Independent Women of Pompeii By Robin Fowler



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Independent Women of Pompeii
By Robin Fowler   
Last edited: Sunday, June 11, 2006
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2005



Excerpt from articles from my page on Suite 101.

The Roman city of Pompeii is legendary, almost fabled. It is most famous for being buried under a blanket of ash from the August 24, A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesusvius. When excavations on the ruins of Pompeii were begun in 1748, it was quickly discovered that the site was archaeological pay dirt. The subsequent excavations, which continue today, have uncovered an era of history frozen in time, an opportunity to see the day-to-day life and operations of a Roman city. The spectacularly preserved city has provided archaeologists insight into Roman art, architecture, politics, religion, and family life. It also offers a peek into the lives of non-Imperial Roman women, and the opportunities that were possibly available to them.There is vast evidence that shows what the lives of the Imperial Roman women were like. The wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Roman Emperors were often well documented in art, drama, and poetry. Often, little specific information is known of the other Roman women. That is, the women from the non-Imperial upper classes all the way down the social stratum to the slaves. Discoveries at Pompeii have helped to clarify a lot of notions held regarding the lives of Roman women. Art, architecture, and graffiti have provided a huge source of interesting information. Archaeological evidence from Pompeii shows us that Roman women were not solely relegated to the job of homemaker. They had ample opportunities to participate in commerce, religion, and politics. There is evidence of Pompeian women holding down such occupations as weavers, landladies, salespeople, butchers, doctors, and even wealthy benefactors. The discoveries at Pompeii also uncovered some evidence of the independent status that some Roman women possessed. However, archaeological evidence can only tell so much of the story. We will probably never know the true extent of the independence that some of these women were permitted that was exclusive of male involvement. But what evidence that has been found provides a glimmer of hope that Roman women were not completely repressed or disregarded, at least in this one small Roman city.Perhaps the most famous woman with a sizeable amount of influence to be discovered out of Pompeii was an upper class priestess named Eumachia. Eumachia was a member of an old Pompeian family who earned their wealth as brick makers. She garnered additional affluence when she married a man who had his own big bank account as the owner of some vineyards on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Eumachia was quite the woman about Pompeii. Aside from being a wife and mother, she was a public priestess to the cult of Venus (Venus was the patron goddess of Pompeii). And she was the patroness of the fullers’ guild. Fullers were dry cleaners of a sort. They laundered the tunics and togas of the town, as well as prepared wool to turn into fine fabrics. It was one of Pompeii’s most principal industries. Being the patroness of this trade would have been quite notable for Eumachia and her family.When, in A.D. 62, a massive earthquake damaged or destroyed large parts of the city, Eumachia paid for the construction of a large building in the forum (the major economic and civic center of a Roman city). Archaeological evidence suggests that this building was most likely home base for the fullers. Thus, as a show of gratitude, the fullers commissioned a statue of Eumachia’s likeness in her honor complete with a complimentary inscription. This public show of appreciation would have proven significant for the likes of a Roman woman.Eumachia’s schedule must have been bursting at the seams. On top of her public duties as priestess and her business dealings with the fullers, she also found time to be involved in local politics. The construction of her considerable building in Pompeii’s forum was timed perfectly (if not coincidentally) with her son’s campaign for public office. The generosity of this multifaceted woman would have unquestionably been beneficial to her son’s election. Eumachia was obviously a dedicated mother, a shrewd businesswoman with a giving heart, and had the funding to back it all up. And to further showcase the wealth of her family, Eumachia had a massive marble sepulcher, or tomb, constructed on one of the more affluent streets of the dead in Pompeii, at the Nucerian Gate. Unfortunately, all of Eumachia’s money and influence could not protect her from Mother Nature, and she succumbed, with nearly all other citizens (of every class) of Pompeii, when Mount Vesuvius blew its top on that fateful August morning.Another woman whose story was discovered among the ruins of Pompeii is Julia Felix. Julia was a wealthy property owner who came upon her bags of money via a sizeable inheritance. The property that she owned, her grand villa, took up an entire block of the city. It was, of course, lavishly decorated and furnished. It seems that Julia Felix held none of the aspirations that her multi-tasking contemporary Eumachia did. Julia preferred to relax her days away in her courtyard garden, gazing at her many marble statues. That is, until the earthquake of A.D. 62 caused some damage to her property.At that time, her survival instincts (and frugality) kicked in. In an effort to avoid spending any of her own money, Julia rented out parts of her massive villa. For this purpose, she had converted these parts into public baths, shops, a tavern, and apartments. This proved to be a worthwhile venture for her, paying for the repairs to her home, and no doubt providing her with a nice amount of extra income. Thus, Julia Felix used her inheritance as a springboard to independence.Euamchia and Julia Felix are but two of many examples of Pompeian women striking out on their own and making it on their own separate from their family names. They were property owners, businesswomen, and public figures, with seemingly little or no male interference. Far more is known about the more famous imperial Roman women. Therefore, the discoveries at Pompeii of these fascinating characters provide an opportunity to get to know the women of Rome at all social levels. 




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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. Bibliography Bibliography · 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 Word Count: 1505
http://www.term-papers.us/ts/ea/hte438.shtml
Independent Women of Pompeii

The Political Power of Roman Women

© Robin Fowler

Underneath the fossilized mud and ash at Pompeii, the lives of influential Roman women have been uncovered.

Underneath the fossilized mud and ash at Pompeii, the lives of Roman women have been uncovered. Many of these women did not fit the mold of the dutiful Roman matron or priestess.

Perhaps the most famous woman with a sizeable amount of influence to be discovered out of Pompeii was an upper class priestess named Eumachia. Eumachia was a member of an old Pompeian family who earned their wealth as brick makers. She garnered additional affluence when she married a man who had his own big bank account as the owner of some vineyards on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Eumachia was quite the woman about Pompeii. Aside from being a wife and mother, she was a public priestess to the cult of Venus (Venus was the patron goddess of Pompeii). And she was the patroness of the fullers' guild. Fullers were dry cleaners of a sort. They laundered the tunics and togas of the town, as well as prepared wool to turn into fine fabrics. It was one of Pompeii's most principal industries. Being the patroness of this trade would have been quite notable for Eumachia and her family.

When, in A.D. 62, a massive earthquake damaged or destroyed large parts of the city, Eumachia paid for the construction of a large building in the forum (the major economic and civic center of a Roman city). Archaeological evidence suggests that this building was most likely home base for the fullers. Thus, as a show of gratitude, the fullers commissioned a statue of Eumachia's likeness in her honor complete with a complimentary inscription. This public show of appreciation would have proven significant for the likes of a Roman woman.

Eumachia's schedule must have been bursting at the seams. On top of her public duties as priestess and her business dealings with the fullers, she also found time to be involved in local politics. The construction of her considerable building in Pompeii's forum was timed perfectly (if not coincidentally) with her son's campaign for public office. The generosity of this multifaceted woman would have unquestionably been beneficial to her son's election. Eumachia was obviously a dedicated mother, a shrewd businesswoman with a giving heart, and had the funding to back it all up. And to further showcase the wealth of her family, Eumachia had a massive marble sepulcher, or tomb, constructed on one of the more affluent streets of the dead in Pompeii, at the Nucerian Gate. Unfortunately, all of Eumachia's money and influence could not protect her from Mother Nature, and she succumbed, with nearly all other citizens (of every class) of Pompeii, when Mount Vesuvius blew its top on that fateful August morning.

Another woman whose story was discovered among the ruins of Pompeii is Julia Felix. Julia was a wealthy property owner who came upon her bags of money via a sizeable inheritance. The property that she owned, her grand villa, took up an entire block of the city. It was, of course, lavishly decorated and furnished. It seems that Julia Felix held none of the aspirations that her multi-tasking contemporary Eumachia did. Julia preferred to relax her days away in her courtyard garden, gazing at her many marble statues. That is, until the earthquake of A.D. 62 caused some damage to her property.

At that time, her survival instincts (and frugality) kicked in. In an effort to avoid spending any of her own money, Julia rented out parts of her massive villa. For this purpose, she had converted these parts into public baths, shops, a tavern, and apartments. This proved to be a worthwhile venture for her, paying for the repairs to her home, and no doubt providing her with a nice amount of extra income. Thus, Julia Felix used her inheritance as a springboard to independence.

Euamchia and Julia Felix are but two of many examples of Pompeian women striking out on their own and making it on their own separate from their family names. They were property owners, businesswomen, and public figures, with seemingly little or no male interference. Far more is known about the more famous Imperial Roman women. Therefore, the discoveries at Pompeii of these fascinating characters provide an opportunity to get to know the women of Rome at all social levels.


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