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Women in Antiquity: CLAS 330/HUM 330/WS 330 (3 units)
Presession, Summer 1995: Monday, May 15 - Saturday, June 3
9:00 -11:50 AM MTWTHF ML 312
Instructor: Marilyn B. Skinner (

Lecture 13: Women and Roman Religion

Pomeroy, chapter 10
Lefkowitz and Fant: 408-09, 412, 439

Forms of Religious Practice in Roman Empire

  1. TRADITIONAL CULTS: communal good
    1. promote socially desirable conduct, especially of women
    2. worshippers categorized according to age, status
    3. types of cult
      • - public religion in forum, temples
      • - semipublic cult in neighborhoods, clubs, associations
      • - family rituals involving household divinities, with paterfamilias as officiant
  2. MYSTERY RELIGIONS: personal good (cf. Paulina, L&F 439)
    1. salvation on individual basis
    2. social companionship, egalitarianism
    3. occasionally perceived by states as locus of unrest
    4. syncretism in later Empire

Special Features of Roman Religious Practice

  1. In contrast to Greek cult, relatively fewer priestesses
  2. Priestess' function chiefly political, not agricultural (Eumachia, L&F 196)
  3. Women-only cults:
    1. promotion of class hierarchies
      • - ritual beating of slave in Mater Matuta rites
      • - April 1: Fortuna Virilis and Venus Verticordia
    2. age stratification
    3. worship of abstractions
  4. Restrictions on female religious worship
    1. matronal cults--bloodless sacrifices
    2. women excluded from butchering victim, drinking wine (exceptions: Vestals, wives of flamen dialis and rex sacrorum)
  5. Augustus' use of cults to promote social ideals
  6. Special role of univira


  1. PRIESTESS OF CERES: equivalent of rites of Demeter at Eleusis
  2. Cult of deified Imperial women

Vestal Virgins (L&F 408-09)

  1. Selection of vestal and obligations imposed upon her
  2. Sacral functions
  3. Political authority
  4. Privileges granted them
  5. Anomaly of status, gender role
  6. Prosecution of vestals

Bona Dea Cult (L&F 412)

  1. Annual celebration excludes all men
  2. Prurient speculation about cult activities
  3. Profanation of rite

Isis - one of the most important mystery religions

  1. Origins in Egypt
  2. Political linkage with working classes--opposition of Senate in late Republican and early Imperial period
  3. Implications of the myth: death and resurrection. In the Egyptian rites, priests lead a gilded cow with a black linen pall to the Nile--she represents the mourning Isis. Osiris a symbol of the rising Nile.
  4. Attraction for those lacking families: personal identity and self-esteem through participation in a community of believers
  5. Initiation: personal election by the goddess, manifested in dreams. Costly ritual.
  6. Navigium Isidis in March--opening of sailing season, procession and dedication of boat; closely connected with grain transport
  7. Women's role in cult of Isis--quest of spouse; invoked as protector of marital fidelity, hence affirms married couple, not mother-child, as basic social unit. Link with companionate marriage of working classes.