drinkers 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., this bronze 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). For further information about female workers, see Harper, Harris, Joshel (2010), Kampen, Loven, McGinn (2004), Murnaghan & Joshel, Pomeroy (1975), Treggiari (1979), Weidemann (1981), Will (1979) in the Bibliography; see also Images of Work below.

Text-Commentaries 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 texts:
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, Menaechmi 182-218: Erotium, courtesan CIL 6.6647, Funerary Inscription: Hygia, the obstetrix
  Funerary Inscription for Naevoleia Tyche, businesswoman of Pompeii
  C. Plinius Secundus (maior), Naturalis Historia 35.40.147-8: painters


: Salvius's Caupona in Pompeii: barmaids
C. Plinius Secundus (maior), Naturalis Historia 7.48.158: on the stage

Funerary Inscriptions

T. Maccius Plautus, Cistellaria 38-41, 123-4, 133-44: meretrices
for Gnome, hairdresser P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis 8.407-415: the homemaker
for Aurelia Nais, fish seller ILS 5213, Funerary Inscription: Eucharis, actress and singer
for Septimia Stratonice, shoemaker See De Feminis Romanis at Diotima for the following online Latin text:
for Servia Cornelia Sabina, nurse     Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae
for Vernae: home-bred slaves   
for Urbanilla, a businesswoman  





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