toilette Mistress attended by her slaves

Women experienced class structure both directly, as it qualified them for certain social privileges and for entry into the few religious offices open to them, and indirectly, as women's status derived from males with whom they were most closely associated. From the time of the kings, Roman citizens (excepting women and children) were registered in the census by tribe and class, originally for purposes of taxation and military service; the quinquennial census enrolled new citizens and monitored class criteria, which had social and political implications for the entire citizen family. Although the divisions and qualifications of class changed over time, the hierarchical concept did not, as it translated into wealth, privilege, and office. An upper-class woman's identity was tied to her social status, as her single name for much of the Republic was a feminized version of her gens name, setting the many Claudias, Aemelias, and Julias apart from the crowd. As sisters, wives, and daughters, elite women shared in the distinction won by their male kin, jealously guarding their privilege and jockeying for primacy. They claimed rank through dress, jewelry, public display, patronage, and reputation as respectable matronae, watching each other carefully for lapses. Polybius, 2nd century BCE Greek historian of Rome, describes how Aemilia Tertia, the proud wife of Scipio Africanus, dressed opulently and rode in an elaborately decorated carriage when she participated in women's ceremonies; she brought with her sacrificial baskets, cups, and utensils made of gold or silver and was accompanied by a retinue of servants larger than any other woman's. She reasoned that such state was fitting for one who had shared the life of the great general who defeated Hannibal at Zama in 202 BCE (Histories 31.26-27). Epigraphic evidence from the imperial period reveals the names of wealthy women who, perhaps influenced by the example of public benefaction set by the Empress Livia (e.g., Porticus Liviae) and Augustus' sister Octavia (e.g., Porticus Octaviae), gained prestige for themselves through their generosity as civic donors. Because visual and literary sources for the lives of lower-class citizen women and freedwomen are sparse, it is less clear how class and social distinctions within class affected their lives. No doubt they were required to work in the house with little or no help; many also worked outside the home to contribute to family resources. They, too, must have experienced the benefits and disadvantages of close community oversight of virtue, family honor, and wealth. For further information see Weidemann (1981) and Hallett (1984) in the Bibliography; see also Images of Class below.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 10.23: Pudicitia Plebeia See the Latin reader The Worlds of Roman Women for the following texts:
Valerius Maximus, Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilia 8.3.3: Hortensia's advocacy Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon 37, 67, 76 (excerpts): Fortunata at dinner
Cornelius Nepos, De Viris Illustribus, Praefatio 2-7: Greek and Roman women C. Nepos, De Viris Illustribus, frag. 1-2: Cornelia's letters to her son
Domitius Ulpianus, Digesta Iustiniani XXIII.2.43.6-9: social class and prostitution M. Tullius Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares 14.4, 20: scenes from a Roman marriage
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helviam 19.4-7: an aristocratic matrona C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Epistulae 8.10: Calpurnia's miscarriage.
Cornelius Tacitus, Annales III. 76.1-5: Junia Tertia, wife of Cassius, sister of Brutus  Gaius, Institutiones 1.144-145, 148-150: tutela.


T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 39.9-10 (excerpts): Hispala Faecenia
Funerary for Petronia Hedone C. Sallustius Crispus, Bellum Catilinae 24-25 (excerpts): Sempronia
Memorial for Claudia Olympias ILS 6373, Funerary Inscription: Naevoleia Tyche, public benefactor.
Dedicatory for Eumachia T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 1.39, 41 (excerpts): Tanaquil
Funerary for Regina Catuvellauna See De Feminis Romanis at Diotima for the following on-line Latin texts:
Funerary for Antonia Caenis Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae
Honorary for Cornelia Marullina C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus (minor), Epistulae 7.24: Ummidia Quadratilla
Funerary by Septimia Dionisias  
Funerary for Crepereia Innula  




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