Kit Morrell

Roman Women: Legal Changes and Finances

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Roman Women: Legal Changes and Finances

The Augustan age is an apt case study for thinking about ‘anchoring innovation’ in the ancient world. It was Augustus, of course, who founded the new form of government we call the principate, while purporting to restore core values and institutions of the Roman republic.

Roman Women

In the case of Augustus’ marriage legislation—the focus of this project—the princeps explicitly claimed that his new laws were anchored in old mores: ‘by means of new laws passed on my authority, I revived many ancestral exempla which were then dying out in our era’ (Res Gestae 8.5). The laws in question (a lex Julia of 18 BC and the lex Papia Poppaea of AD 9) introduced a complicated system of rewards and penalties designed to encourage marriage and the production of children, traditional objectives in both the Greek and Roman worlds—and, indeed, Augustus could point to old speeches and laws that provided precedents for many aspects of his reforms. Taken as a whole, however, Augustus’ attempt to codify his version of traditional morality represented a dramatic and rather un-traditional incursion into private life, while some aspects of the new legislation (such as the expectation that widows should remarry quickly) ran counter to accepted norms.

One focus of this project, therefore, will be to test Augustus’ claims: how far was the marriage legislation ‘anchored’ in previous law and custom? My research will consider not only precedents or models (or lack thereof) for Augustus’ legislation, especially as it pertained to women’s finances, but also the extent to which Augustus’ aims and methods—as well as resistance to the reforms—can be considered traditional. A second, related, question will ask how far the legal and financial position of women changed as a result of Augustus’ innovations—or, put another way, how far those innovations reflected changes already happening in women’s lives in the course of Rome’s transition from republic to principate. In particular, I will consider the impact of the ius liberorum (‘right of children’), created by Augustus’ legislation, which granted mothers of three children the right to conduct business without the supervision of a male guardian. The ius liberorum was a significant innovation: previously, all women except Vestal virgins were subject to tutela (guardianship); freedom from male oversight was likely a factor in the emergence of women as public patrons and benefactors from the Augustan age onwards. Yet, the practical significance of tutela had already declined significantly in the late republic, meaning that here too Augustus’ innovation can be seen as anchored in the past—or running with the tide.