The Romans believed that women were the weaker sex. Families mourned when a baby girl was born, and sometimes girls were exposed - left out in the cold to die - if the father was displeased. Often daughters were hated by their fathers.
Doctors thought that a woman’s womb moved about inside her body, from her stomach to her legs, and caused hysteria, fainting and fits. However highborn a woman was, she was not a citizen and could not vote. Women had few legal rights, and were dependent on their fathers or husbands. This left them in much the same position as the slaves, who also could not vote and were dependent on their masters.
Yet a woman slave, in turn, had a harder life than a male slave. Women slaves could be sold to breed child slaves to add to the master’s property. The master could sleep with her at will and, indeed, was the only one with a legal right to do so, unless he gave her permission to marry. Or she might work in a brothel or a mine. One British woman’s story is told in a law case. She was captured by pirates while she worked in the salt mines, and sold to Marcus Cocceius Firmus, a centurion. When the authorities found out, she was sent back to the mines, and the centurion had to sue the treasury for a refund. Neither she nor the centurion had any say in the matter, even though she might have preferred working for him to working in the mines.
Some women slaves had the dubious honour of being trained as gladiators. A stone relief commemorates Achillia and Amazon (probably stage names) winning their freedom from the arena. On the next level of society, among the plebeians, women worked as the equals of men. They worked as fruit-sellers, fishmongers, butchers, bath attendants, polishers and porters. Matters improved after Augustus’ rule; a few women even became teachers and doctors. Some women ran their businesses themselves; one was a lamp-maker, and a woman called Eumachia owned a brickyard in Pompeii. Asellina owned a bar in...