The Roman women, as well as the Grecian, were under perpetual guardianship; and were not at any age, nor in any condition, ever trusted with the management of their own fortunes.
Every father had power of life and death over his own daughters: but this power was not restricted to daughters only; it extended also to sons.
The Oppian law prohibited women from having more than half an ounce of gold employed in ornamenting their persons, from wearing clothes of divers colors, and from riding in chariots, either in the city, or a thousand paces round it.
They were strictly forbid to use wine, or even to have in their possession the key of any place where it was kept. For either of these faults they were liable to be divorced by their husbands. So careful were the Romans in restraining their women from wine, that they are supposed to have first introduced the custom of saluting their female relations and acquaintances, on entering the house of a friend or neighbor, that they might discover by their breath, whether they had tasted any of that liquor.
This strictness, however, began in time to be relaxed; until at last, luxury becoming too strong for every law, the women indulged themselves in equal liberties with the men.
But such was not the case in the earlier ages of Rome. Romulus even permitted husbands to kill their wives, if they found them drinking wine.
Fabius Pictor relates that the parents of a Roman lady, having detected her picking the lock of a chest which contained some wine, shut her up and starved her to death.
Women were liable to be divorced by their husbands almost at pleasure, provided the portion was returned which they had brought along with them. They were also liable to be divorced for barrenness, which, if it could be construed into a fault, was at least the fault of nature, and might sometimes be that of the husband.
A few sumptuary laws, a subordination to the men, and a total want of authority, do not so much affect the sex, as to be coldly and indelicately treated by their husbands.
Such a treatment is touching them in the tenderest part. Such, however we have reason to believe, they often met with from the Romans, who had not learned, as in modern times to blend the rigidity of the patriot, and roughness of the warrior, with that soft and indulging behavior, so conspicuous in our modern patriots and heroes.
Husbands among the Romans not only themselves behaved roughly to their wives, but even sometimes permitted their servants and slaves to do the same. The principal eunuch of Justinian the Second, threatened to chastise the Empress, his master’s wife, in the manner that children are chastised at school, if she did not obey his orders.
With regard to the private diversions of the Roman ladies, history is silent. Their public ones, were such as were common to both sexes; as bathing, theatrical representations, horse-races, shows of wild beasts, which fought against one another, and sometimes against men, whom the emperors, in the plenitude of their despotic power, ordered to engage them.
The Romans, of both sexes, spent a great deal of time at the baths; which at first, perhaps, were interwoven with their religion, but at last were only considered as refinements in luxury. They were places of public resort, where people met with their acquaintances and friends, where public libraries were kept for such as chose to read, and where poets recited their works to such as had patience to hear.
In the earlier periods of Rome, separate baths were appropriated to each sex. Luxury, by degrees getting the better of decency, the men and women at last bathed promiscuously together. Though this indecent manner of bathing was prohibited by the emperor Adrian; yet, in a short time, inclination overcame the prohibition; and, in spite of every effort, promiscuous bathing continued until the time of Constantine, who, by the coercive force of the legislative authority, and the rewards and terrors of the Christian religion, put a final stop to it.