The Emancipation of Women in Ancient Rome
By Jean-François Gerkens and Roger Vigneron
Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité, Vol.47 (2000)
Introduction: Only twice in the History of Mankind, have women been considered legally equal to men. As far as we can see, this has occurred but twice : in Rome in Antiquity, and now in North America and Europe. We would like to tell you the amazing story of women’s emancipation in Rome.
We qualify it as amazing, as it began rather badly. As you certainly know, the early Romans were patriarchal peasants, who considered their women as “submen” (if we dare say, “Untermenschen”, in German). The antifeminist Cato, in a public speech, recalled what the custom was under his forefathers :
Our forefathers did not want women to be allowed to make any agreements, even private ones, without the consent of their tutor, so that they remain under the manus of either their parents, brothers or husbands…
During their entire lifetime, they were under the jurisdiction of a tutor. How was it then possible, that starting from such a sad condition, the Roman woman was able to reach emancipation? We think we can find the answer by looking at the first important piece of legislation in Ancient Rome, the so-called Twelve Tables. There we can see some unusual particularities for a patriarchal society, which could explain the beginning of the emancipation process, and that at four levels :
Women beyond consanguineous are not admitted in legitimate inheritances. This was decided by civil law in connection with the Voconia law. Moreover, the Twelve Tables made no differentiation between relatives of both sexes.
The Twelve Tables admitted agnatic parents (Let us remind that “agnation is the tie connecting those related to each other by legitimate descent through males”) without any discrimination by sex. At the beginning of the previous century, this rule seemed so unlikely to many scholars that they asserted that it must have been a copist’s mistake ! But nowadays the rule is admitted to have been in force as far back as the fifth century BC. Thus, daughters could inherit equally with their brothers. If you compare this with Islamic law, for instance, which provides “the son should obtain two parts of a daughter”, the difference is undeniable!