Women’s Impact on Early Roman History (Lydia Fantoni, 2020)

In The History of Rome from Its Foundations, the Roman historian Livy recounts the beginnings and subsequent rise of his nation with palpable patriotism, detailing stories of legendary, sometimes godlike kings, courageous and devout military heroes, and eloquent, influential politicians. Despite Livy’s attention to detail, throughout the text, he generally confines women to remaining in the background and to dutifully serving their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons; this limits the extent to which women, according to Livy, impact Roman history. However, when they do take an active role, their actions are made all the more notable because of the rarity of the occasion. Livy’s accounts of Roman women provide a mixture of virtuous women intentionally acting for the protection and reputation of their nation but also of more dishonorable, occasionally manipulative, women not prioritizing the well-being of their patria. Although mainly ignored while Livy focuses on Roman patriarchs, the tales about the women of Rome reveal that their actions affect, for the better or worse of Rome, the nation’s development.

One of the earliest examples of women playing a “decisive part” in Roman history is when the Sabine women “thrust their way in a body between the embattled armies” of the Romans, now their husbands, and the Sabines, their fathers and brothers (45). The outcome of this intervention, the joining of the two states “under a single government, with Rome as the seat of power,” clearly benefitted the new, small Roman nation (46). Aware of this event’s significance, Romulus, the founder and first Roman king, named the sections into which he divided the Roman population after thirty of the Sabine women. However, it is worth noting that the entire reason for the war was that the Romans had violently and deceitfully kidnapped the Sabine women in order to continue the Roman line and population, although the men tried to win the women’s affection by telling them “that it was passionate love which had prompted their offence” (42). Furthermore, Livy writes that the Sabine women, unlike their male family members, possessed a “natural timidity” which they replaced with a more manly “courage” to run in between the two armies and call for peace (45). However, the Sabine women appealed to their husbands and fathers by reminding them that they were now wives and mothers, so, although they were acting in an “unnatural” or less feminine way, their arguments were not completely separated from the traditional, “natural” role of wife and mother. It seems that Roman men and women have separate, complementary roles, but also that the women’s role can in fact be important to history. In this circumstance, the Sabine women’s actions significantly impacted Rome socially and politically, but their actions are seen as an exception to their normal, everyday behavior, so the idea of women significantly influencing history is still depicted as an abnormality.

Livy describes a similar episode in his second book when Rome, whose common soldiers were unwilling to fight, was threatened by a Volscian army led by the Roman exile Marcius Coriolanus. The Roman women, most likely motivated by fear, convinced Coriolanus’s mother, Veturia, and his wife, Volumnia, along with her children to venture to the Volscian camp and entreat Marcius for peace. Although Marcius had refused to allow Roman ambassadors and priests to pass through his army’s lines, he ran to greet his mother, who instantly rebuked him, saying, “[Ha]d I never born a child, Rome would not now be menaced; if I had no son, I could have died free in a free country!” (156). As Coriolanus’s wife and sons hugged him, the other women began weeping “tears of anguish for themselves and their country” until Coriolanus decided to withdraw his army (157). Once again, women defended Rome through “tears and entreaties” when, this time, men’s swords and spears failed (156). Instead of growing angry or resentful, “the men of Rome did not grudge the women their triumph” and constructed a temple to always remember the remarkable salvation (157). Like the Sabine women, these women used emotional appeals to family bonds, as opposed to tough military skill, or virtus, to create peace. Moreover, in this situation, the women showed more devotion to Rome than did Coriolanus, an ex-Roman commander, and the plebs who refused to fight, and Livy, along with the Roman men, praises them for their actions. Yet again, the women play a role that is distinct from that of men, but, that in this case, is also important and more effective for the well-being of the state.

In other parts of the text, Livy records cases of Roman women sacrificing their valuables for the best interest of their nation. First, the Roman general Camillus promised the god Apollo a tenth of all the spoils of Veii if the Romans were victorious, but after their military success, the Romans discovered that they did not have enough gold to offer, so the women unanimously agreed to “bring all their personal ornaments to the treasury,” a decision so pleasing to the Senate that the women received new privileges (399). Here, the women were not only devout, but their action benefited Rome, whose fate in Livy’s history heavily relies on the favor of the gods. Displeasing Apollo by not providing the promised amount would, in the Romans’ belief, culminate in disaster for Rome. In a relatively similar situation a little later, the Romans did not have enough gold to pay the indemnity imposed by the Gauls, and the women contributed their personal gold so that sacred items did not have to be used. If the required amount was not reached, a more severe punishment would surely have been inflicted upon Rome. Although the Romans actually did not pay the demanded sum, the women were thanked for their donations and, again, received a new privilege (428-429). The Roman women’s sacrifice reveals their devotion to both the gods and Rome, and their contributions, though seemingly insignificant, had the potential to influence Rome’s future and were clearly important to the Roman leaders, who rewarded the women with new privileges.

Whereas in the examples listed above, women’s actions have physically benefitted Rome, mainly by preventing invasion, there are other cases in which Roman women’s decisions also affected Rome’s reputation and renown. Cloelia, an unmarried Roman girl taken hostage by the Etruscan king Porsena, led a group of other female hostages out of the camp, into the Tiber River, which they crossed while under fire, and safely back into Rome. Eventually, this event led to the restoration of friendly relations between the Romans and the Etruscans led by Porsena, who declared that Cloelia was braver than a young Roman man who was said to inspire “even the women of Rome” who followed Cloelia to emulate him (123). It is interesting to see how Cloelia, whose escape was not traditionally “feminine” by involving tears, family, or jewelry, is described as having both a “maiden modesty” and a “more than masculine courage” (124, 123). In the end, Cloelia’s deed won her praise but also international recognition for the bravery found in her state, Rome. Furthermore, another highly regarded Roman woman, Lucretia serves as the ideally hardworking, modest, and chaste Roman woman and wife, and her honorable (to the Romans) suicide sparked and catalyzed the expulsion of the Roman monarchy and the onset of the republican period. While Brutus and other Roman men are responsible for leading to the overthrow of the monarchy, Lucretia’s death certainly influenced the turn of events and played a part in a major change in Rome’s history. In addition, Lucretia’s decision not to “provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve,” as she phrases it, displays the intensity of Roman virtue to other Romans, but most likely to neighboring communities, as well, spreading a positive, admirable view of Roman virtue around Italy (102).

Not all of the women in The History of Rome from Its Foundations act with the greater intentions of setting a precedent or of protecting Rome, however; two notable examples of ambitious, perhaps self-serving women are Tanaquil and Tullia, both wives of Roman kings. Tanaquil convinced her husband, Tarquinius Priscus, to move to Rome, a new city full of opportunity, and, while they journeyed to Rome, Tanaquil interpreted an omen from the gods as meaning that Tarquinius would become king of Rome (73). Once king and queen of Rome, the couple saw the young Servius Tullius sleeping with his head lit on fire. Tanaquil ensured that the boy was “treated like a prince of the blood and received a prince’s education,” sensing that he would later become an important figure in Rome (78). Once Tarquin had been assassinated, Tanaquil urged Servius Tullius to take Tarquin’s place as king, which Tullius did. Although it is difficult to understand Tanaquil’s motives, she acted in self-interest or in the interests of her loved ones and succeeded in having both her husband and her adopted son crowned king. It is also difficult to tell how much Livy thinks these events were divinely ordained through omens and auspices, or the result of questionable scheming and violating tradition. In contrast, it is not difficult to detect Livy’s dislike for Tullia, who eventually became the wife of Tarquinius Superbus. While Tarquin certainly earns criticism from the Romans, Livy writes that Tullia, not Tarquin, “took the first step along the road of crime” and was behind the idea of the pair becoming a couple (87). Tullia, tormented by thinking of Tanaquil’s success in having the men she supported crowned king, wanted Tarquin to become king and was driven by a “maniacal ambition” (88). Unlike the ideal Lucretia, whose constant hard work might have often gone unnoticed, Tullia defied the traditional role of a woman by initiating her marriage with Tarquin and for instigating his kingship. Furthermore, once her father had been murdered, “the crazed woman, driven to frenzy by the avenging ghosts of her sister and husband, drove the carriage [she was in] over her father’s body” (89). Tullia, like the women described earlier, also took action, but, unlike the other women, she acted out of her own interest instead of the interests of the state and is depicted as insanely ambitious, calculating, consumed by jealousy, and simply evil. While Livy praises Roman women who act in order to help the nation, he is less praising of Tanaquil, a woman who acted upon personal and familial ambition—a practice completely acceptable for male politicans—and criticizes Tullia for her prioritization of attaining her goals at whatever cost to her family, political leaders, and nation. While not valuing Rome and being overly ambitious are traits condemned in both men and women, these examples show that there are certain limits to when it is acceptable for women to take action.

Although Livy often leaves out descriptions of the lives of Roman women, the stories he deems important enough to record in his historical account and the perceptions of Roman men about these women and their actions reveal that the roles women took in shaping Roman politics, society, and history were much more complex than the context of simply being wives and homemakers. Sometimes, as seen with the Sabine women and Coriolanus’s mother and wife, women’s more “traditional,” feminine actions, complementary to those of Roman men, change the course of events because of their unique capabilities, but, other times, women like Cloelia have more “manly” courage and act in the same manner as Roman men would, but are still praised for it. However, as in the cases of Tanaquil and Tullia, there are certain times when the breaking of traditional roles is taken too far, especially when women ambitiously seek to serve their own interests. It would be interesting to look further into the roles of other groups of women in Livy’s text, such as the Vestal Virgins or Roman goddesses, with this context.