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Women in Ancient Rome

Women in Ancient Rome

Posted on: 21/10/2015 with tags: deadly election, flavia alba, lindsay davis, Rome, Roman

Deadly Election author Lindsey Davis has written this fantastic article for us about her research on women in ancient Rome. Enjoy!

Happy Family Businesses

I’ve been researching the Romans for almost thirty years now. I’ve become used to standard descriptions that say women had no legal identity, with the follow-up devised by elite Roman writers and crusty Victorian professors, all men, that Roman women were supposedly kept out of sight with no social role. In fact this is not true.

When I started to write about Flavia Albia, it was easy to say ‘this will be from the woman’s perspective’. Now I’ve completed book four (Graveyard of the Hesperides), I am having fun exploring what this means. I’ve decided the vital thing was that most women in the Roman Empire belonged to a family unit where they took a part in whatever trade earned the family livelihood. We see this very clearly on tombstones where firstly the husband and wife are portrayed the same size, or sometimes even the wife is larger (especially if she paid for the memorial!), this is significant in ancient art. Then as often as not, the woman is deliberately depicted as sharing in the husband’s professional life. Think of that very famous double portrait from Pompeii where the man holds a scroll and the woman holds a note tablet and stylus or pen: these are real people, Terentius Neo and his wife, showing off the kind of partnership they have.

Other typical portraits will show a couple in a shop, maybe him serving the goods while she does the accounts. Don’t forget that doing the accounts gives a woman a very tight hold on a business. When Falco lets Helena take control of his financial affairs, it is a serious commitment to openness and trust.

As Albia falls for her soulmate Tiberius Manlius Faustus, I have considered what kind of life they may be aiming for together. I decided it is not only physical love and companionship. Faustus is a plebeian. He’s rich when we meet him, but we’ll shortly learn that his own money came from a very down and dirty business which he wants to take up himself. Partly he wants this because he is setting up home with Albia; he knows they can work together and he is looking forward to it. He will be independent of his controlling uncle, master in his own home and helped by Albia.

Albia of course already has her own business as an informer. But in Deadly Election, where one of the two main plotlines has to do with an auction, I realised I wanted to talk about what it means to her to belong to the Didius family, who run an auction house. She is her father’s daughter, we learn that he has taught her not only how to be an investigator on her own account, but about his inherited auctioneering business. He is away at the seaside. She stands in for him. People consult her about problems. She formally represents her father in public, greeting people and keeping an eye on what happens. She can make decisions. At one point she will actually stand up with the gavel, and she explains to us how people at the auction react to this. The staff accept her and once she shows she is competent, so do the bidders. Good heavens, she might almost have watched Lovejoy or Flog It! More importantly, she really enjoys her role.

Attagirl. We’ll be seeing more of this.

© Mark Harrison

Author: Lindsey Davis

Historical novelist Lindsey Davis is best known for her novels set in Ancient Rome, including the much-loved Marcus Didius Falco series, although she has also written about the English Civil War, including in 2014 A Cruel Fate, a book for the Quick Reads literacy initiative. Her examination of the paranoid reign of the roman emperor Domitian began with Master and God, a standalone novel, leading to her new series about Flavia Albia, set in that dark period.

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