It took time to displace the old Etruscan mother-right. The early Roman kings were succeeded, not by their sons, but by their sisters' sons, or men who married women of the royal house. Titus Tatius was succeeded by Numa, who married his daughter. The son of Numa’s daughter, Pompilia, became the fourth king, whose father was unknown, according to Cicero. [De Re Publica, 2.33] Next came the Etruscan kings of Rome. Tarquinius was the husband of the Etruscan princess Tanaquil, who is described as a wise reader of omens. As they were travelling to Rome, said her legend, an eagle swooped down and flew off with her husband’s cap, then placed it back on his head. Tanaquil, “well skilled in celestial prophecies,” read this as foretelling his rise to the Roman throne. [Livy 1.33 (72)] Again, it was not their son who became the sixth king, but Servius Tullius, who married their daughter. [Briffault I, 422-26; Thomson, 97-99] The last Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius, was both the son of the first Tarquin and also the husband of Tullia, daughter of Servius Tullius.

Roman writers struggled to account for how Servius, a slave, became king of Rome. Livy refuses to believe he was of low birth, saying he was born of the captive princess Ocrisia, already pregnant and recognized for her rank. Others say that Ocrisia was a slave and saw a phallus (fascinum, a word that also means magical object) come out of the hearth fire. Her mistress Tanaquil instructed her to dress as a bride and sit on the hearth. This was how Ocrisia conceived Servius, in a common pagan tale of conception-by-spirit. Tanaquil raised the child as a prince as a result of a momentous portent: his hair was seen in flames as he slept. The sage queen prevented water from being thrown on him, and the fire went out when he awoke. She foretold his future greatness and convinced the king to elevate him. [Ovid, Plutarch and Dionysos of Halicarnassus tell this story. Another version of it was told of the conception of Romulus and Remus. In an even more distant recounting, the infant Brigid exudes flames in her sleep.]

Servius later married Tanaquil’s daughter, putting him in line for the matrilineal kingship. When assassins attacked Tarquinius, the queen cleared the palace and installed Servius as king over her son Lucius. She hid her husband’s fatal condition from the people so that Servius could take over smoothly. [Livy 1.39ff (77)] Livy complained that Servius favored commoners: “His sympathies were with the dregs of society from which he had sprung.” [Livy, History of Rome, I, 47, online:>] It was this slave-king who founded the ancient temple of Diana on the Aventine around 540 BCE, and who built the temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta. Slaves continued to celebrate the festivals of both Diana and Fortuna in later centuries. [Varro,in Ogilvie, 65, 69]


The founding myth of Rome shows attempts to undermine the matrilineage. Tradition called Rhea Silvia the first Vestal Virgin. Her uncle deposed her father and brothers and seized the throne. He forced his niece into the temple to ensure her virginity, thus preventing her from bearing any heirs to challenge his kingship. [Briffault, 422-26] The legend says that Mars raped Rhea Silvia. Her uncle found out she was pregnant and imprisoned her. He had her twin sons thrown into the Tiber. But they washed ashore and a she-wolf nursed them. So Romulus survived to overthrow his great-uncle. But first he killed his brother Remus in a quarrel over whose name would grace their new city.

Romulus fortified his patriarchal dynasty by giving asylum to outlaws. But they lacked women. The Romans invited the neighboring Sabines to the Consualia festival, then abducted the young women. Marriage by capture was already customary among the Latins. The sham battles at Roman weddings commemorated this, and so did the customary nuptial cry, Thalassio, which came from soldiers trying to deliver the most beautiful captive to a senator and having to shout again and again that she was “for Thalassius.” The Sabines declared war on Rome, and the Vestal Tarpeia threw open the city gates to the Sabine warriors.

Conflicting legends explained why Tarpeia betrayed Rome. It was often claimed that Tarpeia was bribed to admit the Sabine warriors, who promised her what was on their arms. This was at trick; they did not give Tarpeia golden armbands, but used their shields to crush her. [Livy 1.11, (46)] Another account says that Tarpeia agreed to open the gates in return for what was on their left arms—their shields—so that they would fall before Roman swords. Others say the Sabians killed the woman by hurling her off the high Tarpeian rock, which became a place of executions carried out the same way. Still others say that Tarpeia was buried there. An elegy of Propertius painted the Vestal as helplessly in love with the Sabine king, but he also put evocative words in her mouth: “don’t let the Sabine women have been ravished unavenged.” [Elegy 4.4, tr by Jacqueline Long, Online: <>]

Tarpeia is always described as a general’s daughter, but nothing is said about who her mother might have been. Her act has been explained as treachery, greed, gullibility, or hopeless love, but not as a bold and decisive act to free the captive Sabine women. Maybe her disloyalty was to patriarchy, not to Rome. Interesting parallels appear in the Irish epic Aided Cu Rói: a warrior took the princess Bláthnat captive and treated her, along with cows and a cauldron, as spoils of war. Because of a dispute over the division of loot, Cu Rói carried her off again and made her his slave and concubine. Later, Bláthnat met the original captor and arranged to have him help her escape after she gave an agreed-upon signal. She tied Cu Rói’s hair to the bed, took his sword, and “threw open the stronghold.” He was killed in the attack, but his druid seized Bláthnat and leaped off a cliff with her to avenge her “betrayal” of Cu Rói. The medieval Irish monks could not understand Blathnat’s attempt to break for freedom: “an incredible deed for a wife to betray her man. On account of it, judgement went against her.” [Olmsted, 56] Although Tarpeia herself was not abducted, both stories turn on marriage-by-capture followed by a woman throwing open the gates to an avenging army.

At first, the captive Sabine women did not bear children. (No doubt they used every contraceptive method they knew.) The oracle of Juno gave a remedy: “Let the sacred he-goat go in to the Italian matrons.” Romulus' spin on this was to whip the women with goat-hides. That ritual flogging was commemorated in the Lupercalia, when naked youths struck any woman they passed with strips of goat-hide. The whipping was said to make them fertile. [Olmsted, 144-8] The war with the Sabines finally ended when the Sabine mothers rushed between the warriors to stop the fighting and prevailed on them to make a treaty. Rome's thirty curiæ (wards) were named after the abducted Sabine women. Another rape caused the overthrow of Roman monarchy. In 510 its last king raped the virtuous patrician wife Lucretia. [Ogilvie, 79]


The Roman majority were called plebes, literally the “people.” Livy repeated a saying that they did not know their fathers. They still tended toward the old Etruscan mother-right. [Livy x, 8; Briffault, 427] In Roman law, the child of a full legal marriage took its status from the father only, but otherwise status came from the mother. [Ogilvie, 131] The social rank of common women was low, but they had the run of Rome's streets and markets. Many earned their own bread.

The plebians fought a prolonged struggle against patrician domination. They seceded from Rome in 494, demanding two plebeian tribunes to protect the common people. In 471 they established an assembly of the tribes. The patricians still controlled the calendar and the laws, which they kept secret. In mid-century the plebians succeeded in getting the Twelve Tables published and the prohibition of marriage between commoners and patricians repealed. The tribune Canuleius told the assembled plebes that such laws reflected “the depth of contempt in which you are held by the aristocracy.” He added that “rape is a patrician habit.” [Livy, 4.3-4 (271-4)]

The Twelve Tables have only survived in fragments recorded by later sources. The Eighth Table had to do with torts, including magic spells, and its prescription of the death penalty for maleficium cast a long shadow over European law for two millennia. The already patriarchal social structure deepened, as the old usus marriage (based on cohabitation) was replaced with the more prestigious coemptio (based on sale). [See Thomson, 93; Johnston, 127ff] Even the usus marriage made a woman her husband’s property, but there was a loophole: if she absented herself three nights in a row every year, she could legally circumvent his usucapio. [Twelve Tables, VI, 5]

The patricians who ruled Rome were named after their male supremacist culture. The elite landholding class built Roman law on the base of patria potestas, the life-and-death power of the father over his wife, children and slaves. This privilege was enshrined in the Twelve Tables of the Law, not to be rescinded until the 2nd century CE. [Lyttleton/Werner, 83] Legally, the Roman word familia referred, not to a family of kin, but to slave holdings: Familia derived from famuli, “slave,” and paterfamilias meant “father of slaves.” [Palmer, 117; Thomson, 92]

Roman law imposed a pronounced sexual double standard in rights and behavior. Table V placed women under tutela: male guardians held them in mano, “in the hand.” The rationale offered in the Twelve Tables was female “levity of mind.” [Lefko/Fant, 174] The state left judgement and punishment of women to their male relatives. This did not result in lenient treatment; traditional punishments included beating with rods, and it was legal for the paterfamilias to execute members of their families. Rape was treated as a property offense against the male guardian, not the female victim. [Brundage, 48, t.o.] Cicero admitted the laws were “full of injustice toward women,” but still believed that giving females equal rights was as unthinkable as freedom for slaves or animals. [De Re Publica, 3.17; 1.67, in Schottroff, 26]

Only fathers were allowed to carry out the rites of the patrilineal ancestors. Women moved into the husband's household, usually as young teenagers or even preteens, and adopted their husbands' ancestors. [Rouselle, 303] The laws of Romulus denied women the right to divorce, while allowing men to repudiate their wives on several accounts: for adultery, copying the household keys, or “for the use of drugs or magic on account of children.” The last provision was directed against contraception and abortion not approved by the husband. [Lefko/Fant, 173-4] For a wife to copy the keys implied that she was involved in adulterous affairs or secret drinking from the locked wine cellar. [Spaeth, 59]

The modern romantic custom of the husband lifting his bride over the threshold commemorated the Sabine women’s capture-marriages, according to Plutarch. He added that the husband had the power to give or loan his wife to a friend. [Lives, 22, 63] She herself had no such rights over her own person. A modern historian remarks, “The wedding took the form of a legal rape in which the woman emerged ‘offended with her husband.’” He was not supposed to break her hymen on the first night. So, as Martial and Seneca indicate, it became customary for him to sodomize her! Whatever her husband did, a wife had no right to protest. [Veyne, 35]

Patrician women were trained to self-restraint, obedience to their husbands or guardians, and to reserve “in speech, act and gaze.” Plutarch again: “great modesty was enjoined on them; all busy intermeddling forbidden, sobriety insisted on, and silence made habitual.” [Lives, 63] They were not to speak in public. [Livy 34.2.10; Valerius Maximus 3.8.3-8] When they went out (which was disapproved) they had to veil, covering their heads if not their faces. Men warded off dishonor by denouncing their daughters or wives in public, and then punishing them in private. [Veyne, 39]

Female patricians were expected to practice abstinence, sexually and otherwise, while tolerating their husbands’ promiscuity. [Rouselle, 321-3] Early Roman law forbade women to drink wine (the preferred beverage), except on set festival days. Wine was the sacred medium of divine communion, reserved for gods and men. Women faced the death penalty for drinking wine, as Plutarch, Cicero, and many others attest. Egnatius Mecennius beat his wife to death with a cudgel for drinking wine, reported the historian Varro, who added that Romulus acquitted him. [Brouwer, 333; L/F, 176] Valerius Maximus noted that “no one even criticized him, because the husband was making an example to other women.” [Schottroff, 71]

Five centuries after this famous execution, Cato upheld men's legal power to kill their wives: “If you should take your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial; but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it.” [Pomeroy, 153; On the Dowry, in Lefkowitz/Fant, 175] Men punished their wives for considerably less serious breaches of the double standard. Valerius Maximus approvingly cited cases of patrician men who divorced their wives for being outdoors with head unveiled, or for speaking to a freedwoman in public, or for attending the games without masculine permission. Again, his paramount concern was that other women be intimidated from doing likewise. [Lefkowitz/Fant, 176; Schottroff, 238 fn16] While gay sex was utterly legal and normal for males of any status, married women could be charged with adultery for lesbian sex: “... both the Elder Seneca and Martial refer to lesbian activities as adultery, the former suggesting that the death penalty was appropriate when the two were discovered in the act by a husband.” [Boswell, 82]

In 216 BCE, when the country was shaken by Hannibal's invasion, a patrician backlash enacted the Oppian laws. The Senate forbade females to wear multi-colored dresses, especially purple, or own more than a half ounce of gold or ride in carriages. The pretext for these laws was Rome’s state of emergency, but the Oppian laws remained in effect for decades after Carthage’s defeat. Finally, in 195 BCE, Roman women poured into the streets to demand their repeal. Livy wrote that the matrons blockaded all the streets and the entrances to the Forum. The female crowd grew larger every day, pouring in even from the suburbs and villages. Women approached the consuls, praetors and other officials, urging them to overturn the laws. [Livy xxxiv, 1] This “insurrection of the women” occasioned Cato's famous diatribe defending the patriarchal order:

Our fathers have willed that women should be in the power of their fathers, of their brothers, of their husbands. Remember all the laws by which our fathers have bound down the liberty of women, by which they have bent them to the power of men. As soon as they are our equals, they become our superiors. [Briffault, 428]

Cato said that there would be no problem if husbands asserted their power over their wives at home. But since they had failed to do so, “female violence” was trampling male liberty underfoot at home and even in the male space of the Forum. As he passed the protestors in the Forum, Cato demanded of them, “Could you not have made the same requests, each of you of your own husband, at home?” (Christian scriptures imposed this very Roman requirement on women several centuries later.) Women were the most dangerous class of all, insisted Cato, if permitted to assemble and consult with each other. [in Livy, xxxiv, 2-3]

Lucius Valerius defended the women’s cause by citing their contributions during the Sabine, Volscian, Gallic and Punic wars. He pointed out that women were allowed no offices, no triumphs, no spoils of war; at least they should have their adornments. [Livy, xxxiv, 7] Still, the tribunes vetoed the motion to repeal the Oppian laws. But the matrons forced them to yield by beseiging their houses. [Lef/F, 179-80] Victory came, not from male paternalism, but from the valiant stand of what Valerius Maximus called “the unusual alliance” of women. [in Schottroff, 70]

After this turning point, Roman women began breaching the harshest shackles of tradition, and finding ways around old legal barriers. They drove a trend away from manus marriages. By the first century, they were engaged in trade, acquiring their own fortunes, and even influenced governmental matters. The empress Livia wielded great political power behind a mask of wifely virtue, and Julia Domna had considerable clout as well. [“Roman Women: the Historical Context”, Online: < 1017.html>] Severus Caecina complained to the Senate that women used to be controlled by the Oppian and other laws, “now, loosed from every bond, they rule over our houses, our tribunals, even our armies.” [Tacitus, Annals, 3.33] He was exagerrating, of course, but progress had been made.

Another backlash occurred in the last years of the Republic. Divorce had become frequent, and the birth rate dropped. Seneca blamed Roman women for the divorces. Horace's ode at the Secular Games shows that various social problems were being blamed on female wantonness. An Augustan law of 18 BCE restricted divorces and rewarded women who bore three or more children with freedom from male tutelage. [L/W, 96-8] This law, known as the Lex Julia, made female adultery a felony. Fathers could put a daughter and her lover to death, while a husband was forced to divorce an adulterous wife. The state prosecuted family and neighbors for not turning in adulterers. Even sexual infidelity by concubines was defined as adultery, and men could legally punish them as they did their wives. But concubines had none of a wife's rights. [Lefko/F, 181; Rouselle, 113-4; Brundage, 43]

Augustus' own granddaughter Julia fell victim to the law named after her. She was sent into exile on an island, where she died in destitution twenty years later. [Tacitus, Annals, 4.20; 1.52] The law was unpopular, and in time women overcome some of its strictures. Their angry protests “forced Augustus to recognize a longer period of widowhood before forcing them to marry again.” Some women got around the law requiring the approval of male guardians for legal and economic transactions by registering as prostitutes. But the state continued to back families’ power to force women to marry; one imperial edict “condemned all women who refused marriage to be raped or sent to a brothel.” [McNamara, 11-13, 26, 32]



Official Roman culture privileged only patrician males as priestly officiants. Temple sacrifices began with a priest calling out: “Away with the foreigner, the prisoner in chains, the woman, the girl!” These people were forbidden to attend the sacrifices. [Paulus Diaconis, in Scheid, 379] Men controlled all temple functions of the state, even in most of the goddess temples. Only in the temples of Fortuna Muliebris and Bona Dea did priestesses have full rein. [Scheid, 378, 390]

Older female-oriented customs survived as quirks in the system. For example, women carried their sisters' children into the temple of Mater Matuta. The names of paternal relatives were never pronounced in the precincts of Ceres, although the male flamen cerealis presided over her state cult. [Briffault, 429] Ancient Italic inscriptions show that priestesses had originally led the rites of Ceres, and by the 3rd century BCE the infusion of Eleusinian mysteries from southern Italy once again put a female sacerdos cerealis at the head of a congregation of women celebrants. Roman sources emphasize that this was a female office. [Spaeth, 3, 20, 59, 103-4]

Rome's official priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, exemplified the code of patria potestas. Here the paterfamilias was the pontifex maximus, who represented the state at Rome's official hearth. This high priest picked out the Vestal Virgins from groups of twenty aristocratic girls, pointing to his choices with the words, “I seize you, beloved.” Their hair was cropped and hung on a tree in the grove of Juno Lucina. [Palmer,19]

The Vestal priestesses served thirty-year terms. They learned during the first ten years, performed the rites in the next ten, and in the last, taught the next generation. Only then were the women free to leave and to marry. The office of high priestess rotated among those who chose to remain. The first Vestals, according to Varro, were Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia. [Grimm, 275] Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. [Young; Worsfold, 21-3. Later, as it got harder to recruit Vestals, plebian girls were admitted, then daughters of freedmen]

The Vestals had certain privileges. Unlike other women, they were empowered to manage their affairs without a male ward and to make wills. They were given front seats at the games, while other women were banished to the farthest seats. Vestals could testify without taking an oath. They were entrusted with treaties, wills, important documents, and treasure. A person going to execution was spared if he met a Vestal on the way. Vestals also had the unique right to be buried in the city. But for some this burial was involuntary, carried out while they were still alive. [Worsfold, 46-51]

For the Vestals also had severe liabilities. The high priest had the power to strip and flog them for lesser violations of the code, such as allowing the fire to go out. Plutarch reported that “sometimes the Pontifex Maximus gave them the discipline naked, in some dark place and under cover of a veil; but she that broke her vow of chastity was buried alive by the Colline Gate.” [Ibid, 59-60] The priests tightly wrapped the condemned Vestal in veils that muffled her protests, bound her into a litter, and carried her to the city walls. There, in the “Field of Sin,” they immured her in an underground cell, removed its steps, and mounded the earthworks over her. [Goodrich, 270-76; Worsfold, 60]

The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were said to have been whipped to death for having sex. This was the fate of Rhea Silvia, the ancestral mother of Rome, even though her virginity was taken through rape. The Roman king Tarquin instituted the punishment of live burial, which he inflicted on the priestess Pinaria. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration, as was done to Urbinia in 471 BCE. [Worsfold, 62]

Records show at least 22 vestals were accused of breaking the chastity vow. Eighteen of them were buried in the city wall, two committed suicide. There is no record of death for the others. Nero raped the vestal Rubria. The mad emperor Heliogabalus forced another to marry him, then cast her off. Less powerful men were put to death for having relations with Vestals. [Worsfold, 71-3]

Spurious accusations were leveled at Vestals for a variety of reasons. Minucia fell under suspicion for her rich dress, and so did Postumia, who also got in trouble “for her wit” unbefitting a maiden, according to Livy. Postumia was sternly warned “to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits,” but Minucia was buried alive. [Worsfold, 62, 66; Goodrich 283] Aemilia, Licinia, and Martia were executed after being denounced by the servant of a barbarian horseman. A few Vestals were acquitted. Some cleared themselves through ordeals; the Vestal Tuccia established her innocence by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve. [Augustine, De Civitate Dei, X, 16, in Worsfold, 69]

In times of disaster and crisis, Romans blamed impure behavior by the Vestals for the city's calamities. [Pomeroy] Their horrific executions acted as symbolic purgations, much like witch burnings. Emperors found the spectacle politically useful. Domitian ordered the High Vestal Cornelia to be buried alive in 81 CE, refusing to allow her to defend herself, and had another vestal executed. As Pliny the Younger explained,“Domitian hoped to make his reign illustrious by such an example.” Caracalla (211-17) also buried Vestals alive “pretending they had lost their virginity.” [Herodian, in Worsfold, 61, 71-2; McNamara,15, on second by Domitian] These official murders give little reason to wonder at Plutarch's report that Roman priests performed rites in the “Field of Sin” to placate the spirits of executed vestals.



© Max Dashu 2004


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