The social status of women in Rome

I have received several messages on my Facebook page (@ThierryBontouxNovel) arguing about the status of married women in ancient Rome. It is true that in my two books (The riddle of a Murdered Slave and Massilia (Soon to be published) women are shown as submissive. However, please remember that the action takes place in the first century AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. In ancient Rome, women played a secondary role and were often seen as convenience. How can that be surprising when the ‘pater familias’ had the right to life or death over his children.

Women were under the yoke of men

Some have compared the status of the Roman women to that of our Mediterranean grandmothers, when they lived under the yoke of patriarchs. This image is, in my opinion, very far from the truth, although it does present some similitudes.

We cannot compare the position of women in ancient Rome with the ones in our Western societies. Women with influence such as Claudia Clodius, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, or Caenis, referred to in my books, were exceptional cases. Most had no more social standing than a slave. They were the property of either their fathers or their husbands until their death. Until then, men decided for them. Due to women being the properties of their husband and fathers, they could be sold into slavery, beaten or worse, without laws to protect them.

Only once a slave had had 7 children, or a free woman three, had they achieved the right to be emancipated. But if their family did not provide them with means for subsistence, there was little opportunity for them to enjoy this right.

Marriage – A status barely above servitude

There were, naturally, several forms of marriage in ancient Rome, each providing different rights and duties to women. These were to preserve the family wealth and the interests of those concerned. In Rome, those concerned were the men, as women were merely considered as a commodity.

The Marriage “Cum Manu”

The oldest form of marriage is the so-called cum manu. “Cum Manu” means ‘with property’; “manus” meaning both the hand and the enslaved domesticity. In this form of matrimonial union, women were under the legal control of their husbands, while remaining the property of their fathers. Children were thus still entitled to inheritance from their maternal grandfathers. This is the form of wedding that best illustrates the status of women in Ancient Rome. They were placed above the slaves, but belonged to their husbands and fathers.

Marriage by “Coemption”

Wedding by coemption was a form of marriage cum manu. The matrimonial process of coemption was in essence the sale of the wife to the husband, which could take place at any time during the matrimonial life. It was seen as a process of emancipation from the father of the bride. The transaction took place in the presence of at least five witnesses, all of whom were adult males and Roman citizens.

The marriage “Sine Manu”

Marriage sine manu was the closest to modern weddings. The bride was not totally dependent on her husband. This form of union did not require ritual formalities conducted by public officials. It only implied that a man and a woman lived together under the same roof. Although no formal ceremony was required, it was customary for the bride to be escorted to her husband’s home. The children of this union were legally members of the husband’s family. They were not related to their maternal grandfather and had no claim to inherit from him.

Only when the bride’s father died, was she emancipated from all male authority. This form of union allowed the wife to become independent earlier than in a cum-manu marriage, recognizing that fathers were likely to die before husbands. This type of union also benefited the bride’s family, allowing them to retain possession of the dowry and keep the inheritance in fewer hands.

To Conclude

I give in The Riddle of a Murdered Slave and  Massilia a very chauvinistic vision of the Latin world. I did not try to water it down, and I tried to describe it in the crudest way possible. However, I am convinced that the reality must have been much worse, considering that even today, in our “civilized” countries, one in five women is beaten by her partner.

Thus, being a girl was not glamorous in ancient Rome