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Being a Roman Woman: Images

  • How do you know how to behave in society?
  • How do you know what is expected of you?
  • How do you know how to ‘fit in’?

If you look at our society, with all its diversities, there is still quite a high level of conformity to modes of dress and behaviour. Rules and regularities are how we survive in society. But how do we learn those rules?

One major writer on gender says that our gender roles are performed. We learn who to me a man or a woman and we then perform those roles. Every time we perform the role, the rules and regularities of the role are reinforced. It follows that rules are not fixed; the performances can be changed and disrupted. They can be affected by the powerful who wish to impose rules.

Some we are explicitly taught. Those who bring us tell us how to behave and also establish for us certain rules as to how we dress and act. We also learn by observing those around us.

But we also learn via a variety of media. In our modern day, we are bombarded by media. But the Romans had media, different sorts of media. They comprised stories and images and from these the Romans could learn.

The Romans were not necessarily in agreement about the roles that their media should promulgate. Here is a crucial point. It should be in big letters.

There was no such thing as the Roman woman. There was no agreed book of rules and behaviours. There were Roman women. Like women in any society, they would have different interests, resources, capacities, needs, interests and fortunes. They must have reacted differently to the different pressures they faced. There may have been people who asserted that there was one proper to behave and look and be and feel. In my experience, such people are often sad, angry and perpetually dismayed because the world and the people in it fail to conform to their ideas. So we need to get away from any idea that  there was just one way of being a woman and everything else was deviance.

Did one, for instance, want to be a ‘disgraceful’ Cleopatra or to be a ‘respectable’ Livia? Both models of behaviour were open and there is plenty of evidence for women taking both roles. Julia, the daughter of Augustus, was able to play both roles, and the jokes recorded in Macrobius played on her ability to switch between the modes of behaviour.  Yet, we also need to remember that the choices that women made were not necessarily free nor without pressures. A woman without money and resources faced very different options to a woman of wealth and power.

There appears to have been very few images of women (other than goddesses, and they are by definition different) in public space before the imperial period.

Portriat head BM 1st c.

Portrait head (1st century) (British Museum)

Portrait imagery does follow common lines.


This first head is from the British Museum. Heads were made separately from bodies and often get separated over time. This one also lost its nose (which is restored here). Note the elaborate and careful hairstyle. See the direct style (the woman is not forced to look away demurely). It is also individual. There are similar portraits, but this woman is different and we imagine this was what she looked like.

What we don’t know is what she did that meant that a statue was made of her. But it must have been important. Such statues were an honour and if a public statue, it would have to be approved by the local government.

There were contrasting images,

Nursin mother BM

Nursing Mother (British Museum)

such as this image of a nursing mother.  This is also from the first century, but is a private image and we can imagine it as a gift to a new mother. But it also displays an ideal role for a woman, as mother.


Another private image shows a woman dressed in traditional Roman female dress.

Gem Roman Alexandria

Onyx Cameo (British Museum)

We see her covered. Her hair is again very elaborate. It is in layered curls. Is it a wig? Her face is round and her eyes slightly protuberant. We can hardly know, but she looks like a real woman and one suspects that this is another portrait. The contrast in appearance with the statue above is very clear.

What’s interesting about this object is that it comes from Egypt, from Alexandria. It suggests that fashions (and fashion is a way of performing identity) spread across the Roman empire.

A similar story of fashion and its distribution can be seen in a ‘mummy portrait’ from Roman Egypt. A number of these portraits were discovered. They are mostly cheap, often on wooden boards, and possibly painted and displayed in the houses of the people portrayed (though none have been found in the archaeology of houses). They were affixed to the front of mummy cases. They follow the realistic conventions of Roman art rather than the traditions of Egyptian art, yet their context is as Egyptian as one can imagine. This portrait dates from the first decades of the second century AD probably.

Mummy portrait

Mummy Portrait (British Museum)

The woman is portrayed in a dark dress. She wears an jewel on her neck which may be to ward off the evil eye. Her hair is tightly curled and carefully cut. What’s really notable, though, are her earrings. They are almost the only element that would show wealth. The style and design find parallels in portraits from Rome, and that allows us to date the portrait.

There were, of course, more sexual images. Images of sexual intercourse were popular subjects for such everyday objects as Roman lamps.

lamp erotic fragment

Lamp fragment (British Museum)

But nude portrayals of Roman women were possible, even in contexts which we would fund surprising. A never-used tombstone shows an almost nude Roman woman. The body (and the nudity) make an allusion to Venus. The performance of identity being alluded to here is sexual: the woman is a Venus figure. Her face may have been a portrait, but the hair is again elaborately and, one assumes, fashionably styled.


Nude Tomb

Tombstone (British Museum)

A monument such as this would have been expensive and would have probably stood in a prominent place in the funerary complexes outside a city. It was a public display of the sexuality of the woman, her fashionability, and of the wealth of her family.

The absence of an inscription might suggest either that it was a reject or that the sculptor had a set from which the bereaved would choose, and this one had yet to be chosen. We are looking than at a standard image, which a bereaved husband might choose in order to send a message to his neighbours.

The message to women or the role that that this image offers to women to be performed is predominantly sexual. The woman is defined by her sexuality and as being for sex. The Romans were not embarrassed about sex, and often explicit in its representation. To say that one’s late wife was like Venus would be no more surprising than saying that she was like Ceres, a source of fertility for all.

Sex is just one the themes in the depiction of women. Women are also depicted under considerable layers of cloth. This terracotta figure from Italy is just under 700 mms high. It was probably quite cheap  to make and certainly much cheaper than the high status stone statues.

Terracotta BM female

Terracotta: 1st century AD (British Museum)

The female figure appears to be wearing an under-dress, with at least two-layers of blouse, tied together by a cloth belt. She is clothed from head to toe. It is not a costume that would allow much manual labour, but it shows that in the everyday public world, there was a desire to hide the bodies of women.

We see this same covered form in some of the imperial portraits. Although the combination of clothes is very different, a figure of Livia from Paestum, and now in Madrid, shows her as a covered figure. This is actually a portrayal of Livia as mother, though little suggests her as a mature woman.

livia_Paestum VROma

Livia (from Paestum) (VRoma)

The clothing is traditionally Roman. She wears an under-dress that stretches from shoulder to toes and an over-layer that comes over her head and shoulders, across her arm and round her lower half. The layer of cloth above her head could have been pulled down to veil her face, though here she is staring out, not quite directly, but certainly not turning away from a putative viewer’s gaze. This is also not clothing to work in. One wonders quite how easily she could even move and how the elaborate costume was held together (presumably with pins).

Her hair is tightly curled and elaborately arranged. Her femininity is displayed prominently by her breast, which shapes her clothing.

The portrait is one of a pair with her son, the Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius was depicted in heroic semi-nude with a muscled-torso. It was a form of hyper-masculine ideal form. It is tempting to take Livia as the same, the ideal Roman woman.

The portrait types that developed of Livia (see pictures here) were replicated in images of other women.

Freedman and Freedwoman BM

Portrait of Freedwoman and her Husband (Augustan) (British Museum)

This funerary couple show a woman whose hair is distinctly Livian. The two are depicted in death asserting their status as freed individuals, people who could afford a tomb such as this, but also as man and wife. They are thus making a play for social respectability. To give her the attributes of Livia, even though this is recognisably not Livia and, one assumes, a close likeness of the deceased, was an easy way of making that moral claim for their characters.


Most of the objects I have used here are low status or relatively cheap. Nearly all the images here are of women who were not of the imperial house. What it shows is that the conventions relating to female behaviour were not solely a matter for the aristocracy. The models for female behaviour spread across the empire, even as far as the distant province of Egypt. To go back to the original questions, Roman women could learn how to behave and how to dress and what modes of behaviour to follow from the widely circulated media about women throughout the Empire.

The decisions that women made about how to dress and behave were not politically neutral. They could behave in different ways. They could adhere to the conventions of the imperial family and thus demonstrate their respectable natures. They could be more like Julia.

It would be naive to think that those choices were free. They were politicised. What a woman wore was a personal statement and a political statement.


The Chador


We can compare the issues closely to those surrounding Moslem women’s clothing choices. In modern Western societies, at least in theory, a woman can choose forms of traditional Moslem dress which are appropriate for her and which represent her identity, her religion, her culture, her ethnicity, her family, etc..


The Niqab

She could also choose to dress in any number of ‘Western’ styles. In theory, that is a choice open to her. In practice, that choice is a negotiation in which those close to her and who identify with her will have their part to play. It is also a choice that has come to be intensely political. Politicians have chosen to focus on what is the softest of political targets in order to debate and rouse fears about cultural diversity. What a Moslem woman wears has become a highly charged and even a criminal issue in many places and has in some instances made women vulnerable to assault.

What ‘Western’ styles women adopt is less obviously an issue of political debate, but dress still sends a message to the community. We should expect nothing different in the Roman instance. Dress and behaviour showed a sense of belonging and association with particular social and political values. It mattered. When a woman went out dressed in a Roman stola, wrapped from head to toe in cloth, she was making a statement about her identity and also about how people should treat her.

The impractical nature of such heavy clothing and the sheer expense of so much cloth makes the formal dress of a Roman woman a claim to status. It was a claim to financial status. It may also have shown that she was a woman who did not have to engage in manual work. It may also have laid claim to female moral respectability. Wearing this dress in the provinces would also mark out a connection to Roman values.

But what if she chose not to wear the traditional dress? Would that mark her out as being not respectable? And if she was not worthy of respect, how would she be treated on a day to day basis on a Roman street? What would be the social pressures for her to conform? How would social rules be enforced?

We have to imagine that much of the pressure would be subtle, but pervasive. These were social rules that girls and women were observing and learning throughout their lives. An odd comment, a strange look, a joke might enforce social norms. At the other end of the scale, in modern societies, norms of female behaviour are often enforced violently.

We go back to our three questions:

  • How do you know how to behave in society?
  • How do you know what is expected of you?
  • How do you know how to ‘fit in’?



Household, Family, Men and Women                   The Roman Family: Basics          Roman Sexual Behaviours          An Ideal Wife: Mrs Pliny



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