Mothers, Wives, Sisters, and Priestesses: The Role of Women in a Predominantly Masculine Society (Elise Warren, 2020)

Rome, from its institution, was destined to be a male-dominated, highly patriarchal society. This social organization was typical of the period. Men occupied the zenith of the social hierarchy, far above their allegedly inferior female counterparts. This practice is evidenced by the fabled foundation of Romulus’ senate of one hundred fathers, or patres, whose descendants, the patricians, would go on to comprise Rome’s elite ruling class for much of Rome’s early history. Livy expressly reflects many values of period-typical sexism in his narrative providing the reader with insight into Roman opinions of women’s role in society as well as what qualities were perceived as being representative of the quintessential Roman woman. In The Early History of Rome, Livy unmistakably believes that women did much to impact the course Roman history, however, he finds that much of this influence was only made possible through the actions of their male compatriots.

To fully grasp Livy’s complex, and occasionally contradictory, opinions on the role of women in Roman society and history, one must first understand his perception of the female condition at large. Livy quite expressly finds women to be inferior to men, especially in the sense that they are excessively emotional and weak to affairs of the heart. Livy rarely discusses the emotions of men, but documents “sorrow of which the most poignant expression was given by the women of Rome” (115) as well as “the plight of the women… weeping and torn by love and loyalty” (417). Here, Livy seems to reflect a sentiment emblematic of Roman ideals regarding the emotional inferiority of women who were, purportedly, unable to keep their illogical fervors at bay. This motif is, moreover, present in Livy’s account of the murder of the Horatii sister. The girl forgot her composure and her ostensibly offensive public display of grief at the loss of her lover incited her brother Horatius to kill her, exclaiming “So perish all Roman women who mourn for an enemy” (61). Horatius is exonerated for the murder after his father claims that “his daughter deserved her death. Had it been otherwise… he would have exercised his right to punish his son himself” (61). In addition to accentuating the importance of lineage and the power of men, particularly the pater familias, this statement further reflects the devaluation of women in society compared to men due to their perceived excess of sentimentality. This value is a major motif throughout Livy’s narrative, manifesting most prominently through his trivialization of the historical contributions of women by attributing them, in part, to the men in their lives.

A Roman’s gens – a group who share a common name and ancestry – was of the utmost importance in early Rome as it often determined one’s social, economic, and political station. The significance placed upon Roman societal of bloodlines resulted in the average woman’s principal duties being child-rearing and the formation of interfamilial alliances through marriage. As a result, the women featured in Livy’s history are most prominently undeveloped, secondary characters fulfilling the roles of mothers or wives. Livy reflects the ideal that most Roman women were unremarkable beyond their maternal and marital duties through his chronicling of the rape of the Sabine Women. In Livy’s rendition, “the Sabine women… beseech their fathers on one side, their husbands on the other to spare themselves the curse of shedding kindred blood” (45) because they would rather “die…than live widowed or orphaned” (46). This narrative is highly representative of Livy’s proclivity to confine women to roles dependent on the men in their lives. It, additionally, serves to illustrate the practice of Roman expansionism through sexual propagation. This phenomenon, which perpetuates the purely maternal role of Roman women, is later evidenced by Livy’s assertion that consuls granted land from Veii to freemen and members of the plebian classes to “encourage them to bear children” (406).

Although a majority of the women in The Early History of Rome rarely occupy roles that exceed their traditional maternal and connubial spheres, Livy believes that the wives of notable Roman men often acted as their advisors and confidants. He finds that many of these women profoundly impacted the course of Roman history through their consultative roles, but it was only through the actions of their male counterparts that they were able to do so. Livy, most notably, demonstrates this phenomenon through the characterization of the queens of Rome as advisors to their husbands. This is first observable in the aforementioned rape of the Sabine Women when Romulus’ wife Hersilia entreats him to “pardon the girls’ parents and allow them to come and live in Rome” (43). Livy likely incorporates notable female figures into his history in this manner in an attempt to balance the bellicose heroism of Roman men with the tenderhearted, emotional qualities he finds to be representative of women. This is, again, reflected in Livy’s depiction of Egeria, who was purely a product of myth, but allegedly acted as an advisor to Numa Pompilius. Despite the fact that Livy was highly skeptical of the mingling of religious propaganda and concrete history, he still mentions that “It was [Egeria’s] authority that guided [Numa] in the establishment of such rights as were most acceptable to the gods” (53). This ultimately sets a precedent for the remainder of Livy’s writing in which he acknowledges the monumental impact women had on Rome’s history while maintaining that their contributions would have been impossible without the men in their lives, oftentimes their husbands or sons.

Livy continues to explore the role of women in Roman history as advocates of great men through Tranquil, the wife of Tarquinius Priscus. Livy characterized Tanaquil as a devoted wife as well as a pious woman who “had had influence enough twice in secession to confer the crown- first on her husband, then on her son-in-law” (88), Servius Tullius. It is obvious that Livy recognizes the monumental impact Tanaquil had on the Roman monarchy, but it is also expressly clear that Tanaquil’s story is only notable in relation to the men in her life and her role in their rise to power. It is also notable that Livy suggests that Tanaquil’s success as a political advisor was to be attributed to her uncharacteristically masculine rationality and oratory prowess, as well as her alleged skill as a divine conduit. This indicates that Livy finds Tanaquil to be an outlier among others of her sex.

Livy further demonstrates his view of women in Roman history by contrasting Tanaquil, the paragon of the level-headed advisory wife, with Tullia who “was not of the sort to let [her spouse’s] ambition sleep” (86). Tullia, like Tanaquil, greatly influenced the course of Roman history by helping her husband, Tarquinius Superbus, ascend to the throne. In fact, Livy suggests that Tullia’s actions were a direct product of the mark Tanaquil made on history in stating that “to Tullia the thought of Tanaquil’s success was torture [and] she was determined to emulate it” (88). As a result, Tullia and Tarquin worked together to kill their spouses, their respective siblings, before marrying and forcefully removing Servius, Tullia’s father, from the throne. This violent plot was, according to Livy, thought to have been carried out “at Tullia’s suggestion: and such a crime was not, at least, inconsistent with her character” (89). Here, it is incontestable that Livy thinks that women had a monumental impact on Roman history through the actions of their male compatriots. Tullia “wanted a man who knew he was worthy of a crown” (87) and she made sure to secure this in Tarquin who possessed an ambition that rivaled his wife’s, a fatal flaw that would bring about the end of the Roman monarchy. Ultimately, Livy attributes the conclusion of the Regal Period to Tullia’s avaricious ambitions which she executed through Tarquin. Thus, it is expressly clear that Livy finds women to be intrinsic to Roman history, but due to their sociopolitical station, much of their influence was asserted through their male compatriots.

Veturia and Volumnia are also recognized by Livy as paramount figures in Roman history. However, their impact on Roman antiquity is likely only considered to be of note because of the tale’s male focal point, Marcius Coriolanus. Veturia and Volumnia were the mother and wife of Coriolanus who was a figurehead in the Volscian conflict with Rome. According to Livy, Veturia and Volumnia were sent to persuade an immovably obstinate Coriolanus to abandon his war efforts against Rome because men “could not defend the city with their swords [and] women might better succeed with tears and entreaties” (156). This harkens back to Livy’s image of the typical Roman woman as being excessively emotional, however, in this case, Veturia’s emotional fervor proved to be highly beneficial. She reprimanded Coriolanus’ lack of nationalism and his failure to support his family, allegedly exclaiming that “if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country” (156). Coriolanus was moved by his mother’s patriotic sentimentality and choose to withdraw his army. This case of women in Roman history is particularly striking because, while its significance is still largely affiliated with the actions of a man, the women in the narrative are average Roman citizens, not nobility. It is also notable that Livy does not compare Veturia or Volumnia to men or suggest that they possess distinctly masculine traits as he often does in his tales involving women of great historical significance.

Livy’s tendency to ascribe the successes of the women he includes in his historical narrative to the influences or actions of men as well as the possession of what he would consider to be traditionally masculine qualities is exemplified in his depiction of Cloelia. She was a hostage who orchestrated the escape of several other girls in which “she eluded the guards, swam across the river under a hail of missiles and brought her company safe to Rome, where they were all restored to their families” (123). However, her heroic actions are greatly undermined by Livy’s assertion that she possessed “more than masculine courage” (123) that was “unprecedented in a woman” (124). Livy also alleges that her escape only occurred because she was inspired by the heroism of Gaius Musius, the left-handed man, further proving that Livy believes that women would not have earned their place in history without masculine influence or aid. In a final affront to Cloelia’s heroism, Livy makes it expressly clear that she was unmarried, still possessing “her maiden modesty” (124), a sentiment that was highly representative of the Romans’ obsession with female chastity and honor.

Overall, Livy thinks that women did much to impact the course Roman history, however, he believes that their influence was only made possible through the actions of men. This is highly reflective of Rome’s patriarchal social model, period-typical social stratification, and the popular notion of what was characteristic of the ideal Roman woman. These quintessential feminine values, which are exemplified in Livy’s depiction of Lucretia, generally included “womanly virtue” (101) or chastity, as well as piety, Roman nationalism, and a dedication to traditionally womanly pursuits (weaving, childbearing, or serving as a vestal virgin). However, as Rome’s historical narrative progressed became evident that women received increased recognition for their notable accomplishments. This is evidenced by the erection of a statue of Cloelia- an “unprecedented honor”(124)- as well as the women who contributed to war debts after the Gallic sack of Rome “having laudatory orations pronounced at the funerals”(429) which was a “privilege, hitherto confined to men”(429). Despite this, women are grossly underrepresented in the Early History of Rome. Thus, modern readers of Livy must recognize the sociocultural perspective from which he wrote his narrative and the biases that it produced in order to fully understand the historical implications of the text.