Women at Work

Women at Work

The extent of women’s direct involvement in Roman economic life is hard to determine. Women sui iuris could own property and were free to administer it themselves, subject only to tutorial consent for certain transactions, and in fact women appear frequently in papyri and in the Herculaneum tablets engaging in buying, selling, leasing and other activities. Ownership by women of ships and other largescale business concerns is documented.1 We do not know, however, to what extent these well-to-do women actively involved themselves in the running of their enterprises, or even in the supervision of the activities of their agents and managers.

There are similar problems with the evidence for what might more properly be called working women, i.e., those attested in connection with particular trades, crafts or lines of work. The range of skilled work is narrower than for men; does this reflect reality, or the accidents of survival? The nature of their active involvement, especially in the case of married women, is unclear. Some are slaves, many freed, few certainly freeborn. Does this reflect a society in which slave girls might be taught a trade and set to work, but free daughters, on the whole, were not, but were destined for marriage?

Women’s Legal Capacity in Business

In business life, women who were slaves or in potestate had in effect the same legal standing as men. As we have already seen, the law was indifferent to the sex of an institor. A slave of either sex, or a man’s son or daughter, could manage a business on behalf of the owner or pater or work for hire for a third party. Whether many freeborn daughters actually did this is unknown and is perhaps unlikely. Marriage and the assumption of responsibilities in another household followed childhood quickly for many girls.

Although technically these people had neither property of their own nor legal capacity, the necessary transactions were made possible by the provision of peculium, a financial ‘float’ of which they had day-to-day disposal, although it remained the legal property of the owner. Without it, no kind of contract or obligation could have been undertaken; with peculium, it immediately became possible for them to act as agents. A third party could sue the master or pater up to the extent of the peculium, or beyond, to the extent to which the latter had profited.2

Women sui iuris could conduct business on their own account, although their freedom of action was, to some extent, restricted by the requirement of tutor’s authorisation for various transactions. A minor’s tutor was responsible for the administration of business, and the legal liability was also his. Women both administered their property and bore legal liability. The tutor’s function was essentially a negative one, to restrain the women from action which might diminish the property. How seriously they took their duties depended very much on the individual tutor; in the absence of legal liability, there was no great incentive for a tutor (other than an agnate or a patron) to exert himself. Contracts and the undertaking of obligations generally, as well as the alienation of res mancipi, required authorisation, but many property transactions were exempt.3 Tutor’s authority was not necessary for the appointment of a business agent4—so Caesennia, for instance, fell prey to a rogue like Aebutius.

By the first century A.D., such tutorial restriction as remained was largely theoretical for freeborn women, though patrons, as tutores legitimi, could still maintain a fairly tight control over their freedwomen’s handling of financial affairs.

Augustus’ institution of the ius liberorum changed all this. Some rescue action was felt necessary, in the interest of preservation of property, and this took the form of the senatusconsultum Velleianum,5 which placed a ban on women’s giving security or undertaking liability on behalf of others; earlier edicts of Augustus and Claudius had forbidden them to do so on behalf of their husbands. It was suggested in Chapter 4 above that the particular danger against which the two emperors were seeking to guard was that of exploitation of women by their husbands. The sctum. Velleianum, however, had a wider application. Women were not to be allowed to take on liability for the debts of other persons.

This ban, if universal, would effectively have excluded women from a whole range of business and commercial activities, since it meant that no creditor would ever have been able to sue a woman guarantor for recovery, and so no one would in future ever have accepted a woman as surety on someone else’s behalf. So, this might seem a retrograde step, clawing back some of the economic freedom women already enjoyed. In fact, it was not so severe—nor so foolish—as that. The praetor was given discretionary power to grant exception a creditor might be able to recover, if it was established that the woman was fully aware of the consequences of what she was doing. This provision was important for both parties. Creditors were protected against deliberate fraud by women trying to use the sctum. in order to evade, or help others to evade, liability; women were protected, not only against undue influence by their menfolk but also perhaps, sometimes, against their own inexperience, which might lead them into taking on open-ended obligations as guarantors. In this aspect, the sctum. was seen as a protection to women.6 So, at least, says Ulpian, though Paul perhaps comes nearer the true motive in remarking that the measure was desirable ‘because of the danger to the res familiaris’.1 A further reason that he gives is that women were customarily excluded from the exercise of public functions.

This feeling, that certain functions were properly the province of men, is given also by Callistratus as the reason that women were not allowed to be bankers. Crifo (1964:151 flf.) is inclined, though with insufficient reason, to place the inception of this ban not long before this comment, i.e., under the Severi. He thinks he finds a banker in one of the freedwomen of a Julio-Claudian Augusta. The woman in question, however, is described as ab argento—not a banker, probably not even a silver dealer, but a silver-worker. Another woman mentioned in the Digest who might have described herself as an argentaria is there called a negotiatrix, a dealer. Scaevola ruled that the terms of her bequest to her daughter covered only the silver she had for her own personal use, not the stock of her shop.8

The text on which Crifo principally relies to establish the existence of female bankers as late as the mid-second century A.D. is a rescript of Antoninus Pius dated A.D. 155 (C. 2.1.1); he does, however, admit that it is susceptible of other interpretations. A certain Manilius claims that he made a deposit of some money with a woman, and is having difficulty recovering it. The emperor advises him that the judge can issue an order obliging the woman to show her account books. There is no compelling reason to believe that this woman, any more than the grasping Otacilia Laterensis already mentioned (page 73), was professionally engaged in banking. Indeed, the prae-tor’s edict obliged bankers to put their account books into evidence, if required, in any litigation concerning clients for whom they were acting as bookkeepers. The case brought to Pius, however, obviously concerns a private transaction, and the complainant is apparently thinking of bringing one of the actions bonae fidei, namely that based on deposit.9

Bankers could and did oil the wheels of business by underwriting the debts of their clients, and became responsible themselves for payment under an actio recepticia, granted by the praetor.10 Certainly, such an activity would have been impermissible for women after the passing of the sctum. Velleianum, and this limitation may have sufficed to keep them out of banking; previously, there may have been no legal barrier to stop them running a banking business, save the requirement of tutorial consent for any activity likely to diminish the patrimony. A responsible (or impartial) praetor might uphold the tutor’s veto against the woman’s efforts to compel his consent, and this was an additional safeguard; there was no protection for the patrimony if the tutor was easygoing or indifferent. Though women could not be bankers, they could and did act as moneylenders, whether on a large scale (often, among the upperclass Romans, semi-privately) or on a small, like the pawnbroker Faustilla. It may not even have been necessary to involve their tutors; Otacilia Laterensis would surely never have ventured on a suit against Visellius unless her tutor was superfluous or a party to the fraud and willing to involve himself in the scandal.11

Women’s exclusion from public functions should have meant that they were unable to participate in the tax-farming companies, societates publicanorum. However, in view of its importance to the state’s finances, this type ofsocietas, unlike others, was not dissolved by the death of a member, and an heiress could find herself involved willy-nilly. There is in the Digest one mention of a woman who at her death was a debtor of the fiscus, the treasury, and it is specified that this indebtedness arose from tax-farming. No doubt a tutor or other agent would be required to act for a woman partner. Women were also excluded from laying information (delaiio) with thefiscus, as they were from bringing charges before the criminal courts, except on their own behalf. Trajan, we are told, introduced this right of delatio to the fiscus. It was probably found necessary with the increase in numbers of women who acquired the ius liberorum and who therefore had no tutors to act on their behalf; there were many private (not necessarily business) circumstances affecting property which could involve thefiscus.12

Trades and Crafts

Both slave women and free are attested as working at various crafts, although the status of their employment is not always clear. Slaves in a large urban familia might have been producing items for the needs of the household; alternatively, they might have been employed in a workshop, producing for sale. Their employer might be their owner, but trained slaves might also be hired out to work for others. The practice is attested in the Digest ( for house-building and shipbuilding, as well as for wool-working and weaving. However, only the actual owner could hire out his slave’s labour in this way. Legal opinion was that a usufructuary must use the slave’s labour directly, and could not hire him or her out to a third party. So, for instance, if the person entitled to usus had contracted to do some wool-working, he could employ his ‘usuary’ slave women to do it, and he could use them to work wool for himself—but he could not send them off to work in a lanificium and receive payment for their hire.

Apprenticeship contracts for both slaves and free persons (the latter usually male) to be taught weaving survive from Roman Egypt. In small households in the up-country towns, the purpose of having someone taught a craft might be not to produce for the household, but to create an additional wage-earner. Some contracts specify that a wage is to be paid to the owner or parent, during the time (as much as four years) that the pupil is learning. That the learners might come from small households is suggested by one contract in which a slave weaver is hired out by her owner to work for one year for a local weaver, Achillas. She is to have board and lodging with Achillas and eight days’ holiday a year, and her owner is to receive a monthly wage for her services. However, it is specified that if he needs her to make bread, she is to come and do so at night, without his forfeiting any of the wage. The poor girl is expected to work all day in the weaving-shop and at night in her master’s house. This suggests that he lacked other slaves to do the household baking.13

While wool-preparation and spinning on a small scale could be done at home, fabric-weaving was likely, outside very large households such as that of the Statilii, which appears to have had a specialised weaving department, to be entrusted to professional weaving establishments. Women specified in funerary inscriptions as spinners (quasillariae) probably worked in such establishments, and not as general household slaves. Eight of the eleven known from Rome come from the monument of the Statilii; one is commemorated by a male wool-dispenser (lanipendus), two others by men serving in other departments of the household.14 Studies of the cloth trade in Pompeii (Moeller 1969 and 1976) and elsewhere in the empire (Jones 1974) indicate that most weaving was done by men, though women textrices are attested.15 On the other hand, clothesmakers and menders (sarcinatrices) are predominantly female.16 Some free women worked in the cloth trade, spinning, weaving or garment-making. Literary references suggest that the reward was meagre and the social status low. Gaius (D. 15.1.27 pr.) brackets the sarcinatrix and the textrix, both slave and filiafamilias, with those practising some other ‘vulgar craft’, though his reference to the action on the peculium may suggest that he had in mind some who did not simply hire out their labour but did independent work.

The work of sarcinatrices could be regarded partly as production, partly as service industry, since they did clothes-mending as well. The same is true of the fullones (fullers) and dyers, who both finished new cloth and cleaned and rejuvenated old. A few women are attested among the personnel of such establishments at Pompeii, and paintings from one of them include two women (Kampen 1981:153–4 and fig. 90). As, however, the women are merely sitting examining fabric, they could be customers rather than workers, and the girl standing beside one could be her slave-attendant (pedisequa).

Rather better attested is one of the retail trades serving the fabric industries, that of purpuraria, seller of the finest dye-stuff, purple (perhaps they sold other colours too). A remarkable group of inscriptions from Rome in the late Republic and early empire reveals a group of freedmen families, men and women, of the Veturii, engaged in the trade, and stemming from more than one patron; with them is associated another family, the Plutii. The precise connections cannot now be traced, but it looks as if some of the women may have begun in the trade as slaves (perhaps even as institores or their contubernales) and continued after freedom.17 Whether any of the firms in question were actually in competition with their patrons is not known. Alfenus Varus and Scaevola held different opinions as to whether patrons were entitled to demand that their freedmen should refrain from competition with them; Scaevola held that they were not. This opinion seems to have prevailed, and Papinian says, ‘A freedwoman is not considered ungrateful because she practises her trade against the wishes of her patron.’18

Firm evidence of women as actual practitioners of crafts is rather scanty. Women are attested in connection with a number of productive crafts, either alone or with their husbands.19 Whether they were actually engaged themselves in production or merely, like the dealers in beans, vegetables, etc., in retailing the product, cannot now be determined. Where the Latin description actually specifies the activity and not merely the commodity (as, e.g., sarcinatrix, ‘seamstress’) the likelihood is that the woman herself practised the craft. The total number of examples and the range of crafts so attested are both small, and it is not really possible to reach any conclusions as to the extent to which, if at all, freeborn daughters received any training in crafts other than those of the household before they were married. Widows may sometimes have carried on a husband’s business but left its actual conduct to managers. The same is possibly true of some of the 21 female officinatores leasing clay-yards near Rome. Three are operating jointly with men, probably their husbands. At least one, Nunnidia Sperata, seems to have succeeded her father in the tenancy. We need not suppose that she herself actually took part in making the bricks, tiles or pottery produced.20

There was no bar in law to husband and wife forming a business partnership (societas), even if she contributed only money and was otherwise a ‘sleeping’ partner. It was not a gift, since she was entitled to a share of the profits; nor did the partnership violate the sctum. Velleianum, since the Roman law of contract did not allow undertakings affecting a third party, and since the partners were liable only to the extent of their contributions to the common fund. If a husband chose to use his wife’s dowry for a societas (whether with his wife or anyone else), the claims of the dowry took precedence over those of creditors.21

As is well known, women are attested as patrons, but not as members, of guilds (collegia), other than one or two all-female groups, such as an association of mime-actresses in Rome or nine slave ornatrices, not specified as a ‘college’ but belonging to different owners, at Ostia.22 There is no positive evidence for their exclusion. The lack of examples may be a result of their relatively smaller numbers and also of their having in many cases given up their work on marriage.


Women are better attested in certain professional jobs. Commonest are the midwives, of whom there are only a few mentions in papyri but rather more, both slave and freed (or free) in inscriptions. Some may have learned their trade as slaves in large households, others perhaps as apprentices to professionals. The law recognised their professional status; a provincial governor might be called upon to give judgment on their fees, as on those of doctors, scribes and accountants.23

Several female scribes and secretaries are known, none certainly freeborn.24 More striking is the number of female doctors (iatromeae, medicae) attested from all over the Roman world. One or two are explicitly attested as freedwomen; most could be. However, Asyllia Polia (sic) from first-century A.D.Carthage is L(uci) f(ilia), and a fragmentary inscription from Metz in Belgica seems to attest another freeborn medica. Were they apprenticed to professionals, or did they perhaps learn in the family? We do not know. There are some husband-and-wife teams. The wife may sometimes have been essentially a midwife, like Scribonia Attice, wife of M.Ulpius Amerinus; their respective activities are attested in a pair of reliefs from Ostia. The stone commemorating a medica in Spain, Julia Saturnina, has on the back a carving of a baby in swaddlingclothes.25

Some references, however, suggest a wider competence. Antiochis from TIos in Lycia is commemorated for her knowledge of the physician’s art (iatrike techne), and Domnina from Neoclaudiopolis ‘warded off diseases’. It may not have been very common for women to receive a general medical training and to practise. One doctor husband, commemorating his wife in Pergama in the second century A.D., wrote, ‘oman though you were, you were not deficient in my art.’ Two centuries later, a similar sense of the unusual is detectable in Ausonius’ praise of his maternal aunt Aemilia Hilaria, a’dedicated virgin’ (virgo devoid) who ‘occupied herself in the art of healing, like a man’. (Aunt Aemilia, we are also told, was called Hilaria because of her boyish cheerfulness, even in the cradle, and she ‘hated the female sex’.) We do not know how she acquired her training; and if she actually practised for gain outside the household, that would be still more unusual in a woman of her class.26

Personal Services

Some jobs, such as masseuse (unctrix), dresser (vestiplica) and attendant (pedisequd), seem to have been performed entirely by women working within private households either as slaves or as freedwomen of the household.27 The latter two, at any rate, may not have required any particular training and by their nature did not give scope for the acquisition of a marketable skill.

Ornatrix (hairdresser) was a skilled job, for which training was required; jurists discussed whether or not trainees should be included when a legacy specified ornatrices. There are some examples of freedwomen apparently plying the trade commercially, though no certain examples of freeborn women so engaged. Perhaps the job had servile connotations which made freeborn girls unwilling to train.28

On the other hand, freeborn women could and did offer themselves for work for which no qualification, other than that of having borne a child, was required, namely wet-nursing. Here the different nature of the evidence of inscriptions (especially from Rome) and of papyri presents different aspects of the picture.29

Those commemorated epigraphically were often the servants of a large household; by the time of their deaths, they may no longer have been so, or at least no longer have been fulfilling that particular function, though gratefully remembered for it. For instance, the freedwoman Birria Cognita, nurse of Publius Birrius Gallus, is unlikely still to have been employed in that capacity when she died at the age of 60 (AE 1980:326).

Strictly speaking, the nutrix was a wet-nurse, but some of the women of whom the term is used may also in effect have served as nanny (educatrix) in the household once the baby was weaned. This is likely to have been the case of those recorded as having been nurse to several children. With the educatrix from Verona who reared four of the commemorator’s children we may compare Rasinia Pietas, who set up an honorific inscription to her employer the consul L.Burbulius Optatus Ligarianus, describing herself as ‘nurse of his daughters’. Tatia Baucyl(…) was nurse to no less than seven of the children of Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla. Rasinia could have been the slave of Burbulius’ wife, so accounting for the difference in name. Tatia, Treggiari suggests (1976:88), might have been a free, paid nurse; this is more likely than that she was a slave whose reward for nursing all those children was not freedom but sale to another master.30

The wealthy, Tacitus and Juvenal suggest, employed wet-nurses as a matter of course, while the poor could not afford to. While some writers expressed doubts about the moral desirability of the practice, it was recognised that physical circumstances sometimes made it necessary. In a curious fragment of a letter written in the third century A.D., an interfering mother-in-law (or possibly fatherin-law) writes to a certain Rufinus: ‘I have heard that you are compelling her to breast-feed. Please let the child have a nurse. I do not permit my daughter to suckle.’ The reasons for the objection are not given, but one suspects snobbishness.31

While the wealthiest would have an adequate supply of nurses among their own female slaves, those slightly less well-off would hire, as and when need arose. The practice is attested in the Digest. Wet-nurses were listed (D. among those jobs for which praetors and provincial magistrates could be asked to adjudicate on the fees; however, it seems that their jurisdiction was limited to actual wet-nursing and not to general child care (educatio). Paul (D. refers to a husband paying sums of money pro capite to a woman rearing the children of the slave-girls from his wife’s dowry. She is apparently not part of his household and may be free. She sounds rather like a child-minder or fosterer, to whom the babies may have been farmed out, leaving the ancillae free to get on with their work. One Egyptian document from the very beginning of the fourth century (P. Grenf. 2.75) records the receipt of money for food and clothing by a woman who nursed ‘the fourth part of the slave children’. She and her employer are both said to be funeral undertakers. It sounds as though both had sidelines, he as dealer in foundling slaves, she as wet-nurse. Whether she carried out her duties on his premises or at home is not stated. In many of the wetnursing contracts for individual children from Roman Egypt, it is specified that the child is to stay with the nurse at her house, rather than the latter come to the mother or owner’s. Sometimes there is a clause providing for regular inspection of the child.

Soranus (Gynaec. 2.19) gives detailed instructions for gauging the suitability of a wet-nurse from the appearance of her breasts. Whether free candidates for the job were usually required to submit to physical examination we cannot tell; it is quite likely that slaves were. He gives reasons for avoiding a drunken wet-nurse. The drink will affect the child through the milk; it will also endanger the child, by making the nurse careless and inattentive. He specified, as do several contracts of hire from Roman Egypt, that the nurse should refrain from sexual intercourse. His reasons are partly psychological (diversion of affection from the nursling) and partly physiological—intercourse, he says, is likely either to stimulate menstruation to start again or to cause conception; in both cases the milk will be spoiled or diminished.

Festus (second century A.D.), our sole source on the matter, says that a column in the Roman produce market, the Forum Holitorium, was called the Columna Lactaria, quod ibi infantes lacte alendos deferebant, ‘because there they used to deferre infants who required feeding with milk’.32 To how distant a past he referred we do not know, nor what exactly took place, since deferre is susceptible of several meanings. It is commonly used to mean ‘hand over’. The column may have been a regular hiring place for wet-nurses, but it does not seem altogether plausible to suppose that babies would be brought there on the off-chance, the whole business of examination and determination of suitability of the available women be gone through there and then among the vegetables, and the baby handed over to a stranger; the home either of parent or of nurse would seem a more likely place for the transfer.

Some of the nurses in the Egyptian contracts are slaves, hired out by their owner, but most are free women, some married. Some of the babies are free, but several are foundlings, ‘from the dunghill’, who will be reared as slaves. The length of hire varies between six months and three years, with two years most common. It is regularly specified that the nurse is not to have intercourse nor get pregnant, nor nurse another child. These conditions, especially the first two, would not be easy to enforce, and it may be doubted whether the free nurses intended to observe them. With effective contraception, they might get away with it. The wages were not high—seven to ten drachmae a month in the first century A.D., 16–20 in the second. A female slave hired out to a weaver (the one required for nighttime baking) brought her owner 420 drachmae a year; another was to have wages of 20 drachmae a month in her fourth year of apprenticeship. During the short olive-harvesting season, around A.D. 100, men pickers could earn up to a drachma a day, boys up to 4 obols; the women’s wage is not known, but a woman was able to raise a loan of 16 drachmae, to be repaid in instalments out of her daily wages carrying olives at the oil-press, ‘at the same rate as the carriers in the village’.33

If the child dies, the nurse is to accept another (or, in some instances, possibly provide one—presumably from the dunghill) and work out the contract, or repay the balance of the money.

A family would have to be fairly badly-offfor money to undertake a nursing contract on such terms, especially as there were usually heavy penalties for breach of contract (at least another 50 per cent on the balance), and these were enforced. In 4 B.C. at Alexandria M.Julius Felix, a freedman, took back from Eugenia and her kyrios, possibly her husband, a slave child to be reared by his own slave. He acknowledges return of the 12 months’ maintenance she had already received from him; the claim outstanding is for what was paid in advance, plus the 50 per cent and damages and expenses. The year before, a woman called Apollonia had to return a child to one Harpocration, because her milk was spoiled. She appears to have been looking after the child for some time without any formal contract before an agreement was made; nevertheless, she agrees not only to return the money already received (some eight months’ worth) but to pay a penalty as well. If the hirer, on the other hand, withdrew the child, without fault on the nurse’s part, she was entitled to the balance of the contracted fee.34

The lengths to which a woman might go to avoid forfeiting her fee are revealed in a sad little story of a case that came before the district magistrate at Oxyrhynchus in A.D. 49: Pesuris against the woman Saraeus.35

Pesuris1 advocate Aristocles states his case:

In the year III of our lord Tiberius Claudius Caesar (i.e., six years previously) Pesuris whom I represent took a male child from the dunghill and called him Heraclas. He handed him over to our adversary and a nursing contract was made in the name of Pesuris’ son. She received the nursing fee for the first year. On the due day she received payment for the second year. Here in evidence is her written receipt. When the boy was weaned Pesuris took him back. Then, finding an opportunity, she burst into my client’s house, snatched the child and is trying to retain him on the grounds that he is free. I have the initial nursing contract and the receipt for the second instalment.

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