Monday, August 08, 2005

The Roles of Patrician and Plebeian Women in Their Religion in the Republic of Rome

by Lesa A. Young
East Tennessee State University

This paper investigates the roles of Roman women in their religion. It includes both
patrician and plebeian women, as well as public and private roles and focuses on the
period of the Republic (509-30 BCE). Some of the questions to be looked at are: To what
extent were mothers responsible for private rituals at home? What type of activities did
they participate in as private citizens in the public festivals? How extensive were public
religious positions held by women? What role did the Vestal Virgins play in Rome?

The paper is divided into five chapters: The Period of the Republic, Private Rituals,
Life Rituals, Public Rituals, and Public Roles. The Period of the Republic gives
background information about the history, politics, and the role of women in these areas
throughout the Republic. During the Republic wars, droughts, famines, and other crises
made an impact upon the laws pertaining to women and the roles they played. As many
men were killed or away from Rome, women had to take a more active leading role in
affairs. This impacted attitudes, as well as events, and knowing this helps to understand
the women in the Republic. Also included in the first chapter are the mythological stories
from Rome?s pre and early Republican days. The Rape of the Sabine women, the Rape
of Lucretia, and the story of the mother of Coriolanus all represent the traditions of ?good
Roman women?. Then looking at the passage of the lex Oppia and eventual repealing, it
becomes evident that women moved from the secondary position of coercing the men to
achieve their goals, to having the courage and ability to speak out somewhat directly for
their own desires. It never evolves into women having full male rights, but steps are made
toward women being responsible for their own interests and welfare.

The chapter on Private Rituals investigates the rituals, roles, and practices of a Roman
matron in her own home. As the mater, she is responsible for carrying out the requests of
the paterfamialias and for educating her children in the religious rituals, especially her
daughters. Particularly the religious tasks that are typically related to women?s work fall
to the mothers and daughters, such as weaving wreaths, preparing the salt-cakes, reciting
prayers for specific tasks, etc. Numina, Lararium, Lares, Penates, Vesta, Parilia,
Lemuria, and Ambarvalia are discussed in this chapter. Explanations of the rituals and the
tasks of women are given for each.

The chapter on Life Rituals explores the rituals and beliefs of the Roman women
concerning her major life occurrences. These include birth, marriage, and death. Also
included are brief descriptions of divination and dream interpretations. As women, they
were not allowed to read the auspices or interpret dreams. But as superstitious people,
the outcome of these practices definitely impacted women as Romans. The
interpretations would define how/what she could do.

The Public Rituals includes the women?s roles in public festivals. How they could
participate is explored, as well as a number of the festivals. By the end of the Republic,
there were so many festivals and holidays that it was a daily occurrence. The men
brought foreign beliefs and practices back from wars and included them in the religious
calendar so as to not offend any gods. Those investigated in this chapter are the
participation in sacrificial rituals, temple/shrine worship, feasts/festivals, circuses, and

The chapter on Public Roles looks at the role of the Vestal Virgins and also at the few
other minor public positions, such as the wife of the flamen of Jupiter. These leading
religious positions were few in number but played a powerful role as far as women were
concerned. The Vestals had more independence than any other women, although they
still answered to the Pontifex Maximus. He played the role of the paterfamialias for
them. And they walked the line between the genders, being women, having some typical
female tasks to do for Rome?s hearth, but also having some of the legal rights normally
reserved for the males.
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