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What Role Did Women Play in Ancient Rome?

Women in ancient Rome, whether free or enslaved, played many roles: empress, priestess, goddess, shop owner, midwife, prostitute, daughter, wife and mother. But they lacked any voice in public life.

They also lacked a voice in history. With few exceptions—like the words of the female poet Sulpicia or the graffiti of a woman summoning her lover, found scrawled on the walls at Pompeii—what we know about them comes almost entirely from the writings of men in Rome’s most elite circles.

As in many cultures, women’s value in ancient Rome was defined almost solely in relation to their fathers and husbands; the majority were married off by their mid teens. No Roman woman could vote, play a direct role in political or military affairs or otherwise play an official part in how the republic and, later, the empire was run. Still, we can glimpse tantalizing signs of women—usually those of the highest wealth, education and family status—finding ways to claim new powers and rights for themselves. Sometimes they did so through influencing the men in their lives, occasionally by claiming a religious role in society and more rarely by obtaining a degree of legal and economic independence.

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