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Woman in the Roman World (A.D. 33 - 305) from 'Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.' by Arthur Frederick Ide

Woman in the Roman World (A.D. 33 - 305)

Woman as Priest, Bishop and Laity in the Early Church to 440 A.D.
by Arthur Frederick Ide, Ide House 1984, pp. 13-18.
Published on our website with the kind permission of the author

Life was more liberal, tolerant, and free at the advent of Christianity than it would be at the time of its toleration under Constantine in A.D. 313. Women had greater equality and dignity before the coming of the Christian message than they would have afterwards when the Church would be a major force, ruled almost exclusively by men.

Roman law was more generous than Greek law in regards to women. By the third century anno Domini women in Rome could marry whomever they wished and were given the liberty to take with them their own personal possessions—and even maintain the same after marriage— a facet of life not enjoyed by women for more than fifteen hundred years afterwards. At the same time Roman woman had dominion over her own body: electing a life of continence (being subject to her father only in civil affairs) or, if she chose, adopt the veil of a vestal virgin and then become free from the legal potestas of her father.(1) Nearly free again, Roman woman could also sue for and obtain a divorce. If she sought out a man for companionship, or sex, she was not stopped, forbidden, or punished - as long as her liaision was not “too public” nor “too prolonged”. If the sexual interlude produced a child out-of-wedlock, there was no question of its legitimacy as such, but instead prized by the state which levied fines against those who chose to live a life of celibacy. Of course marriage was urged, but it was encouraged in the belief that it was the most assured way of maintaining the population and thereby insuring the state a regular supply of soldiers, whereas casual sex was seen “more as sport than as duty” seldom producing the fighters the boarderlands demanded.

Marriage was somewhat unique. Serial monogamy was the rule and not the exception. Men and women both passed through regular and continuous succession of marriages and divorces—little was said by the families involved or by society in general. It was for this reason that the spokespersons of Christianity came out so strongly against the “corrupt life” they saw in Rome—equating multiple marriages and serial marriages as the same and both as “sinful.” The Christians termed such activity as “pagan” because the few spokespersons of the new faith who were educated assumed such a practice to be found only in rural or country areas—areas inhabited by the paganus or country people.

The fact that the established faiths of the Republic and later empire did nothing to stop serial monogamy, nor did any of the priests or priestesses of the Roman deities blast such “licentiousness” gave cause to the Christian spokespersons to attack the old faiths with greater vigor and zeal. Again Rome appeared “pagan” because of sex in religion, for Roman religion employed numerous temple prostitutes who solicited sex as an expression of worship - an act which seemed tantamount to the ba’alism of the Old Testament which was soundly denounced by the ancient Jewish prophets who condemned the qadesh of the people of Judah who “put up stone pillars and symbols [phallus] of Asherah to worship on the hills and under shady trees.” (1 Kings 14:23f)(2) The fact that the majority of the temple prostitutes were women was not as great a torment to the Christian spokespersons as was the fact that women prostitutes were held in greater regard than other women in the community. Worse yet, in the Christian mind, was the fact that at the top of the Roman religious heirarchy was a woman who wielded immense, nearly immeasurable influence and power over both men and women. Roman ecclesiastics justified this by noting that Juno sat next to Jupiter (even though Jupiter had greater power than Juno, based on his raw physical strength). Even this appeared as “dualism” to the early Christians, a dualism which “justified” much of the “liberal laws” in Roman society. This in fact was not the case, save in a few rare instances, such as those defined by Valerius Maximus in Facta et Dicta Memorabilia— but even in cases such as he states, it dealt with a “woman’s honor”-which prohibited any one from touching a woman, or her stola (dress), for fear that such an “intimacy” might be construed in error as an act that would lead to adultery. Even in that case the spirit of the law was not in favor of the woman but set out to “safeguard” “men’s respect.” The true “laxness” in the laws on “adultery” applied only to “women who have charge of any business or shop” or were “female slaves, unless they are deteriorated in value or an attempt is made against their mistresses through them”, for in such cases such an act “is not considered a crime.”(3) The same was true with prostitutes—even the rape of a prostitute was considered impossible by Roman law.(4) At best the majority of “freedom” a woman enjoyed under Roman law was if and when she became a prostitute—a reality that was exceptionally difficult for later Christian emperors to live with.(5) The only other women who had any direct public relationship with men were the Vestal Virgins of the temples, but their public appearances and participations were limited to dinner parties (during which they were set at segregated tables, as dinner parties for the most part were segregated by sex), travelling through the streets in carriages at public festivals, giving evidence in court, being able to annul the death sentence of a prisoner with whom they came in contact, as long as the encounter was by accident, on his way to his execution, and allowed to attend public theater, where they sat in privileged seats - joined by the ladies of the imperial house. They were always under scrutiny as their purity was not only a token but a guarantee of the good health and salvation of Rome itself. There was no problem with laxness within the college provided there was no national calamity or some political ferment which would cause some worried politician to expose the scandal of some (or all) Vestal Virgin. If either occured, the luckless Vestal Virgin was either “shut up” in an underground prison, or put to death.

Concubinage remained common, and by some encouraged—as late as A.D. 228, much to the Christian spokespersons’ regret and bitterness.(6) But, whereas a woman had control and custody over her dowry before the time of Augustus, Augustus, in his quest to “purify and sustain” the family, ruled that a woman—if accused of adultery— was to forfeit one half of her dowry.(7)

By the registry of the Empire, the great feminist Protest of 195 B.C. was history—and long forgotten.(8) The freedom and liberties that the Christians condemned were basically enjoyed only by the men of Rome- but how fitting for once, for the majority of the condemnation of those freedoms came from men who increasingly took over the role of being Christianity’s spokespersons.

What then, exactly, was the history of the average woman of Rome? In the earliest days,the only recognized relationship came through the male line. If a father of a child could not be determined, the child was considered a bastard, for such was the unlimited power of the pater familias. After the second century anno Domini relationships were recognized through the female line and extended beyond legitimate marriage, for Hadrian, the senatus consultum Tertulliarum admitted her as a legitimate heir on the condition that she possessed the ius liberorum (which occured when she had three children if a citizen, or four if she were a freedwoman), and then by the senatus consultum Orphitianum passed under Marcus Aurelius, her children were allowed to inherit from her—regardless if they were legitimate or not; in short, family and family life was henceforth based on the principle of “blood” or “blood kinship”: coniunctio sanquinis.

As time developed, the patria potestas (or power of the father) was increasingly blunted. His absolute control over his children and his wife were lessened until by the second century anno Domini it completely disappeared: no longer could the pater familias determine the right of life or death over his children, and absolute authority over a wife was no longer in manum (“in his hands”) as if she were one of his daughters. Even though a large number of boy baby bastards were exposed with immunity until the beginning of the third century when abandoning a child was considered the equivalent of murder, the infanticide of girl baby bastards was far less—in part because of a new appreciation of womanhood, and in part because not all female child deaths were recorded.

If the girl child lived through puberty she was still married at the instance of her father, but if her husband died she was allowed to remain single, or sine manu; if she adopted the role of sine manu and remarried she could retain this distinction and enter her husband’s home freely and live in it as an equal. By the time of the Flavian dynasty women even had champions among men: the most notable being Musonius Rufus, who argued that a woman’s dignity and independence was based on the ground of moral and intellectual equality of the two sexes. (This statement of course, was anathema to most male Christian apologists who spent numerous years writing against it.) This equality of the sexes can be seen even in the imperial house where the wives sat along side of their husbands honored with the title (although no power) of Augusta (although Livia was granted this distinction only after the death of her husband). Common women, too, began to take on an air of equality with their husbands as the Republic drew to its close, and even in the days of the Empire retained select rights and responsibilities. These were not forfeited until after Constantine and the rise of the male dominated Christian Church. This equality was in the manner of social recognition rather than job identification, for most women remained tied to the home and farm, working alongside their mate either in the field or at the hearth, or in the barn.

There were some women gainfully self-employed. They served as secretaries, clerks, stenographers, teachers, doctors, fishwives, costermongers, dressmakers, tailors, wool distributors, silk merchants, hairdressers, nurses, even bankers and jewellers. Some also worked in the arts, for Pliny the Elder records how “women, too, have been painters”: such as Timarete, “the daughter of Micon”, Irene, “the daughter and student of Cratinus,” and others. Others threw pottery, made tents, played musical instruments, and even built ships!(9) These would be professions they would later be denied with the rise of male interpreted Christianity.


1. A.C. Johnson, P.L. Coleman-Norton, and F.C. Bourne, Ancient Roman Statutes (Austin, 1961), p. 10; Johannes Leipoldt, Die Frau in der antiken Welt und im Urchristentum, 2d ed, (Leipzig, 1955), pp. 16-24; James Donaldson, Woman: Her Position and Influence in Ancient Greece and Rome, and among the Early Christians (London, 1907), pp. 77-147, and, my Woman in Ancient Rome (Mesquite, 1980).

2. William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Washington, D.C., 1942), p. 78; Kathleen M. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land (New York, 1960), p. 214;cp. 1 Kings 12:15ff.

3. Bk, 2, ch, 1, para. 5; Ulpan, Rules, XII, 1, 2, in S. P. Scott, The Civil Law (Cincinnati, 1932). I, pp, 97ff.

4. Opinions of Julius Paulus, II, 26, 11, in Scott, I, p. 282; Code IX, ix, 22, 23, 35, in Scott, XV, p. 19ff,

5. Theodosian Code, 15,8,1, trans. Clyde Pharr (Princeton, NJ, 1952), p. 435; Novels, 5th collection, VI, in Scott, XVI, pp. 222-23.

6. Ulpan, loc. cit..

7. Gaius, Institutes, II, in Scott, I, p, 1 18; Digest, XXIII, iii, 1, 2, in Scott V, p. 261, Code, V, xvii, 11, in Scott, XIII, p. 206.

8. Livy, History of Rome, Bk. 34, chs. 2, 7, 8.

9. See my Woman in ancient Rome, pp. 44-47, with references from Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. I do not agree with Jerome Carcopino’s appraisal in his Daily Life in Ancient Rome (New Haven, 1940), pp. 180-183, which argues that the greatest bulk of Roman women had “no occupations”, and that there were no women jewellers.

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