How did women escape the power of men in ancient Rome?

Socio-history, as taught to us by Norbert Elias, defines power not as a property possessed by some and deprived of others, but as a social relationship between individuals occupying unequal positions in the exercise powers.

Norbert Elias applied this socio-historical problematic to the relations between the sexes in Roman times. Until the 2nd century BC. J.- C, the women – even when they belonged to the dominant class – were under the tutelage of their husband, their father, or a brother. As the Romans were, at this time, engaged in multiple conflicts against rival city-states, warlords used women as a means of exchange, in order to seal alliances with other powerful males.

New possibilities for the emancipation of women

The situation began to change from 146 BC. J.-C, when Rome definitively defeated Carthage. The Roman city then became an undisputed superpower throughout the Mediterranean basin. This gradually transformed the warrior nobility into a petty oligarchy of landowners. This relative pacification of social relations, together with the consolidation of the state and the spread of Greek culture, led to a decline in physical violence in the domestic sphere. In this new context, the women of the Roman aristocracy had more possibilities to emancipate themselves from the tutelage of men.

The decline in gender inequality from the 1st century BC has materialized economically. We have gone from a situation where women were considered the property of their husbands, which deprived them of all personal possessions, to a situation where they could access property independent of that of their spouse. This had consequences on the level of divorces. While previously this act of separation, simple and informal, was reserved for men, it has also become possible for women. This process of emancipation also affected the cultural sphere. Unmarried daughters of the aristocracy increasingly took part in the education of their brothers. Some of them thus familiarized themselves, from an early age, with Greek literature, the natural sciences or philosophy. (…)


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