Independent Women of Pompeii
edited: Sunday, June 11, 2006
By Robin Fowler
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2005
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Excerpt from articles from my page on Suite 101.
The Roman city of Pompeii is legendary, almost fabled. It is most famous for being buried under a blanket of ash from the August 24, A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesusvius. When excavations on the ruins of Pompeii were begun in 1748, it was quickly discovered that the site was archaeological pay dirt. The subsequent excavations, which continue today, have uncovered an era of history frozen in time, an opportunity to see the day-to-day life and operations of a Roman city. The spectacularly preserved city has provided archaeologists insight into Roman art, architecture, politics, religion, and family life. It also offers a peek into the lives of non-Imperial Roman women, and the opportunities that were possibly available to them.There is vast evidence that shows what the lives of the Imperial Roman women were like. The wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the Roman Emperors were often well documented in art, drama, and poetry. Often, little specific information is known of the other Roman women. That is, the women from the non-Imperial upper classes all the way down the social stratum to the slaves. Discoveries at Pompeii have helped to clarify a lot of notions held regarding the lives of Roman women. Art, architecture, and graffiti have provided a huge source of interesting information. Archaeological evidence from Pompeii shows us that Roman women were not solely relegated to the job of homemaker. They had ample opportunities to participate in commerce, religion, and politics. There is evidence of Pompeian women holding down such occupations as weavers, landladies, salespeople, butchers, doctors, and even wealthy benefactors. The discoveries at Pompeii also uncovered some evidence of the independent status that some Roman women possessed. However, archaeological evidence can only tell so much of the story. We will probably never know the true extent of the independence that some of these women were permitted that was exclusive of male involvement. But what evidence that has been found provides a glimmer of hope that Roman women were not completely repressed or disregarded, at least in this one small Roman city.Perhaps the most famous woman with a sizeable amount of influence to be discovered out of Pompeii was an upper class priestess named Eumachia. Eumachia was a member of an old Pompeian family who earned their wealth as brick makers. She garnered additional affluence when she married a man who had his own big bank account as the owner of some vineyards on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Eumachia was quite the woman about Pompeii. Aside from being a wife and mother, she was a public priestess to the cult of Venus (Venus was the patron goddess of Pompeii). And she was the patroness of the fullers’ guild. Fullers were dry cleaners of a sort. They laundered the tunics and togas of the town, as well as prepared wool to turn into fine fabrics. It was one of Pompeii’s most principal industries. Being the patroness of this trade would have been quite notable for Eumachia and her family.When, in A.D. 62, a massive earthquake damaged or destroyed large parts of the city, Eumachia paid for the construction of a large building in the forum (the major economic and civic center of a Roman city). Archaeological evidence suggests that this building was most likely home base for the fullers. Thus, as a show of gratitude, the fullers commissioned a statue of Eumachia’s likeness in her honor complete with a complimentary inscription. This public show of appreciation would have proven significant for the likes of a Roman woman.Eumachia’s schedule must have been bursting at the seams. On top of her public duties as priestess and her business dealings with the fullers, she also found time to be involved in local politics. The construction of her considerable building in Pompeii’s forum was timed perfectly (if not coincidentally) with her son’s campaign for public office. The generosity of this multifaceted woman would have unquestionably been beneficial to her son’s election. Eumachia was obviously a dedicated mother, a shrewd businesswoman with a giving heart, and had the funding to back it all up. And to further showcase the wealth of her family, Eumachia had a massive marble sepulcher, or tomb, constructed on one of the more affluent streets of the dead in Pompeii, at the Nucerian Gate. Unfortunately, all of Eumachia’s money and influence could not protect her from Mother Nature, and she succumbed, with nearly all other citizens (of every class) of Pompeii, when Mount Vesuvius blew its top on that fateful August morning.Another woman whose story was discovered among the ruins of Pompeii is Julia Felix. Julia was a wealthy property owner who came upon her bags of money via a sizeable inheritance. The property that she owned, her grand villa, took up an entire block of the city. It was, of course, lavishly decorated and furnished. It seems that Julia Felix held none of the aspirations that her multi-tasking contemporary Eumachia did. Julia preferred to relax her days away in her courtyard garden, gazing at her many marble statues. That is, until the earthquake of A.D. 62 caused some damage to her property.At that time, her survival instincts (and frugality) kicked in. In an effort to avoid spending any of her own money, Julia rented out parts of her massive villa. For this purpose, she had converted these parts into public baths, shops, a tavern, and apartments. This proved to be a worthwhile venture for her, paying for the repairs to her home, and no doubt providing her with a nice amount of extra income. Thus, Julia Felix used her inheritance as a springboard to independence.Euamchia and Julia Felix are but two of many examples of Pompeian women striking out on their own and making it on their own separate from their family names. They were property owners, businesswomen, and public figures, with seemingly little or no male interference. Far more is known about the more famous imperial Roman women. Therefore, the discoveries at Pompeii of these fascinating characters provide an opportunity to get to know the women of Rome at all social levels.