Roman society’s expectations of women in the first century AD

In a letter informing a friend of a young girl’s death, Pliny praises the girl for having the “judgement” and “dignity” of older women. He comments on the fact that she preferred reading to playing, and mentions that when she did play she did so “demurely”. Pliny also admired her for her bravery and for the respect and affection she showed her father’s friends and her teachers. This shows that in Roman society girls were expected to mature early, and to socialise with adults and read instead of participating in childish games because they were supposed to be unnoticed, and not cause their fathers any embarrassment.

There are similarities between these expectations, and those which Britain’s society has of girls; reading is still seen as an admirable pursuit today, and being able to socialise with adults is a good quality to have. However today girls are frowned upon for growing up too quickly, which is very different to Roman views. Sallust’s critiscism of Sempronia for being too educated, and the lack of mention of girls in the account of a school day show that it was unusual for girls to receive more then a basic, primary education.

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This was because at that time women were not expected to get jobs, or have careers because their role was as a wife and mother, so they did not need much education. They were also seen as being intellectually inferior, so many men believed that they could not cope with more then a basic education. Nowadays all women have to remain in education until they are sixteen, and many continue up till they are eighteen or older because women are able to compete for the same opportunities as men and men and women are seen as being intellectual equals.

Childhood ended young for women in the first century AD. The memorial of Blandinia Martiola, an eighteen year old girl, mentions that she had been married for five years, which meant that she and married at thirteen, and the girl mentioned in Pliny’s letter was already engaged at thirteen. Girls married young at that time because their role in the family was to bear children, and if they married young then they would have more opportunity to provide their husbands with children. This is completely different to society in Britain today.

Getting married at thirteen is illegal, and although it is legal to marry at sixteen it is rare because many people believe that it can cause you to miss out on opportunities. However wealthy Roman women had no opportunities other then making a good marriage. In addition to not having a choice about when they married girls did not have any choice about whom they married. Pliny wrote in a letter to a friend that he was glad he had been asked “to look for a husband for your niece,” showing that husbands were picked for girls, usually by family members or well connected friends.

This was because marriages in the Roman times were for power and wealth, not love, so elder family members would choose your husband based on the advantages that having him in the family would bring you. Although arranged marriages do take place in some cultures today, the majority of British girls are able to choose their own husband, and do so for love not position. As marriages in the first century AD occurred for practical reasons, not love, they were more business-like then marriages today, and the brides family had to give a dowry so that the bride could be provided with “necessities and clothing. This demonstrates the fact that at that time women were seen as an economic burden, partly because wealthy women were not expected to work so they could not add to a family’s income, and their husbands had to pay for all of their expenses. The giving of dowries does not occur in Britain today because women are no longer viewed as a burden, regardless of whether they choose to work or not. On her gravestone Lucius Aurelius Hermia was praised for being a chaste, loving, faithful and optimistic wife, who never shirked her duties.

This shows that in the first century AD these were considered to be desirable qualities in a wife. It suggests that there was affection between Lucius Aurelius Hermia and her husband, possibly because they were lower class so are less likely to have married for position. It also shows that women were expected to carry out jobs in their household. The qualities that she is being praised for are very similar to modern wedding vows, and today a woman would still be praised for this behaviour.

Roman wives were the property of their husbands, and they had to obey them. Valerius Maximus’ account of a man killing his wife for drinking, and not being reproached for it because she “deserved the punishment” shows the power men had over their wives lives. This was because women had to be disciplined so that they did not embarrass their husbands by acting immodestly, or receiving any unwanted attention. In Britain today domestic violence is a crime, and men no longer have such extreme control over their wives existence.

Married women were also expected to put up with their husbands affairs. Valerius Maximus praises a women for being tolerant of her husbands adultery, and “completely ignoring” it. Adultery was common in those times because wealthy citizens married for social position, not love, so there was often little affection between a husband and wife. In today’s society attitudes towards adultery are very different, because people normally marry for love, and women are not expected to accept the fact that their husbands will have affairs.

In the first century AD married women also had to be careful they were not expressing too many opinions, or appearing to have too much knowledge about poetry or ethics, because this was “really annoying. ” In public women were supposed to be appreciative of their husbands, and not try to upstage, or appear cleverer, than they were, because women were seen as being intellectually inferior to men. Therefore, by expressing too many opinions a woman would decrease her femininity and anger any men who were present.

Today women and men are seen as being intellectual equals; and women are not reproached for displaying their knowledge in social situations. The divorce agreement of Zois and Antipater shows that divorce did occur during the time of the Roman empire, and it confirms that when it did happen the dowry was returned, and the marriage contract was “null and void” so either party could marry again without “being liable to prosecution. It is likely that divorce at that time was more common among the upper classes because they were more concerned with political and financial advancement, however another reason for divorce could have been infertility – which may have affected lower classes aswell. In today’s society divorce is more likely to occur for personal reasons, and divorcing someone because of money, politics or infertility is seen as being unkind and callous. Other then a wife the main role of wealthy women in Roman society was that of a mother.

Tacitus wrote that a woman should play an active role in her children’s upbringing, and “devote herself to her children”. He also said that by doing so a woman was contributing to Rome’s greatness. This shows that women were expected to raise their children themselves, and dedicate their lives to caring for them. It also implies that at the time it was not believed that women contribute to society as individuals, but instead they had to do so through their sons.

Although in today’s society many women do choose to raise their children themselves, others choose to go to work, and childcare is available for women who make this choice. Soranus’ advice on how to prevent conception confirms that in the first century AD some women did not want to have any more children so they used contraception, and Ovid’s poem condemning women for killing their fetuses so that they could have a stomach “free of wrinkles” shows that abortions also occurred; although his attitude towards women who did this suggests that it was frowned upon.

Lower class women were more likely to try and avoid having babies because they may not have been able to support any more children; but some upper class women who had had affairs may also have used contraception, or aborted their fetuses, to prevent their husbands learning of their affairs. Nowadays the use of contraception is common, and people no longer just use it if they cannot afford more children or have committed adultery. Abortions are also becoming more common – although some people do still have moral issues with their use.

Although upper class women were not expected to work, some poorer women had to because they needed the money. Women who worked were usually illiterate, and no one wrote about them because they were of no interest to the rich, and generally ignored by upper class society. The gravestones of Italis, Psamate and Aurelia Nais show that working women often died young, and did not have enough money for their own tombstones. This suggests that physically they had to work very hard, but they still did not get paid much.

Nowadays it is not only poor women who work; and women who do work are not seen as being desperate for money the way they were in the first century AD. Ovid’s advice on how women can “appear bright and radiant” by using face masks shows that at that time women used cosmetics to make themselves more attractive so that they could get men’s attention. This shows it was men who pursued women, as women had to get their attention through the way they looked.

It also suggests that women were desired because of their appearance, not their mind, probably because at the time it was thought that women could not understand the same things as men anyway, so how clever they were was not significant. Although women still use cosmetics nowadays, and are still judged on their appearance, their personality is also important. Legally women in the first century AD had no rights. Their father, or guardian if their father was dead, “deaf, mute or insane”, had to authorise all of their lawsuits, “legal or financial obligations” and their transactions in civil business, and they also had to arrange their dowries.

This was because it was thought that women could not understand law or business, as they were not clever enough. It is a demonstration of the inferior position that Roman women held in society because it shows that they were treated as if they were children. In Britain today men and women have to have a parent or guardian until they are sixteen, but after that they are legally considered adults so they no longer need a guardian.