Last Updated on December 18, 2021 by Vladimir Vulic
Girls enjoyed a similar, if not the same education as boys in early childhood. Though beyond primary education it was generally only daughters of aristocratic families who continued their education. Though such training was not one of rhetoric or law such as the young men of patrician families would learn. Women were rather taught in the fineries Greek and Latin literature as well as how to play a lyre, to dance and sing.
It was usual for marriages to be arranged. The size of the dowry was estimated to befit the social standing of the prospective bridegroom.
It was the Roman custom to arranging marriages for girls when they were still very young. She would then need to wait until she became an adult until the marriage could take place. Being betrothed for such a lengthy time generally meant for girls to lead a very retired life. For to be seen as flirting, or even simply being in contact with other boys or could be seen as a breech in the marriage arrangements.
Though with marriage the Roman woman gained considerable freedom.
The early Romans did enact stringent controls over their women, though they were not as a strict as the Greeks, who virtually imprisoned their wives at home. But the Roman attraction to family and social life led to a more relaxed was most likely the reason for this more liberal approach towards the weaker sex.
A Roman wife was generally understood as her husband’s companion and helper. She was next to him at banquets and parties (which would have been a scandal in ancient Greece) and shared his authority over the children, slaves and the household.
In many households it would be the wife who would oversee the slaves.
Nobody required Roman wives to live secluded lives. They could freely receive visitors, leave the house, visit other households, or leave to go shopping.
Though marked differences did exist in the rules for the sexes. In early republican times, women were not to drink wine, but grape juice. Though this was later relaxed. But the Roman woman would not recline at a dinner party, as her husband would do, but stay sitting upright. She also did not join in any drinking parties.
Though women in Roman times, though discriminated against, could well be seen as the most liberated in the world of that time. And they were well capable of standing up for themselves. One of the most contentious pieces of Roman legislation was the Oppian Law, brought in after the defeat by Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC with the object of reducing spending on luxury goods.
The tribunes of the people Marcus Fundanius and Lucius Valerius proposed to the tribal assembly the repealing of the Oppian Law, sponsored during the consulship of Quintus Fabius and Tiberius Sempronius by the tribune Gaius Oppius at the height of the Punic War, whereby no women could possess more than half an ounce of gold, or wear a dress dyed in a variety of colours, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage in a city or town or within a mile of it except on holy days. The tribunes Marcus and Publius Junius Brutus were for keeping the law and announced they would veto its repeal. Many representatives of the nobility rose to speak for the ayes or the noes. The Capitol was packed with voters in favour or against. Neither modesty nor the persuasion of their husbands could keep the women indoors. They blocked the streets and entrances to the forum, arguing that at a time of prosperity, when men’s personal fortunes were increasing daily, women too should be restored to their former splendours. The number of protesting women increased day by day, as they came in from the town and outlying districts. They even grew so bold as to waylay and interrogate consuls, praetors and other officials.
Meanwhile in the senate there was a prolonged and impassioned debate, during which Cato the Elder spoke against the motion of repealing the Oppian law.
The next day an even greater crowd of women poured out of their houses in to the streets, and mass-picketed all the entrances to the homes of the two tribunes who had announced that they were vetoing their colleagues proposal. The women wouldn’t let up until the tribunes agreed to withdraw the veto. There was no doubt that the tribes would vote for the motion: the law was duly rescinded, twenty years after it had first been passed.
In such a restricted world, in which also a large part of work was done by slaves anyhow, there was of course only few (free) women working. One knows of a few women doctors, secretaries, teachers and hairdressers, tailor, silk merchant or market saleswoman. But these were indeed a rarity.
There were however some female gladiators. The historian and poet Martial makes mention of them and a relief in the British Museum depicts women fighting in the arena. From this relief one also concludes that women gladiators did not wear helmets.
Amber jewelry, the most widespread, was only worn by women of the lower classes. By the higher classes it was regarded as vulgar, and the women of higher standing wore only gold and precious stones. Though, when in public, it was considered elegant to hold a small ball of amber in one hand and to rub it occasionally to smell its delicate fragrance in order to try and disguise any fowl smells which she might encounter.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.