Roman women lived in a world, which prescribed strict gender roles; a world which judged each person in terms of compliance to sex-specific styles of conduct. In general terms, men were highly placed with regard to freedom, autonomy and control as compared to women. While men lived in total control, being active in public, getting in and leaving at will, and living in the world at large, women were confined and sheltered. They were centered around and denied the freedom to go out at will. They were assigned the roles of homemaking, in which case men expected them to be good mothers and good wives, but not anything more than that. Above and beyond this, a woman never attained or achieved independence; she was under the father’s dominion until the husband took over the roles of the father. Under the strict watch of her father, a woman would learn the roles of a wife as well as the skills required for a woman. Amasis (2007), by invoking the inherent nature of each gender, tries to justify the homebound role of women. He states that the wife’s role is to obey her husband without giving heed to public matters.
The Roman art also displays women as figures and mortals from myth and allegory in painted vases and sculptures. Men made monuments, which presented the view of women’s form and lives, for male buyers. The representations included naturalistic portraits. In some occasions, although rare, Roman artists displayed scenes of public life for women. Roman art also represents women as goddesses such as Hera, idealized mortal women as well as mythological figures. The artists displayed goddesses with controlled emotions and clothed bodies. These arts were displayed between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. However, from the third to the first centuries B.C. (Hellenistic period), both nudity and emotion appear. The stories of mythological women appear in religious art, for instance, in temples, and on decorated vases (Roller, 2003). Though these stories may be presented using visual language of real life, they seldom offer clear information about lives of real women.
The sculptors assigned the women subservient roles, asserting that women were in charge of the home, but within the limits of the rules that husbands laid down for them. They were also supposed to consider their husbands’ wishes. They achieved this by making carvings with embedded laws by a divine will. Therefore, they showed that it was not a matter of dividing the roles by specialization. It was a matter of man being inherently superior. To indicate the superiority of men, sculptors would carve out men with more teeth than women; a simple error that they could have avoided had they opened up the mouths to count and compare the number of teeth.
Roman men allowed their spouses a less cloistered existence, but bridled at the idea of giving them equality, especially outside the homes. The writers were indignant about the women daring to take part in public life. In some of the verses they wrote, the writers and poets struggled to validate outdated laws to hinder women from indulging in public affairs. The sculptors would display carvings that showed the place of women; the kitchen. This was to discourage women from gathering the courage to participate in out door activities. The gendered notion was that a woman, who took part in such activities, was an outcast (Beard, 2004).
Poets and authors in Rome claimed that the highest virtue that women could possess was being loyal to their husbands. They cited examples of women who forgave their spouses even after realizing that the husbands were unfaithful. These women were expected to stand by their husbands come what may. The writers also praised Roman men for killing or divorcing their wives even over imagined or minor infractions. Women were, therefore, regarded as something that was more easily discarded than men. The writers also believed that women deserved harsher punishments than men over similar mistakes. In short, the writer depicted women as nothing more than extensions of their husbands (Lefkowitz & Maureen, 2006).
An example of an art form that was famous in Rome, and which had been borrowed from Greece, was a sculpture of a nude woman. In this sculpture, the woman was posed nude with her hands over her genitals, her back curved, and her head tilted. This sculpture explained that nudity was a woman’s costume. It symbolized the woman’s power to procreate. This was an essential part of her role as a wife. It was also a creation of an image that was worthy of the public achievement of the woman. The sculpture depicts women as agents of procreation. It showed that the major purpose of women was to give birth and take care of children. This reduced women to the subjects of men. Their role was home-based. They were supposed to stay at home, give birth to children, and take care of those children. Women were, therefore, the subjects of men; they were like slaves, whose role was to work without enjoyment.
Members of the imperial family, such as Titus’ family, had Venus portraits, which were done, to identify themselves with the perfect feminine figure. Also, common was the ordinary women’s commemoration with a funerary statue in this way. This showed that women in Rome were supposed to look beautiful to impress their men. They desired an ideal body akin to the statue. Also, accompanying the statue were believes that women were supposed to have the pattern of life for those who desired an ideal body.
Bereaved Romans used various art forms to praise their mothers, daughters and wives in the tomb stones, though the words were brief. More often than not, they echoed the key feminine virtues that were mentioned in the epitaph, those of good wifery, affection, and chastity. They carved out wool work images as a symbol for a good woman. All roman children also learned the story of another good woman, Lucretius, who was popular for attracting the usually unwelcome tyrant’s attention by her beauty and industry. This indicates that Romans valued attractiveness and beauty. After her rape and subsequent suicide, a revolt against the Estruscan monarchy (the foundation of Roman republic) started. This story is well documented in the history of ancient Rome.
Augustus, a Roman leader, instigated the practice of regarding the women of the imperial family as models of virtuous womanhood. The sculptors represented this in sculptures by carving out beautiful women as symbols for womanhood. The emperors who succeeded the Augustus carried it further, and empresses were depicted as embodying. Faustina, Marc Aurelius’ wife, often featured in coins to symbolize various virtues. The Marcus’ daughter in law was associated with modesty. This shows that women from the ruling families were regarded as crucial. They were not represented in art forms as home makers or husbands’ property (Kleiner & Susan, 2007).
Epitaphs and letters described the grief of Roman parents, when a girl died before finding a husband. The parents also seem to be delighted in their daughters, who lived until they found husbands. This shows that while the parents confined girls within the homestead, they valued and loved their girl-children. Pliny the Younger, a first and second century writer, paints a touching portrait of a girl, Minicia Marcella, who happened to be his friend’s daughter. This girl had died at the age of 13. This is a clear indication of how much the Roman man valued their female counterparts (Leah, 2004).
Roman poetry inscriptions form the basis for misinformation about Roman wives and mistresses, who were adulterous. Propertius and Ovid wrote love inscriptions about named mistresses following Catullus’ lead. These inscriptions, which are set in a kind fantasy world, had a considerable influence on European poetry. Scholars speculate that these inscriptions addressed adulterous women to discourage them from getting involved in adultery. This shows that Roman men were somewhat selfish. While they enjoyed the freedom of sleeping with any number of women they felt like, they subjected their women to strict restrictions. Ovid’s delightful short inscription about a rendezvous with an imaginary woman has inspired many poets (D’Ambara, 2005).
Another depiction of women is seen in the various erotic paintings on the walls of Pompeii. While some paintings are simply for domestic entertainment, most of them were used to advertise brothels. It is certain that Roman men frequented in brothels or visited street walkers. Most prostitutes were depicted as slaves, and as people who led a short, miserable life. It is also certain that married men and women had affairs even after Augustus, the emperor, made them illegal. These paintings depict women as objects of sexual satisfaction. Their role was to satisfy the desires of Roman men for a meager income (Geary, 2009).
Unlike in the present times, people in the ancient world did not always work for money. While upper-class women supervised households and estates, most low class women worked in the home. Though there were cloth specialists, all women were expected to take part in cloth production. They took part in spinning, sewing, and weaving. Free women and slaves, who worked for a living, were concentrated in service and domestic positions. People learnt the roles of Roman women by interpreting sculptural reliefs on funerary and public art, and pictures on vases and walls. For example, Septimia was a successful shoe maker while her friend decorated her tomb with a sculpture for her (Ramage, 2009).
Graffiti, for example, the ones on the wall of a Pompeian workshop recorded the names of female workers and their wool allocations. Other graffiti were developed by women, and they are from women’s own monuments. The Roman artists saw women’s domestic work as a symbol of feminine virtue. They developed various art forms to hail women, who worked in their homes and behaved as husbands’ subjects. They depicted women as home makers, who were supposed to be contented working at home. The artists treated other jobs, such as those of barmaids, prostitutes and actresses, with disrepute. While outside work, such as nursing, laundering and sewing, was respectable, it had a low status (Setala, 2008). Nurses were highly valued by their employers, and they might be commemorated.
In conclusion, Roman art seems to be quite realistic but majorly concerned with expressing gender ideals. Whether in its representation of women as more attractive and younger than men, or its preference for women in domestic chores rather than in public roles, the stress is in women’s life. It offers a strong sense of society conventions. However, from the analysis of Roman art forms, it is certain that women were depicted as home makers. They were supposed to stay indoors and perform domestic chores, as opposed to men, who had the freedom of public expression. The art forms also depicted women as objects for men to satisfy their desires as well as custodians of beauty.