Friends, Romans, Countrywomen…

Updated Feb 2019: Before the lone gladiatrix in Phobetor’s Children became Livia Saturnia, she was a male character named Tiberius Tadius Saturninus. In 2014 when this article originally went live, I decided to make him female, and to change his status from freedman (one status above slave) to Patrician (the highest status). This is a summary of my research.

Saturninus is now Saturnia. Her new profile is this:

  • She is the 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 proving herself a capable fighter in the arena, she retired and bought a gladiator school with the winnings
  • At the start of Phobetor’s Children, the school has fallen on hard times (which was the case when she was male) and the mission will give her  the cash boost she needs to resurrect the school’s fortunes through raising both profile and investment
  • 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) but it will be revealed during the story

Rome and the Status of Women

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.

Wealth: The patrician women of the Roman Empire had a lot of it. She would have more disposable income than her husband or her father because she was not allowed to enter many of the public interests expected of her brothers and father. This would be especially true if he was running for office because in the absence of political parties, it was 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 permit the family to starve. 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? A high born woman was expected to at be interested in matters of state even if she could not enter political office. Naturally, any dutiful Roman wife would support her husband and family as much as she could. One way she could do this is generate finance to support the family. A second, and less known is that women were active business managers. They invested money, managed land, and kept a close eye on the family’s business interests. It is not unusual for a high-class Roman woman (and probably to a greater extent, the middle class Equites) to spend her public life developing good business acumen.

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. The armies needed supplies. Shipping was a big part of that – both for commercial trade and to keep the legions supplied with equipment, food, building material etc to maintain the momentum of their rapid expansion across the British Isles. Evidence suggests that Claudius petitioned rich women specifically to establish and invest in shipping – promising lucrative returns which, of course, they capitalised on.

Source: Hans Splinter Flickr. Creative Commons (License)

Politics: Though the father would always be the head of the household and final decision for the family rested with him regardless of class, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that wealthy women who would have had hands-on experience managing a household or a business were never consulted and never offered their opinions and experience.

The best example of a politically persuasive woman is Domitia Decidiana who married the famous general Agricola. Despite his fame, this was a case of the general “marrying up”. Their marriage was clearly one of a political alliance with the balance of power being in favour of Domitia Decidiana. With her business and political connections, and the high esteem of the senate, Agricola saw her personal (not familial) connections improve. The high esteem that she brought to the marriage along with the wealth was vital to his later career.

Gladiators and Class Snobbery

Which brings me back to Livia 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 wouldn’t want to just be a lady of leisure at her father’s expense until she married to simply transfer the financial burden of her leisure to a husband. One of my favourite lines from Phobetor’s Children:

‘What would you have me do, put my money into Imperial shipping for the Flavians and their hangers-on to spend on courtesans and bribes while I drink wine and eating dates all day watching money empty into my lap? That has never been my way, mother.’

Livia Saturnia – Phobetor’s Children

Equally, it is not unusual that a woman of means would look at ways of investing her wealth and to take proactive interest in doing so. High status Roman women had fewer freedoms and life choices than a high status man, but she would have had more life choices than a Plebeian of either sex and more freedom to do so because of the circles to which she had access, and the wealth into which she was born.

It’s hard to believe or accept that in hundreds of years of all the women of wealth born under the Roman Republic and the empire, not one of them was born without a spirit of non-conformity and be compliant in her gilded cage of “wine and dates” with no interest in anything else. That said, a high-born status always comes with certain expectations regardless of sex. Business interests for a wealth Roman woman was not unusual but investing that money in a ludus (a Gladiator School) was unusual.

Livia Saturnia receives disapproval for this. This had nothing to with her sex; it was purely an issue of class snobbery.

In contrast, the games were for the low born, slaves, prisoners of war, debtors, the former higher-born who had lost everything. They were for the Patrician class to watch and enjoy, but not to participate. 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 finally steps out of the arena to much relief from her disapproving family, that relief becomes short lived when she decides to invest her wealth in a a gladiator school. Imagine if one of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandchildren chose to invest in a lap dancing club. That’s the level of a business interest being below Livia Saturnia’s station we are talking about here.

Final Thoughts

I realise that by including Livia Saturnia I am bringing in a rare element to Roman society, but by no means unheard of. I’m not doing this for diversity for diversity’s sake, nor for “political correctness gorn maaaad” I genuinely think the story has opened up for the inclusion of a gladiatrix whose profile is vastly different from her five comrades in arms. In so doing, I hopefully dispel some of the myths about high class Roman women while moving away from the trope of the Surprisingly Emancipated Woman so common in period pieces.

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6 responses to “Friends, Romans, Countrywomen…”

    • 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.

    • 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.

  1. 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).

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