Servilia Caepionis, Julius Caesar´s paramour, may not have figured prominently in the annals of history, but we know that she was loyal to him until he was brutally slain by her son Brutus, together with her son-in-law Cassius, in 44 B.C.  Servilia´s turbulent love life and her political involvement make us ponder on the private and public roles played by women in ancient Rome.

The history of Rome is replete with power, passion, greatness and glory, but very limited  reference is made to the gifted and attractive women lingering in the background.  But finally, the voice of Roman females from the past can be heard (and rather loudly, too) thanks to the Caixa Banking Foundation.  All roads will truly lead to Rome in this temporary exhibition, held at Caixa Forum until February 14th.  This fantastic selection of pieces will bring us right into the heart of women and their daily lives in the midst of the Roman Empire.

The stunning collection on display, titled Women of Rome: Seductive, Maternal, Excessive, includes of objects and artifacts from magnificent villas wherein archaeologists and historians have delved into mythology, religion and vis materna harping on the interesting lives led by women in Roman society. 

Accolades go out to the Caixa Banking Foundation  for arranging the loan of 178 exquisite pieces from the Louvre Museum and being able to show them in Madrid for the first time.  It is indeed a sheer pleasure to pace through the spacious halls admiring the imposing marble statues and the delicate fragments giving us a glimpse of the female universe in classical Italy 2,000 years ago.  The scholarly research accompanying this exhibition has brought interesting facts to light,  raising the important role of women to loftier heights in a realm dominated mainly by men.

Even though certain Roman women held high positions in ancient Rome (from matrons to spouses of the Emperor), the vast majority of them were looked down upon, and were considered in the  same legal category as children.  Status was extremely important, of course, and if a Roman woman was not married, she was expected to be cared for by her father, whilst married ladies would be dependent on their spouse.

The silenced voice of Roman women may be faintly heard in literary sources,  but it is mainly through carvings representing daily life where we see the female universe and get a clearer understanding of their environment.  Detailed terracotta reliefs, known as Campana tiles (some of which have been painstakingly restored thanks to the Caixa Banking Foundation and the Louvre Museum) afford us an insight into their performance as mothers, wives and homemakers going about domestic chores, or as young, carefree maidens dancing in honour of the gods. 

placa de terracota tiaso dionisiaco italia siglo i ac siglo i dc arcilla policromia antigua muy recargada en el siglo                                            Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

Four principles dominated the lives of women: fertility, prosperity, creation and the power of fate. Women were thought to be more sentimental than men and thus living in an individualist society meant being able, at least in theory, to share power and desire equally.

The wives of emperors rose to the occasion during the Augustan Age, when women had fortune and also participated in religious ceremonies. Portraits of emperors and their families appeared in public places, such as the Ara Pacis in Rome, striking a lively picture of a blissful family thriving in a balanced society.  

Appearance was of course a fundamental way to display social status, and one of the first displays in the exhibition is a selection of portraits in marble, showcasing a variety of hairstyles.  It is interesting to note the degree of elaboration in some of the hairstyles, and how some of them were inspired by the Greek representations of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with the hair arranged in braids and locks placed gracefully around the crown.  Ancient statues of Aphrodite were copied by Roman artists representing Venus, and mirroring hairstyle trends set by the earlier Greeks.    

estatuilla de venus italia siglo ii dc marmol coleccion della porta y coleccion borghese musee du louvre c rmn grand pala                                                  Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

Some other styles show a centre parting with wavy locks of hair on either side, and a tight bun at the nape. Extremely sophisticated arrangements set in during the Flavian period.  The wife of Septimius Severus, Empress Julia Domna, had a strong influence on politics and, of course, her influence reached female fashion too.  She became a trend-setter by donning a wig made from lovely long natural glossy hair.  Julia Domna, whose family hailed from Syria, was an important patroness of the arts and encouraged higher learning for women in the court.  
fragmento de pintura mural caliope musa de la poesia epica pompeya italia praedia de julia felix cubiculum 97 62 79 d                                              Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

The pursuit of beauty was very important to women and therefore Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, features prominently on some everyday objects such as oil lamps.  Her bare back and feminine gesture instil this humble ceramic piece with sensuality and desire. 

lampara de aceite venus italia segunda mitad del siglo i dc arcilla el medallon se monto en la lampara en el siglo xix                                            Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

Other female deities in the Roman culture were not so seductive, such as Minerva. Like some Hindu gods, she bore both good and evil qualities; she was not only a protector of arts and artisans but also a warrior goddess.  Diana, sister to Apollo, was also the goddess of hunting and was firmly determined to remain a virgin maiden, who preferred to dwell in the woods with her companions.  The danger hidden beneath a pleasant and sensual appearance was a warning to Roman men to beware of the power of women, indeed.  The presence of dangerous female creatures in classical mythology such as gorgons or sirens, was surely used to ward men off the attractive (and distracting) charms of women.  Sirens, endowed with natural beauty and melodious voices, were said to lure desperate sailors seeking out love to shipwreck on the rocky coasts off their islands. 

That did not stop Roman sculptors from chiseling desirable and perfect bodies of women filled with beauty, harmony and grace. The Three Graces were a shining example of abundance, and we are very fortunate to be able to admire this group found at the Villa Cornovaglia in Rome: 

las tres gracias roma colina de celio villa cornovaglia antes de 1608 siglo i ii dc marmol coleccion borghese musee                                                  Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

Most of the pieces on display at this exhibition speak for themselves, such as the jewelry worn by these striking women.  The miniature portraits decorating cameo rings, for example, have a million tales to tell.  These expensive portraits, which show fashionable courtly hairdos, were the cynosure of every eye.  Only privileged hands could afford to bear these intricately carved gems mounted on gold.  

anillo decorado con un camafeo rostro de mujer de perfil procedencia desconocida epoca imperial oro y sardonice musee du                                                Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

The importance granted to feminine presence in Nature is obvious: both the winds and the seasons bore female names, whilst rivers came to life as old men.  Nymphs appear in water-related scenes, infusing them with youth and vitality.

fragmento de pintura mural rio sarno y dos ninfas pompeya italia casa de las vestales 50 79 dc pintura al fresco muse                                                    Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

It is interesting that the benevolent characters who inspired wise men, writers, poets and artists are female: the Muses.  Muses feature on the writings of Homer, Pinder, Herodotus, Euripides and other classical authors, who discussed their role, and the average Roman citizen would gladly welcome guests to his abode as it was strongly believed that Muses would enlighten visitors.  Archeologists stumbled upon a set of frescos featuring Apollo and eight of the Muses in Pompeii in 1755. 

Clearly, wealth, fashion and desire were displayed in art, but so was the concept of Virtue and everyday life.  Often represented in terracotta figurines, the matron stood out in these creations.  The life cycle of Roman women is reflected in the exhibition.  Marriage and Maternity are often represented and we see women nursing babies and caring for young children, in scenes that make us consider the strong ties binding us to our families throughout life.  The presence of the sorceress Medea – who infamously killed her children out of spite towards her husband- is slightly unsettling but clearly adds to the value that Roman society placed on healthy childen and doting mothers.  

Religion played a very prominent role in the lives of Roman women, who surrounded themselves with images of goddesses emerging from the Roman Pantheon, such as Ceres, June, Minerva and Diana.  It was common practice to seek the gods through ritual dancing and marching in unison, as we see in some of the reliefs showing dancers with musical instruments.  

relieve menades bailando procedencia desconocida siglo i dc marmol musee du louvre c 2014 musee du louvre dist rmn gra                                                Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

The frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii have indeed many a story to relate regarding the women who were initiated into the mysteries closely connected to life, death or afterlife.

Regarding death and rituals, the exhibition includes some haunting portraits on wood panels produced in Egypt under Roman domination.  These portraits were placed over the face of the deceased person following ancient Egyptian custom.  Scholars at the Antinopolis site have suggested that great pains were taken to comply with these rites and to adapt these painted portraits to the shape of the deceased before attaching them to the mummy.  Pliny the Elder made a reference to these particular portraits in his writings, and we can see why they merited a mention: we stand in awe of their liveliness and modernity.   They show us highly individualized faces of women who look astoundingly human, alive and contemporary. 

retrato de mujer probablemente tebas egipto c 160 180 dc madera de tilo pintada a la encaustica musee du louvre c musee                                                  Photograph courtesy of Caixa Banking Fundation

The aura of the splendor that once was Rome, and the role that women played in socitety, will linger on for days on end. The organisers and curators of this exhibition have striven for perfection to bring the message home with this splendid homage to Roman women.  The questions posed by the public and private roles and images of women 2,000 years ago are as relevant today to 21st-century women in Spain. This was evident at the exhibit where many young and older female visitors paused at every statue to admire the elaborate hairdos and to comment on the exploits of The Women of Rome.

Opening hours: 

Monday to Saturday-until 14 February: 10:00 to 20:00

Admission fee: 

4 €


CaixaForum Madrid

Paseo del Prado 36  

Nearest Metro station: Atocha 

© Kris Sinclair Christian, February 2016. Please note that this article may be quoted in editorial contexts only, with source and author.