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 from the perspective of the elite Roman male. 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 role ideals that make female silence nearly impenetrable. 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 an alliance, while her death in childbirth -- all too common an occurrence for women in antiquity -- caused its dissolution. Female fertility and health were of concern for Romans as they affected family life (see the occupation of midwifery, the practice of medicine in connection with menarche, pregnancy and birth, and extant gynecological writings). Despite the advice for women's health issues to be found in medical texts and the writings of Cato the Elder, Columella, and Pliny the Elder, it is probable that women --slaves, family, friends -- and folk medicine/magic were more significant to their bodily care. Women's sexuality, however, of interest principally to Roman writers of satire, elegy, and genres of invective, was targeted as the source of transgressive female behavior. 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 Lex Oppia (215 BCE), a regulation limiting women's public display. Beginning with Livia and Octavia, imperial women set the fashion for hairstyles, visible on statues and coins, for women of all classes to emulate, as portraits on funerary monuments illustrate. Although in practice elite and middle-class women gained greater control over their persons and destiny during the Empire, before the law their bodies remained subject to male oversight. For more on the topic, see Braund & Gold (1998), Caldwell (2015), Dixon (2001), Edmondson & Keith (2008), Flemming (2000), Flory (1993), Kapparis (2001), Koloski-Ostrow & Lyons (1997), Levin-Richardson (2013), Olson (2008), Pandey (2018), Richlin (2014), Sebesta (2001),Tatarkiewicz (2023) in the Bibliography, Stephens' Ancient Hairstyles Recreation, and Images of the World of Body: Clothing, Hairstyles, Jewelry, Cosmetics, Health.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 12.1-21 (excerpts): breast feeding See The Worlds of Roman Women for the following:
Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-5, 9: Julia, daughter of Augustus    Aulus Cornelius Celsus, De Medicina 2, 4: women's medicine
Publius Ovidius Naso, Fasti 6.801-810: Marcia, cousin of Augustus    C. Plinius Secundus (maior), Naturalis Historia 28.20-23: 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
Lucius Iunius Columella, De Re Rustica X.357-68: the magical potency of the female body    Incertus Auctor, De Sulpicia Elegiae 1: at the festival of Mars
Lucius Iunius Columella, De Re Rustica I.8.19: fertile slavewomen deserve rewards    T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 4.44: a Vestal regrets
Decimus Junius Juvenalis, Satura VI. 246-267: noblewomen imitating gladiators     T. Maccius Plautus, Epidicus 221-234: wearing her fortune

Funerary Inscriptions:

   T. Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura 4.1278-87: pretty is as pretty does  
Claudia Semne







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