Women in ancient Rome had fewer rights than their male counterparts, although they probably weren’t treated as poorly as in some societies at the time and things did appear to improve over the Roman period.
In the years after the founding of Rome, women were abducted from the Sabines, a tribe who already lived in the area. This practice stopped after the Romans and the Sabines formed a single nation. Women soon became more respected due to the need to boost the birth rate and the overall population so that Rome could defend itself and expand its territory.
Despite some improvements, women did not have citizenship, nor could they vote or hold public office, and could not own property. Their main role, apart from bearing children, was to wait on their husbands, look after their family, and do the housework, including making clothes and other items. In households with slaves, women would usually supervise their work.
A woman was regarded as a minor in Roman law and her husband was her guardian, or if she had no husband her nearest male relative filled this role. If her husband died intestate, his property automatically passed to the nearest male relative. Perhaps surprisingly, divorce was fairly easy and would be granted if the woman left her husband’s house.
In the early and middle years of the Roman Republic, or around the third to the fifth centuries BCE, women were not usually allowed to leave the house without their veil, or to speak in private to a man outside the family, or to drink wine. Breaking these rules could result in punishment or even divorce. Women did not eat with their husbands, but ate with other female family members and children.
In the late republican period, these rules were often eased, such as women being allowed to eat with their husbands in the dining room. They could also walk the streets freely or go to bath houses. In 195 BCE, women publicly complained about laws preventing them from wearing expensive clothing and jewelry or riding in chariots. Roman statesman Cato the Elder chided them but the laws were rescinded. The education of women also began around this time.
By the first century BCE, the standing of women was considerably higher than in early republican times, although they still couldn’t hold office. The increasing wealth of Rome meant that women had more time and money to pursue interests outside the home.
In marriage, they were able to stay under the authority of their family rather than their husband; other relatives tended to be less strict than their spouse. When they married, they could retain their own money, which meant easier divorce if they needed one, and greater freedom. Adultery was becoming less of a sin. Women could provide advice to their husband and it became socially acceptable for a man to admit he took this advice. This is in contrast to earlier times where women were not permitted to even make suggestions.
Emperor Augustus tried to make a series of changes relating to women and families soon after the start of the Roman Empire in 27 BCE. He felt that women did not value marriage and had too much freedom. Various reforms were put in place. A woman would be banished or lose half her dowry is she committed adultery. If the offence took place in her husband’s house, he was entitled to kill her. Similarly, he could kill his daughter for adultery. Women under the age of 50 had to be married or lose their inheritance. Further, they could not attend public events by themselves.
But the reforms were unpopular with just about everyone and were regarded as a backward step in a society where the standing of women had increased steadily over the years. The “reforms” were doomed to failure.
Women in ancient Rome continued to have a lifestyle that was better than in most other ancient societies, although they never gained anything close to equality. While their lives were centered around the home, they did have considerable freedoms.