Rationality of Women in the Roman World

A rational human being is the one who can do things based on logic as opposed to whimsy, i.e. an intelligent or prudent human being[1]. The Roman world was basically dominated by males almost in all spheres, religious, political, trade and commerce, social life and the philosophical thinking of the time. This clearly indicates that according to men in the Roman world, women were not considered rational human beings, as shown in their involvement in the above named spheres. This explains why men are named more frequently by Roman historians compared to their female counterparts. In this paper, I am going to show how women were negated as rational human beings by men, who considered themselves rational human beings in the Roman world.

In Rome, women were not allowed to vote or participate in any political role like holding a political office, hence took no official part in public life, implying that they had limited citizenship. Even during the reign of Augustus, women’s opportunities were increased to exercise their influence behind the scenes and not publicly.  For instance, Livia, the wife of Augustus had a lot of political influence to her husband but it was never shown publicly. Women sometimes ruled in the name of their absent husband or son who held a political office.  Only women from the rich families could participate in public life through funding building projects and sponsoring religious activities. This indicates that women’s role in politics was highly limited; implying that they were not considered fit to make rational decisions. Further, the women’s role military activities were limited to a great extent as there were few or no women who were members of legionaries. The wives of military men followed them to frontiers of the Empire, although little evidence indicates that they were actually involved in the war.


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In social life, the women’s role was looking after the home and nurturing a family by bearing legitimate children. In this case, women were supposed to be married early at around 20 years old or sometimes before puberty, such that she had no sexual history that might disappoint the future husband. In the Roman world, the family was basically dominated by male figures, who were referred to as paterfamilias. Women were ranked lower as evidenced by the Roman naming practice where male citizens had three names whereas all women in the same family were referred to using the feminine version of the family name. At home, women could do handicrafts or attend to the home and its slave workforce, and those from the upper class would study literature and philosophy. In matters of law and finance, women were required by law to have a chosen male family member to act in their interests. This shows that men never actually believed that women could make sound judgment in legal matters, and that only the man was rational enough to argue on these matters. Women in the Roman world were allowed to inherit and own but not control property since they were inept of managing such affairs themselves. With regard to faithfulness in marriage, it was a crime which was punishable by law for a woman to be adulterous but not a man. The Roman law allowed divorce but the custody of the children went to the father or the closest male relative if the father was no longer alive. However, this legislation was changed later on by Constantine whereby divorce became much more hellish, especially for women. If a female slave was raped, it was considered as property damage sustained by the proprietor, which too applied to waitresses and prostitutes who could not prosecute for rape.

The Roman religion especially the cult of Vesta was male dominated, headed by the pontifex maximus who was a male. The pontifex  maximus was assisted by a college of pontiffs, who were all males, indicating that women were excluded from the highest office in the Roman religion. Under the pontiffs were vestal virgins whose task was to tend the sacred heart-fire of the state as well as playing an official role in some festivals. They kept important political documents and wills, and sometimes influenced the emperors, but were never autonomous; they were always under the authority of the pontiffs. Although some cults such as the cult of the Bona Dea admitted only women, they were frequently used by male authorities to reinforce and subordinate the role of women. The Isis cult which had six female priests out of twenty-six priests and allowed women participate in its rites was suppressed several times by the Roman authorities since it was considered revolutionary.  Although women served in official religious functions, they were not allowed to hold highest religious offices. In this case, men feared women domination as this would suppress them politically; hence they were the ones who debated the kind of roles that women would take.

According to the philosophical thinking of the time, as expounded by Cicero, women had weak judgment. In the Roman world, many schools of thought held that women were a weaker sex, had weaker judgment, easily swayed, easily discouraged, subject to passions and follies, from whose consequences they needed protection. This is why women were required to have a legal male guardian to approve transactions since their judgment was thought to be unreliable, their sex was weaker and that they were ignorant of legal business. However, these were just but tactics of roman males to keep women from some spheres of activity. This could offer an explanation as to why women were excluded from top religious positions as well as political participation in the Roman world.

Freed women were allowed to work with their husbands in small businesses such as wool works, food shops and grocery businesses according to reliefs found in Ostia and Pompeii, with most of them being held with low esteem because they were working with their hands. This was the case too with prostitutes and actresses who had constrained options for marriage since they were considered lowly. Most women worked with linen, wool and silk to make clothes and household items like curtains. Others could own taverns, work as cooks, lend money, make shoes, work in their estates and borrow money to do business with. Romans restricted women from politics but not business, as seen clearly when Pliny wanted to be loaned by his mother-in-law when he wanted to buy an estate. Clearly women were very hard working in business and even accumulated a lot of wealth. Since most of these women, especially those from lower class never received education, they never got to study medicine, law or engage in politics. Perhaps if these women were allowed to get access to education, then they could be very powerful human beings who would overpower men in politics which is possibly the reason for their exclusion from education.

In the field of medicine, it is only after the introduction of Greek medicine into Rome that the professions of midwives, medicae and iatromeae were developed for women. Men basically dominated the profession of physicians, which was thought not suited for women as they were thought to be irrational. According to the writings by Hippocratic Corpus, men were more rational than women, and that the physiology of women made them vulnerable to problems that could be the basis for symptoms of irrationality. This forced the few women like Agnodice who managed to become physicians in the 4th century BC to disguise as a man in order to practice.

For most men in the Roman world, women were not considered rational human beings as evident in their participation in politics, social roles, medicine and religious activities. This can be attributed to the masculinity, whereby men felt they should be in charge of everything since they considered themselves rational in their judgment as opposed to irrational women. Socially, men were considered perfect beings, and that is why only females who committed adultery were liable to punishment by the law whereas adulterous males were never judged by the law. Women’s role was limited to taking care of a house and raising children, whereas politics, education, religion and medicine were all dominated by men. Few women like Agnodice who forced her way to become a popular physician, midwife and gynecologist had to disguise as a man in order to practice. Therefore, the Roman world was basically dominated by male chauvinism and only men were perceived to be a strong sex that supposed to protect women, the weaker sex. The philosophy of the Roman men at time often submerged people’s minds on the role of women, which led to their oppression.

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