Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

The Agency of Women in Ancient Rome

Editor’s note: continuing our series on the material reality of gender in the historical-cultural contexts of Scripture, we now turn to the time period when the New Testament books were written, looking at the lives of women in ancient Rome.

In the highly stratified social world of the Roman Empire, women had agency, despite the view that “female” was inferior to “male.” Yet this reality is often overshadowed by three false assumptions:

1. that women were relegated to the private sphere, even restricted inside their homes

2. that women’s public presence or voice was immoral

3. that women were always judged inferior when compared with men, regardless of the social status of each.

Before challenging these assumptions with the historical material, a word about sex and gender. The distinction maintained in this essay is that sex refers to male or female biology, chromosomes and hormones that distinguish the two. Gender refers to societies’ practices, assumptions, and expectations for men and women; said another way, gender is a society’s expression of masculinity and femininity.

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Women in ancient Rome have been portrayed as oppressed and lacking influence over themselves and their circumstances. For this picture, scholars drew especially on the fourth-century B.C.E. philosopher, Aristotle, and his ideas. Aristotle believed that the husband should hold permanent constitutional rule over his wife, argued that female is best understood as opposite of male, and viewed male as superior in all ways to female. Thus, modest women were to be sequestered in the private sphere of their house, rarely appearing in public.

It is now recognized that the philosophers’ world of fourth-century Athens cannot be used uncritically to create the social world of women in the Roman imperial period.

It is now recognized that the philosophers’ world of fourth-century Athens cannot be used uncritically to create the social world of women in the Roman imperial period. The classical Greek distinction between public and private spheres is sharply undercut by Roman insistence on social stratification and the necessary display of wealth and social rank. Women navigated a social world wherein category “women” included rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and gentile, urban and rural, Roman and barbarian, and lots of realities in between. Within this dynamic matrix, women in ancient Rome had agency to make decisions about family, finances, religion, and more. Women who upheld modesty, chastity, and loyalty to family and Rome demonstrated their agency.1This insight is especially important for the study of Christian women, whose traditional modesty preferences should be seen as real choices, not merely capitulation to patriarchy.

Women in Ancient Rome: Agency in the Public Sphere

In 42 B.C.E., Hortensia spoke before the Senate against their plan to tax the wealthiest families to fund the civil wars of Rome. She reminded them that Roman women gladly gave up their jewelry and money to sponsor Rome’s wars with external enemies, but this new tax would cut into dowries and property. Her argument won the day, and it was remembered for its outstanding rhetoric. Hortensia spoke on matters critical to family honor, and with this incident we have a snapshot of the complexity of women’s lives, and our ability to understand them. Hortensia’s public address to the senate, therefore, was in keeping with the virtues of a Roman matron: modesty, chastity, and loyalty to family and Rome. Her loyalty to family necessitated that she speak publicly; she maintained modesty by speaking on matters related to family honor.2Additionally, women in the first century enjoyed more options based on the highly valued Roman virtue of industry.

Women’s Agency in Marriage

In his Advice to the Bride and Groom, the second-century C.E. philosopher, Plutarch, encouraged wives to subordinate themselves to their husbands, and the latter to govern their wives not as property but with consideration as to how he might also delight her. In this he follows his culture’s assessment about a husband’s authority. Yet married women in ancient Rome also remained an active part of their birth family. A first century B.C.E. Latin inscription reads: “(The altar of) Minucia Suavis, wife of Publius Sextilius Campanus. She lived 14 years, 8 months, 23 days. Her father Tiberius Claudius Suavis (put this up).”3CIL VI.22560. Translation in Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 207. Although she was married, it is her father who honors her, likely reflecting the marriage tradition known as sine manu or “without hand” wherein a woman remained tied to her family of origin, and her husband had shared authority over her. Additionally, married women engaged courts and government officials to protect their family property. In the Laudatio Turiae, a funerary inscription from the late first century B.C.E., a husband laments the passing of his beloved wife of forty years. Turia, he declares, was industrious (she worked in wool), generous, and loyal—she avenged her parents’ murders, and she cared for her in-laws.4ILS 8393. Translated by E. Wistrand in Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 135–39.

In a radically counter-cultural statement, Paul advocates marital reciprocal love.

Evidence abounds that Roman couples desired love or harmony as a marital bond. This love, however, conformed to the hierarchical assumptions that males were superior to females. In a radically counter-cultural statement, Paul advocates marital reciprocal love. To the Corinthians, Paul makes the culturally astonishing statement that a husband does not have authority (exousia) over his own body, but his wife does (1 Cor 7:4). Giving a wife conjugal rights over her husband reflects Paul’s insistence on reciprocity within marriage, seen in his statement that the husband should consider his wife as his own body. By implication, the wife understands her husband’s body as her own (Eph 5:25–31). Paul commands that husbands love their wives as Christ loved, in a self-sacrificial way. This type of marital love was not advocated by any other group or philosopher.

Women’s Agency in the Ancient Roman Home

The ancient home was not the private domain that it is in the West today. Instead, it was the hub of business, and included public spaces to receive clients and friends. Wives were evaluated as managers of the household, and depending on its size, might oversee slaves, crops and business. A Greek term describing this (oikodespotēs) is found in 1 Timothy 5:14 in the call for wives to manage their households (a similar idea (proistēmi oikou) is used in 1 Tim 3:4­–5, 12). Hospitality played a key role in society, and thus in the nascent church, women provided a highly valued and important role in extending generosity. Lydia, a dealer in purple dye, had the wealth and social status to support Paul and Silas as they preached the gospel in Philippi (Acts 16:15). No husband is named, so most likely she is a widow.

Roman matrons attended banquets with their husbands and thus had access to important citizens and power brokers. Typically, men reclined, and a dining table was in the center of a U-shaped arrangement of couches. Wives might share the couch with their husbands. However, women in ancient Rome often are shown seated in preserved artwork. With this posture, the artist projects their modesty. It is not clear whether women and men dined together or in separate dining rooms, and perhaps both happened based on the specific event. In Philo’s description of the Therapeutics, in On the Contemplative Life, he indicates that men and women dined together in the same room and celebrated with hymns after the meal. In the Gospel of Mark’s story of Herodias, wife of Herod who requests the head of John the Baptist, her daughter exits the room where King Herod is, in order to speak with her mother (Mark 6:14–29).

It may be that women reclined at meals with Jesus, for some of his disciples were wealthy women who would likely recline at other meals. A less persuasive argument for women reclining with Jesus concludes that, since he ate with tax collectors and sinners, therefore Jesus had prostitutes reclining with him. This argument wrongly projects similar culture codes from fourth-century B.C.E. Athens and ancient symposia into the first-century world. Evidence from the Roman period has women populating banquets with no challenge to their modesty. Moreover, Jews would have gathered as families each Friday evening for Shabbat meals where women and men would participate together. Whether reclining or seated, women in the early church enjoyed the social dynamics present at meals.

The Agency of Women in Ancient Rome: Reframing Our Perception of the Social World and Social Status

Greco-Roman women were active in the marketplace as shopkeepers and businesswomen who bought and sold. Women and men regularly gathered together in temples and religious festivals, for weddings and athletic events, and in the baths. Statues of influential women adorned public spaces, with inscriptions praising their donations to the common good.      

Elite Roman women often controlled large fortunes, especially if their husbands and brothers had been killed in Rome’s never-ending wars.

One cannot overstate the importance of social status for the Romans, and the need to publicly display wealth. Elite women in ancient Rome often controlled large fortunes, especially if their husbands and brothers had been killed in Rome’s never-ending wars. Displays of wealth brought honor to the family. In Ephesus, the celebration for the goddess Artemis included festivals wherein the city’s young women dressed in their finery, displayed their jewels, and wore their hair in elaborate braided styles to mimic the goddess. It is likely that Paul had such extravagance in mind when he cautioned the Ephesian women to refrain from braided hair and wearing pearls (1 Tim 2:9). 

With wealth also came social expectations to benefit the city and one’s clients. Perhaps the most famous woman patron was Livia, Caesar Augustus’s wife, who gave dowries to senators’ daughters, and even interceded on behalf of a few senators’ lives.5On Livia’s patronage, see Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 56.46.1–3,58.2; Suetonius, Galba 5; Otho 1; Tacitus, Ann 1.73; see also Josephus, Ant. 17.1.1. Wealthy women could be “mothers” of their hometown, honored for their public gifts. This form of benefaction is called euergetism. Women were patrons of both men and women, who were considered her clients. Reciprocity governed both the public and personal relationships, as the patron provided for the material needs of the city or client, and the latter responded by publicly honoring the patron. For example, Eumachia, a wealthy woman in Pompeii, gave a building to the guild of fullers (wool and clothing workers). In return, they set up a statue and offered the inscription: “To Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, the fullers [dedicated this statue].”6CIL X.813. Translation in Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece andRome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 159. Her clients would come to her house early in the morning, praising her generosity and inquiring if there is anything they might do for her that day. Her public presence was not questioned, because benefaction stretched the household into the town’s daily life.

Similar to Lydia’s support of Paul, Phoebe was Paul’s benefactor (Gr: prostatis) and she delivered and read Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1–2). In Jesus’s circle of disciples, several women were patrons, including Susanna, Joanna, and Mary of Magdala (Luke 8:2–3). Joanna’s husband, Chuza, was Herod Antipas’s steward; it is possible that she used her privileged position within Herod’s household to keep Jesus relatively safe while ministering in Galilee. Moreover, Joanna might be the source of Luke’s description of Jesus’s trial before Herod (Luke 23:7–11).

Women’s Agency and the Earliest Followers of Jesus                 

History tends not to remember the average, but only the spectacular. Yet most of life is average, mundane, quotidian. The pages of the New Testament are filled with average people, going about their average lives. I close with an example of an average woman who became (in)famous, and a laudable woman whose prophetic act is often forgotten. The average woman is Mary of Magdala, who was one of many people healed by Jesus (Luke 8:2–3). She had financial resources which she contributed to Jesus’s ministry, thus making her his benefactor. She chooses to follow Jesus, who was one among many religious teachers of her day. So far, she is just like many other women: she can spend her money on things important to her and choose religious expressions that are meaningful to her. Yet within the next 500 years of church history, Mary’s story is changed such that she became known as a sinful prostitute who was “healed” of her shame by Jesus. She is often portrayed in art as either an ascetic still making penance for her sexually sinful past or as a voluptuous woman who has not quite given up her past. But these renditions of Mary bear little connection to the biblical text.7For a discussion of Mary of Magdala, see Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 494–98.

Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, is also an average woman, providing hospitality to her teacher, Jesus, and other disciples (Matt 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–11; John 12:1–8). But she did an extraordinary act: she anointed Jesus in preparation for his burial, and acknowledgement of his kingship. Her theological discernment of this critical moment as Jesus faces his passion is often ignored by history with its gender-bias. However, the event reveals ancient women’s deep religious convictions, and their courage to act on them.

End Notes

1. This insight is especially important for the study of Christian women, whose traditional modesty preferences should be seen as real choices, not merely capitulation to patriarchy.

2. Additionally, women in the first century enjoyed more options based on the highly valued Roman virtue of industry.

3. CIL VI.22560. Translation in Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 207.

4. ILS 8393. Translated by E. Wistrand in Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, 135–39.

5. On Livia’s patronage, see Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 56.46.1–3,58.2; Suetonius, Galba 5; Otho 1; Tacitus, Ann 1.73; see also Josephus, Ant. 17.1.1.

6. CIL X.813. Translation in Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, Women’s Life in Greece andRome: A Source Book in Translation, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 159.

7. For a discussion of Mary of Magdala, see Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 494–98.

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