugal love was a fortune, not a reason for marriage.
A girl aged twelve – fourteen years old was already considered an adult and the search for her equally young husband (usually around fourteen) began. In Rome, as in Greece, the choice of a partner for the daughter was decided by the father, but here he did not communicate with his future son-in-law, but with his father. The Roman wedding was a private act – unwritten, which no institution had to approve. There were no priests in this case. Only people from the same social strata could get married.
There were two types of marriage – conventio in manum and sine conventione in manum. In the first, the woman passed from her father’s power to her husband’s and was adopted by his family, while in the second as a married woman she was still dependent on her father, she did not lose her relationship with her own family and kept the right to inheritance.
Before marriage, during the engagement, the spouse gave a woman a coin or an iron ring. The marriage ceremony itself was always the same. At witnesses, the bride and groom shook hands and asked for the blessing of the gods. The bride in an orange veil spoke the sacred formula “Where are you Gaius, there me, Gaia”, after which the man moved her through the doorstep, which was to protect her from the bad reception of the protective spirits of her new home.
The first night was difficult for a woman because most often it was legal to rape. Often, in order not to alienate the shy new wife, the husband refrained from deflowering her, but he rewarded himself with anal intercourse.
Epictetus said that adultery is the same as stealing a piece of bread. His wife’s infidelity did not cover her husband with ridicule. It was treated rather as a misfortune. In royal times, a woman who cheated on her husband lost her life. However, this changed over time. During the empire, for a husband or father to avoid accusations that he was too vigilant or firm, he often publicly proclaimed the “accomplishments” of his wife or daughter. This was done, among others, by August, who in the edict described the bed adventures of his daughter Julia, exposing her to a laughing stock. It must be emphasized that there was no way of killing a woman. Just as in Greece, the husband could have intercourse with other women, but in the empire, it was considered obscenity.
Divorces were just as informal as weddings. It was enough for one of the spouses to leave the house. Regardless of who divorced, the wife had to regain the dowry she put into the marriage. Reasons for divorce were similar to those in Greece – infertility, betrayal, willingness to get married a second time, and political issues. During Romulus’s time, a woman could also be thrown out for stealing the keys to the cellar where there was wine, as well as for offering a kiss that someone gave to a “busy” woman. In addition, there is information that in 304 BCE Publius Sempronius Sotus, divorced his wife because she went to the Olympics without his knowledge. Interestingly, Roman women at that time could not drink wine – the crime was even punishable by death. Until the second century CE, the daughter’s father could interrupt the marriage for any reason, this possibility was a trace of an old archaic tradition, where pater familias had unlimited power.
The husband has always been the master of his wife. During the royal and republic times, the wife was included in the domestic service and was treated almost as an object. An example of this could be Utica Caton famous for all virtues, which, however, did not stop him from tossing his wife to a friend and then again marrying her and inheriting a large fortune. During the empire, the role of women changed significantly. The woman became a friend, having the same meaning in social life as men. She could visit her friends, but the real lady was not proper to go out without the company of handmaids who created a mobile prison for her. The lady, even during sleep, had slaves watching over her.
Often women from the upper classes had their own property, which was not the responsibility of their husbands. It even happened that the richer and better-born ladies did not recognize male authority. However, rich widows had the best situation. Men massively sought their favours and even had to give them pleasure in sexual matters, which was not right for a real man, it was even considered a humiliation. Such a female elite had great influence even in the world of politics, to which women were never officially admitted.
In the times of the republic, most women had large families and mainly dealt with weaving. During the empire, some rich wives had different ideas. Roman writers complained about lazy women who do not want to give birth to children but spent time on body care and parties.
Roman women wore: a band on the chest (the lap was used only during bathing), a T-shirt and a wide dress called stolla. The whole was complemented by a garment thrown over the left shoulder called ricinum. The Romans loved luxuries: Indian cotton and Chinese silk. Heters presented their charms in transparent fabrics. Women wore all their jewellery assets – just in case. Unlike the Greek women, they hardly wore hats.
The house was ruled by a man, but he often entrusted his wife with some duties, for example, taking care of the treasury or managing slaves. Traditionally, the only job a free woman can do is spinning wool. However, not all Roman women could afford to sit at home. Some worked as midwives or hairdressers, many helped in family stores or farms. Rarely did women work as acrobats or dancers, but these professions were not respected.
When it comes to legal issues, once a woman before a court could not appear without a male representative, but with time it went into oblivion, although many women continued this custom for the sake of elegance and even pedantry. It is worth emphasizing that woman was equal to men under the law of succession and could make a will without any problems. A virgin who had committed a serious crime could not be sentenced to death. However, quickly clever lawyers bypassed this provision – raping and then executing the judgment in the majesty of the law.
Women could perform different priesthood functions. In some cults, such as the cult of Mithras, they were completely overlooked, and in others, they performed quite serious functions, like the priestesses of Vesta, who were highly respected. The insult of the vestal was punishable by death, their privileges included, among others, an honorary place at the games and granting favours to convicts. However, the vestal’s loss of virginity was punished, most often with death. As in Greece, women could take part in various mystery cults on an equal footing with men.
Roman women could wear makeup and it was not like the privilege of prostitutes like in Greece. It was believed that the pale complexion was beautiful, therefore it whitened the skin with chalk, lips and cheeks stained with red clay. Roman women even removed hair on their legs and armpits.
Prostitution in Rome was the same as in Greece. However, it was much less important here. It was practiced mainly by women “without reverence”, that is, those who were considered unworthy of motherhood, for example those who were dancers or slaves. Since they could not get married and thus had nothing to lose, they most often practiced prostitution. Fleeting relations with courtesans were allowed. Sam Caton the Elder – a strict censor, seeing the young man leaving the brothel ashamed once, shouted at him – “A blessing on your fresh bravery, my son!”. Relations with prostitutes were appropriate until they turned into love. Most often, courtesans had a poisoner who took most of the money and ordered women, treating them like a commodity.
This profession, however, was very little respected and deprived of rights, which is why there were frequent attacks by pimps and the kidnapping of their pupils. Free citizens engaged in prostitution had the right to bring a case to court in the event of beatings or rape. Often, even these things won. It is worth mentioning that some girls for rent gained many valuable contacts and acquaintances that allowed them to free themselves and exist. Attached customers were in debt to spend time with their favourites, and they were still getting richer. That is why it was believed that the use of prostitutes’ services is not bad, but only when moderation is maintained.
Increase in the status of women at the end of the republic
During the decline of the republic, the role of women clearly increased. A Roman woman has always had greater rights and a stronger social position than a Greek woman. In the second and first centuries BCE, the influence of women on politics became even stronger, although they were still deprived of any formal powers in this field. An important role in the conspiracy of Katilina was played by Sempronia from the Grakch family, whose unusually colourful characteristics are given by Salustius in De coniuratione Catilinae. This intelligent and very skilful woman in political matters “knew Greek and Latin literature knew how to play the zither and dance with greater finesse than what is needed by an honest woman, besides she knew many other things that accompany luxury”.
In addition to Publius Clodius, the people’s tribune in 58 BCE, his sister Clodia played a large role in Rome, whose charms were influenced by many influential statesmen. Anyway, the poet Catullus expressed his unhappy love for this woman – praising her under the name Lesbian. To Clodia refers to his famous poem “I love and hate” (Odi et amo).
Another influential female character who was well known to us was Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, a friend of Caesar for a long time. She led the political moves of all family members (a large family), also taking an official part in the council after Caesar’s death. The wife of Brutus, Porcia, and wife of Cassius, Tertulla also attended. Of course, the growing and more influential importance of women aroused the concern of conservative elements among men.
Women in ancient Rome cared a lot about their beauty, that’s why they used many cosmetics. Cosmetics came to Rome from Egypt. In Rome, however, they were improved and, above all, made available to all women, not just those who had a lot of money.
Many women in ancient Rome used mascara. However, it was not mascara in the form known today. It was made of tar. Another cosmetic that has survived to this day is lipstick. Only that the Roman women made it from a dozen or so different herbs. Interestingly, every woman had in practice her own lipstick recipe, so there were no two of the same lipsticks.
We don’t use some cosmetics today, considering them ugly. These include chalk, which was used to lubricate the face to make it paler. It is known that cosmetics were used much more. Finally, an important note – every woman did all cosmetics herself!
For a rich Roman, the pursuit of beauty was a huge challenge that could satisfy her ambitions, but with some risk. Toilet procedures began each morning when the slave woman brought her bowl of fragrant water to wash off the mask put on at night. Usually, it was a flour and milk paste, but some had a more unusual composition. The poet Ovid mentions an anti-wrinkle honey compound mixed with Libyan barley, narcissus bulbs and a powdered horn of a young robust deer. Some creams were clearly harmful to health because they contained ingredients such as mercury sublimate, which irritated the skin and could cause poisoning.
After washing your face, cleaning your teeth and rinsing your mouth with a liquid to refresh your breath, the Roman lady immersed herself in a fragrant bath. Of course, her less prosperous women had to be content with the public bath. Then the slave called unctor, or “anointing,” rubbed her whole body vigorously with oil. Later, the lady put on a kind of bathrobe and passed into the hands of the so-called ornatrix, or “maid”, who dealt with the hair of her lady, using a variety of combs and hairpins to give her hair the desired shape. Long curls or braided locks. Almost every lady dyed her hair. Some oxygenated them with a mixture imported from Germania, others darkened with leech and vinegar paint.
However, like face creams – these dyes were sometimes too sharp and caused alopecia. At that time, efforts were made to strengthen the hair with deer marrow, and bear fat. If they failed, the Romans wore wigs, as did their balding husbands. Finally, the maid adorned you with cosmetics from various bottles and caskets. First, it brightened the complexion with white powder, then stained the cheeks and lips with blush from vinous sediment or ocher and darkened the eyelids with ashes or Egyptian kohl. Finally, the lady dressed and decorated with jewels imported from various regions of the empire. Also, as you can see, the morning toilet and clothing were complex tasks for a Roman woman.
The perfect Roman woman was a good hostess, a caring mother and an obedient wife. She managed the house, cared for the early education of children and supported her husband in his career. It should be emphasized that the situation of women in ancient Rome was constantly changing and evolving. During the Roman Empire, woman obtained many powers, which in Greece was out of the question, all thanks to the foundations that created the conquests of Alexander the Great. However, a woman was never equal to a man. He was the one who carried weapons to fight and shed blood for his homeland. He was stronger and therefore had the right to rule at home and do politics for which a woman was never allowed. The role of the woman has always been to the side. At most, a woman could be a “grey eminence” directing weak men who succumbed to her charms or wealth. It was supposed to stay like that for several centuries…