In theory, Roman women could not act independently. Archaeological evidence from Pompeii shows that in practice they often ran or managed businesses.
Traditionally, a Roman woman’s place was in the home. Unable to vote, or act without the authority of a male guardian, women were ideally viewed as domestic creatures, caring for the home and family.
In reality, it was possible for women to break out of the domestic sphere. Many women were employed in trades but evidence from Pompeii shows that it was also possible for women-including freedwomen and women with guardian- to take a leading role in business. Women were managers and money lenders, rented out property and ran their own companies.
Traditional Status of Roman Women.
According to Roman law, a woman could not act independently 'on account of the lightness of the mind,’ as the second century jurist, Gaius, put it. Instead, guardians acted for them. These were usually their father, husband or an appointed individual. This meant that a woman could undertake any transactions, such as the sale of property, without their guardian’s consent.
The Roman’s idealised the female role as a wife and mother, spinning, weaving and caring for the children. In practice, they often took these domestic skills to an employer. Women often worked as weavers or as employees in other industries-at least while they were unmarried.
But as time progressed, legal restraints against women relaxed. The Emperor Claudius freed women with four children from the requirement of a legal guardian, allowing them true independence.
But even if a woman had not earned her independence in this way, evidence from Pompeii shows that many other women found ways to become actively involved in business.
Umbricia Fortunata: A Female Roman Manager.
Even if they did not own their own business, female employees could be trusted to run them for their employer. Umbricius Scarus was the major producer of fish sauce in Pompeii. He ran a number of workshops across the city which were managed by his freedmen. Their names and roles are identified in inscriptions found on urcei, the vessels that contained the sauce. One of those workshops was managed by a freedwoman, Umbricia Fortunata.
Women and Money Lending in Pompeii.
There are various pieces of evidence showing that women were involved in money lending to other women.
Two wax tablets were found in the furnace area of the Palestra Baths in Pompeii. They relate to a loan between two women: a freedwoman Poppaea Note and Dicidia Margaris. Poppaea Note borrowed the money and transferred two of her slaves to her creditor as security.
The tablets are interesting as they show that although Dicidia’s guardian was acting as her agent, this was a matter of form only. The transaction had been arranged directly by the two women.
Dicidia Margaris was not alone in acting as a moneylender. Three records survive recording loans from a Faustilla who offered loans professionally. Borrowers left items such as earrings and a hooded cloak as security. Faustilla charged interest of around 3 percent.
Julia Felix, the Female Property Magnate.
The most famous female associated with business in Pompeii was Julia Felix. Her estate occupied a whole town block near to the amphitheatre. A sign fixed outside the buildings indicated she was offering rental of a substantial number of properties, both domestic and business. These included an elite private bath suite, shops, taverns and apartments on a five year lease.
Roman Women in Trade.
During the early first century AD, the emperor Claudius began to offer incentives to ship owners in order to increase grain exports. These incentives specifically included women, demonstrating the importance of women in trade.
In Pompeii, there is evidence of a particularly successful trader, one Naevoleia Tyche whose tomb survives outside the Herculaneum gate. Tyche was a freedwoman but the style of the tomb which she built for herself and her husband demonstrates her wealth and standing.
Portraits of the lady celebrate her achievements, including a relief of a ship in full sail with a lady sitting at the stern. This has been taken for Tyche herself and suggests she was one of the women who took advantage of Claudius’s incentives and made a success of her business.
Cooley, A E and M G L (2004) Pompeii: A Sourcebook. Routledge: London and New York.
Dobbins, J J and Foss P W (2008).The World of Pompeii. Routledge: London and New York
Lefkowitz, M R and Fant, M B. (1995). Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation . Duckworth: London