Could women in Ancient Rome hold any power?

An ancient Roman society, were there any roles of power or influence open to women? Historian Miles Russell answers…

Roman women on a fresco from Pompeii

Freeborn Roman women were not able to vote, hold political office or serve in the military, and only rarely owned land or businesses in their own right. Largely excluded from education, the women of Ancient Rome were forever subject to their fathers and husbands, to the point of having no legal rights over their own children.

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That’s not to say that they couldn’t become successful in business and politics, such as Eumachia of Pompeii, who was an extremely wealthy business magnate.

Aside from the wives and mothers of Roman emperors, who often held a significant amount of political power, the only official high-ranking job open to women was religious.

The Vestal Virgins (who kept the sacred fire of Rome burning) were of particularly high status. As priestesses of Vesta – the goddess of the hearth, home and family – the six women would serve for 30 years and held significant power, including independence from their fathers’ rule and they could also manage their own property.

The odds, however, were stacked against Roman women. When Rome encountered societies where women held positions of power, or were treated as being equal to men, they were viewed as being profoundly ‘barbarian’.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, historian and author Miles Russell

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine