A women’s value in Ancient Rome was measured according to her beauty, loving nature, success in motherhood, dignity, conversational skill, housekeeping and ability to weave wool. Hardly unique criteria, even by some of today’s more reactionary standards.
The ideal matrona, or wife of an honourable man, is described quite succinctly on the gravestone of a woman named Amymone:
Here lies Amymone, wife of Marcus, the best and most beautiful, wool spinner, dutiful, modest, careful with money, chaste, stay-at-home.
Though less confined than their Greek counterparts, and indeed more liberated than the women of many later civilisations, Roman woman, both rich and poor, free or slave, had limited rights or avenues in life when compared to men. Yet some still managed to carve out a niche of power, sometimes exerting significant political influence — and not just via their husbands.
Here is a list of eight very different Roman women who made their marks on history.
1. Lucretia (died c. 510 BC)
A semi-mythical figure, Lucretia was blackmailed into having sex with Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the Etruscan King of Rome. She then committed suicide. These events were the spark for the revolution resulting in the birth of the Roman Republic.
Lucretia is both a symbol of the ideal chaste and virtuous matrona and of the anti-royalist sentiments of the Republic, of which her husband became one of the first two consuls.
2. Cornelia Africana (190 – 100 BC)
Daughter of Scipio Africanus and mother to popular reformers the Gracchi brothers, Cornelia was traditionally held up as another principal and ideal matrona of Rome. She was highly educated and respected and attracted learned men to her circle, eventually refusing the marriage proposal of the Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII Physcon.
The success of Cornelia’s sons is attributed to the education she provided them after the death of her husband, rather than their ancestry.
3. Clodia Metelli (c 95 BC – unknown)
The infamous anti-matrona, Clodia was an adulterer, poet and gambler. She was well educated in Greek and philosophy, but better known for her many scandalous affairs with married men and slaves. She was suspected of killing her husband by poisoning and also publicly accused a well-known ex-lover, wealthy orator and politician Marcus Caelius Rufus, of trying to poison her.
In court her lover was defended by Cicero, who labelled Clodia the ‘Medea of the Palatine Hill’ and referred to her literary skills as sordid.
4. Fulvia (83 – 40 BC)
Ambitious and politically active, she married three prominent tribunes, including Mark Antony. During her marriage to Antony and after Caesar’s assassination, she is described by historian Cassias Dio as being in control of the politics of Rome. During Antony’s time in Egypt and the East, tensions between Fulvia and Octavian escalated the war in Italy; she even raised legions to fight Octavian in the Perusine War.
Antony blamed Fulvia for the conflict and temporarily made amends with Octavian after her death in exile.
5. Servilia Caepionis (c. 104 BC – unknown)
Mistress of Julius Caesar, mother of his killer, Brutus, and half sister to Cato the Younger, Servilia held strong sway over Cato and their family, possibly running an important family meeting after Caesar’s murder. She continued to be active for the cause of the Republicans and managed to live out the rest of her life unharmed and in comfort.
6. Sempronia (1st Century BC)
Married to Decimus Junius Brutus, who was consul in 77 BC, and mother to one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, Sempronia was, like many upper class Roman women, well educated and a skilled player of the lyre. Yet this is where all similarities end, for unbeknownst to her husband, she was a participant in the political conspiracy of the Catiline, a plot to murder the consuls.
The historian Sallust (86 – c35 BC) believed Sempronia to be essentially non-matrona in character due to her boldness, impulsivity, extravagance, outspokenness and independence of mind as well as her role as a conspirator.
7. Livia (58 BC – 29 AD)
As the wife and advisor of Augustus, Livia Drusilla was the “perfect” matrona, even tolerating her husband’s affairs as her predecessors had not. They had a long marriage and she survived Augustus, but not before he granted her control of her own finances, which was unheard of for an Emperor at the time.
Livia, first as Augustus’ wife and later as the mother of the Emperor Tiberius, was the unofficial head of a group of influential politicians’ wives called the ordo matronarum, which was essentially an elite all-female political pressure group.
8. Helena Augusta (c. 250 – 330 AD)
Consort of Emperor Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great, Helena is credited as a large influence on the establishment and growth of Christianity in the Western world. Perhaps originating in Asia Minor, Saint Helena (in Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions) may have come from a very humble background before becoming Empress of Rome and mother to the Constantinian dynasty.
This article uses material from the book Women in Ancient Rome by Paul Chrystal from Amberley Publishing.