Today I have the wonderful opportunity of hosting author Kate Quinn and her new release Empress of the Seven Hills (or alternatively titled Empress of Rome). She has taken the time to write us a wonderful post about women in Ancient Rome. Stay tuned at the end for an awesome giveaway.
When it comes to looking at the role of women in history, it's better not to take anything at face value. Don't just look at the laws on the books, the rules about divorce and adultery and female behavior – look at the people who lived under those laws and rules. The rules and the reality are usually two vastly different things. My latest novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, is my third foray into the world of Imperial Rome, and its heroine Sabina leads what might be considered an astoundingly independent life. Unrealistic for a woman of her time? Not really. Let's take a look at Perception vs. Reality for the women of ancient Rome, at least in the three major arenas of a woman's life: her childhood, her marriage, and her code of behavior. For middle and upper-class women, anyway – because lower class women of almost any historical era, Roman or not, are governed not so much by the laws of their time, but by the uniform shackles of hard work and perpetual childbirth.
Perception: Roman girls were 100% subject to the will of their fathers, and Roman fathers were iron-handed types who married their daughters off as soon as they hit puberty.
Reality: Legally speaking, yes – Roman girls had to do whatever Daddy said. But even if the Roman ideal was a stern paterfamilias who ruled his family with a will of iron, there were plenty of indulgent, loving dads. Cicero doted notoriously on his daughter, and there were lots of others like him. And if a dad was too fond (or too absent-minded, or too busy) to rein in a headstrong daughter, no one else legally had the right to do it – a smart Roman girl like my heroine Sabina could manage to have some carefree teenage years, since she has a father who is too busy to bother reining in her adventurous tendencies, and too indulgent to punish her much even when she gets caught. Such a father might also give his daughter considerable freedom in the matter of her marriage. As long as she limited herself to respectable men of her own class, many girls like Sabina had a say in their choice of husband. They didn't marry at twelve, either: Roman girls were far more likely to get hitched between the ages of fifteen to twenty.
Perception: a Roman woman was ruled absolutely by her husband, expected to fit the mold of subservient, devoted wife and mother.
Reality: Whenever any society harps a lot on a particular standard of behavior, you can be sure that standard isn't being met. Roman wives were supposed to fit the ideal of demure helpmate, but in reality they had considerable independence. A Roman woman could still maintain some control over her property even after she married, and upon divorce she would be entitled to have at least part of her dowry back. Her marriage vows were also far more flexible: if a 19th century woman wanted to escape a bad marriage to a cheating husband, she was out of luck unless she could prove her husband had not only cheated on her but compounded his offense by beating her, abandoning her, or going insane. All a 1st century Roman wife had to do to get rid of the jerk she married was move out of his house. And when so many upper-class marriages were contracted more for alliance than affection, husband and wife often led separate lives. My heroine Sabina, who values her freedom, is careful to choose an ambitious senatorial buddy who doesn't love her, but can use her family name for his budding career. She and her husband talk amicably about books whenever they happen to meet up at breakfast, but otherwise they stay out of each other's lives. Not uncommon at all by Roman standards.
Perception: Roman women were supposed to be virtuous, silent, and well-behaved. Their husbands or fathers could legally kill them for drinking wine in public, or committing adultery.
Reality: True, those two laws were on the books. But they were honored more in the breach than in reality. For every silent Roman wife trailing after her husband like a shadow, never indulging in a drop of wine or a whisper of flirtation, there were ten more Roman wives living it up – like Mark Antony's spitfire third wife Fulvia who raised armies, dabbled in politics, and took on both Cicero and the future Emperor Augustus. Roman wives mixed freely in society – at the theatre, at the chariot races, at the gladiatorial games, and in public. They could be patrons of the arts like Roman-bohemian poet Julia Balbilla; they could be world travelers like Augustus's granddaughter Agrippina who followed her husband around the battlefronts of his various wars and even once led a cavalry charge. Roman women had their own religious festivals where men were forbidden to take part; a sort of nationally-mandated Girls Night Out a few times a year. And considering the fact that divorce was easy and marriage among the powerful classes often based on politics rather than emotion, adultery was a fairly insignificant sin despite all the laws about it. My heroine Sabina finds herself in a sexless marriage, but her husband makes it clear she can take lovers as she pleases, as long as she is discreet and doesn't embarrass him. Not at all unusual for the time; and hence all the senatorial bitching about how women should conduct themselves with decorum and silence, and be threatened with death just for drinking wine.
In the end, it's dangerous to look at the laws of the past and assume that they stand for real behavior. Laws try to hold people to a certain standard, but that does not mean people meet it. Rules, after all, are made to be broken. Empress of the Seven Hills took shape because I wanted a historical heroine who didn't wail about the status quo, but subverted it; a girl who didn't complain that the system was unfair, but worked that same system ruthlessly for every advantage she could get. The historical Vibia Sabina was an extraordinary woman who traveled the Empire, saw more of the world than most people today ever manage to see even on the Discovery Channel, and kept company with some of the most gifted and extraordinary men in history. And in addition, she appears to have led a quietly rebellious life under all the rules that were supposed to govern a woman of her stature.
I suspect history held many unnamed women who did exactly the same thing.
Thanks so much Kate for taking the time to write this great post. It has been great having you here. You can visit Kate at her website for more information about her and her works.
Now for the giveaway! I have two copies of Empress of the Seven Hills to giveaway. One copy will be mailed out by me and the other by the publisher. The giveaway is open to the US and Canada. Last day to enter is April 28, 2012. Fill out the form below to enter.
Copyright © 2012 by The Maiden’s Court