History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Notable Women 
Mature woman of the Flavian Era
Mature Woman of the  Roman Elite,
Marble Bust, 1st c AD Flavian Era. Getty Villa

For more on hairstyles: Glorious Roman Hairstyle Photos


* Women of the upper classes could read and write, sometimes Greek as well as Latin. Unfortunately, almost nothing written by a woman of ancient Rome has survived. We know of them only through male writers.

* Women outside the elite, even those working in necessary occupations, were not esteemed.

* Women were portrayed in art as symbols of specific Roman values--fertility, motherhood, etc.

* The status and role of women changed little over a thousand years of Roman history.


Notable Women of Ancient Rome

Notable women were all upper class women: rich, protected, beautifully adorned. Like males of the upper classes of Rome, these females were  extraordinarily privileged.

How do we know who they were? 

This is a big problem: Roman women have come down to us only through male writers of the ancient world and beyond. These writers wrote only about the women of the political elite.

Not surprisingly, Roman women flit in and out of our attention space--a paragraph here by a Roman historian, a mention there by Cicero in his letters.

Sometimes there were statues or games or other honors by a husband. A wife's honors were partly meant to extol the husband's own  virtues, especially if he were in politics.
Notable Women We Wish We Knew More About:


Tullia (legendary), 6th c BC.

Tullia was a symbol of parricide, the worst of all crimes in Roman eyes.

Livy the historian tells us that Tullia, the daughter of a very early King of Rome, conspired with her husband to kill her father.

This enabled her husband to become ruler of Rome.

Tullia then ran over Dad's dead body in her carriage, underlining the heartlessness of the murder.

Tullia was still in use as a moral symbol as late as the 19th c. (see photo right).
  Tullia Driving Over the Dead Body of Her Father
Tullia Driving Over the Dead Body of Her Father," by Ernst Hildebrand, 1889. New York Public Library.

Lucretia (legendary), 6th c BC

Lucretia was Roman virtue personified.

Lucretia has been the subject of myth and literature for centuries, including Rembrandt's painting and Shakespeare's poem, "The Rape of Lucretia." 

Who was she, this object of so many centuries of attention?

Lucretia was the wife of a nobleman, and of course beautiful and virtuous. Although she was in a privileged social position, the son of the then-King of Rome raped her. 

Lucretia extracted from her father and her husband an oath of vengeance against the King's family.

Then she stabbed herself to death.

Why did she, the victim, kill herself? Roman notions of honor portrayed rape as dishonoring the husband and the family more than the woman.
  Lucretia, by Rembrandt, 1664
"Lucretia" by Rembrandt van Rijn. Oil. 1664. National Gallery, Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy National Gallery).

Postscript: The King's own second-in-command leveraged the event of Lucretia's rape into a rebellion to overthrow the King.

Traditionally dated 509 BC, the rebellion is the foundation of the Roman Republic.

Cornelia, 2nd c BC

Cornelia was the iconic early Roman mother, wife, and intellectual.

The ancients gobbled up romantic "political reconciliation" stories and Cornelia's was the best.

Cornelia supposedly sacrificed her own wishes in order to reconcile two rich, powerful and warring noble families "for the good of Rome." She did this by marrying a bitter enemy of her father's, T. S. Gracchus. He was also 25 years older than she.

Known as "Mother of the Gracchi,"  Cornelia had twelve children, of whom three survived infancy.

An early-adopter of Greek culture, Cornelia was a published writer whose works, lost to us, were admired in the ancient world.
  Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi. My Children are my Treasures
Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. "Cornelia Presenting Her Children, the Gracchi, as Her Treasures," Oil. Angelika Kauffmann, 1785. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo Courtesy Va. Museum.

Cornelia is supposed to have said: "My children are my jewels."  In fact, Cornelia had an enormous dowry and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle.

Lavish apparently was ok as long as it was  tasteful. 

Hortensia, 1st c BC

Hortensia was the first woman to make a speech in the Roman Forum.

After Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, the new rulers (the Triumvirate sought revenge for his murder. With money for civil war against the assassins in short supply, they proposed taxing the property of the 1,400 richest Roman women.

Hortensia led a delegation of women to Forum, where she declared that Roman women would enthusiastically help resist a foreign enemy but would never pay for a civil war. (Exactly what she said has come down to us in a muddle of fabrication and speculation).


Needless to say, Hortensia would not have been invited by the Roman male political establishment to make a speech, especially not this speech.

But she prevailed. The number of women liable to the tax was reduced to 400, and Roman males who owned property were now also taxed.

Terentia, Tullia, and Publilia, 1st c BC

These three are the only women known to us from private letters.

They were the wives and daughters of Cicero.  Terentia was his first wife. Tullia was their daughter.

Publilia was his much, much younger second wife. It was not a match made in heaven.  Cicero wrote extensively to his friends about the three females in his life.

In addition, there were lots of letters between Cicero and his wives and daughter.  Cicero's side of the letters have survived.
Cicero Marble Bust Capitoline Museum
Cicero. Marble bust. Capitoline Museum, Rome  

Octavia, 1st c BC

Octavia was one of the first Roman women whose likeness appeared on an official coin.

Octavia was the sister of Octavian, Julius Caesar's nephew and heir, who became Rome's first Emperor, (and changed his name to Augustus.)  Brother Augustus delivered Octavia's funeral oration, an unusual honor for a woman, and built the Gate of Octavia, still standing, in her memory.

Octavia was also the (4th) wife of Mark Anthony. Being by all accounts a good person, she took care of Mark Anthony's children by his third wife. This called for a very big heart indeed, as Mark Anthony then abandoned Octavia for Cleopatra.

Unfortunately, Octavia's great goodness could not prevent outsized badness in her offspring. Her direct descendants were among the most horrible of all Roman Emperors--Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.
Octavia sister of Emperor Augustus, Getty Villa
Octavia. Marble bust. 1st c. Getty Villa.

The poet Vergil admired Octavia. She reportedly fainted when Vergil read his verses of poetry to the Emperor.


Fulvia, 1st C BC

How Not to Be a "Good Roman Wife."

Fulvia was Mark Anthony's first wife, and she represents the aggressive, independent, political woman of the late Roman Republic. Although women are now figuring more prominently in historical accounts, their "appropriate"  role appears not to have changed all that much from 500 years previously.

Fulvia's ultimate transgression was her foray into a sphere outside the old role of the Good Roman Wife. Here's how the story goes, from the male writers of ancient times:

After Julius Caesar's death, civil war raged between his nephew Octavian/Augustus and Mark Anthony. Fulvia supposedly appeared before husband Anthony's troops while Anthony was on another front. She urged the troops to stand loyal to him against Octavian. She held councils of war with Roman senators. She put on a sword.  She issued the watchword to the troops. 

Still, Anthony's troops, led by his brother, were defeated. And guess what?  Anthony blamed Fulvia for the rout. 

When she lay dying, he did not visit her. 

End of the ancients' version of the story.

We are left wondering: beneath this history, is there another story?

Livia, 58 BC- AD 29

Loyal and supportive wife, or ruthless plotter and poisoner?

Livia was Emperor Augustus' second wife.  She was considered a fine example of a Roman "matrona." Livia wore neither excessive jewelry nor pretentious costumes, took care of the household, and was loyal to her husband.  For thirty years, Livia stayed in the imperial background, in the shadow of Augustus' sister, Octavia (wife of Mark Anthony). Augustus dedicated a public statue to Livia. 

Livia's villa north of Rome was famous for its beautiful frescoes, now in Rome at the National Museum delle Terme, Palazzo Massimo. (The "House of Livia" on the Palatine Hill was not built by or for Livia.)

Livia had her own circle of political clients and pushed many protégés into political offices. She just as energetically pushed others out. Livia certainly had a hand in the exile of stepdaughter Julia the Elder and her daughter Julia the Younger.

She tirelessly campaigned for her son Tiberius, from an earlier marriage, to become Emperor upon Augustus' death. She succeeded. 

The ancient scandal-mongers relish telling how Emperor Tiberius soon tired of Mom's influence: Tiberius exiled himself to get away from Livia. He did not even attend her funeral.
Livia, Marble Bust Getty Villa
Livia. Marble Bust (fragment). 1st c. Getty Villa. Livia was around 60 when this portrait bust was made, but she wanted to be pictured as youthful.

Livia on Roman coin, 1st C AD
Livia depicted as Pax, goddess of Peace.   Roman  gold coin ("aureus") 36 AD.   On the other side of the coin is her son, the Emperor Tiberius.

Julia the Elder, 39 BC-AD 14

The Wild Child

Julia the Elder was the only child of the Emperor Augustus. She was witty, smart, kind to people, and beloved, at least at first, by her father.  

But all the major male ancients considered her the symbol of female profligacy. Julia had an affair(s?) and partied wildly with Roman patricians, including the son of Mark Anthony, Dad's old  nemesis.

It's not too hard to figure out why: on the day of Julia's birth her father divorced her mother, Scribonia, and took Julia away. When Julia was two, Dad engaged her to a political ally's son, though this marriage never took place. When she was fifteen, Father married her off to her first cousin, Aunt Octavia's son Marcellus.

Marcellus died only two years later, and she was handed off again to a man 25 years her elder, Agrippa. By chance, they were quite happy and had several children.

But husband Agrippa died, and Dad Augustus forced her too quickly into a 3rd marriage to step-brother Tiberius. At the time, Tiberius was married to someone else, to whom he was truly attached. The marriage was a disaster for both Julia and Tiberius, and it ended in divorce.

For her adultery and "treason," her father exiled her to a small, uninhabited island. Later he let her return to a town in the "toe" of Italy.
  Julia, daughter of Emperor Augustus, 1st c, Berlin
Julia, (probably), daughter of Augustus. 1st c. Marble bust. Altes Museum, Berlin.

Postscript: Father eventually died. Julia's ex-husband Tiberius became Emperor. Tiberius exacted revenge upon poor Julia for the humiliations he had suffered from her wild affairs: Julia was forced to live in one room of her house with no human contact.

Julia died soon thereafter. 

Tiberius may have starved her to death,  or she committed suicide, or both.

Sulpicia, 1st c AD

Sulpicia is the only woman whose writings, Latin poetry, have survived.

Sulpicia is thought to have lived during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Six of her love poems have survived. Sulpicia's poems were published with those of a male poet; for centuries they were thought to be his.


Scholars now think they have found other fragments by Roman women poets. They have found 2 lines by Sulpicia Caleni, 45 lines by Julia Balbilla on a Colossus in Egypt, and an inscription on a pyramid

Agrippina the Younger, 1st c AD

She wrote memoirs, now lost, that were admired by Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.

Agrippina is also credited with murdering  people, evidently many people, including her third husband and uncle, the Emperor Claudius. She allegedly presented him with a plate of poisoned mushrooms at a banquet.

She herself was perhaps murdered by her son the Emperor Nero. Nero had her assassinated after a very contrived boating accident failed to do so.
  Agripina the Younger 1st c AD, Marble Bust, Getty Museum
Agrippina the Younger. Marble bust. 1st c AD. Getty Villa.

Julia Domna, 2nd c AD

Well-read, well-educated, and well-heeled.

Julia accompanied her husband the Emperor Septimius Severus on his military campaigns, highly unusual for a wife. His campaigns included England, at that time a scary and wild place.

Julia was also a serious student of philosophy and a noted patron of the Sophist philosophers.

Her son Caracalla was not so wonderful. When his father the Emperor died, Caracalla promptly murdered his younger brother, Geta, to gain the throne.

Julia Domna apparently forgave all, because she accompanied son Caracalla on his military campaigns.

Julia Domna committed suicide after Emperor Caracalla was assassinated by a fellow army officer.
  Julia Domna marble bust, 2nd c AD. Palatine Museum
Julia Domna. Marble Bust, 2d c AD. Palatine Museum.


Women of the Late Empire

In the later Empire, the city of Rome and its old Roman Senatorial political and social elites lost importance. The Army, rather than the senators or the sitting emperor might make or break an Emperor.  Usurpers abounded. There sometimes were as many as four emperors ruling at the same time.

The Emperor's seat moved all over the map--Trier, Milan, Ravenna, and finally settled on two capitals, one in Constantinople and the other in the West (Ravenna, Italy).

Many Emperors and other top Imperial officials were born outside Rome, and some Emperors did not set foot in Italy for most of their reign. A few were from obscure social origins. The Late Empire was a fluid mixture of "barbarians"-- those not culturally Roman-- and the old Roman elites.

The lives of the wives of the late Emperors reflected these changes.

Galla Placidia, 5th c. AD

Many Roman empresses were children of Roman Emperors who moved between barbarian and traditional Roman Imperial families.  A good example is Galla Placida. Placidia, involved in Imperial political life for most of her own life, was the daughter of a Roman Emperor (Theodosius I) and his wife, herself the daughter of an earlier Roman Emperor.

Placidia was raised in the household of a "barbarian" Stilicho the Vandal and his wife, Serena, and engaged to their son. She eventually married a Visigoth ruler, Ataulf. Ataulf was assassinated, and she was married off to a traditional Emperor, Constantius III. With him, they had a future Emperor of the Western Empire, Valentinian III.

Barbarian women

Barbarian women were considered by the Romans to be strong, sometimes acting more manly than their mates.  

Barbarian marriages were considered very solid.  

Barbarians were invariably depicted as living in cold climates with only a few skins for clothing.

Above all, they lacked urban settlements and the city's resulting high culture.

Based on a pastoral economy, barbarians ate peculiar food-- dairy products, meat, bird's eggs, not the grains or olive oil of the Roman Mediterranean economy.

Early Christianity and Roman Women

Some women found Christian religious institutions, usually a nunnery, a welcome new option for their lives. More on this topic later...
  Galla Placidia gold medallion, 5th c AD Ravenna
Galla Placidia. Medallion. 5th c AD. Gold.  Bibliotheque National, Paris.

This medallion was struck by Placidia's brother, the Emperor Honorius. One of the more powerful women in Late Imperial politics, Galla Placidia was a devout Christian.

Barbarian Woman Surrendering to Roman Conqueror
Barbarian woman surrendering to Roman conqueror.  Roman Coin, called the Arras Medallion. British Museum, London.

The woman represents barbarian London and the conqueror is Emperor Constantius.

"Barbarians in submission" are one of the longest-lasting conventions in Roman art.
Updated 04-August-2015. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett at NJPadgett@gmail.com