A Rome of One's Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire

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Release Date: 
November 7, 2023
Abrams Press
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“Southon tells the story of the Roman Republic and Empire from beginning to end ‘as told through women.’ The author’s history is that of a ‘bigger, richer—a more realistic empire.’”

The Roman Republic and Empire was the most powerful political entity the world had ever known. It set the standard for all great powers that came afterward. This culture minimalized women to hardly more than baby machines.

Emma Southon sets out to “discover a whole new history,” centered on the feminist and “with the Important Things relegated to the background.” Finding any of the social history of the Romans has challenges. Any scholarship struggles to work around what those writers omit and their prejudices.

Romans saw themselves one way, while the peoples they encountered and usually conquered saw the same actions very differently: “terrifying, borderline genocidal, completely unreasonable, and quite quite deluded.” That attitude is the point of the famous story of Romulus, preferring kidnapping and rape to women joining the Romans as persons of free will.

The same situation applies within this culture, too. These male historians, for example, recognized women as ancestors but not Romans. Officially, members of the female sex “did not exist as individuals and could not be allowed the same agency as men.” “Roman men did not really believe that women were actually attracted to them.”

Yet, in the legends and histories of Herselia, Tanaquilia, and others, the women as persons take charge and exercise power on some higher plane of wisdom. Consequently, someone like Tarpeia can be seen differently by the individual Roman writers.

In Roman literature, women, particularly wives, “function as the tie and common interest of men,’ as the ancient writers noted in their historical accounts. ‘Without wives, men fight and kill and die for nothing.”  “Wives allow a man to have a future, a legacy, a family.” Virtuous wife Lucretia famously commits suicide after being raped.

Roman historians were the first to write women into history, and the author carefully explains which writer mentioned whom and when. For the century after Romulus died, however, none of these writers even said the name of a queen. Southon counted the number of women mentioned in the early Republic on just one hand.

A few of these women are well-known, but not always how they were seen in their world. Southon offers the familiar story of Julia, daughter of Caesar Augustus, but from Julia’s viewpoint. “The people of Rome were generally more shocked by Augustus’s punishment of Julia’s adulteries than they were by the adulteries themselves.”

These few women, however, represent much about Roman attitudes. Lucretia was a noble wife, while former slave Hispala Faecenia was described as a prostitute. Clodia was an influencer and rebel in the upper classes during Cicero's time. Julia Massa crowned two emperors, and Zenobia led Syrian armies.

Each chapter represents different aspects of women in Roman society. Southon describes Turia as a wealthy widow in a society that gave her no rights but where she still defended her fortune, home, and husband during a merciless civil war. Roman women could not legally manage their property or businesses, but Julia Felix in Pompeii “was a commercial genius.” The author tells the story of Sulpicia Lepindia from her point of view as a wife and mother in a Roman garrison in Britain.

Cartimandua and Boudicca ruled in Britain during the Roman occupation. That they were female and rulers challenged Roman views of a woman’s place. Boudicca has long been celebrated for leading her people in revolt. How the Romans felt about Cleopatra must be sought in other books.

Four poems, “rich with knowledge of Egyptian and Persian history, of religion, myth, and history” by Julia Balbilla provide a way to tell about life in Egypt but, more importantly, “a woman with a complex identity.” Similarly, Perpetua, a Christian martyr, was also well-educated. She left a four-paragraph diary.

Southon takes a traditional view of the history of Rome but adds meanings that are overlooked more than new within the Roman practice of legend that serve as lessons from the historical and social consequences. The ending of the story of Tarpeia and the rape of the Sabine women, for example, is not remembered in popular history. Different Roman writers, however, found various meanings derived from her history.

“Southon tells the story of the Roman Republic and Empire from beginning to end ‘as told through women.’ The author’s history is that of a ‘bigger, richer—a more realistic empire.’” The book benefits from the author’s concise, comprehendible explanation of the background.

The writing style used in A Rome of One’s Own is informal, personable, profane, and even flippant. Southon uses phrases such as: “somehow also very creepy,” “you know what they say about assumptions and asses,” “yada yada yada,” and “axiom I just made up goes.” Roman history is not for younger readers, in any case.

The author makes points clearly, although the reader may sometimes find the choice of words distracting rather than entertaining. The book has extensive annotation and a bibliography.