History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Women in Ancient Rome: Women's  Daily Life and Work 
The Ideal Good Wife, marble bust, Palazzo Massimo Rome
Bust of Ideal Good Wife. Palazzo Massimo, National Museums of Rome, Rome. Note her severe hairstyle; it was popularized by the Empress Livia, 1st c AD.


* The aristocratic wife in ancient Rome was expected to run an excellent household. The household was the center of both business and family life.

* Aristocratic Roman women could go out in public, unlike their Greek counterparts.

* Women who worked were not at all admired or esteemed.

* Aristocratic women could, through others,  buy, sell, and manage property and commercial enterprises.

* Travel except to one's summer villa was rare for an aristocratic woman.

Women's Daily Life and Work in Ancient Rome

The Good Wife

Roman writers tell us a good Roman wife preferred to stay indoors, at home.
There she could devote her time to the household, symbolized by a devotion to spinning wool. But then, the writers were all males.

The good wife ran an excellent household, the "domus." The household was extremely important in Roman ideology.

It was the aristocratic husband's office. Here he met each morning with his "clients."  The clients entered the house into the atrium, a large public room meant to show off the family. It contained the ancestral shrines, the household gods, perhaps the marriage bed, and the loom for spinning and weaving.

The household was also the home: Romans ate here, and the children received their literary and moral education at home.

Above all, the good wife must stay in the shadow of her husband.


Daily life of an aristocratic  woman

Compared to their counterparts in ancient Greece, Roman wives of the upper classes were shocking in their visibility in public.  Married women appeared in public, with their husbands, or with a retinue of attendants.

They went shopping, attended festivals, sacrifices, games, and entertainment. They acted as hostesses and dined out. They attended women-only social events.
Aristocratic women spent a great deal of time on personal grooming and beauty preparations.

For more on hairstyles : Glorious Roman Hairstyle Photos

The good wife supervised the household and made sure her children were well-educated in Latin and in Greek culture, and steeped  in the moral values of ancient Rome and the family's ancestors.

If the husband was away on military or political service, a good wife was expected to keep her husband fully informed on political life in Rome via letters.
Elderly woman, marble bust, 1st C BC, Palazzon Massimo Rome
Elderly "matrona." Marble bust, 1st c BC, National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo. 

A matrona was the ideal Roman woman: She was married and respectable. She represented modesty, restraint, graciousness, a sense of honor and concern for family reputation. The most venerated "matrona" was the elderly patrician widow who had successfully raised children and advanced the family's name through high moral standards.


Work in Ancient Rome

Today, we admire working women, but in Roman times, not so.

In an economy of scarcity, idleness could not be tolerated. All women worked. The elite women ran their elite households; all the other women worked with their hands.

Women in Small Businesses

Free(d) women might work with their husbands in wool works, food shops, and the grocery businesses. Reliefs found in old Ostia and in Pompeii show many such working occupations.

Still, women who worked with their hands were not held in high esteem. In Roman law under the Emperor Augustus, adultery began to carry heavy penalties. But it was not considered adultery for the male if he had sexual relations "with women who have charge of any business or shop."

These women didn't matter.
  Modern Roman working woman,photo,  2011
Interior Designer, Rome, 2011.

Woman worker in butcher shop, clay relief, Ostia Italy
Woman in butcher shop, presumably working with her husband. Relief, Ostia, Italy. Photo courtesy Eric Lessing.

Women in "the professions"

Women might be priestesses outside the Vestal Virgin group, especially in the later Roman era.

Individually, women worked as midwives, wet nurses, and nannies. They might be hairdressers or seamstresses in an elite household.

Some Roman women were physicians, but generally Greek males dominated this field. Highly educated Greeks arrived in droves as slaves after Rome's military successes over Greece in the 3rd c. BC. Most were later freed. 

Women in the prostitution or acting realms were considered particularly lowly. Their options, especially for marriage, were more constrained than for most other Roman women.
  Roman Priestess, Art Institute of Chicago
Priestess? Bust of a young woman, possibly a priestess judging from her diadem and hairstyle. Later Roman era. Marble. Art Institute of Chicago.
Updated 04-August-2015. You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com