Author: Kaitlin Osborne, senior in the History major

Editor: Brittany Von Kamp, second year student in the M.A. in History

This is a public presentation written as part of HIST4001, Professional Practices in History and HIST4413, Roman Social & Cultural History.

Limestone plaque of magistrae of Bona Dea from Aquileia (Civico Museuo di Storia ed Arte Trieste).
Transcription: Aninia M (arci) f (ilia) Magna et / Seia Ionis et Cornelia Ephyre / magistrae B (onae) D (eae) / porticum restituerunt et / aediculam Fonionis
Translation: Aninia Magna, daughter of Marcus, Seia Ionis and Cornelia Ephyre, superintendents (magistrae) of the cult of Bona Dea, restored the portico and shrine of Fonio.
Accessed from http://lupa.at/15995.

“Was religion important to the average Roman woman?” Better yet – “Were women important to the practice of religion?” These questions might appear to invoke a simple answer, but that is unfortunately not the case. You might find yourself asking “Why?” Well, that is because there is only a limited amount of available information about the life of women in Rome, especially in regard to specific themes such as religion. This problem is only worsened by the fact that much of ancient and modern scholarship was written by and about men, which obviously presents its own set of biased issues. What we do know is therefore drawn upon a mix of epigraphic (inscriptions such as those found on public memorials and tombs) and literary sources from the ancient world that only begin to shed light on women’s religious participation in both the private and public realms of ancient Roman society. With that in mind, the cultural and historical significance of women’s lives and experiences in ancient Rome, especially in regard to religion, really cannot be overstated. This article thus presents a brief discussion on the positive impact of religion on women’s lives as well as the importance of women’s religious participation and involvement.

In ancient Rome, men and women often lived very different lives due to the collective emphasis on starkly divided gender roles and expectations. But this divide is most apparent when examining the jobs and positions held by men and women. Men could lead a career, pursue higher education, or even participate in politics depending on their social class and citizenship status. There was a seemingly endless number of opportunities for men to make a name for themselves and influence other members of their community. Such prospects were usually not extended to women, as women were deemed inferior and thus incapable of performing the same duties as men. In fact, even the most famous Roman women were often known for their relations to famous male figures rather than their own achievements.

It is fairly clear that women in Rome had relatively limited opportunities and experiences in comparison to their male counterparts, especially in the public realm. This is due to ingrained expectations and stereotypes that were associated with the sexes, which meant that the lives of women were essentially limited to the home. From a young age, girls were taught skills that would help them start a family and run a household without concern for their intellectual or personal growth. In the vast majority of cases, women were even barred from participating in public activities and discussions of anything deemed too sophisticated for women to comprehend, such as philosophy, literature, and politics. There are thus very few examples in which women were shown to actively participate or take on prominent positions in the public eye. The most significant exception to this trend would be religion, as it was the prime method in which women could voice their opinion, practice their beliefs, and serve the state.

Many public and private religious rites involved both men and women, but some festivals, celebrations, and ceremonies were primarily practiced by one gender or the other. Women would typically practice rituals and customs associated with fertility, childbirth, and marriage as well as the affiliated goddesses, such as Juno or Bona Dea. Regarding private religious practices, they are much less documented than public religion. But within the home it seems that women could participate in a multitude of ways, such as worshiping their household gods, praying at the home altar, and performing invocations in the hopes of receiving divine aid. Essentially all manners of religious participation were advantageous for women, as they would personally benefit from the stability and happiness that was derived from honoring their beloved gods and performing vital rituals.

Statue erected in Perga of Plancia Magna, a high priestess of Artemis and the imperial cult. Accessed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plancia_Magna.
Statue erected in Pompeii of Eumachia, the public priestess of Venus Pompeiana. Accessed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eumachia.

Aside from the aforementioned ways in which women could practice elements of religion, there were also specific titles and positions that could be held within cults and priesthoods. Across Rome and its provinces, priestesses were arguably the most significant position that could be held by women, as this title enabled women to gain social standing, express their opinions, and aid their community. Many priestesses and female members of both domestic and foreign cults were therefore respected members in Roman society. Examples of prominent women include Plancia Magna and Eumachia, who were both memorialized with statues for their role as priestesses of Artemis and Venus, respectively. These women, like many others, stood out in Roman society for the countless contributions to the state and their local community, and they were praised for their devotion to their patron god or goddess. So, their lives were positively impacted by religion because rather than being limited to the role of wife and mother, they could pride themselves on having the ability to help others and to serve both the gods and the state.

Not only did religion give women a sense of responsibility and a purpose, but it allowed them to gain power in a society in which they were often rendered powerless. One female-led cult in particular held immense influence and prestige, and the members of this cult were known as the Vestal Virgins. The 6 Vestal Virgins belonged to the prestigious pontifical college and were committed to serving the cult of Vesta for a minimum of 30 years. The Vestals were known as the most ancient and cherished priesthood in Rome, and their constant preservation of Vesta’s fire was what maintained the welfare of the city. Their job was so important to Rome’s prosperity that they were even given a unique legal and ritual status, and their vow of virginity could not be broken in fear of hindering the city of Rome and its success. Vestals were required to be virtuous and chaste, and only those who remained pure could perform their sacred duty. As the ancient poet Horace wrote, “Rome will stand as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitol besides the silent virgin.”

The field of religion was unique because it allowed women to escape the expectations thrust upon them and thrive due to the opportunities and advantages that religion presented. But what was also unique about religion was that women were not mere observers. No, women were actually crucial figures when it came to ensuring for continued Roman stability and success. Honoring the gods and adhering to sacred customs was integral to continuing Rome’s reign; as such, women often functioned as the guarantor of the continuation of Rome’s success. Women were therefore able to hold religious-oriented positions of high rank and status that gave them the power and opportunities that many women (and even men) could only aspire to one day achieve. This is because without the worship of major goddesses or the maintenance of Vesta’s sacred hearth, Romans believed that their civilization simply did not have a viable future. Despite the values of a patriarchal society that restricted their possibilities, women always had a place in religion because they were the only ones who could truly guarantee that the state would flourish and prosper.

To Know More:

DiLuzio, Meghan J. A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. https://www.worldcat.org/title/place-at-the-altar-priestesses-in-republican-rome/oclc/1125974172&referer=brief_results

Hemelrijk, Emily A. Women and Society in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. https://www-cambridge-org.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/core/books/women-and-society-in-the-roman-world/FF8F8BC865F3E681352B3DC234E382C0

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Unreliable Witnesses: Religion, Gender, and History in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. https://www.worldcat.org/title/unreliable-witnesses-religion-gender-and-history-in-the-greco-roman-mediterranean/oclc/827268770&referer=brief_results

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. https://www.worldcat.org/title/womens-religions-in-the-greco-roman-world-a-sourcebook/oclc/848986969&referer=brief_results

Menasco, Cara Lynn. “Unveiling Women’s Religion and Experiences in Ancient Mesopotamia and Rome.” Masters Dissertation, Oklahoma State University, 2015. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/docview/1965496366?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=26417

Takács, Sarolta A. Vestal Virgins, Sybils, and Matrons in Roman Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008. https://www.worldcat.org/title/vestal-virgins-sibyls-and-matrons-women-in-roman-religion/oclc/878681842&referer=brief_results