Roman women in late antiquity - a slippery fish to catch


Helena, mother of Constantine the Great (author photo, Naples Museum)

I set out to write a piece about women in the late Roman period – ambitious for a blog post I know, but I thought I could pull some threads out of a big subject and produce a digest. Not that easy, as I discovered…

‘Late Antiquity’ is a vague name for the period bridging classical antiquity and the early middle ages, approximately 3rd to 6th century, but I was looking at the first half of that period, hoping to focus on the time that Roma Nova was founded AD 395. The snag? Sources for this period are patchy and often only legal codes, medical texts or written by early Christian fathers with their own agenda.

Women belonged in the private sphere during most of classical antiquity, and the Romans drew a clear line between the public and the private. Formal politics took place outside the private dwelling house; even when senators conducted political and government business in their domus, or family home, it was in the ‘public’ rooms separated from the  personal familia areas.

Everybody living in the domus was subject to, and the responsibility of, the paterfamilias, the ‘father of the family’. In law, this authority did not extend to wives who were subject to their fathers, but in practice husbands ruled.  Women retained the right to manage and dispose of the property they brought into their marriages and enjoyed full inheritance rights on a par with their brothers.

Family group

Roman family group (author photo, Roman National Museum)

Husbands were expected be the public face for their wives in legal cases, but women had the right to act on their own if they chose. It was only by the late fourth century that widows (not divorcees) could be the legal guardians of their children. Christian emperors were obliged to revise the law in order to reflect Christian ideals of the time (heavily influenced by Constantine, I suspect!).

However, that must have been tricky with the traditionally open Roman divorce law; even at its most restrictive, it probably failed to match the orthodoxy of the new, strict Christian teaching.

Traditional Roman morality saw adultery in terms of property rights; marriage was often an economic arrangement for the pragmatic Romans with the participants often having little say in parents’ decisions. The double standard of sexual behaviour remained as it always had throughout Roman times but despite Christanisation, divorce and remarriage were still relatively easy. It would change, of course. But that and differences between slave and free and between concubines and wives must have raised considerable conflict with Christian universalism.

Christianity also challenged aristocratic marriage practice by forbidding marriages between relatives and by making celibacy (and so leaving inheritances outside the family) an acceptable option. The latter, of course, gave women an opportunity for the single life which apart from becoming a Vestal hadn’t been available in traditional Roman society.

Fayum mummy portrait, Roman Egypt

Fayum mummy portrait, Roman Egypt

Women were expected to dress modestly, but were not veiled nor secluded. Chris Wickham in The Inheritance of Rome says there is plenty of evidence for female literacy and literary engagement not only among the aristocracy. In Egypt, women have been recorded as buying and selling property, renting out property, money-lending, operating as independent artisans and shop-owners as well as practising medicine as midwives and more broadly.

Women still could not hold public political office in this later period, but Wickham cites one female city governor (pagarch), Patrikia, in Antaiopolis in Egypt in 553 AD.

“Patrikia the Pagarch:  A pagarch in the 550s, and thus one of the region’s most influential women. She is a colleague of Ioulianos and Menas. Dioskoros writes a poem celebrating her marriage in which he compares her to the Graces and credits her with descent from the sun god Apollo.” (Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity Giovanni R. Ruffini, Cambridge UP)

In Alexandria, Hypatia, as the city’s leading intellectual (mathematician, astronomer and  head of the Neo-Platonic School), “appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more” (Socrates Scholasticus).

Sadly, Hypatia was killed by a mob in Alexandria in 415 AD, caught in city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect (governor) of Alexandria and Cyril, the Christian bishop of Alexandria.


Galla Placidia

And as the Western Empire shrank, powerful empresses such as Galla Placidia were common in the fifth and sixth centuries. Daughter of Theodosius I, Regent for Emperor Valentinian III from 423 AD until his majority in 437 AD, consort to Ataulf, King of the Goths from 414 AD until his death in 415 AD, and briefly Empress Consort to Constantius III in 421 AD, she was a major force in Roman politics for most of her life.


Thanks to two invaluable sources:
The Inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000 , Chris Wickham, Pengiuin 2010
Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Lifestyles, Gillian Clark, OUP 1993


Updated 2024: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

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6 comments to Roman women in late antiquity – a slippery fish to catch

  • As usual, Alison, your post if full of information I didn’t know but find fascinating. This one is especially good as it’s about Roman women and their rights – or not!

  • Christoph Fischer

    Thanks for finding and sharing this story!

  • Paula Wilcox

    Hi Alison

    Thanks for posting. I always thought that Roman women had very few rights but were the property of their husbands, this post disproves that but possibly could have been so in the earlier centuries of Roman civilisations. It must be difficult to find many sources that tell us about women of this particular period.Nonetheless, some very
    interesting facts.

    • Alison

      Strict control by father/brother/husband was much more the case in Classical Antiquity as I mentioned. Technically, this was still the framework in Late Antiquity, but by then it was gradually eroded by custom and practice. In no way was a Roman woman even at the end of Empire the free woman of today but by the later fourth/early fifth century, things were significant different for the average woman than had been the case in the classical period.