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Discuss the contribution made by women to the religious life of the Roman Empire.
Probably the most obvious contribution made by any group of women to the religious life of the Roman Empire was as the anthropomorphic personification of the ideas worshipped; Demeter, Persephone, Ceres, Isis and others were all women and were worshipped by both the women and men of the Roman Empire. Each of these goddesses had rites, parades and gatherings in their honour, sometimes reinforcing (e.g. Fortuna ), sometimes transcending (e.g. Isis ) status barriers between the devotees.
These ‘women’ if such we may call them played an important role in the religious life of the Roman Empire and not only that, but the role they played offered further roles to other women. We can examine each of the major strands of the worship of these Goddesses by selecting four examples; Vesta, Ceres, Isis and Fortuna. Ceres, Vesta and Fortuna all shared one thing in common. They were the religio, parts of the official religion, of the Roman state. The worship of Isis was considered superstitio, an important distinction, considering the difference in roles between the religio of Rome and the superstitio that later arrived in Rome, often from the orient, as mystery cults.
The Vestal Virgins were probably the best known, highest-status religious order, dating from far back, in the Rome of the Kings. The role of the Vestal Virgins was intrinsically tied to the fortunes of the state, fulfilling as it did the Pax Deorum – the Gods’ Peace. The Vestals, of which there were six, where to be virginal, though their dress and style of hair was to resemble that of Roman matronae. The Vestal Virgins had lictors much like the male magistracies of the Cursus Honorum, a simple expression of the position of Roman mothers in the eyes of Roman men; mothers were the highest of all females. The Vestals, with their chastity and obedience to the Pontifex Maximus and catering to the flame, symbolising the hearths of Roman homes everywhere, exemplified the behaviour that the state expected from its women folk. The contribution of the Vestal Virgins (who, incidentally, could be of any status, even third generation freedwomen after AD 5) to Roman religion was to provide Roman women with comfort; their lives under the paternity or tutela of men was still regarded by the state as important for Roman society because women liberated from potestas dedicated their lives to the service of the same ideals that Roman women were expected to endure.
Fortuna played a different role in Roman religio. The cults and worship of Fortuna was stratified where women were concerned. Different types of women held celebrations at different times of the year and worshipped different aspects of the goddess. For example, Fortuna Virginalis was worshipped by female adolescents. Aunts would often take their nieces to ceremonies to ask the goddess to watch over the chastity of the young one. In one swoop this emphasised the role of the aunt in the family where children were concerned and taught the child what behaviour was expected from her.
Similarly, Fortuna Primigenia was patroness of married women, particularly of mothers and childbirth, emphasising the role of women in producing the next generations. The Matralia was a festival celebrated on the 11th of June, on honour of the mothers of Roman society. It required the baking of cakes and stressed a similar aunt-like role to that of Fortuna Virginalis.
With the stratification of the cults, different emphasis was placed on different aspects of female life, with univirae, matronae and virgines each having their place. Each of these were celebrated solely by women in the rites mentioned and so the female contribution to the religious life of the empire was to reaffirm through these solemn occasions that their duties were paramount; service to husband, bringing up the children, or preparing to be the next generation of wives and mothers, ‘socially desirable behaviour,’ as Pomeroy summed it up.
Ceres was the goddess of growth, of human, animal and agricultural fertility, another goddess emerging from the depths of Roman past, as evidenced by the existence of a Flamen Cerialis. The contribution of women to the two major celebrations of Ceres was significant, so much so in fact that M. Porcius Cato the Elder recounts, as reported by Livy (History of Rome, 34.1), that the rites were suspended because women ‘were in mourning’ – an act of protest aimed at repealing the Lex Oppia of 215 BC, which regulated expensive goods for women.
The two major rites were the Sacrum Anniversairium Cereris and the Initia Cereris; these were presided over by two female Priestesses and were attended entirely by females. Since Ceres was tied to human fertility, it can be assumed that there was a link, tacit or otherwise, between motherhood and Ceres. Ceres was also goddess of the annona and as such responsible for the welfare of the Roman people – much like the Vestals fell under suspicion of stuprum if Rome fared badly in battle. This could be represented as a tacit link between Ceres as mother of the annona and Roman women collectively as mothers of the state.
The goddess Isis was a different matter. Isis was worshipped by both men and women, but most popularly by women because of all the guises Isis had assumed during her life, some normally attributed with infamia, coupled were status as a goddess, despite this. Isis was a female but had powers traditionally associated with male gods, such as power over thunder, lightning and the winds. As a result of this, there was conflict between Isis and the austere Augustan abstractions of what was respectable in a female, something that no doubt enhanced the credibility of Isis in the eyes of women.
The religio of the Roman Empire buffered and gave meaning to the stratification of Roman society and the dominance of males in the spheres females were not to enter, for example public affairs. The attraction of Isis was entirely divergent from this point of view; of twenty six known sacerdos of the Cult of Isis, six were female, one of which was of Senatorial rank and one of freed status. In fact, it seemed Isis challenged the dominance of men because of the withdrawal of many worshippers from the beds of their husband. Juvenal and Tibullus both comment on this, one as the old curmudgeon we know him to be, the other lamenting that it will do him no good when he is sick.
Unlike the religio of the Empire, which performed a practical political purpose, often serving as status symbols for different sections of the elite, whether male or female, the worship of Isis was to satisfy deep emotional needs of the devotee. The performance of random acts of friendship, such as inviting strangers to dinner, and indulging in ‘social pleasure and sensual gratification’ through experience of those things previously abstained from (one of which, as mentioned above, was intercourse).
The contribution of women to the worship of the goddess, apart from those roles already mentioned was to emphasise for their own needs the role of this goddess as a determinant of female status in the Roman Empire; as Diodorus Siculus is meant to have pointed out, ‘because of Isis, the wives of the Pharaohs were more important than the Pharaohs.’
In modern society, it is taken as a given that religious vocation is a life-choice, chosen by oneself to serve the spiritual needs of the many. In Rome this was not the case, particularly not for the rich women-priestesses for whom we have an unparalleled archaeological record; those of Pompeii. Eumachia was a ‘public priestess’ of Pompeii, a result no doubt of her engagement in euergetism and patronages to various guilds within the city. The ‘priesthood’ (probably the Imperial Cult, judging by the dedications) co-opted this rich and probably widowed mother to its service, extending the patronage of the Emperor, benefiting the Imperial by the patronage this women already exerted and benefiting her by an increase in status.
Other examples of women contributing to the economic life of the Empire and benefiting in return from religious status symbols are existent, including Mamia, another woman, dead by the time of the Vesuvius explosion which buried Pompeii. She was another ‘public priestess’ who erected a temple, this time with a dedication to Augustus. She was also probably a part of the Imperial Cult. These examples tell us that through religion women could increase their own status, even whilst in tutela; the authority of a tutor was not always as great as the power a rich patroness might wield over her tutor.
Women could provide examples for other women, through religion, particularly the medium of coins. One such example is the coin of Plotina (obverse) with an image of Vesta (reverse). Plotina was renowned for her adherence to the basic ideals that males had devised for female behaviour and thus she was compared with Vesta, establishing a religious link and encouraging emulation in other women.
Priestesses in the case of the Imperial cult were always rich women who had engaged in patronage and benefactions but religion existed on a smaller and much more personal scale for women of lesser class. Defixiones, curse tablets, are preserved from many different locations and they basically call down the wrath of the gods on someone who has wronged the man or woman inscribing the (often lead) tablet. Women cursing other women with whom their husbands have slept , or inviting a cure for various ailments of female anatomy.
A word on the evidence we have for the contributions of women to the life of the Roman Empire is also important. Most of the literary evidence for the actions of women with regard to anything is from men; Juvenal, Tibullus, Diodorus Siculus, Cato and Cicero, for example. With Juvenal, the famous Satire VI is a biting attack on women, to discourage a friend from wedding one and so we see what men disliked about women in religion. Apuleius, in the Golden Ass, on the other hand notes the ‘Bark of Isis’ with no little admiration. The epigrams of the Priestess of Hestia, Claudia Trophime, around AD 92 were written by the woman herself but again, they reflect a male-orientated view of what was expected of a woman, trying to explain the subservient role of goddesses to gods. This was something contradicted by Isis, for example.
There are dedicatory inscriptions authorised by women, also engaged in religion as priestesses, often the wives of priests and then there are the tablets on which curses are inscribed (Defixiones), sometimes by woman, sometimes not. Both of these are clear examples of women exercising religion as means to a new status or some success, whether in love or physical beauty or whatever. These do not explain from what contributions women in general felt they made to the religious life of the Roman Empire, rather narrowed to a few specific examples in which women used religion to their own advantage, much G. Iulius Caesar utilised the office of Pontifex Maximus to his own ends.
With this in mind, we can hesitantly draw some conclusions as to the contributions of women to the religious life of the Roman Empire. First of all, women were not a homogeneous group. They were divided in Roman society according to marital status and often according to class. Each marital status, sometimes each class, had its own special cult to impress upon women the virtues that men wanted them to possess. This realisation of this paradigmatic view was the point of Roman religio, such as the cults of Fortuna. The opposite of this was the homogeneity inspired by cults, for example Isis, which ignored the class and status of women. Women occupied ‘leading roles’ in each of the cults mentioned above, with their own celebrations, yet only in the Cults of Isis to we find women playing an equal role to men.
We can see that women played roles in religion in their daily lives also, whether of high or low class – the defixiones are an example of women earnestly believing that they have a role to play in religion, a right to beseech the gods. This type of magic was distinct from religion as it was informal, occupying many forms, even mixing Christianity with the pagan cults of the Empire. While we can’t tell how most women perceived their own role in religion, it is pretty clear that women at least believed in the goals the religions ascribed to, through the participation of women at all levels, from magic tablets to the Vestales. However, in the last analysis, women were involved in religion within the parameters set by males, to define the sexual identity of women; as mothers, as aunts, as daughters, as wives, but all in relation to the family and thus the patria potestas or the potestas of the husband.
Juvenal, (1991), The Sixteen Satires, tr. Peter Green, London, Penguin Classics
Lefkowitz, M.R. and Fant, M.B., (2004), Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook in Translation, New York, John Hopkins University Press.
Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M., (1990) Roman Civilisation Volume II: The Roman Empire, New York, Columbia University Press.
Tibullus, (1988), ‘Catullus, Tibullus and Pervigilium Veneris’ in Loeb Classical Library Volume 6, tr. Postgate, J.P., Harvard, Harvard University Press.
Beard, M., (1980), ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins’ in Journal of Roman Studies, 70, (pp12-27), London, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
Fantham, Elaine, Helene.P. Foley, N.B. Kampen, S.B. Pomeroy, H.A. Shapiro, eds. (1995) Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
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