THE WORLD OF WORK
Fresco, caupona of Salvius, Pompeii, 1st century CE
It is difficult to form a picture of
the work Roman women engaged in because Roman authors make few references to
working women and because much of the work open to women was done by slaves.
Citizen women were primarily responsible for the upkeep of their home; their duties
involved the maintenance of the domus and increase of its property,
bearing and raising children, cooking, making and caring for clothing and
domestic fabrics. While the wealthy had slaves to assist them, women of the
lower classes worked as well in the family business or took paying jobs to
support their family (see Treggiari, 1979). Although elite or wealthy matronae did less physical work than
their plebeian sisters, they were expected to supervise the familia,
keep household records and materials, and assist their husbands in building
political and social alliances through entertainment; they were also expected
to supervise the early education of their children, even if they employed
nurses and tutors. Inscriptions, especially those from large estate columbaria, are rich in terms for the wide variety of
occupations women filled outside the home, from medicine (obstetrices and medicae) to manufacture (silk worker
sericaria, spinner quasillaria, dyer of purple purpuraria,
seamstress sarcinatrix, jeweler gemmaria, pearl setter
margaritaria, gilder brattiaria, workshop manager
officinatrix) to agriculture and trade, primarily of foodstuffs (e.g.,
stamp showing female ownership of a wine and oil import company). Then as
now, female prostitution was a popular though unsavory and unsupervised activity. Frequently not a career of choice, it was a risky and often short-lived alternative
for the poor and ex-slaves (see the plight of Hispala Faecenia). Citizens who hired out their bodies or performed in public as entertainers could be charged with infamia and risked loss of citizen rights. Prostitution was plied in the streets, the taverns, brothels, temples,
entertainment areas and the baths. It offered, unfortunately, a thriving business for procurers and brothel owners, male and female (lenones, lenae). See studies by Kampen and Joshel in the
Bibliography; see also
Images of Work below.
|| Additional Readings
|L. Iunius Columella,
De Re Rustica 1.8.19: the overseer's wife
||See the Latin reader
The Worlds of Roman Women for the following
|Selections from Tacitus,
Petronius, Martial, Suetonius, Statius: Gladiatrices
||M. Porcius Cato, De
Agricultura 142-3 (excerpts): the vilica
|Domitius Ulpianus, Digesta Iustiniani
XXIII.2.43.6-9: defining prostitution
||L. Iunius Columella, De
Re Rustica 1.8.19: slave mothers
|T. Maccius Plautus,
182-218: Erotium, courtesan
||CIL 6.6647, Funerary
Inscription: Hygia, the obstetrix
||ILS 6373, Funerary
Naevoleia Tyche, public benefactor
||C. Plinius Secundus
(maior), Naturalis Historia 35.40.147-8: painters
Caupona in Pompeii: barmaids
Secundus (maior), Naturalis Historia 7.48.158: on the stage
|T. Maccius Plautus,
Cistellaria 38-41, 123-4, 133-44: meretrices
||P. Vergilius Maro,
Aeneis 8.407-415: the homemaker
|Aurelia Nais, fish seller
||ILS 5213, Funerary
Inscription: Eucharis, actress and singer
|Septimia Stratonice, shoemaker
||See De Feminis Romanis at Diotima for the
following on-line Latin texts:
|Servia Cornelia Sabina, nurse
||Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae
|Vernae: home-bred slaves
IMAGES of WORK
marble relief of two women in battle; at the top is an inscription in Greek
commemorating their honorable release from the arena; at the bottom, their
names: Amazon and Achillia. Roman from Halicarnassus, 1st-2nd
century CE. London, British Museum.
fresco on the wall of the inn of Salvius in Pompeii, perhaps advertising the
availability of female hire (see Ulpian above). The woman approaches to kiss
the man; above their heads is scrawled nolo / cum Myrtale (I don't
want it with Myrtale). Roman, 1st century CE. Naples, National
- Attendant pouring wine from an amphora into a pot or bucket set
on a bronze stand in the shape of a satyr (full mosaic). From a Roman villa at Centocelle near Rome, 2nd century CE.
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
wearing transparent clothing (view
2) with musicians; details of a mosaic panel found on Rome's Aventine
hill. Roman, 3rd century CE. Rome, Vatican Museum.
heavily draped, she is pictured with a small box in her right hand on a limestone funeral stele (damaged).
The upper part of the inscription is missing; the letters remaining are:
[probably her father's name]INI FIL[ia] MEDICA. Gallo-Roman, from Ste. Segolene, 2nd/3rd century CE. CIL 13.4334. Metz, Musee de la Cour d'Or.
- Doctor/Pharmacist is pictured in a niche on a limestone
stele, sitting with a book under her hand on her left knee, her foot raised on a footstool, at the center of a workshop (pharmacy? factory for glass/soap?). Behind her is a shelf of round objects; a female worker stands, adding material to a vat. Beside her stands a smaller woman stirring a mixture in a vat with a figured implement (caduceus?) over a low heater; on the other side liquid is distilling into vats. Probably part of a larger tomb, since there is no inscription. Roman Gaul. 2nd century CE. Epinal (France), Musee d'art
ancien et contemporain.
entertaining a customer on a roundel in a
mosaic from a private Roman villa, 4th century CE . Piazza Armerina,
Villa del Casale.
weights. A female judge presiding over the competition awards trophies
to the victors (one
victor holds a palm branch and crowns herself). Floor mosaic from a
private Roman villa, 4th century CE . Piazza Armerina, Villa del Casale.
- Street vendor depicted in a fresco trying to sell a cupid to two well-dressed women; while the product is a charming fancy and perhaps metaphorical, the old vendor seems quite realistic. Villa Ariadne at Stabiae, 1st century CE. Naples Archaeological Museum.
- Painter completing a portrait while a closely draped elegant woman looks on. Fresco from the House of the Empress of Russia, Pompeii (region VI, insula 14, building 42), 1st century CE. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
- Musician, a painted terracotta figurine of a young
female dancing animatedly with her lyre. Greek, South Italy 200-100 BCE. Getty
Entertainer plays the double pipes beside an incense burner on a red figure Gnathian ware pot from Southern Apulia; 330 BCE. London, British Museum.
- Domestic, a bronze statuette of an old servant woman spinning wool thread (smaller). Greek, 100-1 BCE. Getty Villa.
woman: one of a series of frescoes from the taverna of Salvius.
Pompeii, 1st century CE.
in marble relief on a large family tomb
from Neumagen. Trier, Landesmuseum.
- Nurse bathing a newborn infant as his seated mother looks on; a relief panel from the side of the biographical sarcophagus of an unidentified prominent citizen. Rome, 160-180 CE.
Los Angeles, County Museum of Art.
- Nurse looks on with Jason and the Paedagogus as Medea gives her children gifts for the new bride, Creusa; half the frontal relief from a marble sarcophagus. Found in Rome, 2nd century CE. Berlin, Pergamon Museum.
- Nurse and Medea look on as the Paedagogus controls the children with their gifts for Jason's new bride, Creusa; part of the frontal relief of a marble sarcophagus. Rome, Vatican museum (Chiaramonte).
- Elderly Nurse
holding a child, a painted terracotta statuette. Greek. London, British Museum.
- Nurse mourning over a deceased alumnus on the frontal relief of a child's marble sarcophagus. Roman, second century CE. Agrigento, Museo Archeologico Regionale.
- Aged Nurse whose marble head once fit into a statue, now lost. Realistic portrait of the elderly common to the Hellenistic period. Roman copy of a 3-2 century BCE original. London, British Museum.
- Game Shop: a relief of a well-dressed woman seated on a low-backed barrel chair before a table. Another woman (Muse?) in a Greek peplos stands behind her, pointing to a plaque on the wall containing a Latin text (Aeneid I.607-9: In freta dum fluvii current, dum montibus umbrae
lustrabunt convexa, polus dum sidera pascet, semper honos nomenque tuum laudesque manebunt). A Corinthian column separates this scene on the left from the dressed meat hung on the walls of the shop. Cast, possibly modern. EUR (Rome), Civilta Museum.
- Cushion and belt
shop: shoppers or vendors on a relief of the Augustan age. (cast) EUR
(Rome), Civilta Museum. (Florence, Uffizi).
shop: shoppers or vendors on a relief of the Augustan age. (cast) EUR
(Rome), Civilta Museum. (Florence, Uffizi).
Diana: occupying the lower floor of a brick insula
on the Via Diana near the Forum, this large, well-appointed fast-food shop
must have been popular. It offered three entrances with side
benches and external mosaic sidewalk, frescoed shop signs, a hot
food and drink counter with intact stone basins, internal
mosaic flooring, interior
marble wall shelves with a
fresco above the bank of shelves, brick arched
ceilings, an embedded
storage jar, a rear courtyard for tables and outside seating near a
stairs to cellar. The building is Hadrianic (117-138), the shop a 3rd
century CE addition. Ostia Antica.
of Asellina on the Via dell' Abbondanza in Pompeii; painted notices can
be seen (now covered with glass). Roman, 1st century CE. Pompeii.
- Fullonica: this sign (a replica), painted on the wall above the door of Verecundus' workshop, shows women working beside men cleaning and repairing garments. From Pompeii. 1st century CE. EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization.
- Fullonica: this pier, painted on four sides, is from a fuller's workshop that may have belonged to Lucius Veranius Hypsaeus, one of two in the courtyard that advertised the services of the establishment. One side contains an image of Venus, patron goddess of Pompeii. Other sides depict various activities in the cleaning process, showing women working beside men and as satisfied elegant customers. Pompeii region VI, insula 8, building 20, first century CE. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
- Coelia Mascellina was an importer of wine and oil whose name appears on this bronze stamp (signaculum).
Translation (the words are separated by tiny amphorae): [belonging to] Coelia Mascellina, daughter of Gnaeus. A funerary inscription for her parents, fragmentary, bearing her name as dedicator was found on the wall of the mausoleum of Trebellena Flaccilla in Rome (AE 1973.71), 2nd half 2nd century CE.
Tyche, a wealthy businesswoman who was probably a freedwoman, set up a
tomb for herself, for her husband, C. Munatius Faustus, and for her freedmen
and freedwomen. Pompeii, Street of Tombs. 1st century CE.
- Gaavia Philumina, a freedwoman who had a business on the Aventine hill, built a tomb (only one damaged block of which survives) for herself and two men, one of whom was a goldsmith (CVCVMA). Her business, which must have been profitable judging from her monument, was probably identified in the lost part of the inscription. Mid-1st century BCE. Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
Nais, fishmonger, had an elegantly carved marble cippus
dedicated to her by two fellow freedmen: her patron, Gaius Aurelius Phileros, a
former slave of her former master, and Lucius Valerius Secundus, a freedman of
contains the libation jug, side
2 contains the libation dish. Early 2nd century CE. Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Heria Thisbe was a solo singer, the wife of Tiberius Claudius Glaphyrus who played the reed pipe and was victorious at the games in honor of Actium and of Augustus. Her marble funerary altar contains a libation pitcher on left side and a libation dish on right side. Last half 1st century CE. Rome, Capitoline Museum.
- Sellia Epyre was a maker and seller of gold-decorated luxury clothing (aurivestrix) on the Sacred Way. Her name appears on the cover of the marble cinerary urn while the name Q. FVTI OLYMPICI (genitive case, perhaps her husband) appears on its belly in a different script. Both were freedpersons and probably both were interred here. 1st half of 1st century CE. CIL VI.9214. Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
Pierinis, a hairdresser whose niche in a columbarium was covered by a simple
marble marker whose inscription was carefully decorated in red and contained, unusually, the precise date of her death (28 January 2 BCE). Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Hymnis Cellia, a musician who played the cithara (PSALTRIA); her columbarium niche was covered by this simple marble marker. Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Logas, a companion for the grandmother of Messalina, was only 16 at her death. Her mother (AP[h]RODISIA) placed this simple
marble marker over the niche containing her ashes in the 1st century CE columbarium of the Statilii family (CIL 6.6335). Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Italia was a quasillaria, a spinner. She died at 20. Her husband (SCAEVA), a book keeper, set this simple
marble marker over the niche containing her ashes in the 1st century CE columbarium of the Statilii family (CIL 6.6342). Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Optata Pasaes was an ostiaria, a doorkeeper or janitor. Her friends set this simple
marble marker over the niche containing her ashes in the 1st century CE columbarium of the Statilii family (CIL 6.6326). Rome, Terme Diocletiano.
- Clodii, a family of freedpersons who practiced medicine, were proudly portrayed in civic dress on this marble funerary relief: CLODIA HILARA (right); CLODIVS METRODORVS MEDICVS (center); CLODIVS TERTIVS MEDICVS (left). Roman, last third of 1st century BCE. Paris, Louvre Museum.
- Nonia Pelagia, wife of Publius Nonius Zethus, a baker and Augustalis, is commemorated on this communal monument in the shape of a marble sarcophagus with hollows on top for eight cinerary urns. It was commissioned by her husband and inscribed in front for himself, his wife, his fellow freedwoman Nonia Hilara, with the name Publius Nonius Heraclius added below (all freed by the same master, Publius Nonius). On either side of the inscription are scenes from the bakery where they all worked: a millstone and implements. 1st Century CE. From Ostia (CIL 14.393-4). Rome, Vatican Museums (Chiaramonte).
- Gaudenia Nicene appears on the front panel relief of the marble sarcophagus commissioned by her husband, a wool merchant, Titus Aelius Evangelus, for himself and her. A freedwoman, she is pictured with the belted short tunic and boots of a working woman, her hair neatly arranged, holding a funeral garland in her left hand and offering a goblet to her husband. The inscription containing her name runs along the top edge of the relief (FVERIT POST ME ET POST GAVDENIA NICENE VETO ALIVM QVISQVIS HVNC TITVLVM LEGERIT/ MI ET ILLEI FECI); his name is inscribed below the couch on which he reclines (T[ITO] AELIO EVANGELO/ HOMINI PATIENTI/ MERVM PROFVNDAT). The couple are surrounded by workmen, animals and tools of their wool business (see P. J. Holliday, "The Sarcophagus of Titus Aelius Evangelus and Gaudenia Nicene" in The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 21 (1993), pp. 85-100). Roman, 180 CE. Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum.
- Severa Seleuciana and her husband Aurelius Sabutius were weavers by trade: note the incised swatch of woven cloth and loom and shuttle on her funerary tablet. The language of the inscription is colloquial, the words roughly carved; Seleuciana lived with her husband for 17 years, dying in the 3rd consulship of the emperor Probus Augustus and the second of Nonius Paternus (279 CE). Rome, Capitoline Museums.
All images are courtesy of the
VRoma Project's Image Archive.