Certain features of Roman marriage could potentially put women in a position of power. One especially strong example of this is the dowry, which is property (such as land or slaves) or money brought by a bride to her new family from her originating family as a result of the marriage. The dowry could potentially give a woman a certain level of independence, usually in the form of power over her family’s estate, that helped her bypass the usual authority of the husband and could allow her some support in the event of divorce or separation. Roman inscriptions and literary sources reveal that husbands could benefit from their wives’ dowries (as in the Laudatio Turiae below), and also that husbands could become quite nervous that their wives might become too empowered by their dowries (Plautus, Pot of Gold). For background on the Roman law of marriage, see this short video:
Generally speaking, the influence of the dowry increased directly with the value of the dowry, meaning that a family may become financially dependent on a dowry, presenting even more of an opportunity for the wife to take an important role in the household. This was generally not a desired behavior by men.
For a great portion of Roman Antiquity, women and their families also had somewhat of a say in the level of independence a woman would have in marriage. There were two primary forms of Roman marriage in the Roman Republic: manus and non-manus marriage. Manus marriage is closer to what could be seen in other civilizations such as Ancient Greece, where the man takes control of the wife after marriage and plays a similar role to her father before the marriage. Non-manus marriage became more common among elite women who were to inherit property upon the death of their fathers. In a non-manus marriage, a woman was still free to own and sell property, write a will, and inherit wealth themselves. This allowed women across family generations to accumulate substantial amounts of wealth, which has never previously been possible.
As stated previously in the context of the dowry, the influence that a wife has over the household coincides directly with their wealth and financial contributions she brings to the household through marriage. So, this new possibility for financial growth across generations of women could have a sort of snowball effect, as elite women were able to take more important roles in the household and in society in general.
The growing financial presence of wealthy women meant that a wife and her father were able to obligate the husband to conform to acting certain ways in the marriage. The dowry, or property of the woman in the case of a non-manus marriage, could play a critical in the economic survival of the household, which could be revoked at any time with a divorce. So, it was entirely possible for a husband to request support from his wife in the situation that he fell short financially.
Men historically have greatly feared an increase in female power in classical antiquity, as can be seen throughout mythology and folklore; such as the Amazons, and literature; such as the many plays in which women acted against men in fiendish ways. However, this could be very useful to historians, as a sudden spike in documented male fear in female power could be a indication of an increase in social and economic power for women.
As previously stated, the concept of a non-manus marriage was not always prevalent in Ancient Roman society. Around the period of its popularization, Plautus’ comedy The Pot of Gold was created in the third century BCE. The play mocked non-manus marriages, and framed them as a danger to male authority. In the play, a character states that “Those with a [large] dowry afflict their husbands with misery and loss” (McClure 214). Clearly, men were intimidated by the new financial power of women, and how it could potentially warp the role that they current played as a wife in the household. So, as non-manus marriages became more common, it is reasonable to say that an increase in female power was present.
Divorce was fairly common in Ancient Rome and could be initiated by both the male and female parties of the relationship, which in a way gave women control over who they wanted to be with. Dowry, as mentioned in the previous section, actually played an extremely important role in divorce, and was a way that women could take power in a relationship in ways that were not previously possible, and even intimidated men, as could be seen in writing such as The Pot of Gold.
Upon the competition of a divorce, the dowry had to be handled in certain ways depending on the marriage, and the circumstances of the divorce. The size of the dowry could heavily vary, from sums of money, to entire properties owned by the household. With a large enough dowry, the woman could find themselves with significant leverage over the man in the event of a divorce. If the financial security of the household depends on the dowry, a man could be choosing between divorcing his wife, or potentially endangering the future of his household and namesake, which would have had severe moral and social consequences based on the importance of the household in classical antiquity. Although it may not be clear in what ways women could exert this power on men, it may have influenced men to behave in certain ways that are preferable to the women, especially because the law was known to sometimes act in the favor of the wife, such as in the case of a mother who won custody over her children due to the father’s “wickedness” (Watson).
The return of the dowry was not the only way that women could take control of their social and economic status in the events of a divorce. There were also specific rules in place about divorce, which incorporated rules about child custody, adultery, the specific distribution of dowry to children, and the initiation of the divorce itself.
One example of these rules was the emphasis on who initiated the dowry in Roman law, and how that changed the way that dowry was distributed after the divorce. If the man were to initiate the divorce, the entirety of the dowry was usually returned to the woman or her father. If the wife (or her father) initiated the divorce, the husband was only allowed to keep a portion of the dowry for each of the children he took under his custody (Scott).
Although this seems like an absolute win for women because of their security in marriage due to the unfavorable outcome of a man initiating his own divorce, in addition to the fact that only a portion of her dowry could be lost to children, the dowry is not the only valuable asset that could be left behind in the events of a divorce. The survival of the family household was extremely important to the citizen people in Roman antiquity. The birth of a son to send to marry, bringing a dowry into the household, and sending to war was extremely important, and to a lesser extent, the birth of a woman to send to another household. In Roman law, the male would almost always take custody of the children in the events of a divorce (Scott). So, in this way, it is debatable what influence each side of the marriage had over the divorce.
Divorce is not the only way that a couple can become separated. The militant nature surrounding Roman culture led to the separation of men from their households, to fulfill their ultimate purpose in Roman society as a soldier at war. This gave women a new opportunity to step up, and play a role in managing the household, and take a role in local politics and cult activity.
In addition to this, wealthier wives also could play a role in developing the career of their husband and taking a part in his political life through the attendance of events and acting as a sort of political advocate. Unlike other ancient civilizations, Roman women were not explicitly bound to the house, but were still expected to primarily take a role in the household. These acts of socialization were mainly held for the wealthiest of political families.
Although the separation of a wife and husband can be very telling of the ways that women were able to take control of their lives physically and socially, how can we observe the level of significance that women possessed in their relationships with others? Although this more emotional level of power can be a lot more difficult to gauge in the form of laws or social stigma surrounding marriage, it is easier to observe in other forms of writing.
One of the best examples of the impact that women had on their households can be found in the form of epitaphs, presented at the funeral of the deceased wife, usually by the husband if he is still living. In one particularly well-known epitaph from the first century BCE, the Laudatio Turiae, there are many different lines that show what traits were valued in women, what responsibilities they would take, and to what degree men valued women in a relationship. For example, in this particular epitaph, it is stated that the wife was infertile, and that she offered to separate from the man in exchange for finding him a more suitable wife, without impacting his properties in a significant way that could be economically detrimental. The man’s response is telling of the significance a woman could hold in a marriage, separate from the worlds of finance and politics:
I must admit that I flared up so that I almost lost control of myself; so horrified was I by what you tried to do that I found it difficult to retrieve my composure. To think that separation should be considered between us before fate had so ordained, to think that you had been able to conceive in your mind the idea that you might cease to be my wife while I was still alive, although you had been utterly faithful to me when I was exiled and practically dead!
This shows that even with the strong economic and social repercussions present as a result of not giving birth to children (although there was possible other solutions such as adoption), a man in a relationship could still feel the need to stay with his wife because of the connection they have built, and because of the ways she has contributed to the household and shown that she is a model of the “virtuous wife” that was so desired at the time.
Wistrand, E. “Laudatio Turiae (ILS 8393. Translation).”
Dixon, Suzanne. Cornelia: Mother of the Gracchi. Routledge, 2007.
Foxhall, Lin. Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 2013
McClure, Laura. Women in Classical Antiquity from Birth to Death. Wiley-Blackwell, 2020.
Scott, Samuel P. “Fragments of the Rules of Domitius Ulpianus (Translated).”
Thompson, James C. Women in the Ancient World. 2010.
Watson, Alan. The Digest of Justinian (Translated). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Image of Fragments of Laudatio Turiae, Museo Nazionale Romano, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curia_(wife_of_Quintus_Lucretius)#/media/File:Laudatio_Turiae.jpg
Marble, latter part of 4th century, Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage_in_ancient_Rome#/media/File:Roman_marriage_vows.jpg
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