1 Early Roman women: the cult of Vesta
In ancient Rome, there was an all-female priestly college, the College of the Vestal Virgins. The priestesses were in charge of tending the sacred fire of the goddess Vesta, kept burning day and night, which had always assured social unity and the strength of the Urbs. The cult of Vesta has extremely ancient origins, dawning back earlier than the foundation of Rome itself. Its officiants were young women of noble birth, like Rhea Silvia, the princess from Alba Longa who gave birth to Romulus and Remus. In one version of the myth, the twins’ mother was buried alive, subject to the same punishment inflicted upon Vestals accused of violating their vow of chastity, which was to be observed for no less than thirty years.
2 Women and medicine in the ancient world: the Spring of Juturna
The nymph Juturna is a goddess of wells and springs, and as such was worshiped near pools of fresh water. In mythology, she was sister to Turnus, king of the Rutuli, who was the chief antagonist in Virgil’s Aeneid: before establishing itself in Rome, the nymph’s cult was initially associated with a spring in Lavinium, the city founded by Aeneas after the hero came ashore in Latium.
Water, as with all life-giving elements, is often associated with female figures, but in this case, its medical and healing properties give it special importance. In the vicinity of springs, structures were often available where the ill and infirm could take advantage of these restorative properties.
3 Passion, infidelity and divine ancestors: Venus Genetrix
Tales of conjugal infidelity in Roman mythology almost always end in extraordinary ways: it’s no surprise that, from the union of mortal men with the goddess Venus, divine expression of beauty and fecundity, the greatest of heroes sprung.
Such is the case of Aeneas, born of Venus and Anchises, a Trojan hero. The geographical setting of the Aeneas saga in Latium and the consolidation of the legend of Rome’s Trojan origins permitted certain Roman families to underline unequivocally their link to the hero: among them was the gens Julia – Julius Caesar’s family —, whose members claimed descendance from Venus. The story of this mythical ancestor was very important to Caesar, and to celebrate her he erected the Temple of Venus Genetrix in the forum not far from the senate house. The goddess was recognized as founder and patron of the gens Julia, on par with Mars who was father to Romulus, and, in the eyes of the empire’s state religion, she became the progenitrix of the Roman people.
4 Julia, the rebel daughter
The emperor Augustus, tireless defender of the principles at the basis of the Roman family, had a daughter, Julia, who sources remember as a woman of great beauty, but with a restless, extravagant and rebellious character. Contemporary authors give us the image of a cultured, intriguing woman with a decidedly libertine streak—a characteristic for which she would pay dearly, despite her rank and the pleas of the Roman people, who begged for clemency on her part. Widow to Marcellus, and then to Agrippa, mother to five children, she was forced by her father to marry Tiberius, son of Livia, who was Augustus’s third and final consort. Julia scorned and humiliated her husband, to the point where she was publicly accused of multiple counts of adultery. She was forced into exile on the island of Pandateria (now Ventotene), where she was kept under strict surveillance and was subject to harsh restrictions, and was later condemned by Tiberius, now emperor, to spend her final days confined to a single room, in complete isolation.
5 Women and power: Livia
History has not been kind in its traditional portrayal of Livia, third and final wife of Octavian Augustus, despite recognizing her intelligence and beauty: she is best known for being calculating and pitiless, in addition to being an exemplary mother and wife. Her first marriage was to Tiberius Claudius Nero, with whom she had two children, Tiberius and Drusus, the latter being born just three days prior to her second marriage. Sources tell how she spent half a century scheming for the succession of her firstborn Tiberius, whose rivals all died, systematically, at a young age. Being the imperial heir was not easy for Tiberius, who was also forced, upon his mother’s wishes, to divorce his beloved wife and marry Julia, the daughter of Octavian.
6 The women of the Palatine (Museum)
Mystery surrounds the statue known as “the Dancer”. It presents an uncommon iconography: the few known copies of the same statue type have all been found without heads and arms, making any attempts at identification very difficult. It could perhaps be a young athlete: every four years, games open only to women were announced at Olympia, where competitors wore the same lightweight, above-the-knee-length garment that we find on the torso. Winners were honored with a crown of laurels and a statue in their likeness — our Dancer might just be one of these lucky few.
The young girl
The young princess is a masterpiece of Roman portraiture. The artist’s abilities utterly transform the Greek marble out of which the face is carved, appearing as soft, satiny flesh. The statue’s full face, with large eyes and thick locks of hair cascading over the forehead and pulled back into a bun behind the head, underline the subject’s youth and grace her with a typically childlike air of innocence.
The nymph Aura is the personification of the breeze; this is why she is portrayed in movement, with her dress flying about around her and hugging the curves of her body, dishevelled by the wind. Her story is told in the Dionysiaca by the Greek writer Nonnus of Panopolis. Aura, a virgin huntress, offended Artemis by insinuating that the goddess’s large and voluptuous breasts were like those of a nursing woman. Artemis punished her with the aid of Nemesis, goddess of revenge: as an act of retaliation, Dionysus takes her maidenhood.
7 The Magna Mater
The cult of Cybele, known in Rome as the Magna Mater, originates in Asia Minor: ruler of the natural world, personification of the creative force of all lifeforms, she was represented both as mother of land and mountains, seated on a rock-hewn throne, as well as lady of the animals and nature, flanked by a pair of lions. The introduction of the cult of Cybele in Rome is linked to the city’s history: according to historical sources, not only was she invoked during the second Punic War to ensure the victory of the Roman people, but she is also connected to their Trojan origins. Ovid tells how, thanks to the Magna Mater, Aeneas found refuge on Mount Ida after the Trojan War, after which he would go on to fulfil his destiny as forefather of the founders of Rome.
8 Women in the Colosseum
Female participation in the munera as gladiatrixes, huntresses or in combat against dwarves, although only occasional, is nevertheless attested by various literary sources and by rare archaeological evidence, for example the 2nd century AD mosaic on display as part of “Il Colosseo si racconta”, which shows the victory of two huntresses over a tiger. Women participating in the amphitheatre were accepted by the public as long as they came from low social classes, as detailed in the 19 AD senatorial decree that forbade citizens from the higher classes (senators or equites) in taking part in the games. The deciding factor was therefore the census and not gender; at least until the rise of Septimius Severus, who tried to prohibit — not always successfully — the participation of women ready to battle it out in the arena.