Women in Ancient Rome Didn’t Have Equal Rights. They Still Changed HistoryRoundup
tags: Rome, womens history, womens rights
Barry Strauss is Professor of History and Classics, Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, and author of TEN CAESARS: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine.
Ancient Rome was a macho society, often misogynistic, where women did not enjoy equal citizen rights. That said, if we look hard at the history, we discover some women who made their mark, either working within their prescribed gender roles as wives, lovers, mothers, sisters or daughters, or exercising so much political, religious or, even in a few cases, military power that they smashed those roles altogether and struck out on their own. These women navigated this challenging terrain and left a major mark on the course of events. We don’t always learn about them in history class, but their stories are inspiring and merit telling (and re-telling). Without acknowledging these, the story of Rome becomes a purely masculine one, which does not capture the whys and wherefores behind many of the leaders and soldiers who rose to power in the first place.
Some of their names may be familiar, like Livia, Boudicca and Saint Helena. Livia was wife and partner to one emperor, Augustus, and mother to another, Tiberius; Boudicca led a British revolt against Roman rule; and Helena was mother and advisor to the first Christian emperor, Constantine. But there are other unsung women heroes who are equally fascinating.
Atia was Augustus’s mother. When her husband died in 59 BC, she nurtured her 4-year-old son and helped him to thrive. He was no emperor then — just a fatherless child. He had promise, though, and Atia made sure that he captured the attention of her overworked and single-minded uncle, Julius Caesar. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC he left the boy, now 18, as his posthumously adopted son. Atia advised her son behind the scenes and was the first person to hail him as Caesar’s heir. Although she didn’t live long enough to see him become Rome’s first emperor, Atia had the satisfaction of knowing that she had advanced her son from hard luck to political eminence.