History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: An Introduction

modern roman wedding couple Forum
Modern couple posing for wedding photos. The Arch of Constantine, Rome.


Roman Women: an Introduction

Rome: On a visit to the Roman Colosseum and the Forum, I noticed a stylish young woman with a trendy man. They stuck out among the unglamorous tourist crowds. Perhaps they were models, posing for wedding photos under the ancient Arch of Constantine, near the Colosseum. Constantine's Arch was dedicated in AD 315 to the Emperor Constantine as a war memorial, and is a favorite spot for photography.

Women in the 4th century, women in the 21st. Wouldn't women in ancient Rome be nearly like us--looking for security, status, maybe love?

Family was important to them. Surely like us they thought about loss, growing older, values to teach their children.

On the other hand, ancient Rome's history meant choices available for women were far different from ours today.

Off I went to find out more. 


My first stop: The Palatine Museum

(directly above the Roman Forum.)    
Since the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum are close to the Palatine Hill, I started at the ticket office entrance to the Palatine Hill. Bring your imagination, as the signs of ancient Rome are underground, out of sight, or in tiny fragments.

Soon I was grumbling: too much rubble, too dusty, too hot, too dry; too few signs, crowds too large, sore feet. Whine, whine, whine, the quintessential tourist.

But then the small, old-fashioned Palatine Museum opened up before me on the south side of the Palatine.

The Palatine Museum was an unexpected treat, mostly of artifacts found on the Palatine itself.  Lots of  marble portrait busts, once painted, of Roman upper class women.
Julia  Domna, bust, 2nd AD,  Palatine Museum
Julia Domna. Late 2nd c AD. Wife of Emperor Septimius Severus and mother of  Emperors Caracalla and Geta. Palatine Museum.
I was in need of a European style hairdo. Hmmm--maybe the styles on these busts could inspire. 

One look told me I would also need the horde of assistants employed by upper-class Romans to keep their looks impeccable.  We know that Livia, the wife of the first Roman Emperor and known for her elegant modesty, had an enormous specialized staff. Some servants, slaves, or professionals were for her clothes, shoes and religious garments. More were for needed for her hair and make-up. Yet others took care of  her jewelry and ornaments.

Galen, the Greek physician of the 2nd c, approved of cosmetics to prolong beauty but not unnatural procedures, such as dying your hair or bleaching your skin.

To create a modest appearance was indeed costly!

Which was the whole point for the Romans.

  Hairdressing Fresco
Hairdressing. Painted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum. courtesy: Barbara McManus VROMA

Second stop: The Capitoline Museum

On the Campodiglia above the Roman Forum.    
 I walked down the Palatine Hill, pausing to look at the stunning views. From the top, you can see the Colosseum, the various Arches, and the Roman Forum.  Then up the Capitoline Hill I went to the Capitoline Museums.

The Capitoline Museum has an entire building devoted to marble statuary and portrait busts of all kinds of Romans.

The hairstyles of the women of the Flavian period are jaw-droppers-- lots of rings and curls tightly woven and close to the face. 

A style that must have taken the hairdresser hours to perfect.

All kinds of fittings, sometimes of gold, were fashioned to secure the hairnet needed for these hairstyles. Some hairnets were even woven with gold thread. Another device, the hairpin, might be carved exquisitely in bone.

 How the rich did live...

More photos of hairstyles: Glorious Roman Hairstyle Photos

You-Tube: How to make a Roman hairstyle: ( Empress Sabina: Ancient Roman Hairdressing," by professional hairstyle-archeologist Janet Stephens)

  Woman's Hairstyle of the 1st c AD , Portrait Bust, Capitoline Museum
Bust, c 80 AD. Flavian period hairdo. Capitoline Museums, Rome

Hairnet woven from gold, Palazz. Massimo, Rome
Hairnet woven from gold thread. Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Photo courtesy VROMA, A. Raia.

View from Palatine Hill toward Colosseum, 2009
From the top of the Palatine Hill, looking toward the Colosseum.
  Capitoline Museums exterior, 2009
Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Third Stop: Palazzo Massimo National Museum of Rome

After a restorative glass of wine at the Capitoline Museum cafe (we are in Italy, after all), I continued by bus to the Palazzo Massimo. It's near the central train station and the Baths of Diocletian, not the most pleasant of tourist areas but safe enough.  The Palazzo, one of the five branches of the National Museum of Rome, houses one of the world's leading collections of classical art on four floors.

Minerva is the first woman to greet me. Twice as large as life, she's a colorful Numidian yellow. Ancient portrait busts often seem lifeless to modern eyes. They have too much dignity and not enough humanity, nothing but cold marble. That's because the color has disappeared over the centuries. Many of them were originally painted in brilliant colors, as this Minerva hints at.

In Roman religion, Minerva, the daughter of Jupiter, was the original all-purpose super-goddess. She was the virgin goddess of poetry, medicine, and wisdom, as well as the inventor of music.
  Minerva,  marble statue,1st c BC, Palazzo MassimoMinerva. Marble. 1st c BC. Palazzo Massimo.
I particularly liked the bust of Antonia the Younger, pictured right, because of who she represents. Antonia was a type of Roman woman who pop up a lot in the histories about the Roman Empire---women deeply involved in the tangled politics of the imperial family.

Antonia the Younger was the daughter of Mark Anthony and Octavia. Octavia was Emperor Augustus' beloved sister and  the mother of Emperor Claudius. Antonia never had a chance to know her father, Mark Anthony, since he was killed in defeat in the civil war with Augustus.  (Cleopatra, Anthony's "Eqyptian Queen" perished at the same time, by suicide.)

Antonia was raised by her mother Octavia, her uncle Emperor Augustus, and his wife, the even more news-worthy Empress Livia. What a childhood she must have had.

Antonia's daughter, Livilla, allegedly poisoned her own husband. He was the  son of the then-Emperor Tiberius. Scandal in the imperial family--what to do? The "guilty"  daughter was handed over to mother Antonia. Antonia supposedly imprisoned her offending daughter in a room and starved her to death.

True? Who knows? Poison was seen by the ancient male writers as the ubiquitous weapon of women, especially in politically-inspired deaths.
  Antonia the Younger, 1st c BC, marble bust,  Palazzo Massimo Antonia the Younger. 1st c BC Marble. Palazzo Massimo.
Livia, the wife of the first Emperor Augustus, owned a villa outside Rome at Prima Porta about 8 miles north of Rome.

Frescoes of her garden were installed in a subterranean dining room in the villa. The dining room was discovered only in 1863, frescoes still intact.

The frescoes were detached in 1952 and reinstalled in the Palazzo Massimo.  They are truly magnificent and show that Livia had exquisite taste.

More photos of the Garden Frescoes from Livia's Villa from Flickr.
  Livia's villa Garden Fresco, at the Palazzo MassimoLivia's Garden, fresco detail of from the dining room at Livia's Villa, Rome. 1st c AD. Fresco painting.  Installed at the National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo, Rome.
After these three major museums, it was time to return to Trastevere and a night out at Osteria Da Fernanda.    
Updated 04-August-2015. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com