There's something tricky about
history. That is, it's always a story. Depending on who's
telling the story, the story can change. Most of history has been
written by very few people. We often do not get to hear from smaller
groups or from women. So here's a question: What were women doing
during Roman times? Unfortunately, we don't know much about them,
especially if they were poor. None of the "important" people
cared enough about them to write too much about them. You can think
of women as one of the missing puzzle pieces of Roman history. The
picture isn't complete without them, but maybe we can look at the
pieces that are around them and figure out what that piece looks
like. We can try to figure out what women were up to in the Roman
Let's start in the home. A domus was
a Roman upper class house that also acted as a sort of church and
meeting house. They could be as small as a shack or they could take
up a whole city block. Some were very beautiful with gardens and
fountains. For safety, they had no windows facing the streets. As
you might expect, Roman men made all of the choices under their
roofs, but women took care of the domus, either for a day while their
husbands were at work, or for many years, while their husbands were
away at war.
So how did the women spend their time
in the home? Well, whatever the man told them to do, unfortunately. That usually depended on how rich they were. If they were poor, a
woman's day was likely spent washing laundry with lye, buying food,
sweeping with twig brooms and scrubbing with animal hair brushes. If
the family had a lot of money, then the women could eat and get
massaged and oiled all day while the slaves did all the work. That
is unless she was young. The pater familias was the oldest male and
head of a family in Rome. He controlled everything the people in the
household did, from daily chores to when they were married. The
legal marrying age for a girl was only twelve! So was that it? Were
women in Rome just hanging out or given away to be married and hang
out in or take care of yet another house? Let's see what's going
on outside the home . . .
In the city, the laws of the land were
made by men. Political office is any job with power that chooses the
laws of the land. Even though women were thought of as citizens,
Roman law said they could not be in office and they could not vote.
Women were just as smart and able to make decisions as the men, and
they had just as much, if not more, at stake than the men did. They
just could not make decisions or vote like the men could.
Not so fun fact! Even though they
could sit in on councils, if women became too involved or spoke up
too much they could be considered treasonous and a law could be
created to keep them out.
Just because you cannot vote, does not
mean you cannot be powerful. What if you couldn't vote for what
your school would serve for lunch, but you had a friend who could.
What would you do? If you wanted to eat healthy food that day, you
could tell your friend that they carrots and apples will make
everyone feel better and be less gassy so the classrooms would not
smell as bad. Maybe this friend who could vote would listen to your
ideas and vote the way you'd like. Even though they had no legal
power over political office, Roman women still had powerful friends.
Auctoritas is the Roman word for power or authority. In simple
words, this meant they had power over other people. Women could own
a business and could make deals in private with important people.
This is not the same as voting and passing laws, but they were still
able to change some things that they wanted to, if they were good at
convincing people to do what they wanted! If a woman had a son or
husband in high political office, she could, and often would, tell
him what to do. Even though the law stated that the power was out of
their hands, women still found a way to change votes.
It's hard to know what women were up
to during the Roman Empire. This is because history was written by
men who thought their side of the story was the only right one. It
was this kind of thinking that kept women inside the home, taking
care of the domus and away from political office where they could
make choices about laws, putting all of the power into the hands of
the men. Still women used their auctoritas, or power over others, to
change the men around them to vote for the things the women believed
in. Just because we cannot find many mentions of women in the
history books, does not mean the words there weren't changed by
History for Kids. "Women in Ancient
Rome" kidipede, 2011.
History Link. "Women in Roman
Society" History Link, 2013.
Ancient.eu. "The Roman Domus"
Ancient.eu, 2012. <http://www.ancient.eu/article/77/>