[Chapter four from J.-P. Descoeudres, Pompeii Revisited: The Life and Death of a Roman Town (Sydney: Meditarch, 1994).]



Louise Zarmati


The names and faces of some of the women from all levels of society who lived, worked, and died in Pompeii are recorded in graffiti, frescoes, statues, and inscriptions.

Women and Literacy in Pompeii

Upper-class girls were taught to read and write, either at school or by slave tutors in their own homes.  Pliny the Younger tells us how much his third wife, the young Calpurnia, enjoyed reading and discussing his writings.  Juvenal writes scathingly of women who spend their time reading Latin and Greek, singing and playing the lyre instead of doing embroidery, while others believed that educated women made better wives and mothers.

Several frescoes from Pompeii indicated that literacy, amongst men and women, was for the Pompeian upper class a mark of status and respect, in the famous painting from VII 2,6 (now Naples 9058) depicting husband and wife (known as ‘the baker Terentius Neo and his wife’, or as ‘Paquius Proculus and his wife’) the woman holds a stylus and writing tablet (Fig. 68), and another painting (Fig. 37) shows a young woman holding a stylus to her lips with a writing tablet in the other hand.

Women are mentioned in the election slogans on the walls at Pompeii, even though they were not able to vote:

         Claudius’s little girlfriend is working for his election as duumvir.

         Vote for Lucius Popidius Sabinus.  His grandmother worked so hard

         for his last election and is pleased with the results.

It is difficult to determine whether these slogans were written by the women themselves, or are simply examples of men from the opposition using women to make fun of the candidates.

Wealthy Women

The beautiful Sabina Poppaea, who became the wife of Nero in AD 62, came from a wealthy Pompeian family who owned two luxurious houses, the House of the Gold Cupids and the famous House of the Menander.  Pliny the Younger writes of his friend, a lively old lady called Ummidia Quadratilla, who had so much money that she could afford to keep her own private company of entertainers.  Julia Felix was an independent woman who inherited a large fortune.  She owned an enormous, magnificently decorated house which occupied a whole block of the city.  The earthquake of AD 62 caused serious damage to her house and in order to pay for repairs she had part of it converted into public baths, shops, and a tavern which she rented.

Eumachia, Pompeii’s Most Prominent Woman

Eumachia occupied a position of unusual importance.  She was a member of one of Pompeii’s oldest families who owned vineyards and brickworks.  Eumachia was a priestess and a patroness of the guild of fullers—cleaners, dyers and clothing makers—which was one of the most influential trade-guilds in the city because the wool industry was one of Pompeii’s most important industries.  Eumachia provided the guild with a huge building in the Forum.  A statue of Eumachia was found during excavation of the building.  It had been set up by the fullers’ guild in honour of their generous patroness.

Business women

Women often went into partnership with their husbands and were allowed to earn profits from the business.  It was not unusual for a wife to take over the management of a business if her husband died.  Wives of craftsmen and traders would run the shop while their husbands took care of other aspects of the business.  A painting in the shop of M. Vecilius Verecundus, manufacturer of cloth and felt, shows his wife sitting at the counter while a young man chooses a pair of slippers from the shelves.  Women could also own property and were free to administer it themselves.  Inscribed tablets found at neighboring Herculaneum show that women were engaged in buying, selling, and leasing, but they were not allowed to become bankers.

Women could own and operate taverns, inns and bars which also served as brothels.  Valeria Hedone was an inn-keeper.  ‘Hedone’ is the Greek word for ‘pleasure’ (which could indicate that the business was a brothel as well) and the advertisement for her business says ‘Handsome soldier, drink here for just one as; for two you can drink better, and for four have some really good Falernian wine.’

Medical Women

There is a substantial amount of written evidence which records the part played by women in the medical profession.  Their professional status was recognized by law, and their fees were subject to regulation.  Many women worked as midwives, physicians or doctors, and, surprisingly, very few of them were freeborn.  There is even mention of a number of husband-and-wife medical teams, of which the wife was essentially the midwife.


Pompeii had a large foreign population involved in trade.  Freedwomen, because they often came from the East, frequently sold luxury items or exotic merchandise, such as dyes and perfumes, as well as clothes and food.

A study of the cloth trade in Pompeii has revealed that although most of the weaving was done by men, some women worked independently making and mending clothes.  They earned little money and their status in society was low.  One woman named Specula was employed in a fulling mill—where cloth is cleansed and thickened—to brush and thicken the cloth.

Statia and Petronia were women who worked as assistants in a bakery.  Among other women one is recorded as a ‘dealer in beans’ and another as a ‘seller of snails’.

Slave women

Female slaves performed a wide range of duties, depending on the needs of their owners.  Some worked as house-hold slaves, cooking and cleaning, or as nannies and wet-nurses (nutrices).  Some managed businesses or even worked as labourers for house or ship construction.  Others were personal attendants (pedisequae) for wealth upper class women. 


In the Street of the Tombs in Pompeii stands the funerary chamber of the priestess Mamia.  The inscription reads:

         Mamia, daughter of Publius, public priestess.  The place of burial was

         given by decree of the decuriones.

She also built a small temple for herself using her own money.

It is unclear to which cult Mamia belonged.  One of the most popular cults amongst the women of Pompeii was the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, which was probably brought to Italy by foreign women.  Nearly one-third of worshippers named in inscriptions are female.  The cult was open to all.  There was a professional body of male priests, but both men and women could hold high positions within the cult.  Wall-paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum show women participating in the ceremonies.  The Temple of Isis is one of the few public buildings to have been rebuilt after the earthquake in AD 62.  Prostitutes worshipped the goddess Isis who was said to have lived as a prostitute in Tyre for ten years.  Isis temples were favourite meeting places for prostitutes, and brothels were often located nearby.


Roman sexuality operated according to a set of moral values set by men.  Restrictions applied especially to upper-class women because they were the ones who produced the élite citizens of the state.  An upper-class girl had to be a virgin when she married, usually at puberty, and was not allowed to have sex with a man other than her husband.  This was an attempt to ensure that her husband was the only possible father of her children.  Augustus ruled that adultery was a public offence for women only.  The father of an adulterous daughter could kill her if she was still under his control, and a husband was obliged to divorce an adulterous wife, but only if the woman had been caught in the act.  No man was allowed to have sex with an unmarried or widowed free-born woman, unless she was a prostitute.


Although the prostitute herself was considered to be disreputable, prostitution was not a criminal offence and was seen as a normal part of the sex life of Roman men.  Legally prostitution was treated as a business like any other.  Prostitutes were required to register with the aediles and prostitution became so profitable during the time of Caligula that the emperor introduced a tax on the activity.

There were different types of prostitute in Roman society: there were slaves, freedwomen and foreigners; some were free-born Romans.  Attractive, educated ‘high-class’ courtesans were well-kept by their lovers and were able to afford their own luxurious homes.  They were pursued by men because of their skills in ‘the art of love’ and were able to choose their lovers.  Foreign prostitutes came in a variety of ethnic groups and were popular because they were considered exotic and not subject to the same social constraints as Roman women.

It was not difficult to find a prostitute on the streets of Pompeii, as the calls of lupae (she-wolves) led men to the lupanaria (brothels).  Many of the brothels contain graffiti which mention the names of the women who worked there and the services they provided.  One customer wrote, ‘Here I had sex with a very beautiful girl admired by many’.  Other graffiti tell us that Asellina operated a bar and that Palmyra the Oriental, Aglae the Greek, Maria the Jewess and Zmyrina the Exotic worked there as prostitutes.

It is impossible to determine the status of the women from the graffiti in the brothels, but it seems likely that they were slaves or freedwomen.  Some of the inns (cauponae) and lunch counters (thermopolia) had rooms which were decorated with erotic paintings and graffiti, so it is assumed that they were used for prostitution.  The names of waitresses and prostitutes were scribbled on walls at Pompeii with comments about their charms and vices.  The graffiti—probably written as insults by male clientele—say that some women can be bought for two asses, the same as the price of a loaf of bread.

The biggest brothel in Pompeii belonged to a man called Africanus and was a two-storey building with ten bedrooms, a latrine under the stairs, and erotic paintings over the doors of the cells illustrating different experiences which could be purchased (Fig. 69).  Rooms were divided into small, dark cells (cellae meretriciae) with only just enough room for a bed.  Some of the very poor women pratised their trade out-of-doors under archways.  (The word ‘fornicate’ comes from the Latin formix, meaning ‘arch’.)

Illicit Sex and Rape

It was not uncommon for upper-class men and women to have sexual relationships with slaves.  In general it was socially unacceptable for an upper-class woman to have a sexual relationship with a male slave, and formal Roman marriage between them was forbidden.  Some couples, however, defied social rules and lived in de facto relationships.  Children born from such a union were of free status.  It was more common, and accepted, for an upper-class male to have a sexual relationship with a female slave.  Though there are no records of legal complaints by slave women, it may be supposed that many women did not consent to such relationships and were coerced, or even worse raped, by their masters because they were considered as his property.  A child produced by such a union was of slave status.  Rape could be prosecuted by law, but it was considered to be a crime, not against the woman herself, but against the man under whose authority she fell.  It was therefore impossible for lower-class women and slaves to prosecute their rapists as the legal action had to be initiated by a man.

Romantic Love

The more light-hearted and romantic side of love is depicted in our painting of the ‘Eros shop’ (Fig. 67).  The painting shows a woman leaning against a wall while an old man bends over a cage full of cupids.  In his left hand he holds the lid and in his right the key to the cage.  It is not clear whether he is struggling to take the cupid out of the cage or trying to put him back inside.  Two other cupids are free; one carries two crowns and flies towards the woman, while the other hides playfully behind her skirt.  What is the status of the woman?  Is she a respectable matrona, a high-class courtesan, or a brothel-keeper?  Is the message about the instability of love, and the difficulty of trying to keep love under lock and key?

Conception, Contraception, and Abortion

The emperor Augustus introduced legislation which was designed to keep as many women as possible married and bearing children.  A woman was expected to be married by the age of twenty and if not she was penalized.  Failure to remarry on the death of a spouse was also penalized.  Although the state encouraged the production of children, many Roman couples practised contraception, which was preferable to abortion since it lessened the risk of complications during pregnancy and death in childbirth.

Our knowledge of Roman methods of birth control comes from the writings of men, because even though it was women who were responsible for contraception they did not write about the techniques they used.  The main source of such information is Soranus, a Greek from Ephesus in Asia Minor, who practised medicine in Rome during the 1st century AD.  He describes a number of bizarre techniques for preventing conception or causing an abortion.  For instance, the application of a mixture of olive oil, honey, cedar resin or juice of the balsam tree—alone or together with white lead—was thought to be efficacious in avoiding conception, while an unwanted pregnancy could be terminated by walking or riding a draught animal, or by sitting in a bath of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marsh mallow and wormwood.  We do not know how successful his methods were, but they must have resulted in much discomfort for the women who used them.