A Brief History
On January 16, 27 BC, Livia Drusilla (58 BC–AD 29) became in effect the first Roman empress when her husband received the honorary title of Augustus (“honorable” or “revered one”) from the Roman Senate. Roman civilization is not a new one. There have been many developments in this civilization. Family life in Roman times along with the lives of women in ancient Rome need special mention in this regard. It is fascinating to note that the lives of Roman women of the yesteryears are similar to those of modern women of this era. Women of those times had to take the same kinds of pressures regarding unusual beauty regimes, education, and even up to breastfeeding. Mentioned below are ten such strange things that you probably did not know about Roman women.
1. Roman girls were seen playing with dolls, which resembled their own selves
Roman girls did not have long childhoods. As per the law, they could be married at the age of 12 years. On her wedding eve, the girl was expected to put away all her toys and childish things. If a girl died before marriageable age, all her toys and items would be buried with her. Interestingly, in the late 19th century, a sarcophagus was found belonging to a girl called Crepereia Tryphaena. She was a resident of 2nd century Rome. In her grave, an ivory doll was found with jointed legs and arms which could be moved just like dolls of today. There were also clothes and ornaments for the doll. This doll had a rounded stomach and rich-bearing wide hips. This aspect of the doll was indirect teaching for the young girl that she would also be a mother soon. Motherhood was considered a valued achievement for the Roman woman.
2. Breastfeeding was not Prevalent in Ancient Rome
Rich Roman women usually handed their children to a wet nurse for breastfeeding them. This wet-nurse was mainly a hired freed woman or a slave and did the service on contract. Soranus, who was an influential author of 2nd-century work on gynecology, said that a wet-nurse feeding a baby right after birth is okay as the mother might be too tired to feed. Solids like bread soaked in wine could be given to the child after six months; however, most Roman philosophers and physicians opined otherwise and thought that mother’s milk was best for the moral character and health of the baby. To them, the woman who did not feed her child was unnatural, lazy, and vain and cared much for her figure than the child.
3. Cosmetics were popular with Roman Women
Looking good was a high priority for Roman women because it was thought to act as a reflection on her husband; however, many poets and writers mocked these frivolous attempts of women. There was surely a cosmetics industry in ancient Rome and ancient Rome history is evidence of the fact. Some of the ingredients used consisted of honey and rose petals. But some weird things were also used. For spot removal onion and chicken fat was used. For exfoliation ground, oyster shells were used, and for covering grey hair mixture of oil and crushed earthworms were used. For makeup, crocodile dung was used. When a container of 2000-year old Roman face cream was found from some archaeological dig, the contents of the cream included starch, animal fat, and tin.
4. Post-divorce, Roman fathers got their child’s custody
In ancient Rome, divorce was quite common and quick as well. Marriage was essential as it bonded two families, but divorce could be given at short notice. No legal proceedings took place, and the wedding was considered over when either the husband or the wife wanted the same. The legal system in Rome was in favor of the father and not the mother. The patrilineal relationship was necessary, and mothers had no legal rights to her children; however, if the father wanted, the child could live with the mother as well after the divorce. Loyalty and affection remained even after the breakup of the family.
5. All Roman empresses were not Poisoners and Schemers
Roman empresses have always been portrayed as nymphomaniacs or poisoners in literature and movies. They would take all steps to remove people who stood in the way of their ambitions or their husband’s ambitions. There are many such historical references where the empresses are vile and schemers, as with the infamous Empress Agrippina (mother of the notorious Emperor Nero), who did not even hesitate to take the lives of people for revenge; however, apart from revenge and jealousy, there were other reasons as well, which led the Roman empresses to take such drastic steps.
6. Political campaigns of Husbands were Influenced by Roman Women
Although Roman women did not run political office on their own, they played an important role in campaigning for their husband and influenced election results considerably. Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii are evidence of these facts and the great Julius Caesar even divorced his second wife Pompeia for political reasons. Like modern prime ministerial and presidential spouses, they promoted their husbands to the public. Many male leaders took their wives, daughters, sisters, and even mothers to the campaign programs.
7. Women’s education was important but only to an extent
In the Roman period, women’s education was a controversial topic. Most girls belonging to middle and upper classes learned the necessary skills of writing and reading. Many girls had private tutors for learning Greek and advanced grammar. Education made women a better match for their husbands. Women also wrote letters to their husbands, but sadly remnants of such messages are not found; however, many people were against higher education of women as this could make them a pretentious bore. The intellectual independence could also turn to sexual promiscuity, they believed.
8. Mass kidnapping of Women in ancient Rome
One well-known incident in Roman mythology was that of the rape of the Sabine women. Frankly, it was not rape as is understood in modern terms. It was actually a mass abduction of many young women by some Roman men from different cities in the region. Interestingly, the subject has been a topic of art during the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance era. The incident of rape took place in early Roman history just after Romulus had founded the city in about mid-8th century BC. Majority of males were looking for wives for starting a family. The surrounding areas were inhabited by Sabines and they did not want to give their daughters and women to Roman men in wedding. This enraged the Romans and they planned abduction of the Sabine women during the Neptune Equester festival. The abductees were implored by Romulus so that they would accept Roman husbands.
9. Three of Rome’s Greatest Enemies Were Women
The Roman Empire has been threatened by women, many times in history. Three names need special mention in this regard – Cleopatra, Boudica, and Zenobia. Cleopatra, full name Cleopatra VII Philopator, is known as the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. She was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty and descendant of Ptolemy I Soter. On Cleopatra’s death, Egypt turned into a province of the Roman Empire. Her associations with Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, the Roman dictators and political figures are well known. Roman literature and historiography has mention of Cleopatra in various ways – right from writings to paintings to sculptures and so on. Boudica, also known as Boudicca, was the queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe. She was a strong woman leader who led an uprising against the Roman Empire in AD 60 or 61 when they were trying to force into her area and lands; however, she was not successful in her attempts, though she gave tough competition to the Romans and died shortly after that. A common saying goes she poisoned herself. Septimia Zenobia was the queen of Palmyrene Empire in Syria. She was a queen in the 3rd century AD and married Odaenathus, the ruler of the city. The husband became king in 260 and took Palmyra to greatest power by defeating Sassanians and stabilizing Roman East. After the man’s assassination, Zenobia took control of the reign with her son Vaballathus. Zenobia launched an invasion in 270, in which the majority of Roman East came into her sway and ended with the annexation of Egypt. She extended her realm but remained slightly subordinated to Rome. In 272 in action to a Roman campaign, she gave a mighty fight to the Romans but the latter were victorious. The queen was besieged and exiled to Rome.
10. Some Roman Empresses later became Saints
Saintly empresses has been noticed in many cases that some of the most well-known Roman empresses later became saints. Two of the best examples in this regard are that of Empress Helena and Theodora. Helena was one of the most prominent empresses of the Roman Empire and mother of Constantine the Great; however, later she became a prominent figure in the history of Christianity. Various churches across the globe revere her as a saint. Theodora too was a queen of the Eastern Roman Empire. One of the most powerful and influential empresses of Eastern Rome, she became a saint along with her spouse in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is commemorated on 14th November.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which word better describes Roman women: powerful or powerless? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Burns, Jasper. Roman Empresses. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
Dennison, Matthew. Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography. St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
The featured image in this article, a photograph Richard Mortel from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia of a statue of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, at the National Archeological Museum, Madrid, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by Prof. Mortel at https://flickr.com/photos/43714545@N06/29074219390. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.