There’s no doubting that the Roman Empire was a tough place to be a woman. Roman law meant that women had few rights and little opportunity for public roles. But despite that, many women subverted the conventions of the time and found ways to play an active part in the affairs of the empire. Read on to find out how Roman women lived and even thrived in the face of rampant sexism.
1. Vestal virgins
The Vestal Virgins were six women who lived in the Temple of Vesta in Rome. Appointed as children and serving for 30 years, these women had an important role to play in protecting Rome with their holy rituals. These duties included tending a sacred eternal flame.
For them to be effective, it was deemed essential that the Vestals retained their virginity. And if they didn’t, punishment was brutal: the offending Vestal would be imprisoned in a sealed room and left to die a lingering death.
2. Donkey milk
For women of the Roman elite, skincare was a pressing concern. The ideal was to have a complexion that was pale and smooth. And one way to make sure that your skin was at its best was to bathe in donkey’s milk.
Women at the top of the social scale had specialist slaves, cosmetae, to tend to them while they took their milk dips. The Emperor Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina went one step further, concocting a preparation of donkey milk and dough to use as a facial.
3. Hypatia of Alexandria
Julius Caesar conquered the Egyptian city of Alexandria for Rome in 48 B.C. It was an important center for scholarship of all kinds. Unusually, one of the leading philosophers and mathematicians of the fifth century was a woman, Hypatia.
By Hypatia’s time, Christianity had reached Alexandria, with many following the faith. But Hypatia retained the beliefs of an earlier pagan time, and this attracted unwelcome attention. A gang of Christian fanatics seized her, killed her in a vicious beating and burnt her remains.
There’s no doubt that most Roman women fell into two categories: they were either housewives and mothers, or slaves. But there were other, albeit limited, alternatives of which some women took advantage. They could work as midwives, wet nurses, or in the fields.
Then there were those Roman women who actually ran their own businesses. Some made craft items in their home which they could sell. On the darker side, there were women who turned to prostitution as their only way to earn money.