Women and Slaves in the Roman Republic

Women and Slaves in the Roman Republic
by Benjamin Cronshaw


The Roman Republic was a deeply conservative and “status conscious society.” The paterfamilias, patriarch of the household, had near absolute authority over both citizen women and male slaves in the household. While women could participate to various extents within family, religious, social and political life, slaves were excluded entirely. Women could be honoured for being priestesses or family members and had some citizen rights. Slaves, by contrast, had no legal or social standing at all and could be treated as beasts of burden by their masters. Both citizen women and male slaves could be emancipated and become relatively free, though freedmen still carried the stigma of being a former slave. Overall, there was a much deeper distinction between slaves and free people than there was between men and women. Citizen women thus enjoyed a much higher status than male slaves in the Roman Republic, yet were still of a lower status to male citizens.

Women were expected to perform the role of wife and homemaker, though within this role they were honoured and respected. Most women were married off during their teenage years and expected to bear children continuously. Girls were expected to accept their father’s choice of husband unless he was “unworthy because of his habits or … infamous character” (Justinian Digest 23.1.4, 12 quoting Ulpian On Sabinus). Respectable women had an important and honoured position as the domina or materfamilias, meaning mistress of the household. The materfamilias oversaw the household, including supervising the slaves, managing property and educating the children. According to Clark, many women “enjoyed home, children and friends” and took pride in their family. As child-bearers, women relied upon their children for achievements and status. As Cornelia remarked about her children Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, “these are my jewels” (Valerius Maximus On Memorable Deeds and Sayings 4.4). Husbands were expected to be kind to their wives, as Cato said, it is “more praiseworthy to be a good husband than a great senator” (Plutarch Life of Cato the Elder 20.2). By bearing children and being a respectable wife and mother, women could reach an honoured position in Roman society. Various funerary inscriptions praise women for their virtues and wives and mothers, with one mother praised for being the “equal of all respectable women” (ILS 8394). By contrast, male slaves could not even form a family as they did not have the right to marry, ius connubii. Any children they produced were themselves slaves and the property of the master. The responsibility and honour awarded to Roman matrons gives them a considerably higher status than male slaves in the realm of family life. 

Women could also gain honour through becoming priestesses or otherwise participating in rituals. Some women had the right of ius sacorum, to perform priestly duties. There were several cults and temples for female participation, including the festival of Matralia for Roman matrons and the festival of Bona Dea (Ovid Fasti 6.475-80; Plutarch Life of Cicero 19-20). There were also the Vestal Virgins, who were so honoured and revered that any condemned criminal they came across by chance would be spared (Plutarch Life of Numa 10.6).  During times of crisis virgin and matron women were also involved in the supplicationes, public prayers and rituals, to avert danger (Livy History of Rome 27.37.7-15). According to Chatelard, women and girls played an essential role in rituals to “appease the gods and preserve the republic.” Only Roman citizens could make sacrifices pro populo, for the benefit of the Roman community, hence slaves were excluded from this function. The ability of certain citizen women to perform sacrifices pro populo indicates they were part of the civic community, as they were trusted to intercede with the gods on the community’s behalf. Citizen women could increase their status through religious involvement, whereas slaves were denied any official position.

Citizen women could also participate in Roman social life with men. Women could attend dinner parties, visit friends and attend the games. The materfamilias even had the “place of honour” at parties and was considered pleasant company (Cornelius Nepos Great Generals Preface 6). One woman, Gegania, bought an expensive lamp-stand and held a party to celebrate it on her own initiative (Pliny the Elder Natural History 34.11-12). Roman women had a higher social status than Greek women, for example, who were segregated from men and could not attend parties with non-family members (Cornelius Nepos Great Generals Preface 7). Slaves, by contrast, were in a state of “social death”, slavery being an alternative to execution on the battlefield. As Bradley notes, slaves were held in such contempt that they were the “lowest form of social life.” Cicero remarked that he was saddened by a slave’s death “more than perhaps the death of a slave perhaps ought to do” (Cicero Letters to Atticus 12.4). This indicates a deep division between slaves and free citizens, which even the most beloved slaves could not cross. Whereas citizen women were valued members of society, slaves were social non-entities and could not participate in social life as women could. 

Both citizen women and male slaves were disenfranchised from public life, but the former could participate in a limited sense. Political participation was based on being “arms bearers” whereas women were “child bearers.” As Hortensia noted, women have “no share at all in the magistracies, honours, commands or politics” that men fight over to gain dignitas or auctoritas (Appian Civil Wars 4.5.33). However, women could have influence indirectly by lobbying their husbands or appealing to the wives of public officials to do the same. (Livy History of Rome 34.2.8-3.1; Appian Civil Wars 4.5.32). Cicero noted that his wife Terentia more often talked about “his political concerns than … her domestic concerns” (Plutarch Life of Cicero 20.3). According to Chatelard, women were involved in their husband’s electoral campaigns and were aware of the “civic and political issues of their times.” Women could attend assemblies as observers and sometimes gathered in meetings of their own. On rare occasions women protested in public, such as when they occupied the forum in 195 BCE to demand the repeal of the Lex Oppia banning certain luxury goods (Livy History of Rome 34.2.8-3.1). They were not full citizens in the sense that they could vote or hold public office, but they could be political actors in more subtle ways. Beyond observing assembly meetings, slaves as non-citizens had no opportunity to participate in public life. Slaves also had none of the legal rights that citizen women had, including the right to freedom from torture. The use of torture on slaves signified their general exclusion from the civic community. Hence in public life citizen women had a greater status than male slaves. 

In the highly hierarchical and patriarchal Roman society, both citizen women and male slaves were under the authority of a male guardian. The eldest male of the household, known as the paterfamilias, had power over all members of the household including women. Such power was known as the patria potestas, and included the power of life and death over all family members (Gaius Institutes 1.48-9, 116-20). It was up to the paterfamilias to accept or expose new-born babies to die, with girls being a greater risk of being exposed. The paterfamilias, with the approval of a family council, could execute any family member for their transgressions. When Cassius’ son was suspected of making himself king, Cassius “summoned a council of relatives and friends and condemned him … to be flogged and executed” (Valerius Maximus On Memorable Deeds 5.8.2). In another case, two women suspected of poisoning their husbands were “strangled by the decree of their relatives” (Valerius Maximus On Memorable Deeds 6.3.8). Women were on a similar level to their male relatives under the authority of the paterfamilias

Masters also had absolute potestas (authority) over their slaves, even more so than paterfamilias’ had over citizen women (Gaius Institutes 1.52). The slave was the res mancipi, meaning property, of the master akin to land or animals. A slave in one of Platus’ plays soliloquised that “lazy worthless fellows” get punished while he will soon be rewarded for being a good and obedient slave (Plautus The Two Menaechmuses 966-84). However, slaves could be mistreated or worked to death entirely at the master’s discretion. One free woman having been beaten was described as “black and blue, as if she were a slave” revealing a connection between slavery and corporal punishment. As seen on one stone inscription, masters could even outsource torturing their slaves to businesses (AE 1971 88). Cicero contrasted citizens with “slaves and dumb animals” together, implying slaves are like beasts of burden (Cicero Letters to Quintus 1.24). Cato the Elder advocated selling old slaves, rather than caring for them, because they were “useless workers” (Plutarch Life of Cato the Elder 4.5). Slaves could be treated simply as tools to be worked to death or discarded when they are no longer productive. Their value was tied solely to their profit-making capacity. The paterfamilias or master had near absolute authority over their family members and slaves respectively. Though, whereas citizen women were family members of the paterfamilias, slaves had a lower status as mere property. 

In the Roman mind, citizen women and male slaves had the same maturity as children, hence the need for guardianship, but they could be emancipated. Citizen women were under tutela mulierum perpetua, meaning perpetual wardship, under the potestas of their father or the manus, meaning hand, of their husband. By outliving their male guardians, women could become sui juris, legally autonomous. Officially, women could not conduct business transactions without the approval of a tutor, but in practice this supervision was nominal (Gaius Institutes 1.290; Ulpian Rules 11.27). Domestic slaves could expect to be freed within a few years of service “as a free gift for their good conduct” from the master (Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 4.24.4). Rome had an “open” model of slavery, so freedmen were integrated relatively well into society. Though, being a slave was seen to undermine a person’s character and logos, capacity to reason, so they could not reach the same status as the freeborn. Moreover, manumission was a forlorn hope for those toiling in fields or in the mines who were likely to die as slaves. Women and slaves could potentially become relatively free and independent, though Roman matrons still had a higher status than freedmen. 

 Citizen women in the Roman Republic had many opportunities to participate in political, social, religious and family life. Slaves as social and legal non-entities were denied access to any of these areas. As Bradley contends, “the inferiority of the Roman slave was complete and unqualified.” Women and slaves were both under an authority figure such as the paterfamilias, though women as members of the family were in a better position than slaves as mere property. Both could also be emancipated from their position under such authority, though freedmen still had the social stigma of being a former slave. The “chief distinction” in the law was between the free and slaves, more so than between men and women (Justinian Institutes 1.3). While citizen women had a lower status and fewer opportunities for civic involvement than citizen men, this pales to the distinction between the freeborn and slaves. Therefore, far from being on the level of male slaves, citizen women had a considerably greater status.




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Ancient Source Bibliography 

Appian Civil Wars 2.120.505, 4.5.33, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Cicero Letters to Quintus 1.24, trans. Shackleton Bailey 

Cicero Letters to Atticus 12.4, trans. Shackleton Bailey 

Cornelius Nepos Great Generals Preface 6, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Gaius Institutes 1.48-9, 52, 116-20, 290, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Justinian Digest 23.1.4, 12, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Justinian Institutes 1.3, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Livy History of Rome 34.2.8-3.1, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Ovid Fasti 6.475-80, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Plautus The Two Menaechmuses 966-84, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Pliny the Elder Natural History 34.11-12, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Plutarch Life of Cato the Elder 20.2, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Plutarch Life of Cicero 19-20, trans. Dillon and Garland

Plutarch Life of Numa 10.6, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Ulpian Rules 11.27, trans. Dillon and Garland 

Valerius Maximus On Memorable Deeds and Sayings 4.4, 5.8.2, 6.3.8, trans. Dillon and Garland 




Cover Image courtesy of Braden Collum via Unsplash

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