Ten essays by specialists in art history, history, and papyrology offer reflections on women in Roman society based on the material evidence provided by art, archaeology, and ancient literary sources.
I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome—an exhibition and catalog produced by the Yale University Art Gallery—provided the first comprehensive study of the lives of Roman women as revealed in Roman art. Responding to the popular success of the exhibit and catalog, Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson here gather ten additional essays by specialists in art history, history, and papyrology to offer further reflections on women in Roman society based on the material evidence provided by art, archaeology, and ancient literary sources.
In addition to the editors, the contributors are Cornelius C. Vermeule, Rolf Winkes, Mary T. Boatwright, Susan Wood, Eve D'Ambra, Andrew Oliver, Diana Delia, and Ann Ellis Hanson. Their essays, illustrated with black-and-white photos of the art under discussion, treat such themes as mothers and sons, marriage and widowhood, aging, adornment, imperial portraiture, and patronage.
- Notes To The Reader
- Introduction: "Her Parents Gave Her The Name Clavdia" (Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson)
- Livia To Helena: Women In Power, Women In The Provinces (Cornelius L. Vermeule III)
- Livia: Portrait and Propaganda (Rolf Winkes)
- Family Ties: Mothers and Sons in Elite and Non-Elite Roman Art (Diana E. E. Kleiner)
- Just Window Dressing?: Imperial Women as Architectural Sculpture (Mary R. Boatwright)
- Mortals, Empresses, And Earth Goddesses: Demeter And Persphone In Public and Private Apotheosis (Susan Wood)
- Nudity And Adornment In Female Portrait Sculpture Of The Second Century AD (Eve d'Ambra)
- Jewelry For The Unmarried (Andrew Oliver)
- The Elder Clavdia: Older Women In Roman Art (Susan B. Matheson)
- Marriage Egyptian Style (Diana Delia)
- Widows Too Young In Their Widowhood (Ann Ellis Hanson)
- Selected Bibliography
The material remains from ancient Rome have preserved valuable evidence for the appearance and accomplishments of Roman women. Nonetheless, these remains have only begun to be examined for what they tell us about Roman women of all social classes. In fact, the surviving public buildings, portrait statues, historical reliefs, wall paintings, cameos, and coins often reveal information about Roman women that is not available from any other source, and they enhance the picture provided by extant historical texts and Latin literature.
I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome, an exhibition organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, was the first attempt to study the lives of Roman women as revealed in Roman art. The goal of the exhibition was to explore and attempt to recreate the lives of women of all ages and social levels in the public and domestic spheres and to illuminate the ways in which they were commemorated after death. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue that allowed us to explore such topics as gender theory, portraits of Roman empresses and princesses, the assimilation of women to goddesses and personifications, and women's roles in society, in the home, in Latin literature, and as patrons of the arts and to document what each work of art in the exhibition reveals about Roman women.
The scholarly symposium that accompanied the exhibition was designed to introduce additional topics and points of view beyond those featured in the exhibition and its catalogue, while maintaining a focus on the fundamental themes presented there. Another symposium held in connection with the exhibition, sponsored by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, focused on women in Roman Egypt, with papers by Diana Delia and Ann Ellis Hanson. The papers from both symposia published here thus center on such subjects as mothers and sons, marriage and widowhood, aging, adornment, imperial portraiture, and patronage. This introduction is intended to give the reader an overview of the exhibition's themes, as a context for these papers.
The I, Claudia exhibition and its catalogue were about Roman women whose lives were, in a sense, encapsulated in that of Claudia's. While Claudia's name was hardly chosen haphazardly, and we were clearly borrowing from the title of Robert Graves's near mythical I, Claudius, we were mindful that Claudia was a name replete with historical associations. The Claudians were an illustrious patrician family. Livia Drusilla, wife of Rome's first emperor Augustus, was herself a Claudian, and her son, Tiberius, became second emperor of Rome. The first Roman imperial dynasty is known as the Julio-Claudians, because its emperors, Tiberius, Caligula (Gaius), Claudius, and Nero were descended by blood from a Claudius, like Tiberius, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero, and adopted by Julius Caesar's adoptive son Augustus; descended from a marriage between the two families; or, like Nero, of Julian descent and adopted by a Claudian. While Roman men possessed tripartite Roman names, with the family name or nomen the middle of the three, accompanied by a first name (praenomen) and a nickname (cognomen), women had legal claim to only two: the nomen and cognomen. Since the nomen was the family name, women in the same Claudian family might be distinguished by being referred to as the older or younger Claudia.
Augustus counted a Claudia among his ancestors, and there were several Claudias in the Claudian branch of the Julio-Claudian family. Antonia the Younger and Germanicus had a daughter named Claudia Livilla, who was the wife of Tiberius's son Drusus. After Drusus's death in 23, her hand was sought by Sejanus, who later conspired unsuccessfully to assassinate Tiberius. Claudia Livilla's brother, the emperor Claudius, had several daughters named Claudia. Among them, Claudia Octavia, although empress, was perhaps the least fortunate. Married to the emperor Nero, she was first divorced by her husband, then banished by him on contrived charges of adultery and treason, and finally put to death. Claudius's wife, Messalina, had Claudian connections of her own; her aunt and cousin was Claudia Pulchra, friend of Agrippina the Younger. Being a friend of Agrippina was a dangerous alliance in the late principate of Tiberius. The same Sejanus, who sought the hand of Claudia Livilla, preceded his attempt to assassinate Tiberius by consolidating his own power, largely through eliminating Agrippina's friends. Claudia Pulchra was among these unfortunate associates, and was convicted on charges of adultery and treason, brought against her by Sejanus.
Since, upon manumission, freedwomen and freedmen took the nomen of their patron, there were also many Claudias among the non-elite who lived among the imperial family, sometimes as domestics. Claudia Parata, for example, a freedwoman, possibly of the emperor Claudius, served as a hairdresser in the imperial household. Her husband erected a funerary altar for her at her death at the age of 27. In addition, many non-citizen women from the empire took the name Claudia when their father or family was given citizenship by a Julio-Claudian emperor.
Outside the imperial family but still from a high social stratum, Claudia Severa was the wife of a military officer, and she accompanied him on campaign to the Roman province of Britain. A letter of hers inviting a friend to her birthday party survives from the second century. Although the letter was written for her by a scribe, she added a personal greeting at the end in her own hand.
Another literate Claudia, a woman named Claudia Trophime, was a priestess of Hera at Ephesus in the first century. She also served a term as chief priestess of Hestia, and in celebration of this honor, she wrote two poems praising the goddess for tending the eternal flame of fire from heaven.
Even more prestigious was the office of Vestal Virgin, held by several Claudias from various branches of the Claudian family. The most famous of these was Claudia Quinta, a respectable historical figure who was transformed in post-Augustan mythology into a Vestal Virgin whose chastity was questioned, a type of misconduct that brought the death penalty on the offender. The mythical Claudia Quinta was miraculously vindicated, however, by the goddess Cybele, who gave the woman strength to haul a ship bearing the goddess's image up the Tiber to her temple on the Palatine; Claudia Quinta thus became an enduring model in antiquity for the chaste and noble woman.
Equally public in her demonstration of virtue was Claudia Pulchra, daughter of Appius Claudius Pulcher (consul in 143), who rode with her father in his chariot during a military triumph that he chose to celebrate during a senatorial ban. The privilege that Claudia Pulcher enjoyed as a Vestal Virgin protected her father from persecution for going against a senatorial decree, or in the eyes of his supporters, from being destroyed by his enemies. Cicero cites both of these Claudias as examples of outstanding moral behavior.
Freedwomen outside the imperial household took their nomen from the Claudian family as well, and they engaged in various professions. Another Claudia Trophima, probably a freedwoman, was a midwife who lived to be 75. Her funerary monument was erected by her son and grandson. Other freedwomen named Claudia were the dedicants of funerary reliefs for their husbands and sons.
Outside Rome, a woman named Claudia Isidora (Appia), from the nome of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, achieved wealth and prominence as a landowner and real estate investor. Claudia Isidora is named in fifteen surviving papyri. These documents record the financial dealings of a woman who acted on her own to buy, sell, and lease her property, purchased luxury goods such as imported honey, and employed others to act as her deputies. Although her estate was ultimately confiscated and turned over to the treasury, her name was still well known after her death.
Even this brief sample of Claudias demonstrates the broad social range of the historical women who bore the name. In their diversity, these Claudias reflect the unique place Roman women held in antiquity. Within the context of the ancient world, Roman women led surprisingly varied and public lives. They enjoyed far more freedom than their counterparts in ancient Egypt or fifth-century Greece, although by contemporary western standards we would still consider their lives restricted. Roman women could attend dinner parties and public events to a degree that would have been totally unacceptable in ancient Greece, but they could not vote or be elected to office, and they were under the control of a male guardian for much of their lives.
In spite of these restrictions, Roman women did have significant power in certain spheres, notably in politics, religion, and business. This power most often derived from the women s association with men. At all levels of Roman society, a woman s status was tied to that of her father and husband. The empress's authority derived from her husband and from her son, if he too succeeded to the principate. Such associative power enabled her to be a force in Roman political life. Empresses such as Livia and Agrippina the Younger were influential enough to be able to bestow patronage, influence political decisions, arrange marriages, and set moral standards. All of these acts were recorded, sometimes openly and sometimes more subtly, in state relief sculpture, portraiture, the Roman coinage, and precious cameos. If the empress was herself wealthy (associative power derived from her father), as was Livia, that increased her authority.
Some authoritative positions in the religious sphere were held by Roman women. Most powerful and influential among these were the Vestal Virgins, who enjoyed numerous honors in return for their service to the cult of Vesta. Many of these privileges, such as sacrosanctity, special seats in the theater, and the right to travel in a special cart (carpentum), were denied to virtually all other women. Livia and Augustus's sister Octavia were made sacrosanct by Augustus, but they were unique among secular women in this regard. Other cults were served by women as priestesses. Livia was the first priestess of the Divine Augustus, a role subsequently reserved for the empress, and other empresses and members of the imperial family served as priestesses and were associated with a wide variety of cults. Non-imperial women, such as Eumachia, were also priestesses, especially of the cults of Venus, Cybele, Demeter, and Fortuna. As was noted above, Claudia Trophime was the priestess of Hera and Hestia at Ephesus. The office of priestess brought distinction both to the woman who held it and to her family, and it was generally a reflection of the prominence her family held in the community in which she served.
Outside the imperial family, women could also be commanding presences in religion and business. Eumachia achieved wealth and power as a priestess and successful businesswoman in Pompeii. Her achievements were her own, but the opportunities provided her derived from association: she inherited her wine, amphora, and tileexport business from her father, and her priestly office was probably the result of either her filial ties to an old Pompeiian family or the prominence of her husband, Marcus Numistrius Fronto, an elected official.
Family businesses were also left to women by their husbands, either in their absence or after their death. Women could also inherit, buy, or sell property such as real estate and slaves. They could also work at a profession. Women were midwives, actresses, writers, domestics, hairdressers, nurses, seamstresses, and vendors of a wide variety of goods. These opportunities allowed such women to amass significant financial resources that they could use to advance the political and social position of their family. Some backed their sons in political careers and arranged advantageous marriages for their daughters; others increased the family's landholdings or expanded or decorated the family residence; still others funded their manumission from slavery. Wealthy women devoted some of their fortunes to obtaining fashionable jewelry or clothing for themselves or for dowries for their daughters. A surprising amount went into the commissioning of works of art, ranging from portraits and buildings selected by the empress and other women in the imperial circle to funerary monuments commissioned by freedwomen.
Literary evidence for women as patrons of the arts is scarce; here the material remains serve to document the manner and purpose of female patronage. In his Res Gestae, Augustus does not mention the building commissions of Livia. Perhaps it was inappropriate to do so in his personal record. Yet we know from inscriptional evidence, a third-century marble plan, and surviving archaeological remains that Livia built monumental and visible public buildings and temples in Rome. These included a porticus, which served as a public museum, and a market, both of which bore the empress's name. The temples and shrines she commissioned were dedicated to virtues associated with women, such as fertility (Temple of Bona Dea Subsaxana), chastity (shrines of Pudicitia Patricia and Pudicitia Plebeia), the fortune of women (Temple of Fortuna Muliebris), and harmony (Temple of Concord). Livia's beneficence inspired other women. The wealthy Eumachia commissioned a porticus, based on Livia's, that opened onto the Forum in Pompeii.
Surviving Roman portrait and relief sculpture provides additional evidence for women as patrons of the arts. The empress Julia Domna appears to have commissioned her official portraits from a nameless sculptor known today only as the Caracalla Master, reflecting that he also carved portraits of Julia's son, the notorious emperor Caracalla. At the same time, the emperor Septimius Severus, Julia's husband, employed a different sculptor for his official portraits. Such works represented the image that the imperial family wanted to project for itself, and it is significant that the empress had sufficient latitude in her choice of image maker that she could choose a sculptor other than the one selected by her husband.
A similar choice may be reflected in funerary portraits in relief of non-elite women who, according to accompanying inscriptions, dedicated the monuments themselves. A relief bearing the portrait of Petronia Hedone and her son in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, displays a portrait of a mother and her son and is inscribed with a text that tells us Petronia dedicated it hersel£ No man is present, suggesting that she was a widow. She may thus have been free to choose the sculptor who would commemorate her and her son and to dictate the manner in which they were represented. Pliny the Younger notes that it is desirable when commissioning a portrait to select a sculptor who can best represent one's appearance and character. Petronia Hedone andJulia Domna apparently had this in mind when they chose the man who would depict them in their portrait likenesses. Portraits of women like Eumachia of Pompeii3' and others discussed by Boatwright in this volume provide further evidence of women as patrons of the arts. A woman named Plancia Magna, of Perge (in modern southern Turkey), for example, commissioned an elaborate city gate and triple arch adorned with portrait statues of imperial women as a donation to her city.
The power a Roman woman had in politics, business, or state or foreign religion, enhanced by personal wealth and family lineage, was largely exercised in public. A similar authority was available at home, where financial resources and family connections were also paramount. In a domestic setting, Roman women not only were household managers but also set the standard for and guarded the moral behavior of their children and their slaves.
Whatever a Roman woman's social or economic status, home and family were the primary focus of her life. The Roman domus was not a retreat from professional life, as it often is today, but a relatively open and public space where official and family business were transacted. It was in the Roman domus that the paterfamilias, or head of household, received his clients, guests, relatives outside his immediate family, and others seeking political or financial favors. The house was also often the site of the family enterprise, and some had shops (tabernae) opening onto the street, which could be operated by the family, or rented to another owner. The atrium of the house was its central circulation point and transversed by all visitors to the domus. It was filled with symbols of family life, including the ancestor shrine, which defined the genealogical identity of the family; the marriage bed, standing for the continuity of the family; the loom, making reference to the wife's virtue; and often the lararium or shrine to the household gods. Evidence of the family's wealth might also be present, and special interests of family members might be reflected in the subjects of the paintings that decorated the walls. While painted portraits of women in domestic contexts appear to have been rare, they were not unheard of.
The goal of a woman's life, whether empress or freedwoman, was a successful marriage and the raising of children. Even slave women, although denied the legal right to marry, formed equivalent relationships and then worked to attain the freedom that would legalize the union and ensure the free status of their children. Roman women were generally first married in their late teens, and they were expected to have children by the time they were aged 20. Legislation sponsored by Augustus required remarriage after the death or divorce of a spouse, and women were exempt from this requirement only if they had given birth to three or more children, or if they were over 50. Many women remarried in spite of these exemptions, generally for financial reasons. Some, however, such as Antonia the Younger, chose to remain widows, and if they were wealthy, these widows could exercise considerable political and moral authority.
The significance of marriage to the Romans is wel1 known and underscored by its inclusion as a theme in Roman funerary art. Sepulchral reliefs, paired funerary portraits, and stone sarcophagi depicted husbands and wives joining right hands, the gesture of dextrarum inuctio, which referred both to the marriage ceremony and to the marital vows that united the couple in perpetuity. Funerary reliefs and altars were often accompanied by epitaphs that celebrate the couple's marital virtues. Virtues such as fertility, beauty, and especially fidelity were associated with the woman as marital partner. The ideal of the univira was an old one in Rome. It signified that a woman married one man and remained a widow after her husband's death. This ideal was opposed by Augustus's marriage legislation, where remarriage among the aristocracy was favored because it allowed the increased production of children. The epitaphs that may have been painted on the inscription plaques of Roman sarcophagi have long since faded. Thus we rarely know who commissioned the many surviving coffins or for whose remains they were intended. Marriage is a frequent theme. It is sometimes the focus of the narrative and sometimes subsidiary to the main subject. It sometimes appears on the main body of the coffin and sometimes on the lid or the short sides. It can be depicted in a variety of ways, among them the scene of dextrarum inuctio, portraits with attributes that refer to fertility, chastity, and so on, and the conflation of the married pair or one of the partners with a mythological being, such as Alcestis, in a story that refers to marriage or to marital virtues. Scenes of marriage and scenes featuring the virtues of women (for example, fertility, fidelity, and beauty) are sometimes combined with those that refer to male virtues like prowess in battle or the hunt, the granting of clemency to vanquished foes, and pious offerings to a beneficent god. Thus the virtues of both husband and wife are highlighted, as is the desired continuity of the family that their marriage ensures. These dynastic ambitions of marriage were universal through all levels of Roman society, and they appear to have been held equally by men and women.
Once married, a woman was expected to bear children and to educate them by instilling Roman moral values. The relationship of a Roman mother to her children was strikingly different from ours. While contemporary society values close and affectionate ties between mother and child and expects the mother to participate in the daily physical care of young children, Roman society emphasized the role of the mother as educator and moral instructor. That is not to say that the mother had the same moral authority as the father in whose power or potestas the children found themselves. While surviving literary sources focus on the mother's role in moral guidance, funerary epitaphs and reliefs provide evidence for the affection Roman mothers had for their children. Since inculcating moral values in children began at a very young age, even the wet nurse was supposed to possess high moral character. Furthermore, she needed to be able to speak good Latin and to be abstemious when it came to drink. Since many women died in childbirth, and others were not allowed to keep their children after divorce, young children were also often cared for by female relatives other than their mother. A widowed woman, for example, might return to her married son's home to care for his offspring. Older women, especially widows, were considered to embody austere moral character, an attitude that is reflected in the numerous seemingly naturalistic portraits of elderly Roman women. A combination of tutors and schools completed a child's education.
The Roman mother's aim was to advance her children economically, socially, and professionally. For daughters, this meant arranging advantageous marriages. For sons, the goal was political and economic advancement, whether through marriage, a military campaign, a foreign service post, a high public of fice, and preferably all of these, and mothers as well as fathers devoted every possible effort to their sons' success. We see this maternal drive in imperial women such as Livia and Agrippina the Younger, but it was not entirely magnanimous. Such well-placed mothers were only too well aware that their son's advancement enhanced their own positions in Roman society and public life. These same women might use extreme means to achieve the desired results. Agrippina, for example, is rumored to have poisoned her husband Claudius in order to advance the political ambitions of her teenaged son Nero. That his youth might enable her to serve as regent in the early years of his principate was clearly another motivating factor. Surviving ancient texts, such as Suetonius's biographies of the Roman emperors through Nerva, relate lively stories that demonstrate the details of such familial relationships. Material evidence elucidates these further and provides a vivid visual record of the evolution of the alliance between parent and child. Agrippina the Younger, for example, appears on coins with Nero in a succession of issues that explore the growth of his power and the corresponding diminution of hers.
Agrippina and Nero and other imperial mothers and sons were often depicted in freestanding family portrait groups that were arranged in architectural settings around the empire. The intention was a dynastic display that featured not only the current emperor and his spouse but likely heirs and future leaders. Such family groups could be encountered just about everywhere in a typical Roman city: in the forum or marketplace, at the theater or baths. The individual statues were placed in niches and on pedestals with inscriptions that often mentioned family relationships. Family unity was also the subject of the relief sculpture on such public monuments as the Ara Pacis Augustae, erected between 13 and 9 BC. While the altar reliefs were carved in commemoration of a political act of the emperor (the bringing of peace to Rome and the empire), it also celebrates the imperial family and the concept of dynastic continuity. Augustus is accompanied not only by lictors, priests, and magistrates but by his family: his wife Livia, his daughter Julia, and their children, and other imperial families. All were put on prominent view to underscore the emperor's commitment to hereditary dynasty and to the increased procreation of children among the Roman elite.
Family advancement and family unity were also the goals of Roman freedwomen who commissioned sepulchral monuments that publicly expressed their pride in their children's upward climb in what was a mobile Roman society. Since the children of enfranchised slaves were themselves free, their inclusion in the reliefs and portrait sculptures of such monuments heralded their access to careers and social alliances that had eluded their parents. That the family could also afford a costly stone memorial spoke to its professional and financial success. Parents and their children were depicted together, even though they died at different times, in order to underscore the importance of familial bonds and to emphasize that those unions that were formed in life were not broken by death.
Mothers and sons of all social classes were often depicted together in art; mothers and daughters less often. Freestanding portraits of girls appear, however, to have been frequently commissioned, and when they represent girls in their teens, it is likely that they were produced at the time of betrothal or marriage. Such portraits of girls show them with the bearing and hairstyles of a mature woman. A girl, now in the Yale Art Gallery, wears the nodus coiffure popularized by Octavia and Livia, a hairstyle she probably chose for her wedding portrait because it indicated not only that she was fashionable but that she possessed the same feminine virtues as the empress. A girl still young enough to treasure her favorite rag dolls and pet dog is portrayed with an elaborate bun that covers most of the back of her head and dangling earrings as she reclines on her funerary couch in a poignant portrait, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Such a combination of the freshness of childhood and the oncoming responsibility of womanhood emphasize the girl's unfulfilled future as a matrona. Accompanying epitaphs mourn the premature death that precluded marriage. A girl who died before marriage was often buried with more jewelry and fine attire than a wealthy adult woman, and it seems likely that the girl's material belongings were part of her dowry, buried with her rather than taken by her at marriage to her new household.
As mentioned above, certain virtues were frequently associated with Roman men and women of all classes. While men were heralded for their manliness and loyalty, women were praised for their beauty, fertility, and fidelity. Fertility and fidelity were the cornerstones of Augustus's moral and marriage codes, and it was during his principate that Livia was invested with these virtues. Even though Augustus was not Livia's first husband, it was ideologically advantageous to the first couple to present themselves as having the kind of harmonious marriage that once achieved would last in perpetuity. If Augustus were to predecease her, Livia would surely remain a widow, the very embodiment of the ideal univira. And yet, the marriage legislation encouraged childbirth. Here, Livia was aided by Augustus's adoption of his grandsons Gaius and Lucius as his sons. While that adoption probably did not allow Livia to count the boys legally as her children, public perception, aided by such visual affirmation as the imperial fanlily groups on the Ara Pacis, might have embraced such a concept. Since Livia was already the mother of Tiberius and Drusus by a former marriage, she was already viewed as fertile and when Drusus died in 9, she acquired the ius trium liberorum (privilege of three children). On the Ara Pacis, Livia was depicted near Gaius and Lucius and Tiberius and Drusus and also near Tellus Italiae, herself represented with two babies on her lap. The proximity of Livia and Mother Earth forcefully presented the public with a striking image of a fertile and productive role model for all other Roman women. Goddesses like Venus, Juno, and Ceres were amply endowed with the characteristics most prized in a Roman woman, and the near assimilation of Roman imperial women to their divine alter egos was openly advertised on the official Roman coinage. Since that coinage was used in daily commerce around the empire, such imagery was widely dispersed and highly influential. Empresses like Livia were depicted on Roman aurei with the attributes of various divinities and personifications.
The highpoints of an empress's public career were also featured on the Roman coinage. When Agrippina was regent, she appeared on a coin's obverse facing her son, the emperor Nero. Faustina the Younger was heralded on a series of coins, relating the story of the single and twin births of her thirteen children. Similar alliances and accomplishments were made reference to in marble portrait statues of imperial women, sometimes set up alone but more often in conjunction with those of husbands and sons.
Non-elite women were proud to possess the same virtues as their imperial counterparts and were depicted as if they did in art. Whether they actually possessed such characteristics in life was never the point. Their lives were modeled after an ideal image that was widely held, and they wanted to be remembered for posterity as the very embodiment of those prized virtues. Virtues such as beauty, chastity, fertility, fidelity, and devotion were most often chosen to associate with deceased wives and mothers. This was accomplished visually by providing the woman with the characteristics or attributes of the chosen goddess or personification. A woman renowned for her beauty might be portrayed as a sensuous Venus, as is a freedwoman in a sepulchral relief now in the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond. A woman shown in the guise of Alcestis, who offered to die for her husband, would be celebrated for her wifely devotion.
In Roman antiquity, beauty was physical comeliness but, at the same time, was perceived as a feminine virtue. A woman with an exquisite hairstyle was at once attractive and also virtuous. Empresses and princesses worked with their hairstylists to create new coiffures because they wanted to be perceived as fashionable, on the cutting edge, and prosperous, but, at the same time, these hairstyles proclaimed that their wearer possessed all the traits desirable in the ideal Roman woman. In addition, these hairstyles were not chosen haphazardly. Instead, each corkscrew curl, each flowing tress, and each blunt cut bang was carefully arranged to make reference to the political or social agenda of the current dynast and his family. Octavia appears to have invented the new nodus coiffure, but it was Livia who transformed it into a cause célèbre, to be imitated by Roman girls and matrons throughout the empire. Livia's hairstyle was copied in large part because it was hers and she was empress of Rome. But it was also imitated because it literally had bound up with it all the desirable features of ideal Roman womanhood, enumerated in the Augustan marriage and moral legislation. By wearing the hairstyle, the woman took on, almost by magic, all of the trappings of the ideal Roman woman. An additional nuance was that this very coiffure had become associated in the minds of the Romans with the Roman state itself and with a nationalistic fervor. Livia wore the simple hairstyle as a statement that she, unlike Cleopatra, her husband's foe at Actium, was a woman of high moral character, a patrician from a noble Roman family, and not a foreign woman given to what was reported to be ostentatious excess. The simplicity of Livia's hairstyle was not only a striking contrast to the intricacy of Cleopatra's tresses but a reflection of the simple austerity of the Republican values being revived by Augustus in his program of moral reform. When aristocratic women, freedwomen, and even female slaves adopted Livia's hairstyle, they did so in imitation of the current trendsetters but also to indicate that they possessed the same virtues as their imperial counterparts and that they were Romans.
Elegant hairstyles made their wearers beautiful and virtuous Roman women, and their possession of such status is apparent even when all that is preserved of the statue or bust portrait is the head. It must be remembered, however, that most Roman portraits belonged to full-length statues that took the form of a wide variety of body types. These too were carefully chosen by their commissioners, and these too were fraught with pronouncements about current politics, religious affiliations, and personal predilections. In their portraiture, Roman women took on roles as they chose body types. Enviable was the ability of Roman women to fashion themselves as fit but amply endowed, wealthy but modest, elaborately coiffed but capable of working with wool, and sensuous but models of correct behavior. One of the ways that they took on these roles in their portraiture was to select body types, in a sense costumes, associated with specific Roman goddesses whose physical characteristics and personal qualities were well known. By donning a given goddess's body type, the new bearer also took on her attributes. The messages could, however, still be complex and polysemous. The predilection that Roman empresses and former slaves had for Venus imagery was due in part to their wish to be depicted as physically desirable but also to underscore the female fertility that provided them the capability to bear numerous healthy children.
The association of mortal Roman women with goddesses was not limited to their affiliation with Venus, although these appear to have been the most common. Demeter and Persephone as well as Ceres and Fortuna were assimilated to both empresses and non-elite women. The representation of Roman women in the guises of such goddesses was one of the ways in which visual language was used to convey belief in certain social values, each goddess associated with certain traits that the women who were depicted in her guise also possessed.
Chastity was highly prized by the Romans, and they equated it in art with the act of working with wool. The story of Lucretia, as told by Livy, is a case in point. While on a military campaign, Lucretia's husband made a bet with one of his comrades about the relative virtues of their wives. They hastened to Rome to see what their wives were up to in their absence. All were out carousing except the chaste Lucretia, who was at home, working her wool.
Working in wool also demonstrated prudent management of the household, another wifely virtue. Funerary reliefs depicting women working in wool are meant to refer to their domestic skills. A cinerary urn in the shape of a basket in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was used to house the remains of a woman who was prized by her husband and children for the way she tended to the home. Another sepulchral relief portrays a reclining woman with a wool basket. While the basket refers to her expertise in household management, her nudity proclaims that she was also attractive and fertile enough to bear children. The loom, which traditionally stood in the house's atrium, also made reference to judicious housekeeping, and in the procession to her new home, the bride carried the distaff and spindle.
That Roman society was grounded in masculine values is apparent in the choice of virtues esteemed in women—chastity, fertility, beauty, and so on—qualities that defined these women's lives in a man's world. The ideal woman needed to be attractive, able to tend the household, bear children, and set a moral example for those children through correct behavior. Such a woman, if she lived, might enjoy a long and respectable marriage. The Laudatio Turiae, a long epitaph from the first century BC, commemorates a marriage of forty years. In it, the husband praises the virtues of his dead wife. While he notes that she saved his life and helped him escape his enemies, he emphasizes the personal qualities that she brought to their marriage, namely, her loyalty, obedience, affability, reasonableness, sobriety of nature, modesty of appearance, and industry in working wool. A much earlier funerary inscription of the second century BC, written for a woman by a man, also evokes these values, indicating that they were well established during the Republic:
Friend, I have not much to say, stop and read it.
This tomb, which is not fair, is for a fair woman.
Her parents gave her the name Claudia.
She loved her husband in her heart.
She bore two sons, one of whom she left on earth, the other beneath it.
She was pleasant to talk with. She walked with grace. She kept the house. She worked in wool.
That is all. You may go.
These epitaphs make it apparent that the virtues men praised in women were closely associated with home and the family. Nonetheless, historical sources, Latin literature, inscriptions, and especially works of Roman art provide sound evidence that the lives of Roman women were multifaceted and often had a public face. Independence and action in the service of moral causes were respected. Women in particular were expected to maintain a high moral character and to serve as examples of correct behavior for Roman society. It is too limiting to see Roman women only as wives and mothers, although that was their primary role in the view of Roman society. That some of these women were also writers, doctors, entrepreneurs, students of philosophy, world travelers, and patrons of the arts, sometimes on a very grand scale, among other professions and avocations, irrefutably contradicts the image of the purely domestic Roman woman. It was not only Livia and the empresses who followed her who made significant contributions to their society. Women at all levels of the Roman social pyramid did as well, and they left the material evidence of that contribution in the form of museums, markets, temples, shrines, houses, villas, arches, tombs, altars, relief sculpture, portraits, metalwork, coins, epitaphs, and so on. Each one of these works of art or architecture narrates part of the story left by an ambitious empress, an innocent princess, an aristocrat with a patrician pedigree, a well-placed priestess, a gifted poetess, a solid middle-class tavern owner, a popular midwife, and a fetching concubine. Bringing this material evidence together and evaluating what it tells us about the lives and accomplishments of Roman women is what the I, Claudia exhibition and catalogue were all about. This second volume is a continuation of that effort.
“As might be expected from the caliber of the contributors, this is a first-rate collection of essays.... Like I, Claudia, this book will appeal to many others besides classicists. The two volumes will be a must for anyone interested in social history or women's history; the treatment, style, and illustrations make this volume accessible to general readers.”
Karl Galinsky, Floyd A. Cailloux Centennial Professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin