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Who Were The Women of Pompeii and Herculaneum Before Mount Vesuvius Erupted?

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

The women who lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum before the volcanic eruption of AD 79 had social and economic emancipation in accordance to their standing within society. Many of them took on different roles, ranging from very successful women such as Julia Felix and Eumachia, to slave women and prostitutes. The responsibilities of a domestic housewife, such as raising children or running the household, were attributed to females. There is evidence to prove that women actively participated in the religious, public and business life of these cities. Due to the way literary sources, written by men, shed minimal light on the role of women (especially the lower class) during this time-frame, most of the information about women comes from their voices in graffito and inscriptions.

Pompeii and Herculaneum is most commonly known for being engulfed by soot and ash due to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD

Pompeii and Herculaneum is most commonly known for being engulfed by soot and ash due to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD

Upper-Class Women

The societies of Pompeii and Herculaneum were divided by social classes such as freeborn, freedmen and slaves. Women were no exception. Political abilities such as the right to run for office and voting was only available to men. However, women still had the ability to influence the votes through creating programmata on the government walls. Excavated evidence reveals that women wrote 14.5% of the painted notices or programmata around the city, highlighting their influence on political matters.

Females from privileged and higher classes were educated as they were taught to read and write, either at school or by slave tutors in their homes. Pliny the Younger, a resident of Pompeii, mentioned in his writings that his third wife (Calpurnia) had hobbies such as discussing his writing and reading. The only poetry written by women consists of six poems of Sulpicia, who had lived during the late first century BC. These poems revolved around the subjects of sickness, love and birthdays. Overall, literacy was associated with men and women of the upper class and those with status, as indicated by several frescoes in the city. It was believed that women who were well educated made better wives and mothers.

I beg you to elect Cn. Helvius Sabinus aedile, worthy of public office. Maria asks this

— Excavated Programmata

Fresco showing a woman so-called Sappho holding writing implements, from Pompeii, Naples


Occupations that were available to freeborn women consisted of the work of weavers, laundresses, midwives, vegetable sellers, butchers, doctors, fullery workers and fish-sellers. One inscription in Pompeii mentions occupations such as a “bean-dealer, nail-seller, brick-marker, even stonecutter”. A few women would create a business partnership with their husband and would normally take over the business if the husband were to pass away. A painting in the shop of M. Vesuvius Verecundus (a manufacturer of cloth and felt) shows his wife sitting at the counter while a young man chooses a pair of slippers from the shelves.

Even though the occupation of weaving was dominated by males in factories, some women were able to work independently in their households making and mending clothes. However, these women would earn minimal money, while having a low status within society. The highest paying occupation for both freedwomen and slaves was spinning wool. Those who specialised in this were called ‘basket-women’. Women could also enjoy economic emancipation; Pliny the Younger mentions his friend Ummidia Quadratilla (an old lively lady), who was rich enough to own a private company of entertainers for herself.

Portrait of the Baker, Terentius Neo and his wife, from the atrium of a house in Pompeii, 1st century AD (fresco on plaster. Terentius wears a toga


Rich Women

Women were able to hold a considerable amount of wealth and status as portrayed by Emachia, Julia Felix and Poppea Sabina. Emachia was able to assume the role of priestess after inheriting a considerable fortune and marrying into one of Pompeii's oldest families (the Numistrii Frontones.) She belonged to the highest level of Pompeii's society and later became the patron of the Fuller’s Guild. Due to her wealth, Emachia was able to use her money to commission a large building to the Forum, which was added to the east side and was used as the headquarters of the collegium of fullones. Archaeologists had discovered a statue of Emachia had also been erected; the long palla (a traditional loose shawl) draped over her head suggests her respectability and role as a priestess.

Another successful woman was Julia Felix, who had owned and rented public baths, shops and rooms. Excavations of Pompeii had revealed that her house was damaged significantly due to the AD 62 earthquake and had undergone extensive repair and remodelling. The house included a vegetable garden, outdoor pool, toilets and a food and drink bar.

Lastly, another woman of significant status was Poppea Sabina, who had married Emperor Nero. Tacitus described Poppea Sabina as being both ambitious and ruthless. Poppea Sabina had owned a luxury villa near Oplontis and members of her family are said to have owned the House of Menander and the House of the Golden Cupids. These women thus show that if you had a good sum of money or high level of status, women were able to enjoy economic emancipation.

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“To let, on the property of Julia Sp.f. Felix, a ladies’ and gentlemen’s bathing establishment…bars, lock-up shops, rooms. Five years lease from August 13th”.

— -An inscription found advertising Julia Felix's shops

Slave Women (servi)

While higher class women were able to enjoy economic freedom and education, slave women were limited by their own status. Occupations that were available for slave women consisted of cooks, cleaners, household servants, entertainers, servers, prostitutes and personal attendants. By Roman law, slave women were not allowed to marry. Their offspring were not their own, rather they belonged to the mother's master. However, alike male servi, women of that class could be emancipated and once they were, they were able to buy their children from the owner.

Through excavation, wax tablets have been uncovered featuring a court case. This concerned a custody battle over the ownership of Justa, the daughter of a freedwoman (liberti.) Her mother was once a servi to a member of the pleb's media, Gaius Petronius Stephanus, who claimed he and his wife had brought up Justa like a daughter. Justa’s mother, Petronia Vitalis, was fighting for custody and was eventually granted it on the condition that she reimbursed her former master for her daughter’s upkeep. When Vitalis died, Stephanus’s wife, Calactoria, tired to reclaim Justa and all the property she had inherited. The case was active during the eruption of Vesuvius, (79AD.)

HSC Ancient History - Pompeii & Herculaneum Social Structure

Female servi were treated depending on the master's personality. An example of a fair treatment of a female servi was shown by a skeleton found in Pompeii that had a large quantity of gold jewellery, including a serpent bracelet engraved DOMINUS ANCILLAE SUAE (from the master to his slave girl). Domestic slaves were suspected to be treated better than others. A few servi even used to grow their hair so the wife of the house could wear it as a wig.

However, agricultural slaves were suspected have gone through much harsher treatment. Agricultural servi had their own living quarters due to the large number of them. The skeleton of a slave was found in a sort of underground prison, chained by both legs at the Villa of the Mosaic Columns just outside Pompeii. This evidence further proves how different slaves endured different treatment by their masters and that unlike higher classes in society, they did not have much social freedom.

DOMINUS ANCILLAE SUAE (from the master to his slave girl)


Prostitution in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Another common occupation within Pompeii and Herculaneum was prostitution, which was a common occupation for women of lower class. Despite prostitution was considered a normal and legal part of society, prostitutes themselves were considered disreputable, though. In a legal sense, prostitution was treated as a business practice and prostitutes were required to register with the aediles. The majority of prostitutes consisted of slaves, liberti (freedwomen) and a few foreigners, who were considered exotic. Few liberti would take part in this occupation, however, wives, daughters and granddaughters of patricians and those of the higher classes were forbidden

lipanaria was the name attributed to brothels. These buildings were filled with graffiti and erotic paintings. Most graffiti would either mention the names of the women who worked there and the services they provided or men expressing their experiences. Paintings normally hung over doors and illustrated the different experiences a man could buy. Throughout the reign of Caligula, prostitution became so profitable a tax was introduced on the occupation. Professor Thomas McGinn had identified at least 26 brothels in Pompeii. Though no Iimpanaria had been yet found in Herculaneum, it was suspected that prostitution was also practised within the city.

Lost World Of Pompeii (Ancient Rome Documentary) | Timeline

Declarations of love had been uncovered through graffito. In a basilica a man wrote, “No young buck is complete until he has fallen in love” and in the House of Caecilius Iucundus, “Whoever loves, let him flourish. Let him perish who knows not love. Let him perish twice over whoever forbids love”. However, if this love did not work out divorce was easily accomplished. Under the Augustinian law, a declaration of the reason for divorce in front of seven witnesses was all that had to be done. If a woman had had a sine manu marriages she was entitled to a full refund of her dowry. However, if the woman she had been independent of her father prior to marriage, she would regain her independence once divorced. In comparison to other ancient societies such as the ancient Greeks, this demonstrated that the women of Pompeii and Herculaneum had a high level of social emancipation.


Social and economic emancipation of the women of Herculaneum and Pompeii was dependent on their level of wealth and status. Females such as Eumachia, Julia Felix and Poppea Sabina demonstrate how women were able to reach a high level of society. However, women of the lower classes such as prostitutes and servi were unable to hold such high levels of freedom. The information that is available about women occupation and social standards is highly reliant on archaeological evidence, including inscriptions (programmata), graffiti and visual images (paintings). This evidence largely contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the women in Pompeii and Herculaneum before the eruption of AD 79.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Simran Singh

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