A Contrast Between Greek and Roman Women


‘In Greek political and philosophical thought, there seem to be two different ways to look at women. One is epitomized in Plato’s Republic. Plato proposes that the only difference between men and women is biological: “that females bear children while males beget them” and thus women are physically weaker (5.454d). Therefore, women are to participate in the state just as men are. But in emphasizing the similarity to men and their nearly identical roles in the kallipolis [the name Socrates uses for his utopia in Plato’s dialogue The Republic – Ed.], Plato neuters the women guardians. In the kallipolis, the family unit is destroyed because it divides the city. Women, except for “professional” wet nurses, no longer fill the maternal role. On the other hand, less utopian Greek visions of society focus on the differences between men and women. In Herodotus and Thucydides, women serve minor roles if they are present at all. In a few cases, groups of women are shown to be vital to the war effort: Thucydides offers us a picture of women up on the rooftops, pelting invaders with rocks. But they are a faceless mob; there are no strong female heroines. Even less complimentary is a more common role for women: wailing vainly about the doom of their city.

In contrast, in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, a Roman work written in Latin, this action is turned into a positive one: women wail, but their cries have a positive influence over the Roman men. Women are also more than just wailers: they are military heroes like Cloelia, ambassadors like Veturia, and priestesses like the Vestal Virgins. Livy sets out to show how “courage … filled the female sex with … patriotic ardor (2.13).” However, this patriotism manifests itself in a distinctly feminine way. His conception of feminine traits is nothing new. Women are still the emotional sex, the maternal caretakers of families and educators of their children, with a tendency to congregate in groups. However, unlike earlier Greek thinkers who saw these traits as limiting the glory women could achieve, Livy sees these traits working in women’s favor. Women play important roles in the Roman republic; like men, they are war heroes, ambassadors, and priests, or rather priestesses. At the same time, they bring a unique feminine grace to their role and thus are often more successful than the men in performing similar duties. In fact, this communalism is even contagious: in the stories of the Vestal Virgins, Lucretia, and Verginia, the women inspire the men to adopt and act on a typically feminine communal mindset.’

– Abels. K. (2005) Livy: Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Citizens Yale.edu p. 2-3

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