Only by understanding the normal expectations and restrictions placed on patrician women in Roman society can one see how profoundly different is the situation in which Theodosia Varro, the protagonist of Rubies of the Viper, finds herself at the beginning of the novel.
A Roman lady of the upper classes was trained from childhood for her primary tasks in life: to run a household, manage slaves, entertain her husband’s friends and political allies, and raise her children.
The life of a typical Roman lady of the upper classes was restricted from start to finish. She had minimal education, little encouragement to understand politics, and few opportunities for meaningful engagement with the world outside her home. While a free Roman woman was considered a citizen, she had no right to vote, hold office, or engage in any political activities.
Legally, both a woman and any property she inherited were under the control of a male member of the family: her father, husband, or son. She didn’t have the right to select her own husband, say no to her father’s choice, or wait until she was older than the customary marriage age of 12-14.
A Roman lady didn’t have a legal right to her children. She couldn’t even protect a newborn baby girl (or, on occasion, a sickly baby boy) if the father chose to allow the baby to die of starvation or exposure. If the lady divorced her husband, she had to leave her children behind.
It was common for a girl at puberty to be married off to a considerably older man… becoming perhaps his third or fourth wife. Wives were expected to bear children as often as possible, because few survived and because sons were so desirable. Women wore out fast; twenty to thirty years was the expected life span of a female who survived past childhood.
While adulterous relationships were common, only a woman could be put to death for adultery.
Unlike Greek woman, who were confined almost all the time to their homes, Roman women regularly went out in public, especially to the public baths (which were social occasions as well as opportunities for hygiene); to parties, races and gladiatorial events; and to religious celebrations. They enjoyed friends of their own class, both male and female.
A good book on this subject is Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
—text copyright © Martha Marks—