Roman Wives, Roman Widows

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During the late Republic and early Empire, the 'new woman' made her appearance. This was a wife or widow of means who took part in life outside the walls of her house, including wider society, business and extra-marital affairs. Winter's specialised study investigates the reasons for this social change, asking what conditions had emerged that allowed women to have affairs with immunity and divorce their husbands, reclaiming their dowries. Initially Winter searches for evidence of the 'new woman' in the literature of the period, notably in the works of Catullus and Ovid, before examining in detail the place of women and marriage in law, the Roman ideal of the perfect wife, and the role of the Christian church in bringing wives back into the fold of their families and respectability .
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Roman "new woman" who emerged in the Late Republic was unlike the modest domestic female of previous generations. She was bold and provocative in dress and demeanor, she pursued social liaisons and an independent existence at the expense of her family responsibilities, and, claims Winter (divinity, Cambridge), profoundly affected the emerging urban religion known as Christianity. Winter sees support for his claim that the influence of the new woman on the Christian community was significant in evidence from Greco-Roman coinage, statuary, law, and literature. No longer relegated to private rooms or spheres of hidden domesticity, Christian women could now speak and teach (as evidenced by the named women who comprise 20 percent of the New Testament narratives). In addition, the charge of Titus 2:3-5 to honor one's husband is viewed by Winter as a direct response to the family neglect engendered by this new feminist ideology. A parallel study to Richard Bauckham's Gospel Women, this is a detailed, in-depth examination with lots of historical material to add context and richness to a fascinating view of ancient social history. Recommended for academic libraries.-Sandra Collins, Univ. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802849717
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,098,308
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Table of Contents


1. The Search for a Setting....................1
2. The Appearance of New Wives....................17
3. New Wives and New Legislation....................39
4. New Wives and Philosophical Responses....................59
5. The Appearance of Unveiled Wives in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16....................77
6. Deciphering the Married Woman's Appearance, 1 Timothy 2:9-15....................97
7. The Appearance of Young Widows, 1 Timothy 5:11-15....................123
8. The Appearance of Young Wives, Titus 2:3-5....................141
9. The Appearance of Women in the Public Sphere....................173
Appendix: Women in Civic Affairs....................205
Index of Subjects....................224
Index of Modern Authors....................228
Index of Scripture and Other Ancient Sources....................231
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First Chapter


The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities
By Bruce W. Winter

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-4971-7

Chapter One

The Search for a Setting

'The potential for more fruitful contact between classical studies and studies of early Christianity [on women] is great, and it provides another opportunity to look at the intersection of Roman, Greek and Near Eastern cultural traditions.' Beryl Rawson, who has herself written extensively on the Roman family, made this observation recently at the end of a helpful critique of the history of recent research on women in the Greek and Roman world by ancient historians. This book takes up her recommendation and explores that contact for the first century. A great deal of light has thereby been shed on texts addressed to women in the Pauline communities.

The research for this book has also shown that the flow of first-century information need not only be from the ancient world to the New Testament corpus. The evidence from the latter can provide significant additional material for a fruitful interaction with ancient historians with the movement from Christentum to Antike, as Rawson herself has suggested.

I. The Connection between Roman Law and Roman Society

Some see the vast body of extant Roman law as a significant sub-discipline of ancient history, while others see it as independent of its setting and simply an aspect of study of law as a whole. Crook noted that 'legal historians were pursuing the legal history of Roman antiquity, but the general historians were making insufficient use of Roman law in their treatments of social and economic history'. He considers this a deficiency because the central thesis of his early work on Law and Life of Rome was that it is impossible to deal with Roman society and Roman law as if they were basically autonomous spheres not only in Rome but also, we might add, in Roman colonies and her provinces of the Empire. Roman public and private law regulated most aspects of life in antiquity.

The legal sources, statutes, juristic opinions, textbooks, documents and reports preserve a wealth of information that helps illuminate or supplement important aspects of Roman society and economy. This is the central concern of the recent book, Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity. The essential aspects of Roman society were consciously built on Roman law and operated on that basis. Unlike cultures before or after, citizens of Rome and those in Roman colonies scattered throughout the Empire were aware of this important nexus and, therefore, were well informed of their rights, how privileges were grounded in Roman law and how much of life might be determined by it.

It is for this reason that Crook has continued to argue over the decades that there is an urgent need to integrate Roman legal history with the wider discipline of history. His astute observations have proved extremely important for this book because much of the discussion on women and the Pauline communities has neglected critical evidence from Roman law. As with other evidence this has not been taken into account and, as a result, has coloured our understanding of texts dealing with first-century Christian women.

K. Hopwood in a Festschrift essay for J. A. Crook makes this judgement. 'The [Roman] laws passed are an invaluable source for the ideology of their period: they may or may not tell us what people were doing; instead, they tell us what the ruling groups wanted people to be doing and what they wanted them not to be doing.'

However, it will be argued that in the Pauline communities there are reflections of aspects of Roman law which sought to regulate behaviour patterns. It was for this reason that some of the instructions to the Pauline communities appear to have been framed, taking cognisance of those laws. They also prescribed certain patterns of conduct that were endorsed by Roman law. There is also evidence that Christian women and men followed, or were in danger of following, the examples of those who were successfully promoting mores that were outlawed.

II. The Neglected First-Century Women

In a corporate essay, the ancient historians Elaine Fantham, Helen Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah Pomeroy and Alan Shapiro have produced evidence for the existence of what they have designated the 'new woman'. This book argues that, in the midst of extensive and sometimes intense discussions of texts specifically relating to women in the Pauline communities, the late Republican and early Roman Empire evidence has not been brought into that debate. The focus of this book is the Sitz im Leben of the recipients and not authorial responses to secular influences on Christian wives and widows.

Part I on this book will present evidence for new mores that had come to determine the social activities of the 'new woman' and, in some cases, endorsed her illicit sexual liaisons with younger, single men. This evidence helps illuminate the settings of the biblical texts, and the focus of the book may cause readers to rethink their interpretation of the texts addressing women in the Pauline communities. These texts will be the subject of our investigation in Part II of this book.

Neglected, but extremely significant, archaeological evidence brings to light the fact that women could undertake important roles in society in the first century. This extant material provides a context for the crucial role some of them played in the spread of early Christianity. While statistical information must be treated with caution, it is not without significance that there are eighteen women mentioned by name in those churches, comprising twenty percent of the total number of men and women specifically named.

Part III focuses on the important contribution that certain women of means made to the spread and support of early Gentile Christianity beyond Palestine. These women were Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche in Philippi; Phoebe in Corinth; Junia in Rome; and Priscilla, who, along with her husband, was in Corinth, Ephesus and in Rome for two periods. It will be argued that the reasons why these women were able to contribute so much were not unrelated to new 'roles' that women undertook in society in the late Republican period and early Empire. There were pivotal legal and social changes that made way for this participation, including a measure of financial independence that facilitated these new roles. There is evidence that women could occupy civic posts and have the title of civic magistrates, and those with wealth (and what was deemed to be rank and status) influenced commercial, civic and provincial affairs.

III. Defining 'Appearance', 'New' and 'Roman'

It is important to note that the terms 'appearance', 'new' and 'Roman' are consciously employed in two quite distinctive ways in this book. The term 'appearance' is used ambiguously because it refers first to the emergence on the scene in the first century of what has come to be seen as a new breed of wives whose lifestyle differed considerably from that of the traditional image of the modest wife. The term was also chosen because of the way that social conventions in the early Empire were grounded in Roman law. This is certainly the case with the dress code of respectable married women in comparison with that of high-class prostitutes and others. Roman jurisprudence distinguished between them by means of their appearance, which was defined in terms of apparel and adornment. McGinn noted something fundamental to understanding men and women in the ancient world. 'In classical antiquity, you were what you wore.' We will demonstrate that this Roman phenomenon belongs to a wider issue — the social engineering by Augustus and the clear identification of classes in Roman society. That was observed not only in the protocol at dinners and in the allocation of seating in the theatres on the grounds of class, but also in the distinctive dress codes for men and women, including wives.

The 'new' wife or widow in the late Roman Republic and early Empire was the one whose social life was reported to have been pursued at the expense of family responsibilities that included the complex running of households. Life beyond their household could involve illicit liaisons that defied the previously accepted norms of marriage fidelity and chastity. The possible influence or impact which that had in the Pauline communities will be traced in Part II. The term 'new woman' may seem to be something of a pejorative one but it has been adopted by some ancient historians in order to describe this latter group of women. For want of another term I have used it to describe the wives and widows who embraced new social mores.

The term 'Roman' and not romanitas is used to describe the nature, as well as the origin, of particular values. They spread throughout the empire and promoted the 'modesty' of matrons whose images, styles and values were skilfully exploited and exported in statue types by Augustus. It was all part of the Romanization package for the East and other parts of the Empire. While there were women with Latin names in the Pauline communities, for the purposes of this book 'Roman' is not used to designate citizenship (unless specified) but rather, particular values. They also include the new social mores of unchastity and marriage infidelity which Augustus judged to pose a threat to both the fabric and future of the family and the Roman Empire. He, as its founder, consciously promoted and rewarded traditional Roman values.

The final chapter uses the term 'roles' to describe the new activities that certain women of means engaged in outside the family and in the wider society, both in business and in the public place. The term politeia is used of one sphere in the dichotomy adopted in the ancient world to describe the whole of life, i.e., private and public. Because of their participation in the latter some Christian women were in a new position to contribute greatly, both in terms of time and resources, to the expansion of the early Pauline mission.

IV. Perceptions of First-Century Women

One unexplored assumption in New Testament scholarship is that wives in the first century were something of a monochrome group; this is also assumed of those in the early Christian communities. Some believe that all women were duly confined to domestic dwellings in order to fulfil the role of a dutiful wife engaged primarily in childbearing and managing the household. Some scholars still perceive them to have been kept away from the public gaze. However, it is known that first-century women, unlike their sisters in the previous Classical Greek and Hellenistic eras, certainly appeared in public. Even in the Classical Greek period cultural mores for women were not always the same as for the Mediterranean as a whole. On reflection, even if there was no material to the contrary, it is very unlikely that one could epitomize all first-century marriages by a single stereotype of restriction to the home and reproductive activity in the vast Roman Empire, any more than it would be possible to do so today in our multicultural world.

Even if this assumption of the first-century situation was correct for those in rural settings in isolated parts of the Empire (where it is hard to verify the situation for lack of evidence), it is certainly not the picture that emerges of women in urban settings where the earliest Christian communities were established.

A recent and important observation was made of female society in the late Roman Republic and early Empire: 'To judge from our sources in the last years of the republic, the more independent women of good family were beginning to decide for themselves what kind of social occasion they enjoyed.'

What gave rise to such a change in the traditional behaviour of married women that was to result, in some cases, in flagrant sexual unfaithfulness to their husbands and which occurred, at times, with immunity? Wives had gained a measure of financial security that provided some independence from husbands, and their property was no longer automatically transferred to their husbands on marriage. Chapters 2-4 will note the explanations and defence in ancient sources of such behaviour by some women of social status and their advocates; we will also note the legal and philosophical responses to them.

This book will also argue that in response a powerful alternative paradigm was promoted in the late Republican period that greatly influenced first-century urban society. The emperors not only promoted images of themselves for political purposes in cities throughout the Empire, but also used those of their wives for cultural and moral purposes. Roman imperial coins and statues were the first-century 'billboards' and played a critical role in imperial propaganda as important tools for shaping societal values. The imperial clothing and hair styles of wives were meant to make them icons and trend-setters and, it will be argued, were deliberately used to counter influences in society which were judged to be detrimental to its well-being. It is sometimes forgotten that the skilful promotion of fashionable trends is the domain not only of more recent cultures. Augustus and some of his successors used appearance and apparel to promote values to counter what they regarded as promiscuous tendencies in the Empire.

V. Proletarian or Socially Diverse Christian Women

Modern understandings of the social status of early Christians and therefore, by implication, that of women, wives and widows in the early church has been greatly influenced by the work of Adolf Deissmann in the early twentieth century. At the time of his taking the New Testament chair in Berlin he joined the German Workers' Party and recast the status of early Christians as Proletariat, a perception that dominated studies for nearly a century. His eisegesis has subsequently dogged much of the discussion of the status of Christians, including that of women.

In more recent decades ancient historians have sent signals to the contrary. For E. A. Judge and others such a perception of Christians' status is not supported by a careful reading of the New Testament texts. This 'new consensus', as it has become known, has slowly gained ground over the Deissmann thesis. New Testament evidence does not allow us to typecast as 'working class' all Christian women, any more than it has been shown to be an appropriate term to describe the various strata of society from which male converts were drawn. It should be added that the 'new consensus' does not argue that all were from the upper social registers, or even the middle class, which is an inaccurate classification of first-century society. This means that the possibility of some Christian women belonging to, or being influenced by, the upper-class values of the 'new' woman cannot be discounted a priori. The New Testament evidence examined in subsequent chapters shows that this influence filtered down from the Senatorial ranks to women in the wider Roman society.

VI. Enslaved v. Emancipated Women?

The way to describe the difference in the status and activities of Roman women in the late Republic and early Empire has been a matter of not inconsiderable discussion. McGinn has framed an important question on this issue thus: 'Was there a measurable improvement in the status of Roman women in the classical period, particularly in the last century B.C. and the first two centuries A.D., and if so, is this change best described as an "emancipation"?'

J. A. Crook writing in 1967 suggested that it was not possible to evaluate in any satisfactory way the much-asserted (or implied) independence of Roman women. His reason for saying this was that the early age for the marriage of women would tell against any concept of emancipation.

McGinn notes: 'As the sophistication of method of the new social history of antiquity has grown in the last two and a half decades, this idea of the Roman woman's emancipation has received a rather emphatic rejection.' He goes on to make an astute observation: 'This is not the essential point, however, at least in itself. If Roman women were not emancipated, that does not mean that they were enslaved. Krause does not state the matter quite so baldly, but it is clear that he views social status, sexual freedom, and the economic power of Roman women as fatally compromised in the absence of their "emancipation".' Without seeking in any way to be what McGinn calls 'ungenerous', he noted that Roman women have become the subject of renewed discussion by ancient historians in recent literature. He sees this happening at an important moment in the decades at the end of the last century with moves to redress blatant discrimination against women per se in academic and other circles that was rightly high on the agenda. But for that sea change, the research for this book would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible. What has emerged in recent decades has been an enormous scholarly output of monographs and helpful collections of primary sources on women as the bibliography bears witness.


Excerpted from ROMAN WIVES, ROMAN WIDOWS by Bruce W. Winter Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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