Eighteenth Century Britain was one of the main cauldrons in which the ideas of the Enlightenment were bubbling, and Gibbon was one of its leading figures. The enlightened view of the world that was being pioneered then is still with us, shaping how we think to this very day.
I think this is why he often seems surprisingly modern for someone who died over three hundred years ago. But he is a crafty old fox. It is easy to forget that some of his views would have been pretty controversial at the time. He is skilled in the art of tacking around the obstacles and avoiding being too blatant. This is how he introduces the subject of the role of women in the late Empire.
In every age and country, the wiser, or at least the stronger, of the two sexes, has usurped the powers of the state, and confined the other to the cares and pleasures of domestic life.
We read it and instantly see Gibbon’s scepticism about the superiority of males and understand that he does not approve of the usurpation he is talking about - even though he acknowledges it is widespread. But read it quickly without thinking too much, and it would be quite easy to miss this point. And I think Gibbon was pretty safe in assuming that the rich and powerful vested interests of his time would not trouble themselves with such minute scrutiny of his work. There’s a story that one of his patrons, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh on being presented with the latest volume of his great work commented ‘Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh Mr Gibbon?’. Even during the Enlightenment not absolutely everybody was enlightened.
In the early republic Roman women were not in a great place from a legal point of view and the actual laws did not change much as the empire replaced the republic, but over time attitudes changed considerably. In politics they had no role whatever, in theory. They could not hold any public office apart from being a vestal virgin - a calling with some obvious drawbacks.
But then, given the routine violence of Roman society it is a good question why a woman or a man come to that would want to go into politics in the first place. But any look at the reality of what was going on shows that upper class women at least had quite a bit of independence and certainly plenty of influence. And ordinary women probably didn’t have too bad a time of it compared to other ancient societies either.
I won’t overstate this. Gender equality wasn’t really something that was on the agenda in Ancient Rome. In fact any kind of equality wasn’t really on the agenda. This was a society that was quite comfortable with slavery after all. The main role of the legal system was the protection of property rather than defending the rights of individuals. The laws were stacked heavily against women. A woman was always nominally under the control of a male, either her father or when she married her husband. The legal term was her paterfamilia. Adultery could only be committed by women, and a husband was permitted to kill his wife if she committed adultery.
But the Romans were nothing if they weren’t pragmatic. These laws originated in an agrarian society where, while still unfair, you could sort of see where they came from. There was a need to keep farming units intact and viable and to breed the next generation of ploughmen. This was recognised by there being several categories of marriage. Men and women who didn’t own any land were left to live how they wanted to - if there was no farm involved they could do as they pleased. This wasn’t motivated by a desire to defend their rights in any way. It just wasn’t worth the bother of regulating behaviour that didn’t have a bearing on property rights.
Once they lived in a big city with grain supplied by overseas slave-operated farms, traditional values began to fade. Legally a father was entitled to treat a daughter exactly as he pleased, including killing her if he so chose. But by the time of Augustus social pressure made it highly unlikely that he would actually do any such thing. One father who did kill his daughter was very nearly lynched by an angry crowd. Augustus brought in laws to try to enforce old fashioned virtues. These were widely ignored, including by Augustus himself and scandalously by his daughter. Even Faustina, the wife of everyone’s favourite paragon of stoic virtue Marcus Aurelius was, as Gibbon delicately puts it, famous for her gallantries.
Marriages became more fluid and divorces were easy. They were regarded as simple civil affairs with no religious involvement, and not a huge amount of legal regulation. With the single exception of adultery, a divorce could be initiated by either party for any reason and without any need to assign blame or get any kind of legal ratification. Any dowry paid would go back to the woman, minus a 10% handling charge. If she were guilty of adultery, the dowry could be kept.
Women had no official role in public life and many Roman men disapproved of them even expressing opinions on public matters. But the fact that Cato devoted speeches to complaining about them doing so is pretty good evidence that they did. But outside of politics there doesn’t seem to have been anything that women were not able to do if they set their minds to it. They were able to hold property in their own right and there were women engaging in all the trades that you would expect. When Cicero’s affairs were wound up after his death women were in the list of both creditors and debtors for instance. There don’t seem to have been any legal restrictions on what they could or couldn’t do. Social pressures were another matter and conservative commentators were quick to complain about the loose morals of women and to contrast their own time with a mythical golden age when women knew their place. Some things never change.
It was still basically a man’s world, and men had most of the advantages, particularly in the rumbustious public life of the forum where physical strength and even height were key advantages. But women weren’t excluded and were able to make their mark if they were determined. In fact, they were probably as well off in Ancient Rome as they were in Gibbon’s Britain.
There was even one example of a woman actually sitting in the Senate with the same powers as the men. This took place during the reign of Elagabalus, when his mother Soaemias sat in the Senate itself. This experiment was not considered a great success and a law was rapidly brought in forbidding women from entry into the Senate. It had been so unthinkable before this time that nobody had even considered legislating against it. But despite this law, a woman was to play a key role in the next reign, that of Alexander Severus, and that is the next story I must tell.