The life of a Woman of Rome was filled with many traditions and rules, which were carried on generation after generation. Many say that Roman women were oppressed because they were not allowed to be an active part of society and politics. The book Roman Women by J.P.V.D. Balsdon gives, what I consider to be, an accurate and detailed account of a typical woman in Rome during the Roman Empire. Balsdon writes about the married women of Rome and the formidable ceremonies needed to perform a wedding. The children that soon came after marriage, which was in itself, another worry for women of the Roman culture. Rome also had its share, like most civilizations, of happy and unhappy marriages that women lived through. In addition, there were the less reputable women of Rome, the prostitutes and courtesans. And last, but not least, Balsdon gives a detailed account of a woman’s daily life down to hairstyles, make-up, and jewelry.
A woman’s looks were very important in Rome. A woman revealed no more of her body than a nun does today. She usually wore the standard dress called a stola with light undergarments beneath this. It is a rather interesting fact that this style of dress did not change for three hundred years. Purple and gold, and a dark rose, scarlet, or amethyst were a few of the favored colors for the women of Rome. Women’s hair arrangements often occupied a large portion of their time and were performed by a hairdresser. Younger women dressed their hair very simply by drawing it back into a knot at the back of the neck. Most hair was parted down the center and curled into waves, or styled with small ringlets. Make-up, an important part of a woman’s beauty process, was only moderately applied unless the woman was a prostitute. Jewels, however, were sometimes lavishly applied. Opals, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds were popular among the wealthy women. The amount of jewelry a woman wore signified her husband’s wealth.
The wedding ceremony in Rome was always preceded by a choice of husband. A girl was deemed ready for marriage at the tender age of twelve. Most boys were considered ready at the age of fourteen. The marriage was considered null if the pair was married before they had reached the age requirement. In higher social classes, the father’s arranged the marriages. Both the boy and girl were expected to agree with their father’s decision. It was acceptable, however, for the girl to confide in her mother and reveal if she was satisfied with her father’s choice or not. The mother was then allowed to express her daughter’s feelings to her husband for the choice he had made. Betrothal sometimes happened in infancy. There were certain limitations to this though and Roman law required that the children must be able to understand what was happening, and they must be at least seven years of age.
There were three forms of marriage in Rome. Each contained the similar idea that the wife passed from the authority of her father to the submission of her husband. The first form of marriage was a primitive bride-purchase. In the presence of five witnesses, the bridegroom would make a fictitious purchase and then pay the father of the bride a penny for it and, in exchange, received his bride. The second form of marriage was a cohabitation of a man and woman. This marriage, of course, must be declared honorable from the beginning so that the marriage was not confused with a man and his concubine. In this case, the husband did not have full authority over his wife until a year had passed with the two of them living together for that year. Before the end of the fifth century B.C., however, women had found a way to escape total submission to their husband’s. The plan was simply that they would leave their husband’s house for three days time each year. This meant that they had not been in full company with their husband for the entire year and therefore absented themselves from the law. The third form of marriage was by far the most interesting and could be said to be the most holy. The Pontifex Maximus and the Priest of Juppiter presided over the ceremony with ten witnesses. There were extensive sacrifices and an abundance of food. The bride and groom were made to sit opposite each other on chairs covered with fleece. It is not certain if this type of marriage was restricted to patricians only, but divorce was very complicated and only the husband could take action on it. By the third century B.C. free marriage was common and the wife had control over her own property. This made divorce relatively easy.
The next part of the wedding ceremony was arranging the day for marriage. Not every day was right for a wedding in Rome. Because of their extreme superstition in this matter, wedding dates had to be arranged carefully. According to the church, weddings could not take place between Christmas and Easter. February 18th-21st was avoided because it was the feast of the dead, as well as August 24th, October 5th, and November 8th, which were the days when the Forum in the underworld opened. Also, the month of May, when the Latin’s sacrificed to the dead was excluded from marriages. In fact, there was a saying ‘Wed in May and rue the day’. The first half of June was also avoided until the 15th when the cleaning of the temple of Vesta was completed and the dirty water was dumped into the Tiber. Festival days were avoided for first time marriages because it was said that first time marriages should always have a large crowd in attendance. If it was a festival day then the attendance would be down and this was seen as a bad omen. Also days which commemorated national disasters were avoided for obvious reasons. The perfectly suitable time for a marriage was said to be in the summer, especially the last half of June because this was the season of abundance and harvest.
The wedding ceremony itself could be seen as a little complicated. The wedding party would travel from the bride’s home to the groom’s where she signed something similar to a marriage contract. The bride would then declare herself his wife with the words, “Ubi tu Gauis, ego Gaia.”This meant, “To whatever family or clan you belong, I also belong.” They then joined hands and sat across from each other on the fleece-covered chairs. A sacrifice was made and there was cake for everyone. Escorting the bride to her new home was also a fundamental part of the ceremony. The bride would rub oil and fat around the groom’s door and line it with wool. She was taken to the bedchamber and undressed by women who had only been married once and then they left her to wait for her new husband who arrived shortly thereafter. In the morning, she began all the customs of her new family.
After the marriage would take place many expected the couple to soon have children. Roman marriage contracts explicitly stated that marriage existed for the procreation of children. The idea of marriages was often without the romance and glamour that many Americans see it as today. Marriage to many Romans was a necessity for social existence. Because of this, many shied away from it. No one wanted to settle down and pop out several children in the fast moving Rome. Many men picked up mistresses on the side to try and regain, or hold onto, a little of their youth. Of course, it was frowned upon for an unmarried man and woman to have a child. For this reason pregnancy was something short of a disaster. Abortions became popular at this time even though most of them proved fatal to the mother. If abortion was not an option then many illegitimate children were easily left on a lonely hillside to die. Another problem with childbirth in Rome were the numerous amounts of miscarriages. There was also a heavy death toll on both women and children in childbirth. This was another reason for the woman to fear having children. In many instances, women did not survive childbirth. Infant mortality was also high, making childbirth even more aggravating. These are just a few of the factors that frustrated a couple’s desire to have children.
The ideal marriage in Rome was one that included children. Children often led to the success or downfall of a marriage. The seal of success was automatically placed on the marriage by the birth of a child, particularly the birth of a boy. Three children from each family were expected if one was to be successful in Rome. Having three children also carried its rewards. The mother gained full legal independence by bearing three children and the father received promotions in his job. Outside of Rome, one must have four children to acquire these privileges. And in the provinces, five children was the minimum.
The unhappy marriage was one of no children. This happened more than expected and often led to divorce. It was always possible to adopt a son but those were not easily acquired in Rome. With the passing of time, a strain from the childless marriage developed on the husband and wife. Divorce was always an option and in 451 B.C., Roman law recognized it.
This leads us to what some consider the seedier side of Rome. Of course, as in any society, Rome had its fair share of less reputable women. There were two types in Rome: prostitutes and courtesans. Prostitutes were usually foreigners from Egypt or Syria. They wore heavy make-up and a short tunica and toga. They loved bright colors when in came to clothes. Prostitutes did pay a tax, which was the sum in any day that she received from one client. Sometimes the prostitute was independent; sometimes she was an employee of a brothel. Prostitutes catered mostly to the lower class of Rome, particularly to slaves. Many middle and upper class male citizens, however, thought it beneficial to their son’s education to visit prostitutes once or twice. It was long thought that Romans were immune to venereal diseases but further research uncovered several cases of syphilis. Courtesans were elegant and expensive ladies of the town. Most of them lived with their mother’s who often supported this behavior and shared the profits. It was expensive for a man to hold the interest of an attractive mistress. Most men threw their money to their courtesans instead of wisely investing it in their political game.Courtesans were generally Roman and usually came from respected backgrounds. Besides their beauty, most were talented, cultured, and lively. Some sang, some played musical instruments; some danced, and most were well read. The biggest tragedy for a courtesan was to fall in love with the man who kept her, or paid the most for her services. And after Augustus passed a law, no Roman was allowed to marry a courtesan.
Roman women, in general, lived well. There was always inequality between the sexes, which prevented women from doing some of the activities that they might have liked. Of course, if the woman was in an abusive situation then it was a whole different story. Her freedom was severely limited if her husband was the controlling type. But most women lived with general freedom. They were allowed to walk around town and take part in some activities. The women of Rome took good care of themselves with public baths, hairdressers, and bright clothes. A married woman controlled the house since this was her assigned sphere in the Roman world. Her position as wife, mother, and head of the house gave her a good position in society. Roman women may not have had all the desires of their heart but they possessed more than other women in surrounding countries did. Most Roman women were classy, stylish, and cultured for the time period they lived in.
Balsdon, J.P.V.D., Roman Women. Barnes and Noble Books, Inc., New York, 1998.