Girls Gone Wild in Ancient Rome

We tend to make assumptions about the lives and rights of ancient women, filing them away in our local Carnegie Library under no-respect, little-freedom, few-rights. We think these women had no choice but to play by the cultural rules that favored men and limited women, passing their lives with the right to make few, if any, personal choices. And we think these are the women the Apostle Paul was writing to when he encouraged them to be responsible and modest and respectful.

Well, some did play by those rules.

And some didn’t.

It is true that for the most part Jewish women of the first century AD day lived under the authority of a male family member, first their father and later their husband. Although they were not considered property and could not be bought or sold like slaves, their rights did not equal those of men.[1] Greek women faced similar restrictions, often secluded in the inner recesses of their homes with very little freedom of movement.[2]

Women’s lives changed under the Roman Empire, however.

As a result of the loss of so many men in their civil wars, the Roman family was suffering. Children were growing up without fathers and therefore technically “free.”[3] Without the usual paternal pressure, young men and women were choosing more and more not to marry. And although adultery was widespread in this entertainment culture, where athletes and musicians earned more in a day than teachers garnered in a year,[4] the birth rate declined because women regularly used contraceptives.[5]

Abortion was so commonplace among the upper classes that Juvenal noted, “Childbirth hardly ever occurs in a gold-embroidered bed since abortionists have such skills and so many potions, and can bring about the death of children in the womb.”[6] Ovid, who may have lost a mistress to complications from an abortion, went on a rant over the practice: “Can it be that, to be free of the flaws of stretchmarks, you have to scatter the tragic sands of carnage? Why will you subject your womb to the weapons of abortion and give dread poisons to the unborn?”[7]

Abortion to avoid stretch marks? Really? How about a little Aloe vera or vitamin E instead.

If Roman women did marry, legislation granted them property and divorce rights, making it economically and socially feasible for wealthier women to pursue lives of pleasure like the men. And that’s exactly what some of these original girls gone wild did. Since they had very little interest in serving as a man’s barefoot and pregnant housekeeper,[8] they chose instead to hit the party scene, indulging in whatever romantic liaisons they happened to encounter along the way.[9]

These economically independent, free-wheeling Roman women “conducted themselves as aggressively as women ever have in any era before our own,”[10] and not everyone was happy about it. The poet Martial explained why he didn’t want to marry a wealthy Roman woman: “You all ask why I don’t want to marry a rich wife? I don’t want to be my wife’s wife. The matron…should be below her husband. That’s the only way man and woman can be equal.”[11] Patriarchal view of “equality” or not, Martial’s point comes through loud and clear: he had no interest in marrying a woman with that much power.

Apparently these emancipated babes also knew how to up their glam factor with cosmetics.[12] Melissa, a female philosopher of the day, wrote that a virtuous woman should have “on her cheeks the blush of modesty rather than of rouge and powder.”[13] Phintys, another woman writing to women, argued that a respectable gal would not “put white makeup on her face or rouge her cheeks or darken her brows and lashes or artfully dye her graying hair.”[14] And all this before Maybelline and Clairol came on the scene.

In spite of the efforts of such ancient modesty mavens, makeup, excessive jewelry, elaborate hairstyles and immodest clothing were so common that the powers-that-be felt impelled to regulate them, at least with respect to public events. Women were using their beauty and their bodies to get what they wanted, whether that was attention or romance or power. One locale specifically outlawed see-through dresses at festivals for the goddess Demeter, granting local officials authority to rip them off any woman who dared to wear one.[15]

Which seems like an odd solution to the problem of immodesty, if you ask me.

On the plus side, women of the imperial era were more likely to be educated. They also enjoyed freedom of movement, bought and sold property, participated in court cases and ran businesses in their own right.[16] And these newfound rights didn’t pertain only to the wealthy. Women from the middle and lower classes also held various types of businesses. A woman named Eumachia ran a brick manufacturing plant in Pompeii, later also donating a major building to a workmen’s group in the city.[17] And by the second century AD the owner of Rome’s largest apartment complex was the woman Felicula.[18]

Inscriptions and coins reveal that perhaps ten percent of civic leaders, municipal honorees and benefactors, and religious leaders and patrons were women. An underwhelming percentage by modern standards, for sure, but not by ancient ones. Some women also served as patrons for men’s clubs, providing the meeting facility and funding the organization.[19]

The freedom of these Roman imperial women is part of the background we should keep in mind when we read Paul’s letters, particularly the ones to the church in Corinth and to Timothy in Ephesus. Some of these girls gone wild had become Christians, apparently bringing their outlandish dress and disrespectful behavior into the churches. Paul wanted them to adopt the dignity, self-restraint and godliness appropriate for all who claim to follow Christ.

A worthy goal in any era, but perhaps more needed in Paul’s time than we realize.

 

[1] Phyllis Bird, “Images of Women in the Old Testament,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Reuther (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), 64-65.

[2] Albert A. Bell, Jr., A Guide to the New Testament World (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1994), 197.

[3] Ibid., 227.

[4] Ibid., 238.

[5] Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 110.

[6] Ibid., 111.

[7] Ibid., 110.

[8] Bell, 198.

[9] Winter, 22.

[10] Bell, 198.

[11] Diana M. Swancutt, “Still Before Sexuality: ‘Greek’ Androgyny, the Roman Imperial Politics of Masculinity and the Roman Invention of the Tribas,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, ed. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Boston: Brill, 2007), 36.

[12] Bell, 248.

[13] Winter, 73.

[14] Ibid., 74.

[15] Ibid., 86-87.

[16] Bell, 197-99.

[17] Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1983), 24.

[18] Bell, 198.

[19] Meeks, 24.

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2 thoughts on “Girls Gone Wild in Ancient Rome

  1. Great article showing that the role of women in the ancient world was much more important than what was represented by the male-dominated scholars and educators of the past. This particular era -with such bright and powerful women dominating the scene – opened the doors for women to claim a more active role in politics, religion, and family. Even if their powers of persuasion were only used on their spouses and sons, they bent the ears of a ruling patriarchy that was finally beginning to see a woman’s true worth.
    JB Richards
    Historian and Author of “Miriamne the Magdala”

    Like

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