Roman attitudes to the involvement of women in politics


'What an unhappy state it would be where women seized the rights of men, the senate, the army and the magistrates' wrote the Roman writer Cicero.  It was not that the Romans hated women,but rather that they had a very fixed, conservative (and by Tacitus's time totally-out-of-date) view of what a woman ought to be like.


The Romans taught by 'exemplars' - the lives (good and bad) of Romans in ancient times were used to teach the characteristics of 'good' and 'bad' women.  These were some of the exemplars available to Romans who lived in Tacitus's time:


Inscription of many women’s tombstones

Domun servavit, lanam fecit – ‘She kept house; she made wool’.  

Julia Procilla, mother-in-law of Agricola

She kept a close supervision of her son’s education, discouraging ‘useless’ philosophy.

Coriolanus’s wife and mother

They led a deputation of women who persuaded Coriolanus not to make war on Rome.  


Murdered her husband in 180bc, to create a vacancy in the Consulate for her son.  


A woman of great charm and wit, she so captivated the powerful Cethegus that he fell under her spell and did nothing without her approval.

She then used her power to get an army command for her favourite (74bc).  

Lucretia, wife of Collatinus

Whilst on campaign, the sons of King Tarquin wagered with Collatinus whose wife had been most faithful. On return, only Lucretia was found industriously spinning with her female slaves.

One of Tarquin’s sons was so taken with her beauty that he returned and raped her – whereupon she stabbed herself to death. 

Tullia, daughter of king Tullus

Murdered her husband and sister so she could marry her brother-in-law (Tarquin), and then conspired with Tarquin to murder her father and seize the throne.

Driving back to the senate after the coup, and being blocked by the corpse of her dead father, she took the reins and drove over his dead body.  


A beautiful woman from a good family, well-educated and clever, she was profligate with money, cheated to avoid hr debts, and even turned to murder.

She lacked self-restraint and decency, committing crimes virilis audaciae (‘of male boldness’) and eventually got drawn into the conspiracy of Catiline (63bc).  

Cornelia, daughter of Scipio Africanus

She bore 12 children. Dedicated to her sons’ education – was constantly in the company of Greek scholars so she could nurture them ‘as much by her speech as her breast’. Always referred to herself as ‘daughter of Africanus’, and goaded her sons by telling them that she was famous as the daughter of Africanus,not as the mother of the Gracchi brothers.  

Fulvia, Sempronia’s daughter

She agitated the mob against the murderer of her first husband (whom Cicero claimed she dominated) … yet she was already having an affair with Mark Anthony!

As Mark Anthony’s wife, we are told, she wanted to rule as a commander in her own right.

When Cicero’s head was delivered to Mark Anthony, she spat on it and stuck pins in its tongue.

Coveting the house of a certain Rufus, she had him executed.

And in 41bc, when Mark Anthony went to war with Octavian, she harangued his troops and, gladio cincta virilis (‘wearing a man’s sword’), taunted Octavian: ‘screw me or fight me’.  


A Roman mother - an idealised scupture from a child's sarcophagus.


The following web pages will help you complete the task:

This document contains the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

This BBC webpage is probably the best page on women in Ancient Rome, though this webpage mentions Agrippina specifically.


You MUST read Mr Clare's article on Tacitus's Attitude to Women


You may want to find out about Livia and Messalina, but it is essential that you study Agrippina the Elder as a stereotyped female construct.




Study the exemplars above, discuss with a partner, then answer:

  •  Split the exemplars into 'good examples to follow' and 'bad examples to avoid':
    • •  Good: Inscription, Lucretia, Coriolanus's wife and mother, Cornelia, Julia Procilla
    • •  Bad: Tullia, Hortenia, Praecia, Sempronia, Fulvia

  •  Make a list of 'good attributes' a good wife would exhibit:
    • •  Domestic tasks (keeping house, making wool, spinning)
    • •  Faithful to her husband (killed herself when raped)
    • •  Exerted influence only gently and indirectly (through her husband)
    • •  Bore many children
    • •  Dedicated to her sons' education and success
    • •  Of a good and noble lineage
    • •  Wealthy

  •  Make a list of 'bad characteristics' a bad wife would exhibit:
    • •  Personal ambition and desire for power
    • •  Conspiracy and intrigue
    • •  Using feminine wiles/sexual allure to gain power over their husbands
    • •  Dominating their husbands
    • •  Spendthrift, greedy for money, cheating over debts
    • •  Lacking self-restraint and 'decent' behaviour
    • •  Engaging directly in politics (e.g. agitating the mob)
    • •  Adultery (and incest)
    • •  Murder
    • •  Stealing a garden
    • •  Mutilating the bodies of dead opponents
    • •  Challenging male rights - wanting to rule
    • •  Taking charge of soldiers
    • •  (And worst of all) behaving virilis ('like a man')



Women in the Roman Empire

By the time of the Empire, of course, the demure domestic housewife and dedicated mother who yielded to her husband's authority had long gone. No longer was Vestal Virgin the only way a woman could play a part in her world. When political power moved from the (male-only) senate to the imperial household, women of the imperial circle could - and did - exert influence ... through their influence with the emperor.  Even before Agrippina the Younger, both Livia and Messalina had been able to be very powerful and assertive women (though both are negatively stereotyped in the sources).


It was this situation which Tacitus hated ... the advent of the 'virile' woman was, for him, just one more abomination of the Empire.  A disdain for women runs through Tacitus, alongside a criticism of women who exhibited unfeminine traits ... and a loathing for those whose behaviour was virilis ('masculine').




Study the sources on Agrippina the Elder, discuss with a partner, then write TWO sides on the topic:

Write an analysis of Tacitus's construct of the character of Agrippina the Elder with reference to his attitudes towards women and categorisation of feminine behaviour.