What did it mean to be a Roman woman? Indeed, how can we even begin to answer this question, given that most surviving ancient literature was authored by men at the top of society? One helpful source is epigraphy. The Romans erected enormous numbers of inscribed stone monuments, a habit that spread through their empire. While we are still at the mercy of chance when it comes to preservation, stone often survives really rather well. Because inscriptions were set up to record what was important to Roman individuals, they illuminate a wide range of subjects: epigraphy could play a part in religion, commemorate the dead, honour dignitaries, record noteworthy or philanthropic acts, and more.
Before getting too carried away, though, it is important for us to acknowledge that epigraphy is not a perfect source. As these inscriptions adorn public monuments, they were generally calibrated to convey a particular message, while the use of highly formulaic phrases limits the scope for truly individual statements. Inscriptions were also expensive, leaving the poor, slaves, women, and children less visible, as were people not so able to or interested in adopting Roman ways. Even allowing for such shortcomings, inscriptions present a valuable body of evidence for Roman society. Although women are underrepresented, we can still catch a glimpse of their lives and the roles they played in their communities. This is well illustrated by considering the evidence from Geneva, in Switzerland.
To date, Geneva has produced 87 Latin inscriptions, not counting milestones. Although the number of examples is encouraging, this corpus does come with one problem: only two of the stones were found in situ, leaving a question mark hanging over some of the stones’ precise origins and frustrating attempts to date them closely. Even so, these inscriptions collectively mention people 126 times, of whom 29 are women and one is a child. All told, the names indicate a rich medley of Latin, Celtic, and Greek / eastern origins or descent, while these people also spanned the social spectrum, ranging in rank from slave to senator. References to women are a little above what might be considered normal for the region. Across what is now Switzerland, just 20% of Roman inscriptions mention women; in Geneva, 24 of the 87 stones do, amounting to 28%. Better still, these women mirror the individuals on the inscriptions more generally, by covering a broad cross section of society.
The Geneva they inhabited (or Genava, as it was known) was an important centre for trade and travel at the edge of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. Occupation dates back to the Neolithic period, while the Celtic community developed the most important settlement in the Lake Geneva basin. Geneva’s longevity and significance owes much to its commanding location beside the River Rhône at the western end of the lake. Although the Roman settlement was concentrated on the left bank of the river, it is likely that the town also spilled over to its right bank, bookending an island in the Rhône channel. The lake and river simultaneously acted as natural boundaries and transport arteries, while the island presented a rare crossing point. Julius Caesar took advantage of it in 58 BC, and the island still connects the two banks today, by supporting les Ponts de l’Île.
Geneva was part of the vast Allobrogian territory when it fell into Rome’s grasp in 122/121 BC. Thereafter, it lay on the frontier of the Empire until Caesar’s campaigns in 58 BC. It was only in 13 BC, following more than a century of activity, that military campaigning in the region ceased. Under the emperor Caligula (reigned AD 37-41), Vienne, a city over 145km (90 miles) away in modern-day France, became a Roman colony, meaning that the inhabitants of its entire territory, including Geneva, received Roman citizenship. Alongside this boost in status, Geneva’s position on a provincial boundary ensured its continued importance. One reason was the economic possibilities this presented. In the 3rd century AD, for instance, the epigraphy records the presence of Aurelius Valens, an imperial freedman (that is a former slave) charged with collecting customs duty.
Much remains uncertain about the organisation of the Roman settlement. We know it was one of at least seven vici dependent on and technically part of Vienne. Although the exact nature of a vicus’ dependency on its city remains obscure, the vicus seemingly acted as a sort of outpost, extending its city’s influence and institutions, while providing a venue to integrate the local population into Roman ways of life. In Geneva’s case, attempting to deduce how the relationship worked is further complicated by the fact that some individuals held office in both Geneva and Nyon, a colony that lay further along the lake in a different province. Despite Geneva’s dependence on Vienne, the vicus presumably had some sort of assembly, as well as magistrates and priests, although their functions and relative importance remain unclear. But while the administrative workings of Geneva currently remain shrouded in mystery, the surviving inscriptions provide a tantalising sense of life in the settlement.
One 3rd-century text allows us to meet Atisia Maria, the wife of Gaius Arsius Marcianus, who held public office as an aedile. This inscription is remarkable in many ways: its length and style, for instance, reflect the couple’s status as leading members of Genevan society. What is more, the text sheds some light on the knotty problem of how Geneva was run, by indicating that it had its own aediles. Marcianus was presumably elected to this position by the decurions on the city senate in Vienne. His role probably included maintaining order, which adds a sad irony to his fate: Marcianus was murdered. Maria’s grief is clear from the poetic epitaph composed for Marcianus, which is metrical in parts, makes good use of alliteration, and includes an exceptional five affectionate epithets:
To Gaius Arsius Marcianus, the best and most conscientious young man, who exercised the function of aedile among his fellow inhabitants of the vicus. An enemy hand stole him, my dear husband, from me unjustly and from his most unlucky parents, their only surviving son. Atisia Maria (set this up) for her most beloved and most deserving husband.
The text also conveys the despair of Maria’s parents-in-law, who had already lost other children. Their presence is notable, as normally those mentioned in an epitaph from Vienne’s territory were either the deceased or directly identified as fulfilling some part of the dedication process. Marcianus’ parents do not fall into either category. Instead, they are just there, serving to highlight that this was a tragedy that affected many people. Given the presence of the parents-in-law, it seems reasonable to assume that any children would also have been mentioned, suggesting a young, childless couple, who had perhaps married recently. Although we cannot be sure of that, just as we can never solve this murder mystery, there is no question that Maria’s emotions remain vivid.
Of course, women could also enter public life themselves, so let’s meet three who held office. It is worth noting that, while their inscriptions were found in Geneva, there is debate about whether they had a different origin. Some commentators favour the idea that these stones originally stood in nearby Nyon. As material from Nyon has been found in Geneva, it is certainly possible that the former was the true source. Even so, the evidence against Geneva is far from watertight. Another area of uncertainty is the women’s full names, as resizing of the inscriptions for reuse left the texts truncated. What we can be sure of, though, is that Montica, Quintilla and [?]bina were flaminicae.
Flaminicae were priestesses of the imperial cult, which involved the worship of deified members of the imperial family and offering prayers for the living members via their divine essence (genii or numina). Of the many Roman cults, the imperial one alone was organised at a provincial level, but it was not just state-sanctioned propaganda. Politics and religion were not separate, and since Roman religious practice involved both public and private actions, participants could undertake worship as they would in any other cult, while simultaneously displaying their loyalty to and integration into the Empire’s belief system. Flaminicae were probably concerned with female members of the imperial family, but sadly, much remains unknown, including the difference between types of flaminicae. In this case we have two flaminicae Augustae, while the third stone is too incomplete for certainty. All three were operating at a town level, placing them a step below the more prestigious provincial priestesses.
It has become clear that the vast majority of municipal and provincial flaminicae were neither married nor related to flamines, their male counterparts. While nepotism or family influence may well have been factors, it seems that flaminicae were ostensibly selected or elected on their own merits. All they needed was citizenship and enough money to bankroll the philanthropic responsibilities that came with a year-long priesthood. Despite this costly commitment, the office was highly prized for increasing the holder’s prestige and reflecting glory on her family. We see this most clearly in Montica’s inscription, which adorned the base of her public honorific statue: a rare find in Geneva. The statue’s place was donated by the decurions, but the monument itself was set up by Montica’s father, who took care to record her role. You can still feel his pride at a distance of two millennia!
The importance of the office is also communicated by Quintilla’s enormous inscription. Created according to instructions in her will, the text testifies to her personal wish to be remembered, long after her death, as a flaminica Augustae: an important member of her community and a loyal Roman citizen. The reference to her will is also of interest. Our sources suggest that roughly 74-87% of Roman wills were made by men, although at Geneva this figure drops to 67% of the wills we know about, since three were made by women. In most cases, a woman’s husband and children would not be her heirs if she died intestate, which makes these figures all the more significant. No one is certain why this difference exists: perhaps women owned less than men, or perhaps the additional legal requirements for women to make wills were a significant impediment. Either way, this makes Quintilla’s inscription yet more interesting.
Before moving on from public life, no consideration of it would be complete without mentioning, just quickly, the highest-ranking individual recorded in the vicus: Rufia Aquilina, a senatorial lady. An inscription naming her has appropriately enough become part of a wall in Geneva’s town hall.
Now for a puzzle. It concerns an epitaph that Verria Verula set up for her son, Cal(?) Verna, who was probably an older child or young man when he died. Later, her husband, Coius Astutus, set up an epitaph for her in turn and, when his time came, Astutus’ memorial was duly erected by his sons, the Urittii brothers: Graecus and Rusticus. So far, this all seems straightforward enough, but the family is notable in three ways.
Firstly, each tombstone only mentions the deceased and the dedicator(s), drawing a veil over the rest of the family. This is not unusual, as we saw with Marcianus’ epitaph, but it is striking here because it illustrates just how incomplete a picture of the overall family each inscription presents in isolation. This is a helpful reminder of the pitfalls of epigraphic evidence.
Secondly, the three sons’ cognomina, or given names, have connotations of slavery; this has led some to suppose that they were once slaves, although in each case they were free when the relevant inscription was cut. Verna means ‘a slave born in their master’s house’, while Graecus and Rusticus can be translated as ‘learned’ and ‘country bumpkin’. Both names were frequently given to slaves. Choosing such a pair of opposites is not necessarily testament to a slave-owner’s dubious sense of humour, though. An inscription from Vienne, for instance, records a pair of 77-year-old brothers, probably twins, who were named Sextus Coelius Niger and Sextus Coelius Canus, literally ‘black’ and ‘white’, and who, the evidence indicates, were freeborn. When it comes to Verna, Graecus, and Rusticus, slavery seems equally unlikely: after all, there is no reason to think that their parents had ever been slaves; adopting slave children was legally restricted; and the descriptions of the family relationships imply freeborn status. The simplest solution is they were freeborn and their parents chose those names for their own reasons.
The third curiosity about this family is that the parents and children have different nomina (the first of their two names). Nomina were normally inherited from the father, but could sometimes come from the mother. If Verula and Astutus were the parents of all three sons, then Verna, Graecus, and Rusticus should share either Astutus’ or Verula’s name. But this is not the case. The simplest solution is that Verula and Astutus did not have children together, but with other spouses. By this reading, Verna’s father – and Verula’s first husband – presumably had the nomen Cal(?). Meanwhile, Graecus and Rusticus got their nomen of Urittius from their mother, Astutus’ first wife. Considering Roman age norms, if we assume that Verula was not very young when Verna died, and that Astutus was older than her, Graecus and Rusticus were probably born from a prior marriage. If so, the marriage of Verula and Astutus took place against the backdrop of bereavement or divorce. Our series of inscriptions gives a sense of the complexities of Roman family life.
Another tombstone, which can be dated to the late 2nd or 3rd century, provides a clear link to slavery:
To the spirits of the departed, to the eternal rest of Mansuetinia Iu[?]na, his dearest freedwoman and incomparable wife, a woman beyond reproach. Caius Mansuetinius Paternus, her patron, (set this up).
Here we learn that Mansuetinia Iu[?]na was Caius Mansuetinius Paternus’ slave before he freed and married her. Sadly, we know little of her life before this; while enslaved, her name would have been Iu[?]na, but its incomplete nature means that any information it once held is now lost to us. The relationship between these two people is made very clear, partly via their shared nomen: Mansuetinius/a. On manumission, a former master became a freedperson’s patron. The freedperson was, in turn, now a free member of the family, and so took its name, while also owing their patron some inheritance rights and other duties.
In this case, Paternus chooses to identify his wife first of all as his freedwoman, while casting himself as her patron, not her husband. Does this reveal something about the nature of their marriage? Before answering that, we must tackle a key question relating to epigraphy: what can it reveal? As these texts formed part of expensive and durable monuments it seems reasonable to assume that the messages they communicated were crafted with care to convey the desired impression. Yet because inscriptions are highly formulaic, there is also a risk that phrases and word orders were employed semi-automatically, obscuring reality.
So, what does this mean for our understanding of the bond between Paternus and Iu[?]na? A natural gut reaction to this inscription would be that Paternus desired to emphasise his superior legal status in the relationship, while also highlighting his wife’s past as a slave. This was hardly a flattering subject for her epitaph, as slaves came at the bottom of the pecking order in Roman society. While enslaved, Iu[?]na would have been regarded as a possession with no control over her life or body. What is more, as Paternus framed Iu[?]na in this manner after she had passed away, she was in no position to offer a counter-perspective.
Any sense that we might be starting to get a feel for Paternus’ character, though, is undermined by a study of inscriptions in Rome that demonstrates this style of commemoration is essentially normal. On those occasions where freedwoman-patron / husband-wife relationships are referenced, the majority list them in this order, regardless of the gender of the person dedicating the stone. Seen in this light, Paternus’ inscription only differs from the standard formula by referencing the unequal foundations for the couple’s relationship twice, rather than just once.
This brings us to another, counterintuitive interpretation of this inscription: that the emphasis should be seen as positive. Freedwoman-patron marriages were common and even, because they offered an exception to the minimum manumission age of 30, encouraged by the law. While this loophole eased the way for slave-owners to produce legitimate heirs, it also gave slave women the hope of a stable family and social respectability. Looking at the inscription in this light, it is noticeable that Paternus praises his wife’s success in her roles as a spouse and as a woman more generally. Perhaps, then, the emphasis on Iu[?]na’s status as a freedwoman was not so much a reference to her former bondage, as to the moment that changed her life, when she became free and the couple could follow a legal path to marriage. Whatever the intention, though, it is clear enough that even in death Iu[?]na could not shake off the social stigma of slavery.
Given Caligula’s award of citizenship to the region, well before Roman citizenship became universal within the Empire in AD 212, non-citizens appearing in the epigraphy are noteworthy. Several non-citizen women are recorded, of whom Sevva, a mysterious Gallo-Roman whose tombstone includes Celtic artistic influences, is perhaps the most famous (see CWA 101). Another example is Politice, whose Greek name implies eastern origins or descent. The tombstone she commissioned for her son-in-law, Palladius, whose name also has Greek roots, is impressive by virtue of both its quality and size. Even so, we can be confident that both Politice and Palladius were non-citizens, because they are both referred to with a single name. While this could be another mark of slavery, it seems unlikely here.
There are several reasons for this inference. In particular, the instability of slaves’ lives means that references to multi-generational family relationships – such as mothers and children – are very rare. One reason for this is doubtless that slaves could not legally marry. While they could and certainly did form relationships, these were not officially recognised and so were described by a different vocabulary. Politice, though, is emphatic: Palladius is her generus, ‘son-in-law’, and she is his socera, which is a non-standard or late version of socrus, which means ‘mother-in-law’.
It seems most likely that Politice and Palladius probably journeyed to Geneva as free, non-citizen immigrants, presumably from the east. Whatever their precise circumstances, and whether they travelled together or separately, we can see that the bonds of their family unit endured even after Politice’s daughter – Palladius’ wife – had died. Those that survived her continued to support each other, far from their former home.
Contemplating the range of backgrounds and circumstances described by the inscriptions from Geneva emphasises that there was no one type of ‘Roman woman’. Instead, we can see locals and incomers, free and enslaved, citizen and non-citizen all mingling within the Roman town. While many details of their lives have been lost to time, the formal lettering of their inscriptions still bears witness to familiar impulses like love, pride, and grief. Seeing the roles these women could play in Genevan society reminds us just how incomplete history is without this half of the population.