History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Legal Rights 
  Marriage Ceremony, marble sarcophagus, 2c CE
Marriage Ceremony: Sarcophagus. Marble. 2nd c AD. British Museum. Photo: B. McManus, VRoma Project.


* The most basic legal distinction for Roman women (and men) was free vs. slave.

* A Roman woman always belonged to her father's family, even after marriage.

* A Roman mother automatically lost her children to their father in the event of divorce.

* Roman women could inherit property, have independent wealth, initiate a divorce, and leave a will.

* Roman women could not vote, hold office, or have their own names.

Women's Rights in Ancient Rome

Who were you under Roman law? 

For better or worse, a personal identity and autonomy were pretty hard to come by if you were a Roman woman.  

Take the women in Julius Caesar's life. He had a strong mother, a beloved aunt, a wife, a daughter, later a second wife, then a third wife, a long-time lover, and other lovers-of-the-moment, including Cleopatra.

How much individual identity could they have outside of marriage?  Outside of the family?




Rights, Status, and Identity

Free vs. slave was the most basic legal distinction for both women and men in the ancient world. "Freeborn" was better than a "freedman" or "freedwoman", a slave who had been freed. 

But not all women were the same: to be freeborn, a Roman citizen, and married was wonderful enough. To be married to a freeborn, Roman-citizen male, preferably rich and a member of the political and social elite, was to hit the trifecta.

Law and Property

Roman law aimed to keep a dynamic society as static as possible. Romans believed that a static universe was a stable one. From stability would come wealth, power, and the specialness that marked a Roman.

Roman law particularly aimed to uphold the privileges and property of the family, not the individual. Birth rights, marriage, divorce, children, inheritance--the Romans devised intricate rules to manage them.

Different laws applied to different status groups. There was no "equal protection under the law," particularly for women.  Women were in a special legal category, "under the protection" of a male guardian.

  Julia Titi daughter of Emperor Titus
Julia Titi. Julia Titi was the daughter of Emperor Titus. Roman. Marble bust, 1st c AD. Getty Villa.

Legal Rights of Roman Women

Roman women had no "public" rights. They could not


-hold public office of any kind

-serve in the military

But women did have "private" legal rights. A Roman woman could

-inherit property in her own name

-own and sell her property

-get a divorce

-make a will or be the beneficiary of a will

Although legally she needed permission from her male guardian for legal transactions, this was apparently not hard to come by.

Much changed for the worse for women during the reign of Emperor Augustus. He sought to impose a conservative moral order, a higher birth rate, and strict controls over the upper elite.

How did Augustus carry out his conservative program? He used legal edicts: A woman convicted of adultery could lose up to half her property and be banished to an island. An  adulterous wife could not remarry.

A widow must remarry within two years. This rule was particularly onerous since so many males had been killed in the civil wars between the death of Julius Caesar and the seizure of power by Augustus.

 A husband could not give gifts to his wife during the man's lifetime. Elite women were supposed to learn the old ways of weaving and spinning cloth.

Livia. The wife of Emperor Augustus. Roman. Marble bust (fragmentary). Getty Villa.

Livia became independently wealthy, very wealthy indeed. She owned a passel of properties in her own name, through both inheritance and her own shrewdness in buying and selling.

What's in a name?

A woman did not have her own full name, just the feminine version of her father's family name. Julius Caesar's daughter was named Julia because the family name was Julius. Caesar's aunt was named Julia as well.

There were loads of "Julias" in ancient Rome, members of the Julian extended family. If there were several mother-daughter females alive at the same time, their names might be "Julia the Elder" and "Julia the Younger." If there were sisters, they might be named "Julia 1", "Julia 2", and so on.

Freedwomen took the name of their patron, so they might also be called "Julia."

  Agrippina the Younger
Agrippina the Younger. Marble Bust. Roman. 1st c CE.  Here's how she got her name: her father was Marcus Vipsania Agrippa. Her mother was Agrippina the Elder.

Who were you loyal to?

As a daughter, a Roman woman was permanently attached to her family of birth, even after marriage. 

As a wife, she was also attached to her husband's family.

But she could never give up the legal connection to her father, especially in the matter of control over her dowry. A  "Julia" was always going to be "Julia," of the clan of the Julians. By the same laws, this meant the woman's children belonged to the husband, their father, not to her, the mother.

Even upper class women-- rich, freeborn, Roman citizens, beautifully adorned, like our gorgeous Poppaea Sabina pictured right, or well-educated and talented--were perpetually stuck as someone else's belongings.

They were just richer.

  Poppaea Sabina
Poppaea Sabina. The wife of the Emperor Nero. Marble Bust, 1st c AD. National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo

Updated 04-August-2015. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com