bath Women about to bathe, bronze mirror cover

Hera, goddess of marriage and the ability to procreate, and Venus, goddess of the youthful and virginal beauty that attracts the male gaze and gives sexual pleasure, symbolize the twin cultural expectations of women's bodies. Roman history bears witness to the fact that women's bodies were not their own but, lying at the intersection of public interest as they did, were constitutionally entrusted to males to regulate and administer for the good of the state. Body is at the crux of male and female biological and cultural difference, thus setting conservative gender and sex roles and ideals. Numerous examples testify to the impact of the female body on civic well being: the rape of the Sabine women and its result in new citizens; the rape of Lucretia which ended the monarchy; the arranged marriage of Julia which brought Caesar and Pompey into alliance while her death in childbirth, an event all too common in antiquity, allowed it to dissolve. Female fertility and health were areas of concern for Romans, as the occupation of midwifery, the practice of medicine in connection with menarche, pregnancy and birth, and extant gynecological writings demonstrate. Augustus proposed laws that awarded coveted personal and civic privileges to women who produced three children. Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE) praises his mother for being unashamed of her fertility, unlike most women of the time who hid the effect of pregnancy on their appearance or resorted to abortion (ad Helviam 16.3). Tacitus (56–117 CE), contrasting the common practice of Roman mothers, at least among the upper classes, of giving their newborn children to wet-nurses, praises German women for breast-feeding their own children (Germania 20). In matters of adornment and dress, women claimed the right of visual self-expression from the time of their fierce opposition to the 2nd century BCE Oppian law, a regulation limiting women's public display. Beginning with Livia and Octavia, imperial women set the fashion for hairstyles for women of all classes to imitate, as funerary monuments demonstrate. Although in practice women gained greater control over their persons and destiny during the Empire, before the law their bodies remained subject to male oversight. For further information see Caldwell (2015), Flemming (2000), Kapparis (2001), Pandey, Sebesta (2001) in the Bibliography; see also Stephens' Ancient Hairstyles Recreation and Images of Body below.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 12.1-21 (excerpts): breast feeding See the Latin reader The Worlds of Roman Women for the following texts:
Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-5, 9: Julia, daughter of Augustus Aulus Cornelius Celsus, De Medicina 2, 4 (excerpts): women's medicine
Publius Ovidius Naso, Fasti 6.801-810: Marcia, cousin of Augustus C. Plinius Secundus (maior), Naturalis Historia 28.20-23 (excerpts): the powers of female bodies
Publius Papinius Statius, Silvae 1.2. 105-122, 138-140: Epithalamion for Stella and Violentilla Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia 4.6.4: Julia's death in childbirth
Publius Ovidius Naso, Ars Amatoria III.281-310: advice for girls C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Epistulae 8.10: Calpurnia's miscarriage
  Incertus Auctor, De Sulpicia Elegiae 1: at the festival of Mars

Funerary Inscriptions:

T. Maccius Plautus, Epidicus 221-234: wearing her fortune
Claudia Semne T. Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura 4.1278-87: pretty is as pretty does
  T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 4.44: a Vestal regrets







All images are courtesy of the VRoma Project's Image Archive.