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Women In Pompeii Essay, Research Paper

The ancient city of Pompeii is best known for being covered by an erupting volcano and being almost forgotten. From the time the city was rediscovered in the 1700s scientists and archeologists have managed to piece together evidence to show not just how people died but how they lived. We now know that before the eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24 79 AD Pompeii was a resort town. From the remains of Pompeii scholars have deducted the socioeconomic, religious and political life of Pompeii?s last inhabitants. Pompeii was a city where women declared themselves the equal of men. Women could own land, operate businesses, be priestesses and were often educated.

Despite these “equalities” Pompeiian women were still mostly “owned” by men and from birth knew their position. New born boys were placed at the father?s feet while newborn girls were given straight to the nurse. Most girls were bought up by their mothers at home learning weaving and other domestic skills. Upper-class girls however were taught to read and write either at school or at home by slave tutors. It was believed by some that educated women made better wives and mothers. Literacy amongst the upper class (both women and men) was a symbol of status and respect. One of the most famous Pompeiian artifacts the fresco of the merchant Terentius Neo and his wife, depicts her holding a wax tablet and a stylus.

Girls were considered grown up by the age of 14 when marriages were usually arranged by their family with the objective of uniting “good” families. At this time a woman would leave her father?s ownership and become the property of her husband. As many women as possible were kept married and bearing children. Women were expected to be married by the age of 20 and it was law to remarry after the death of ones husband. As at this time in Roman history there were fewer females than males so women could marry and remarry with ease. A woman?s major role was to be a good wife and mother. Motherhood was considered the esteemed occupation.

In Pompeii women often entered into a business partnership with their husbands. They were allowed to keep profits themselves. It was common for a widow to take over her husband?s business. Wives of traders and craftsmen often ran the front of the shop while their husbands made the products or dealt with other aspects of the business. Women could own property and could decide how to administer it. Julia Felix is an example of an independent woman who inherited a large fortune in her own right. Tablets found at Herculaneum (a smaller city destroyed by the same eruption) show that women could buy sell and lease but were not allowed to become bankers. Women in Pompeii worked in, owned and operated many of the taverns, inns and bars, which often served as brothels a topic I will cover later. (more detail)

Archeologists have uncovered written evidence recording the role of women in the medical profession. These women?s status was recognised by law and their fees were regulated. Many women worked in this profession as midwives, physicians and doctors. Records have also been found mentioning husband and wife medical teams.

As Pompeii had a large foreign trade it is not suprising that women from the East came to Pompeii selling luxury items such as dyes, perfumes, clothes and food stuffs. Lower class women also worked in the trades. Some worked independently sewing and mending garments, while others worked as bakery assistants or in the fulling mills. However the status of these women was low like their pay rate.

Like in most places female slaves existed in Pompeii. These women performed a wide range of tasks depending on the owner?s needs. Apart from household duties some of these slave women operated as nannies or wet nurses while others managed their owner?s businesses or worked as labourers. Wealthy women had their own personal attendants which was another duty of these slaves.

Eumachia was “Pompeii?s most prominent woman” . She came from a wealthy and respected family and rose to hold a position of unusual importance as a priestess. She was also patroness of the fuller?s guild (cleaners, dyers and clothing makers). Eumachia provided this guild with a building in the forum. (However there is no evidence suggesting that women could join these guilds) Another female priest was named Mamia. Historians are unsure of which cult these women belonged to. However, one of the most popular cults among women in Pompeii was the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Both men and women in Pompeii could hold high positions in this cult. Isis was highly worshipped by prostitutes as it was believed Isis herself lived as a prostitute. Isis temples were favoured meeting places for prostitutes and brothels were often located nearby.

Prostitutes were common in Pompeii. Here prostitution was not a criminal offence even though the woman herself was considered lowly. Prostitution was seen as a normal part of the sex life of Roman men. Prostitution was legally considered a business and prostitutes were required to register with authorities. Prostitution was such a profitable business that the emperor Caligula bought in a tax on it. Where the women operated depended on her class. High-class courtesans were paid highly by their lovers and therefore lived and operated in lavish surroundings. The poorer prostitutes did their business in archways. (The Latin word for arch fornix is where the English word fornicate originates.) Foreign prostitutes operated in Pompeii and were highly sought after partly due to the fact they were not subject to Roman social constraints and also because they were considered exotic. Many taverns and inns had rooms which were decorated with erotic paintings so historian have inferred these places often doubled as brothels.

Roman sexuality operated according to a set of moral restrictions which were decided by the men. Restrictions were especially imposed upon upper-class women. An upper-class girl had to be a virgin when she married and was not allowed to have sex with any man except her husband. The emperor Augustus ruled that adultery was a public offence only for women. If a man had an adulterous daughter under his control he could kill her and a man was obliged to divorce his wife if she was caught in the act of adultery. No man was permitted to have sex with an unmarried or widowed free woman unless she was a prostitute.

It was socially unacceptable for an upper-class woman to have sexual relationships with a male slave. However it was more acceptable for an upper-class man to have relations with a female slave. If the woman did not consent such relationships could have been forced as the slave girl belonged to her master. Rape was against the law. But it was a crime against the man who owned the victim not the woman herself. As a result of this it was up to the men “owners” to press charges. A child produced by a man and his slave woman would be of slave status whereas a child produced from the union of a woman and her slave would be “free”.

Contraception in Pompeii was the woman?s responsibility. Many of these techniques would have caused great discomfort to the women but were still implemented nevertheless. Applying a mixture of olive oil, honey, cedar resin or juice of the balsam tree with or without white lead was believed to stop pregnancy. Unwanted pregnancies were terminated by energetic walking, riding a draught animal or by bathing in a mixture of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marshmallow and wormwood. Records showing the success of these remedies have not been uncovered.

Frescos uncovered show that Pompeiian women were present in the streets and therefore part of everyday life..

Despite this apparent equality that the women believed they had, they were not allowed to vote,they had no political power and entertainment areas were segregated. Women had their own rooms in the baths as mixed bathing was not allowed. Women were seated in a different area in the amphitheatre to the men.

According to recent research undertaken by anthropologists at the University of Sydney, some Pompeiians were “hairy, unhealthy and fat” Studies of the bones recovered show that a considerable number of the women suffered from a hormone disorder which produces hairiness, obesity and recurring headaches. From this information we can conclude that the frescos are not accurate representations of all the women of the time.

In the period that we are looking at, the decade before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, “some women were rejecting ….[the] traditional role” . Birth rates declined and more women entered into business.

In conclusion it should be pointed out that most of this information comes from frescos, records and of course skeletons extracted from the ruins of the city. There may be other aspects of these women?s lives that we know nothing about which might change our views on the lifestyle and role of women in Pompeii.


? Desceudres, Jean-Paul Pompeii Revisited (1994)

? Bradley, Pam Ancient History unit Pompeii and Herculaneum (1994) Open Training and Education network.

? Henessy, Dianne Studies in Ancient Rome (1995)

? Etienne, Robert Pompeii the day City Died Thames and Hudson Publishing

? Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves. (1975) Random House

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