Roman Virtue in Women

Women in ancient Rome had little importance as independent citizens but could be very influential in their primary roles as mothers and wives. Devotion to one man was the ideal. A good Roman matron was chaste, honorable, and fertile. The following ancient Roman women have been considered, ever since, the embodiment of Roman virtue and as women to be emulated. For example, according to​writer Margaret Malamud, Louisa McCord wrote a tragedy in 1851 based on the Gracchi and patterned her own behavior after the Gracchi's mother, Cornelia, the Roman matron who considered her children her jewels.

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Porcia, Daughter of Cato

Portia and Cato
Portia and Cato.

Porcia was the daughter of the younger Cato and his first wife, Atilia, and the wife of first, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus and then, Caesar's famous assassin Marcus Junius Brutus. She is renowned for her devotion to Brutus. Porcia realized Brutus was involved in something (the conspiracy) and persuaded him to tell her by proving that she could be counted on not to break even under torture. She was the only woman aware of the assassination plot. Porcia is thought to have committed suicide in 42 B.C. after hearing that her beloved husband Brutus had died.

Abigail Adams admired Porcia (Portia) enough to use her name to sign letters to her husband.

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By Nathanael Burton (IMG_20141107_141308) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons HT

In Letter 3.16, Pliny the Younger describes the exemplary behavior of the imperial woman Arria, wife of Caecinia Paetus. When her son died of an illness her husband was still suffering from, Arria hid this fact from her husband, until he could recover, by keeping her sorrow and mourning out of her husband's sight. Then, when her husband was having trouble with his imperially-mandated suicide, the devoted Arria took the dagger from his hand, stabbed herself, and assured her husband it didn't hurt, thereby ensuring that she wouldn't have to live without him.

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Marcia, Wife of Cato (and Their Daughter)

William Constable and his sister Winifred as Marcus Porcius Cato and his wife Marcia, painted in Rome by Anton von Maron (1733-1808), Wikimedia Commons

Plutarch describes the Stoic younger Cato's second wife, Marcia, as "a woman of good reputation..." who was concerned for her husband's safety. Cato, who was actually fond of his (pregnant) wife, transferred his wife to another man, Hortensius. When Hortensius died, Marcia agreed to remarry Cato. While Marcia probably had little say in the transfer to Hortensius, as his wealthy widow she didn't have to remarry. It's not clear what Marcia did that made her a standard of Roman womanly virtue, but her history includes a clean reputation, concern for her husband, and sufficient devotion to Cato to remarry him.

The 18th-century historian Mercy Otis Warren signed herself Marcia in honor of this woman.

Marcia's daughter Marcia was an unmarried exemplar.

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Cornelia - Mother of the Gracchi

Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, by Noel Halle, 1779 (Musee Fabre)
Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, by Noel Halle, 1779 (Musee Fabre). Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cornelia was the daughter of Publius Scipio Africanus and the wife of her cousin Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. She was the mother of 12 children, including the famous Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius. After her husband died in 154 B.C., the modest matron devoted her life to raising her children, turning down an offer of marriage from King Ptolemy Physcon of Egypt. Only a daughter, Sempronia, and the two famous sons survived to adulthood. After her death, a statue of Cornelia was erected.

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Sabine Women

Rape of the Sabines
Rape of the Sabines.

The newly created city-state of Rome needed women, so they devised a trick to import women. They held a family festival to which they invited their neighbors, the Sabines. At a signal, the Romans snatched all the young unmarried women and carried them off. The Sabines weren't ready for a fight, so they went home to arm.

Meanwhile, the Sabine young women were paired up with Roman men. By the time the Sabine families came to rescue their captured Sabine young women, some were pregnant and others were attached to their Roman husbands. The women begged both sides of their families not to fight, but instead, to come to an agreement. Romans and Sabines obliged their wives and daughters.

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From Botticelli's The Death of Lucretia. 1500.
From Botticelli's The Death of Lucretia. 1500. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rape was a property crime against the husband or paterfamilias, not against the actual victim, in ancient Rome. The story of Lucretia (who stabbed herself rather than allow her name to go through posterity tainted) epitomizes the shame felt by Roman rape survivors.

Lucretia had been such a model of Roman feminine virtue that she inflamed the lust of Sextus Tarquin, the son of the king, Tarquinius Superbus, to the point that he arranged to accost her in private. When she resisted his pleas, he threatened to place her naked, dead body beside that of an enslaved male in the same state so that it would look like adultery. The threat worked and Lucretia permitted the violation.

Following the rape, Lucretia told her male relatives, elicited a promise for revenge, and stabbed herself. 

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Roman Virtue in Women." ThoughtCo, Nov. 23, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, November 23). Roman Virtue in Women. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Roman Virtue in Women." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 21, 2021).