Castitas Feminarum: Sexual Politics for Women in the Late Republic and Early Roman Empire
In modern society, we tend to view women's sexual behaviors and norms as ever-changing and evolving. This is true especially in the United States. The feminist movement has been essential in advocating women's rights, and although marriage is still a followed tradition, no longer are women typically subjected to arranged marriages for monetary or political reasons. It is easy to forget that in the past women may have been socially manipulated by their families in order to advance their fathers' or husbands' careers and status. Today, women concern themselves with the Equal Rights Amendment, fighting to empower the notion that women are equal in all ways to men. Many also struggle to keep Roe vs. Wade, which legalizes abortion rights, from being overturned. In antiquity, women strived for the right to enter marriage agreements on their own terms. If the women were too strongly encouraged to become wives and mothers, some women may have attempted to escape or go beyond the limits of social norms free of penalty by expressing their sexuality. While this practice may seem unethical to many, it seems equally unethical from a modern standpoint to deny women the right of sexual freedom, especially when their fathers and husbands were allowed to indulge in the company of concubines, courtesans, and prostitutes by long-standing Roman social customs. Single women were supposed to be proper young virgins and married women dutifully fulfilled the roles of wife and mother. However, there were many nuances to their behaviors. With the introduction of Augustus' morality legislation, not satisfying certain responsibilities, or neglecting them for adulterous affairs could result in serious ramifications that often brought taxation, persecution, and in some cases, exile. Another issue, prostitution, raises much discussion and demands an in-depth examination. Women practiced prostitution for a multitude of reasons. One cannot simply expound that only promiscuous women collected income from the use of their bodies. However, money, in the form of personal income, was a major factor in making the decision to sell one's body. For many young women, familial responsibility also played a role in women's choices. This underscores the idea that women, even those women who sold their bodies for another's benefit, were under the direct order of their fathers or entire family. Women as a whole, but especially those belonging to poorer families, often did not have a choice in entering this lower rank in society. In doing so, their chances of marriage and their social status were often brutally damaged for the rest of their lives. This essay concentrates on the ancient view of prostitution and its impact on the function it played in Roman society. Additionally, it focuses on the conditions of the many women who participated. Women's social roles as wives and mothers or prostitutes and whores, were reflected by a long literary tradition. Many men of the time, poets, playwrights, and satirists, perpetuated stereotypes that contributed to the social limitations of women. Some male authors often described women as the reasons for war and catastrophe in Rome, as nagging and selfish, and with sexual appetites that could destroy the peace and stability of the Roman state. These men, including Plautus and Terence in the Republic and Horace, Juvenal, and Ovid in the Empire, may have been regarded as comical but the literary works may reflect social reality. With all of these factors in mind, it is no wonder that prostitution, a social institution which helped to control societal standards of marriage, began long before Republican and Imperial Rome, continued throughout many generations. The sexual availability of women, along with the approval by high-status men, made prostitution a legal and appropriate way for men to seek the company of women other than their wives or their peers' wives. In Roman sources from antiquity, including poetry, comedy and satire, ancient historiographers, and the research of modern-day classicists, I will attempt to distinguish the many ways women took part in ancient society. Beginning in the late Roman Republic, and researching the sexual behaviors of young women, both married and unmarried, through the early Empire, I hope to identify and analyze the many roles that women played. It must be stated that the first section, which focuses on women during the late Republic, will discuss women of various social classes, including the upper-class, lower-class, and freed women. Slaves will not be included in this part of the paper in an effort to avoid a complicated history which assumes that slave-women were used in any way by their owners or masters. The second half of the paper, which introduces the laws set in motion during the Empire, will include a brief discussion of women's prostitution under Augustan legislation. Though this paper does not wish to assert that slaves do not count in the history of prostitution and marriage, the main topic here is to explore the status of the women who already possessed freed or citizen status.