The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.


This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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