Women of Ancient Rome

Roman women were strictly limited to the domestic sphere of life. If a woman were to step outside the bounds set for her, she was subject to scrutiny and often disgrace. Even if she did not step outside her bounds, but a man were to step outside those bounds set for polite society, the woman was often blamed for luring or seducing him. These were the norms for noble or patrician women, the poor or plebian women had a great deal more work to do, and so had a great deal more freedom. Those women who have been written about by ancient authors are either the women known throughout time for their virtuous actions or for their ribald activities and inappropriate interest in politics and power. Women were never spoken of for following the norm of behavior; they were spoken of for exceeding or never meeting it. Among the written works about Roman men, Roman women can be found. In many instances, they are mentioned for their disgraceful activities. In particular, one of these women is the mother of the emperor Nero, Agrippina. Agrippina, the great granddaughter of Augustus, should have been the perfect Roman woman. Her bloodlines were perfect, she was married young, and had a son. After her husband died though, she made a second marriage that would put her son in line for the imperial throne. She wanted her son to have power and authority, and she actively pursued the imperial throne for him by encouraging poor, disgraceful behavior in others who were in line for it. When her son was made emperor after the suspicious death of Claudius, which she may even have been involved in, she had a great deal of influence with him. This was highly inappropriate; males were subject only to their fathers or male relatives. She held such tight control over her son that she practically ran the government. According to Dio, she even rode in the same litter as her son (Dio 61.3.2). Agrippina retained control over her son during the beginning of his reign, and then she disappears from Suetonius' biography of Nero. She reappears much later in a portion Suetonius uses to discuss the various family members Nero has murdered. Suetonius states that "matrem facta dictaque sua exquirentem aceribus et corrigentem hactenus primo gravabatur, ut invidia identidem oneraret quasi cessurus imperio Rhodumque abiturus, mox et honore omni et potestate privavit abdustaque militum et Germanorum statione contubernio quoque ac Palatio expulit; neque in diuexanda quicquam pensi habuit, summissis qui et Romae morantem litibus et in secessu quiescentem per convicia et iocos terra marique praetervehentes inquietarent." (Suetonius, 34:1) For all her efforts on the part of her son, her early control of his public life, and her total control of his private life, he had her killed. Perhaps had Agrippina been the true Roman Matron, instead of the inferring, meddling mother, she would not have been killed by Nero. A better way to describe this is by saying that Nero would not have had to kill her had she been a proper Matron. Women are also mentioned for their lewd behavior and interest in military affairs and politics. The woman most well known for these flaws is the ever-popular Cleopatra, pharaoh of Egypt, seducer of Caesar and Antony, and the destroyer of good Roman men. Cleopatra was blamed with bringing about the downfall of Antony, and contributing to the grandiose ideas of Caesar, which got him killed. Perhaps her beauty is to blame, but Plutarch clearly states that "[f]or her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching" (Plutarch, 497). In fact, according to Plutarch, it is Cleopatra's mind that seduces the men who meet her, not her beauty. A woman was not supposed to be more intelligent than a man is, and if she is more intelligent, she should hide it. Cleopatra did not hide her intelligence, or her strength. Her strength was manipulating men into doing what she wanted, and she openly flaunted her control over Antony. Cleopatra's fame could easily be attributed to the fact that she was the last pharaoh of Egypt, but her real fame comes from her interaction with the men of Rome. She was judged as Roman women would be judged, and as such, she was despised. She was active in politics, she was open about her affairs, and she interfered in military planning. Antony was not a man who knew battle at sea, he was a strong land general, but poor at sea warfare. Yet, Cleopatra pressed him for the sea battle. Perhaps she thought that she could escape easier if she was near the sea and on her boat, or perhaps she was setting Antony up to fall from Roman grace so that he would have to remain with her. Either explanation is plausible, though considering the comment made by Plutarch that "the soul of the lover resides in some one else's body, [Antony] proved to be a serious truth" (Plutarch, 522), causes one to believe that Antony was entirely enraptured of Cleopatra and would have done anything to stay with her. It is also likely that Cleopatra thought Antony killed in battle, and was making her escape from the scene. Though this possibility is dismissed by Plutarch's next statement, "She, perceiving him to follow, gave the signal to come aboard" (Plutarch, 522). Clearly, Cleopatra was not only politically motivated by her activities, but also emotionally. She wanted control, and she played on the emotions of men to get it. She was everything a Roman woman should not be, and nearly everything a Roman man was, but they were not public about it. There were also women who were known for their virtue and near perfection. One of these women was Lucretia. The wife of Collatinus was a woman known for her virtue, while the other women were partying and socializing, she was at home spinning wool. Livy states that "Ibi Sex. Tarquinium mala libido Lucretiae per vim stuprandae capit" (Livy, Book 1, Section 57, Line 34). Sextus Tarquinius, the son the last Roman king, was so taken by Lucretia that he went to visit her, and forced himself upon her. Lucretia could not tolerate what had happened to her, and she committed suicide. The desire that seized Tarquinius was based on the virtue of Lucretia. When he brutally stole her virtue through rape, she, being a good Roman woman, could not survive, and her suicide was the one thing that returned her virtue. While Lucretia is remembered for her virtue, it was the act of Tarquinius that ended the rule of Roman kings. Perhaps she is respected as for her towering virtue in a time that was nearly devoid of honor, or perhaps it is because of her commitment to the Roman ideals of womanhood. Either way, when she is written about, she is commended for her actions. While Lucretia was a model of virtue in her time, there were women who were the models for all of Rome. These women were the Sabine women. The story about the rape of the Sabine women is one that is widely told throughout Roman history. The Sabine women made peace with their husbands, and made peace between their husbands and families. Their fearlessness to step onto the battlefield and speak out against their families and for their husbands was amazing (Plutarch, 39-40). These women were everything the norms wanted Roman women to be. Without these models of what women could be, Roman women would have had a great deal less to live up to. The women throughout Roman history have been regarded as delicate, susceptible to fits of hysteria, and weak in body and mind. While women may have been considered that way, many tales show that women were not always weak, stupid, or hysterical. The women of Rome were viewed as the daughter, wife, or mother of somebody; they were never themselves. Their worth was based on whom they were tied to through blood or marriage. They had to hide their intelligence from men, they had to produce children, generally sons, and they had to be virtuous models of the Roman Matron. If a woman made a mistake, she was derided, and her husband was made the brunt of jokes for having such a wife. This is not different from the way modern American society deals with women and men. If a man is the CEO of a company, his wife is expected to act a certain way in public. If his wife were to appear dressed inappropriately for an occasion, or speak foolishly, the whole company would be laughing at him and his choice of wife. Is modern society any less demanding about what is appropriate than ancient Roman society was? With all the "advancements" that have been made concerning women's rights, modern society still thinks of women in much the same way the ancient Roman's did. Even with the examples of the Sabine women and Lucretia, Rome saw far too many women who followed in the wake of Agrippina and Cleopatra to regard women as people and not creatures that required constant watching. If one examines the texts of ancient Greece and Rome, one will find a plethora of women who were not proper demure women. While this may seem to show that women were all bad, it is important to note that in modern news, it is difficult to find stories about people doing the "right" thing. For Romans who had no television or radio, it must have been easier to write about the rare occasions when a woman stepped far out of line than to write about those that lived and died within the norms of society.



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