Women in Imperial Rome

In Rome, after the fall of the Republic, women played a conspicuous, independent and sometimes ill-omened part. But it was on their follies and extravagances, rather than on their virtues, that masculine writers usually preferred to dwell, writes J.P.V.D. Balsdon.

Roman history, like most history, is apt to represent women from an exclusively masculine standpoint. True, we know of two women writers who lived during the reign of Nero: the mysterious Greek Pamphyla, who published thirty-three books about Greek philosophy and Greek history, and Nero’s mother herself, the younger Agrippina, who—whether at her political zenith or in her political decline, we cannot say—published her autobiography, together with an account of the fate of the other members of her tragic family.

But, as a rule, women did not write history. Indeed, until they began to write novels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we have little record over the years of how they regarded the opposite sex or, indeed, their own.

Historians, naturally, were not the only men who wrote of women. Young men wrote poems about them; and, historians apart, two sorts of older men, the satirists and the encyclopaedists, voiced their criticisms and opinions. The satirist had eyes only for feminine foibles, aberrations and vices, which emerged once the innocence of youth was at an end: the encyclopaedist, for the physical abnormalities of women or the peculiarities of their conduct.

Thus when, with a quotation from her own book, the younger Agrippina finds her way into the Natural Histories of the elder Pliny, she is produced merely as witness, in the case of her son Nero’s birth, that members of the Agrippa family contravened the law of nature by which, while man is carried feet-first out of life, he plunges into it head-foremost.

And it is for their unusual extravagance that Pliny mentions Cleopatra and Lollia Paulina, wife of Gaius Caligula—Cleopatra for having wagered Antony that she would consume a dinner costing ten million sesterces, and won her bet by dissolving a pearl earring in a single draught of vinegar: Lollia Paulina for having been seen at a party wearing jewels worth forty million sesterces.

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