Origins of Namelessness in Women
Women of Rome

The Romans did not name their daughters at all. A daughter was automatically called by the feminine form of her father’s name. In view of the later development of the patronymic into surnames it appears that Roman girls had no individual names at all.

This practice was merely a reflection of a long history of Roman legislation affecting women, especially in the areas of guardianship, marriage and inheritance. The prevailing attitude towards the “weakness and light-mindedness” of the female sex created the underlying principles of Roman legal theory that all women were to be under the custody of males. In all cases women were expected to accept the authority and protection of their husbands and fathers. From the time of the XII Tables (ca. 451-450 BC) women of early Rome were expected to place duty to their families above personal inclination. In childhood, a daughter fell under the sway of the eldest male ascendant in her family, usually the father, the pater familias. The pater familias extended to the determination of life and death for all members of the household. A daughter was under her father’s authority for his lifetime unless she married by manus or became a Vestal Virgin.

One way a daughter could escape her father’s authority was to be married by manus (by the hand) where her father would place control of her into her husband’s hand at the time of the wedding. In this manner the father’s rights, powers and authority were transferred to the husband, and the husband’s ancestors would become hers as well as his household gods. A family’s religion was transferred through males and the pater familias was the chief priest. Upon marriage a girl renounced her father’s religion and worshipped at her husband’s hearth.

Despite the restrictions of the pater familias, Roman women enjoyed a far greater freedom than did their Athenian counterparts. There were two great and contrasting influences on early Roman society: the sway of classic Greece which deeply influenced all neighboring cultures between the fifth and first centuries BC and the impact of the Etruscan culture of Italy which was older than Rome and which dominated it in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Through the history of Livy, the names of early Roman women were preserved as heroines to be venerated in legend and used as examples of feminine behavior to be admired or condemned in the early centuries of Rome’s development.

The Roman Republic lasted from 510 BC to the date of 31 BC, which marked the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by Augustus. The Republican years were marked by a gradual change in position and status for women from the restricted life similar to that of ancient Greece where women could be threatened with death from drinking or adultery to a freer, more open lifestyle where women were becoming more independent and able to assume a more public role. As a result, education for women became more common. For the first time, women began to appear in Republican sculpture, art and literature. Unlike the strict separation of Greek women, Roman women were permitted to go out in public, attend lectures and meetings, dine with guests and conduct their own affairs with some initiative. Also, unlike Greek women who had no political identity or status, Roman women were citizens and were considered to be participants in the public sphere, even if they could not vote.

One way a woman could escape the pater familias was to become a Vestal Virgin. These were women who were chosen in early childhood and sacrificed their fertile years by serving for 30 years in the maintenance of the shrine of the goddess, Vesta. The quality of chastity in service of Rome’s religious observances was a quality which incited the deepest veneration towards these women. After a period of thirty years of service, the women were freed from their vows and permitted to marry if they desired. Few did so. Vestals were under the exclusive authority of Rome’s high priest and were immune from male interference. As a result these women enjoyed greater wealth and much influence.

The late Republican era was a period that saw increased stresses being placed on the marital unit. Divorce became a tool of personal and family advancement with marital alliances being made and broken off to suit changing political or factional opportunities. As well, due to prolonged civil wars and the ever expanding wars of conquest, a situation was created where Roman women had to do without men for considerable periods of time. They were left with the responsibility of running the household and its affairs. An increasing number of women inherited their husbands’ fortunes creating a situation where there was a move towards more independence and a more public role for women. It was during this period of flux in the first century BC that women were more likely to be attacked by male writers who viewed their increasing independence and wealth as a societal imbalance. Although attempts were made by Augustus in the later Empire to legislate a return to the older, restrictive morality, women were never again as invisible or voiceless in the Empire as they had been in the earlier Republic.

The women of Rome had a voice, but their voices have been reflected only in the writing of male historians. They had names that were recorded and remembered, but still, these were the names of their fathers, not their own.

Home
The Journey
Women of Ancient Greece
Women of Rome
Women of the Early Christian Era
The Story of the Goddess
Journey's End
Works Consulted