Women in Roman Religious Life

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Lefkowitz and Fant assert that the politically oppressed often turn to ecstasy as a temporary means of possessing the power they otherwise lack.  In relation to this assertion we see from a number of ancient texts and archaeological evidence that Roman women had an important place in the religious life of the empire and had a number of important roles. So here is a brief overview for you in light of the Roman religious festival of Saturnalia.

One of the most significant roles of women in Roman religion is found in the Roman cults and festivals.  Several of these were confined to women and were used to enlist divine aid and designed to uphold ideals of female conduct.  Pomeroy outlines that cults and festivals involving Fortuna were an important part of women’s religious life and roles.  Fortuna Virginalis, for instance, protected adolescent girls who ceremonially dedicated their small togas to her when they came of age and donned a stola while transferring to the protection of Fortuna primigenia.  This is just one example of how females interwove with religious activities as through the worship of these goddesses ensured the protection of those who would go on to produce the children of the state.  Women also played a role in the commendation of relatives to the divine powers.  For instance, the commendation of nieces and nephews at the Matralia which was only attended to by respectable women.  The role of women in the worship of goddesses and festivals was a significant part of state interests such as with the worship by women of the verticordia which was associated with domestic harmony, virtue and marital fidelity.  Augustus often emphasized such cults to do with women in the interest of the state.  Juvenal on the other hand, condemned many of these cults and practices and presents a more distorted picture based on women neglecting the cults designed for them.

From the statue in Rome. Costume of a chief ve...
From the statue in Rome. Costume of a chief vestal

The roles of women were not just confined to Roman cults, but also associated with a number of foreign cults that had made their way into the body of Roman religious importance.  Pomeroy explains that one such cult was the cult of Isis which made its way throughout the Roman Empire and while in often dramatic contrast to many of the traditional cults was especially attractive.  This attraction was caused by the way that anyone could relate to Isis and this was particular the case with women who had a massive role to play in its upkeep.  Archaeology and written evidence from Pompeii illustrates that many women were affiliated with this cult, such as one so called Julia who was a public priestess of the cult at Pompeii.  This individual woman also shows us that such women could hold a certain authority in their localities, as Julia while holding this title of Priestess of Isis also had a number of businesses and authority over her own estates and income, as well as being a prominent member of society.  This illustrates Pomeroy’s assertion that religion afforded an outlet for those whos lives were circumcised in other ways.

Imperial and ordinary women also held a large role in Roman religious activity even outside the priesthood.  Cicero, while often oversimplifying the association between women and religion, shows that women had a significant sense of obligation and participation in relation to religion.  This is seen in accounts of how his wife Terentia would associate herself with religion and take part in a number of religious ceremonies and practices as an obligation to the divine and state.  Plutarch also describes such roles of women in religious activities such as with the Bona Dea (the good goddess) when sacrifice was offered to the goddess annually in the house of the consul by either his wife or mother.  Plutarch also tells of certain festivals where women had roles even in earlier times, such as the Agrionia where the daughters of Minyas were chased by a priest ceremonially.

One of the most significant roles that a woman could have in Roman religion was that of a Vestal virgin.  Wildfang tells us that the vestals were inseparable from the Roman’s view of themselves and the state, which illustrates just how important the Vestals were to the state.  This in itself is indicative of the kind of power that the vestals held in the minds of the Romans and the kind of authority.  Juvenal would not even go as far to criticise the vestals.  These virgin priestesses belonged to no man and could incarnate the collective, the city itself.  And the hearth they tended with its undying flame was symbolic of the continuation of both family and community, as Pomeroy explains.  Their role was so entwined with the interests of the state that, as Livy explains, vestals often came under suspicion for it was conceivable that their misconduct had contributed to the misfortunes of the state.  This is a specific example of the firmly established principle of Greek and Roman thought connecting the virtue of women and the welfare of the state.  Aristotle also alludes to this ideology blaming Spartan women for the deterioration of Sparta; as does the Emperor Domitian who perceived a connection between popular morality and female degeneracy.  While the lives of vestals were severely regulated they held an emancipation and authority which other women did not.  The XII Tables show this, telling of how the vestals were to be freed from the power of their pater familias and the Vestals looked after a fire whose quenching threatened the very fundament of the city’s existence, the pax decorum.  Augustus tells of how the vestals had increased privileges like all ‘priests’, which could be taken to mean that they had the same authority as their male counterparts in the priesthood.  Suetonius and Vetruvius also indicate the privilege and authority of these women, telling us that they alone of women held seats in the imperial podium.

The vestals were not though the only public priestesses to hold authority in the Roman Empire.  The priestesses of Ceres, for instance, along with those of Fortuna were also entwined with the interests of the state and held the prestigious duty of administering a state cult.  Pomeroy tells that the cult of the Hellenized Ceres was exclusively in the hands of women and excluded men and those of low birth.  The Priestesses of these cults and other had the exclusive privilege of representing the city in the performance of holy rites.  Miletus explains that it was the role of the priestesses to throw meat on behalf of the city and no one else was to do so before them.  This indicates a certain control over religious matters on the part of the female.  Other evidence also pertains to the role of the priestess in religious practices.  An epitaph for a priestess from Rome around the end of the third century explains that such women were in charge of sacred objects and implements and marched in processions of religious significance before the whole city.  The authority of such Priestesses is again seen in example like from Pompeii with the Genius of Augustus dedicated by the Priestess Mamia with the use of her own funds and land.


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