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Sexual Equality in the Roman Empire

John Simkin

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The Roman Empire was very much a male dominated society; so much so that in the Roman Republic a man could legally kill his wife or daughter if they questioned his authority. Women were also kept out of positions of power. They were not allowed to be senators, governors, lawyers, judges or any of the other official positions involved in running the Roman Empire. Women were also not allowed to vote in elections.

In 195 BC the Roman Senate discussed the idea of sexual equality. In the debate Cato the Elder argued: "Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal... If you allow them to achieve complete equality with men, do you think they will be easier to live with? Not at all. Once they have achieved equality, they will be your masters."

The debate was started again in 42 BC when a large group of women of Rome held a public meeting at the Forum. The main speech was made by Hortensia. "Why should we pay taxes when we do not share in the offices, honours, military commands, nor, in short, the government, for which you men fight between yourselves, with such harmful results?"

Although it was extremely difficult, some women overcame the many obstacles put in their way and managed to obtain positions of influence. Probably the most influential woman in the Roman Empire was Livia. She had strong opinions about politics and after she married Emperor Augustus she was in a position to influence the way the empire was run. Some of the letters that the couple wrote to each other have survived, and they show the important role Livia played in shaping the Roman Empire.

Cornelia, the mother of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, was another important figure in Roman history. She is said to have deliberately educated her two sons to be sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Even after her two sons had been murdered for their attempts to improve conditions for the plebeians, Cornelia continued to play an influential role in Roman politics.

Although denied voting rights, women were active in trying to persuade the government to adopt certain policies. For example, women marched on the Senate to insist that the government negotiate with Hannibal over the release of 8,000 Roman prisoners captured during the Punic War.

Women were also very active in the early days of the Christian movement. They hoped that Jesus Christ's views on equality would lead to changes in men's attitudes towards women. However, once the Christian Church became established, it soon became clear that the writings of Christians such as Paul of Tarsus would be used to justify male dominance. He wrote in AD 58: "Women should keep quiet in church... If they want to find out anything they should ask their husbands at home... A man ought not to wear anything on his head in church, for he is the image of God and reflects God's glory... For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; and man was not created for women, but woman for man. That is why she ought to wear something upon her head to symbolise her subjection."

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