The Role Of Women In The Roman Republic Essays Example
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Perfect illustrations of societal imposed gender roles are evident in the History of the Roman Republic. From the commoners’ households to that of the richest man, the lowest government official to the influential politicians, the Roman Republic boasted of an entirely functional state with a culture observed by its people. About gender roles, while men enjoyed high degrees of independence and respect in the society, the women's autonomy faced limitations because of the men in their families. Fathers, brothers, and husbands were responsible for the females, both young and old. Hence, males reigned supreme in the political, social, and economic spheres of the Roman Republic. Said supremacy came at the expense of the women who the social order perceived as fragile and in need of the guardianship of the men in their lives. Fathers took care of their daughters until marriage, after which husbands assumed responsibility for their wives. Scholar works concur about the rights of the eldest male in the household to punish, and even kill, disobedient persons in their care. Accordingly, when a woman without a father lost her husband, another male relative assumed responsibility. Thus emerges the aim of this study, to analyze the possible roles women could play in the political, military, and religious fields of the Roman Republic and, determine the societal reactions to the same.
The society of the Roman Republic was a virile-driven civilization with all the hallmarks of male chauvinism. Consequently, women had little to no function in the political sphere. They faced restrictions in the partaking of political meetings and could neither vote nor voice their opinions during such assemblies. Burns (2007, p.1) concurs by stating, “Political power was in the hands of the free male citizens of Rome” thus ensuring the free women remained voiceless. With roles such as homemaking, childbearing, and sewing imposed on women by the republican society, there was little time left for them to engage in politics. The rigors associated with nurturing the generations making up the state naturally impeded the rise of female power in politics. Even though the Roman society acknowledged that women could be virtuous, patriotic, and selfless, it feared that their apparent treacherous and narcissistic traits could hinder political growth (MacLachlan, 2013, p.11). For this reason, there were rules barring women from taking up political office; therefore, the implementation of such regulations forbade them from exerting any direct political influence.
The enactment of the “Oppian Laws” by the Roman assembly sparked female involvement in politics (MacLachlan, 2013, p.58). In a bid to lower expenditure and increase savings during a period of war, these laws prohibited women from purchasing extravagances such as perfume, accessories, and fine clothing (Pomeroy, 2013, p.135). Initially, the women upheld this law based on the belief that it was their patriotic duty to support the government’s efforts during the strenuous period. However, after the war ended, they expressed feelings of discontent. Many women felt that the laws had run their course; therefore, they instigated a political movement to revoke them. As a result, women stormed into the Roman assembly to encourage their male relations in voting for the abolishment of the laws. Even though the victory spurred criticism and scandal, this event marked a significant example of women involvement and influence in Roman politics. Reasonably, this movement showed that the women’s political power lay in the convergence of masses.
In addition, women from affluent lineages and those married into influential households could wield immense political power despite the existence of stringent laws and restrictions on their political rights. They could function effectively in the political sphere albeit in subtle and informal ways. Incidentally, wives of various Roman emperors were notoriously involved in formulating public policy and influencing political spirits and motives. Roman literature depicts some influential women as driven by personal spite and envy. Their primary source of political determination reflected the need to humiliate publicly and embarrass their male associations (Bauman, 2003, p.4). Ancient Rome barred women from political functions due to the fear that they would undermine the rule of men. Having observed the reigns of powerful women rulers such as Queen Boudicca, who instigated a revolution in Britain, male lawmakers in Rome barred women from political practice (Burns, 2007, p.234). However, they could not completely stifle the voices of women. Many women, who had positions of authority, regularly spoke out against injustices and unfair laws. For instance, after Julius Caesar’s demise, the assembly targeted many wealthy women for taxation purposes in preparation for war. Hortensia, a woman from an influential family, raised concerns about this injustice, forcing the political leaders to lower the number of targeted women (Massey, 2006, p.34).
For one to determine the chances of women serving in the army there is a need to identify the components of the Roman army and the proper functioning of the same. From the vast number of soldiers to the devotion expected of the men, the Roman militia instilled fear among their neighbors and distant lands alike. In “World History”, Littell (2007, p.157) points out that enlisted soldiers were men coming from homes of “citizens who owned land” to encourage allegiance. With that single trait, the role of women in the Roman Army was practically non-existent. Foremost, as mentioned above, Rome only viewed men as legal citizens of the Republic, and the women remained under the rule of the oldest member of the household. Expectedly, such conditions automatically meant women could not join the army because Rome made it compulsory for soldiers to be citizens. Secondly, no self-respecting man would allow a woman from his household to defy cultural norms, let alone join the army. With the degree of control they exercised, including the right to kill, it is safe to assume that no woman dared defy the wishes of her guardian. Finally, the Roman Army included divisions among its soldiers, making the smallest group contain only eighty men. After taking into consideration their small numbers and apparent closeness owing to the expansion of Rome, a woman in the army will be readily noticeable. Again, most women feared retribution from their guardians and the violence of war, attempting to join the ranks incognito would only serve a rapid execution.
Their restriction from joining the army and the apparent fear of punishment do not necessarily mean that Roman History has no record of women commanding or aiding the army. On the contrary, the history of the republic proves some women stepped up in one way or another and made contact with the fighting men, as one expects during wars. For instance, there is the story of Agrippina the Elder who Historians describe as “fierce; harsh; arrogant, and power-hungry” (Burns, 2007, p.41). Married to the Army general Germanicus, Agrippina the Elder was successful in learning the ways of the military and the behaviors of the soldiers. In a backfired attempt to conquer Germany, the Roman Army found itself facing an invasion by the German forces. As the Roman soldiers faced imminent defeat, civilians and some soldiers in Rome’s stronghold attempted to destroy the only remaining bridge into the region and protect it from the Germans. However, a pregnant Agrippina forbade such action and managed to save many of the retreating soldiers from the clutches of the German troops (Burns, 2007, p.47). In such rare incidents, women proved they are capable of sound thought and managed to issue commands going contrary to cultural norms. Nevertheless, in the case of Agrippina, her deed spread throughout the Roman cities, and the people admired her bravery. Perhaps her royalty served to submit the men into obeying her instructions at the bridge. Even so, in that particular incident, Agrippa proved women capable of acting as generals in times of crisis and, showed women competent of more than bearing sons to serve the army.
The respect with which Romans handled religion catapulted the practices to the forefront of social norms as the most critical observations that brought people of the nation together. Some of the gods in Roman history demonstrate the peoples’ religious beliefs evolved from interactions with the Greeks and other nations. The Greeks were most influential. However, while their gods resembled human beings, with superior strength, Roman gods sought to elicit fear from the people. Hence, Zeus of Greece became “Optimus Maximus” of Roman and the goddess Hera became Juno of Roman mythology (Daly, 2009, p. X).The worship practices of Roman deities took place in temples built for the gods and in the homes of the believers. However, the people gathered for religious festivals and made sacrifices together after which priests examined the internal organs of ritually sacrificed animals as a means to foretell the future. The role of women in the religion depended on the status, appointed duties, and in the case of goddesses, their allocated traits and powers.
The first class of women in the Roman religion includes the female deities worshiped by the people. The most prominent ones were “Juno, Diana, and Venus”, although the people also worshiped other goddesses (Burns, 2007, p.157). In concurrence with the chauvinism mentioned above, the roles allocated to the goddesses coincided with those of women within the human populace. For instance, According to Daly (2009, p.19), Diana helped women during childbirth while Venus was originally the goddess “of crop cultivation and Gardens”. From their association with childbearing to farming, all the duties of the two female gods correspond with those performed by the women in Roman societies. In fact, because Diana was a goddess of childbirth, one can argue that she was only relevant to the females and occasionally remembered by fathers. Concurrently, female cults existed as means through which the women could dedicate themselves to a particular deity. According to Saldais (2011, p.238), Roman women involved themselves in the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis and dedicated it towards rituals and practices to further their interests within society. Hence, because women fell under the rule of the oldest male in their homes, a woman in the cult could choose to pray for a promotion for her father or husband. Lastly, there are the Vestal Virgins who play another significant role of women in Roman religion. In “The Power of Virginity”, Wagner (2010, p.2) reckons Vestal Virgins are the “daughter, mother and priestess” of Rome. Accordingly, virgin women accepted as Vestals served and lived in the temple of “the goddess Vesta” where they kept the sacred fires of the goddess burning (Daly, 2009, p.148). One ought to note that even the most respected of the women in the religion appear to fall under specific duties that resemble those allocated to Roman women. Keeping the goddesses in mind, the Vestal Virgins suffered a similar, maybe worse fate. They were not only supposed to remain virgins for the rest of their lives but were also under the watchful eye of all Romans. In case one lost her chastity, death was certain because the people believed Rome’s well-being rested on their virginal state. Even with all the responsibilities, Roman priests still held the high positions and performed religious practices, forcing the virgins to a lower status.
Conclusively, there are two premises through which one can view the degree at which the Roman societies controlled the women’s involvement in the religious, political, and military spheres. On the first premise, women were weak in the eyes of the men who then opted to shelter them and lead them in life. Consequently, a man could dictate whom the women under his security would marry. In any case, physical strength and bravery were important in the Roman societies, which respected the tough and ridiculed the weak men. The second premise emerges from the political segment of this study, where Roman history record instances of women costing empires their glory despite their supposed submissiveness. As a result, none of the men trusted the women with power and saw a need for the restrictions that made them an inferior gender in the social order. Either way, gender roles were a noteworthy to Romans.
Bauman, R. A., 2003. Women and Politics in Ancient Rome. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Bentley J. H., and Ziegler F.H., 2008. Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Burns, J., 2007. Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mother and Wives of the Caesars. New York: Routledge.
Daly, K. N., 2009. Greek and Roman Mythology Ato Z. 3rd ed. New York: Chelsea House.
Engels, F., 2004. The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. Newton: Resistance Books.
Littell, M., 2007. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Student ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
MacLachlan, B., 2013. Women in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook. London: Bloomsbury.
Massey, M., 2006. Women in Ancient Greece and Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pomeroy, S., 2013. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books.
Saldais, M., 2011. Oxford Big Ideas History 7 - Australian Curriculum. 7th ed. Australia: Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.
Wagner, K. A., 2009. The Power of Virginity:The Political Position and Symbolism of Ancient Rome's Vestal Virgin, Oregon: Western Oregon University.
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