The status of women in Roman antiquity

Her “weakness of mind” legitimized his legal incapacities

The Roman woman does not work and takes the role of domina , directing the servants and the slaves. She does not have a political role nor the same rights as a man, she is a “minor” vis-à-vis the law, does not have the right to vote or to participate in assemblies. For the Roman legislator, his “weakness of mind legitimizes his legal incapacities”. She nevertheless participates in social and cultural life and can even have an influence on the public or political life of her husband.

The sexual act in the couple was a civic practice

According to historian Thierry Eloi, it was frowned upon for a man to show too much affection towards his wife, she could complain. Some men would even end up in court for it. The sexual act in the couple was a civic practice, intended to create new citizens, sometimes considered as a chore. The woman should not feel pleasure, she was educated not to have any. Its role is mainly reproduction, it is considered a belly. It was accepted as healthier for man to go to the brothel to satisfy his needs. In the same spirit, according to a law passed under Vespasian, a Roman woman who sleeps with a slave was to be considered as such.

Procreation was the raison d’etre of the female body

Women are considered precious because they are weakened by childbirth. Pregnancy and procreation took center stage and were the raison d’être of the female body. The duty of the Roman woman was to give at least three children to the State (Augustus had even instituted a birth bonus). The numerous maternities, however, made them regularly close to death, one in ten women would die in childbirth. Therefore the life expectancy of a woman was significantly lower than that of a man, 29 years against 41 years, according to the Italian scientist Alberto Angela.

The woman repudiated for sterility or for abortion

The man could punish his wife with death for adultery, repudiate her for sterility or for abortion, on condition of restoring the dowry to the family of the latter, which could be left to reflect. Women did not acquire the right to divorce until the beginning of the Empire by mutual consent or for serious fault. Widows could remarry but then renounced the right to the inheritance of the deceased.

All this is less glorious than the glamorous image that we were given of the ancient world through peplums systematically punctuated with beautiful love stories, which are in reality a transposition of our contemporary culture. It is a civilization different from ours, with codes and morals that can shock us. It was a phallocratic society (from the Greek phallos cratos, the power of the penis), misogynistic and patriarchal, dominated by men. The Gallic woman had many more rights than the Roman woman. But their condition was much better than in the Middle Ages when a woman who was too independent could be called a heretic and a witch and sent to the stake by Christian dogma. The condition of women has evolved rather positively today, although women have only had the right to vote in France since 1944.