Traditionally, books about the Roman Empire have focused on men. Male characters are the stars of the show in Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Spartacus, The Robe, and dozens of novels published more recently. Women play bit roles, and that’s not surprising since most ancient women played bit roles in their societies. Little was written by or about them during their lifetimes, which is why relatively little is known about them today.
In the last couple of years, however, several novels starring first-century Roman women have won great reviews and a passionate readership. My Rubies of the Viper, Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin, and Kate Quinn’s Mistress of Rome and Daughters of Rome all spotlight strong female protagonists who not only refuse to stay quietly in the background but aggressively step forward to control their destinies.
This is a good new phase of modern literature. Books with such characters will appeal more to today’s women (and to many men as well). And since the lives of first-century women undoubtedly were interesting in their own ways, they deserve to be told… even if we authors have to piece together details from what few archeological, literary, and historical sources we have. It’s like collecting bits of cloth to stitch into a beautiful quilt.
To see the total picture, you have to know that women living in the city of Rome during the first-century A.D. fell into three groups.
At the top of the social heap were the rich women of the patrician or equestrian classes whose names we know because they were the daughters, sisters, and/or mothers of the dictators, emperors, senators, generals, and conspirators whose names have gone down in history. They lived in mansions on the Palatine and Caelian Hills and enjoyed seaside villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. These women were socially engaged, active in religious institutions, and often influential in the lives and careers of their sons and husbands.
Those fortunate few were surrounded by, waited on, and sustained by slaves—including many females, either home-grown or imported from conquered lands—who tended to be poorly fed, worked without pity, denied medical care, and subjected to corporal punishment and sexual abuse. What we know of their existence, based mostly on satirical writings of the time, does not suggest great happiness.
In between were hordes of free plebeian and foreign women whose names, lives, and deaths passed unnoted by history. They tended to live in slums like the notorious Subura, lacking education, sanitation, law enforcement, decent housing, and medical care.
But what’s most interesting to me about women in first-century Rome is this:
Despite the obvious differences in status, influence, and quality of life between these three groups of women, other aspects of their lives didn’t differ all that much.
- A Roman woman did not have her own unique name. Sisters received the same name, taken from the family name, and were distinguished as “first,” “second,” “third,” etc. Personal identity was almost nil.
- A woman enjoyed no civil or legal rights. Her father, her husband, and eventually even her son(s) controlled her life from the day she was born to the day she died. Even the wealthiest patrician female could not run for office, or even vote.
- A woman’s job in life was to marry (around age 14) a man selected by her father, manage his home, and bear him sons as often as she could before she died, which often happened before she was twenty. Men routinely went through several wives.
- A woman could not protect her infant daughter or sickly son if her husband decided to kill the child directly or indirectly, by exposure.
- A woman could divorce her husband but was required to leave her children with him. She had no legal claim to them.
- Only under very unusual circumstances could a woman own property in her own right. (This nugget of historical truth forms the basis of my plot in Rubies of the Viper.)
As with some societies today, first-century Rome wasn’t woman friendly.
The thing I find most fresh and appealing in the new crop of female-centered fiction set in this particular time and place is that all three segments of society are brought vividly to life. Ancient Roman novels are not just about warriors, dictators, gladiators, and private detectives any more. They’re also about women… rich, poor, slave, free, whatever.
Female characters are not add-ons or after-thoughts in these books. Their individual activities, challenges, emotions, desires, and ambitions are central and portrayed in crisp detail. As reviewers of Quinn’s novels, Tyrpak’s novel, and my own have pointed out, nothing is held back. The reader comes into a very specific time and place and sees the entire Roman culture, including women’s lives, in ways that would be unimaginable in more traditional novels.
In Rubies of the Viper, three female characters carry much of the plot: my protagonist, Theodosia Varro; her slave, Lucilla; and her friend, Flavia Domitilla, the daughter of a famous general. Another woman, Theodosia’s Greek mother, has died before the story begins, but she hangs over it like an omnipresent ghost. Together, these four represent the entire spectrum of Roman society. During the six years it took me to write this book, I worked hard to dig out and integrate details of the lives of women into the larger societal picture I was painting with words. One of the greatest pleasures I have now is when readers let me know—through emails and reviews—that I made them feel what it was like to be a woman in first-century Rome. I hope to do the same in my sequel, The Viper Amulet—which is now in progress.
This essay was originally published on Sept. 27, 2011, as a guest post in author Suzanne Adair’s blog, called The British Are Coming, Y’all!
—text copyright © Martha Marks—