Friends, Romans, Countrywomen…

I’ve reached the halfway point of DNF (15,000 words) and feel I need to relax the grey matter on that particular story for a while as I regroup and figure out where to take it next. Naturally, my thoughts are now turning back to Romans vs Aliens and first on the agenda is fleshing out Saturnia since I gave her gender reassignment surgery.

Source: Hans Splinter Flickr. Creative Commons (License)

Saturnia’s new profile is thus:

  • Daughter of a senator (most gladiatrix’ were high born women – a stark contrast to their male counterparts)
  • Because of her position, she experienced disapproval from her parents, firstly from going into the arena and secondly for her choice of business investment
  • After attaining fame and fortune in the arenas, she retired and bought a gladiator school which raised more eyebrows (I will come to why, it’s not what you might naturally think)
  • That school has fallen on hard times (which was the case when she was male) and the mission will give her the opportunity to resurrect the school
  • Nobody knows why she chose Joseph Ben Solomon as her chief trainer when they have previously met only once (this was the case when she was male)

There are many popular beliefs about the status of women in ancient Rome that I hope to dispel during the course of the novel – particularly relating to business and investment, and to what extent women were involved in public life in the Empire. In a nutshell, this is what I have learnt about women in Rome as it is relevant to the story of Saturnia.

Wealth: Arguably, the patrician woman of the Roman Empire had a lot of it. She would have more disposable income than her husband or her father, this would be especially true if he was running for office because in the absence of political parties, it was all self-funded. He would need a lot of money to campaign for a political position that a woman could never attain. A man was obliged to support his family – his wife and children – but a woman was not. If a man fell on hard times, legally she could allow the family to starve because she had no legal obligation to support it. This is an interesting concept in gender roles and one that was carried through to many later societies.

Business: So what was the Patrician woman to spend all her money on? What should she spend it on? A high born woman was expected to at least be interested in matters of state even if she could not enter into political office. Naturally, any good Roman wife would support her husband and family as much as she could, and one way she could do this is to generate finance to support the family. It has been noted as a strange curiosity that women were incredibly active in business life. They invested money, managed land, and kept a close eye on her business interests.

There is no greater example of the active engagement of women in Roman business than that following Claudius’ invasion of Britain. The Emperor needed a lot of money, and fast, to maintain the military successes on the island and keep the momentum going. Shipping was a big part of that – for trade and to keep the legions supplied with equipment, food, building material etc to maintain the rapid expansion. Claudius petitioned rich women specifically to establish and invest in shipping – promising lucrative returns.

Politics: Though the father would always be the head of the household (and this cross class divides too), and ultimately decisions about the family should come from him, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that the concept of Roman Paterfamilias meant that women were never consulted or never offered their opinions. After all, they managed – often in a hands-on approach – their own and their family’s business interests.

The best example of a politically persuasive woman is Domitia Decidiana who married the famous general Agricola. Their marriage was one of a political alliance. With her business and political connections, seen in very good standing by the senate, Agricola saw her connections and the high esteem she held as being very useful to his later career.

Gladiators and Class Snobbery

Which brings me back to Saturnia. It is not unusual that the bored daughter of a Senator would have a lot of money and not know what to do with it. It is not unusual that she would be proactive in looking at ways of investing that money to do something useful with her life. Her high-born status came with certain expectations. Therefore, it is unusual that she chose to purchase a Gladiator School and she would have received a lot of disapproval for this. This was not an issue of gender, it was an issue of class snobbery.

The games were for the low born, slaves, prisoners of war, debtors, the former high-born who had lost everything. They were for the Patrician class to enjoy, but not to participate in. So when a high-born woman with a lot of money and all the business investment opportunities of Vespasian’s stable and affluent Rome chooses to enter into the arena, eyebrows are raised. When she retires and uses the money and riding on her prestige to buy a gladiator school, more eyebrows get raised. A modern equivalent would be if one of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandchildren chose to invest in a lap dancing club.

Including Saturnia will certainly open up the story in terms of character development for all six of my gladiators, and hopefully dispel some myths while moving away from the trope of the Unusually Emancipated Woman so common in period pieces.


6 thoughts on “Friends, Romans, Countrywomen…

  1. livingonchi

    This is a fascinating write-up on women in the Roman Empire! Your book sounds interesting!

    1. Thank you! I hope people do find it interesting. Despite that it is primarily a sci fi novel, I didn’t want to neglect the historical aspect. I’m not being overly pedantic about it, but I want it to appeal to both audiences.

  2. lizbert1

    Sounds fascinating – I’d definitely like to know more about the lives of Roman women so keep the posts coming!

    1. Thanks lizbert. As fascinating a subject as it is… alas, the story is about a group of gladiators on a private mission for the Emperor. My research was to give context and realism to the presence of a gladiatrix on the mission.

      But please do keep reading. I’ve written so much about Roman society already, my one on street food proved very popular and I hope to do more on related subjects in future, no doubt I will write about Saturnia again as I develop her character.

  3. N. E. White

    Another excellent piece and I suspected some of this, but didn’t know the details. I think having a Roman woman in your story will add quite a bit of depth. It has definitely piqued my interest, especially since her status would not be unusual (or not any more unusual for someone in her class).

    1. Thank you 🙂 Yes, not that unusual and apparently by the 2nd-3rd century it had become common enough that the Emperor (I forget which one) enacted laws preventing Patrician women from doing so.

      It didn’t stop them because documentary sources suggest that the practice continued.

      There’s this interesting relief in the British Museum showing two women fighting each other:

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