The Status and Role of Women and Marriage in Ancient Rome
The life of Roman women in the time of the Republic and the early Empire was one sheltered from external stresses. Unlike Greek women, Roman women, within some roles, enjoyed much greater social freedoms. The roles of Roman women were not always as clearly delineated as the roles of Greek women. The roles Roman women played in society ranged from wife and matron to prostitute. The stability that characterized Rome provided all of Roman society with greater comfort and luxury of surplus time. Unconsumed time was not uncommon in Rome and very uncommon in ancient Greece. It is this luxury that permeated Roman social order and its lack that permeated Greek social order.
In the role of matron women were true marriage partners and shred their husband’s wealth and power. The Roman matron was the absolute mistress of her household and freely joined as an equal partner to her husband. The matron was usually joined to her husband by confameatio, religious marriage, but would be dedicated and loyal to her husband out of love rather than through the law. She was not considered his property. She was not confined to the home and was free to attend any number of appropriate social events.
The Roman matron was often as well educated and socially adept as her husband often entertaining guests, consulting her husband on business or political matters. The Roman matron was well informed and charming often an asset to her husband out side of the domestic aspects of the home. A prominent matron would often exert political pressures though having no political rights. Prominent matrons were the trusted advisors to their important husbands. Their political influence was often increased when they banded together to lobby against laws that would threatened to restrict their freedoms.
Roman women could own property, wealth and what they did not own they held great influence over as the commanding presence in the Roman household. Roman matrons were a powerful political and economic force. Powerful Roman men were sometimes killed through political intrigue. His wife, the matron of his family, felt so bound to her husband and his status that she often chose suicide to dishonor. If she lost her husband to other causes she retained her personal property and could inherit his property and wealth if her husband had willed it to her.
The life of a Roman matron differed from the life of a typical Roman wife primarily due to wealth and class. The typical lower class Roman wife was not nearly as free as women of wealth and power. Women of lower classes were confined by legal religious rules to lives of service and breeding to their husbands. Marriages were often negotiated contracts between her future husband and her father. She did not retain her property and she came into her husband’s family with no greater status or claim to his property than one of her own children. She could inherit property and use it as she pleased.
The institution of marriage often took different forms. One of these was coemptio, a form of bridal purchase which involved the “paying” of a token coin to the bride’s father in exchange for his daughter. This was most likely a nod to ancient ways in which a husband would prove his ability and desire to care for the daughter by demonstrating his wealth to her father. The token became a substitute for cattle or land or other property. Another form of marriage, usus, was simple cohabitation which involved a woman living in a man’s home for one uninterrupted year. At the end of that year they were considered married. If she packed up her property and left the home the marriage agreement was annulled. The duration of the interruption was not important because she could rejoin his home if she chose but remain unmarried.
The final and most common form of marriage in ancient Roman was confaneation, a civil religious ceremony in which the bride is consecrated to the groom in the name of Jupiter. The marriage commitment ended with the death of one of the partners. The widow was required, by law, to wait a period of ten months after her husband’s death to remarry. This was to guarantee she was not carrying her husband’s child thus insuring the integrity of his will. If she did not wait the appropriate time she was disinherited and disgraced.
Wife was not the only role for women in ancient Rome. Women also served in the honored role of Vestal Virgin. Vestal Virgins served as the keepers of Rome’s civil religion. These women served the goddess Vesta by tending the “hearth” of Rome in the temple of Vesta. The candidates for Vestal Virgin were chosen at a very young age by the Vestals to serve as one of their order. It was a great honor to serve the mandatory 30 years. Though permitted to leave after their 30 years of service to Rome, few Vestals ever left. The benefits received by the Vestals may well have kept them in the order. The gifts and allowances granted a girl entering the order were extensive. The Vestals were not subject to Roman civil law and were given multiple special privileges. Vestals were the only women permitted to drive on the streets of Rome. They were greatly respected in Roman society. They could be called upon to mediate disputes including civil wars. The Vestals were so respected that they could be refused no request.
In the roles of prostitute, concubine and courtesan women tended to the physical and emotional needs of Roman men. These women were not as important to Roman society as they were to Greek society. Prostitutes had to register and pay taxes to the civil authority. The women of brothels were usually slaves held by the brothel owner and were permitted to purchase their freedom if the master of the brothel agreed. Roman society was stratified by law and some classes could not intermarry. Women who were not permitted to marry Patrician men could be taken as concubines. It permitted a girl from a poor family to become a member of a rich one without having to come up with a dowry. Concubines could become women of means and patronesses of the arts, advisors on politics and socially important women. Courtesans in Roman society were not as important as they were in Greek society primarily because as companions to powerful men they had been supplanted by Rome’s matrons and concubines. Courtesans became expensive mistresses often having to register with the same civil authorities as prostitutes. They were often cultured women who offered another alternative to marriage.
Roman women were members of a society in which internal order was generally stable. Substantial stability led to leisure time and greater wealth and therefore greater freedom for women. Roman women were permitted to attain wealth and education. Roman matrons filled the roles occupied by courtesans in ancient Greece. Roman women were far less restricted than most other women by social rules. They made great contributions to Rome’s economic strength, civil government and overall stability.