Lindsay Werner (’25) examines the roles of women in Roman religion, as seen in Ovid’s Fasti
How did ancient Roman women participate in religious rituals and pray to the gods? How did Roman religion reflect the values of Roman women? We can find partial answers to these questions in Ovid’s Fasti, sometimes translated as “The Book of Days” or “On the Roman Calendar,” a long Latin poem published in AD 8. The Fasti explains the origins and practices of Roman religious festivals, as well as the origins of constellations, for the first six months of the year. Ovid uses these celebrations to show the role of Roman women in religion, in which he states, in the case of the Matronalia, what the women say in their prayers, which shows the significance of their words to the gods. During Book 4 of the Fasti, which covers the month of April, women separately honored Venus, the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, and Ceres (goddess of grain). For Venus, Ovid tells us how the women would bathe the statue after taking off her jewelry (4.133–39). He also explains how Cybele came to Rome. A woman named Claudia Quinta prays to Cybele, asking the goddess to help her move the boat and prove that she is a virgin, and Claudia manages to move the boat (4.255–328). Each of these festivals reflected the values of women within Roman culture and religion. While the festivals of Lupercalia and Matronalia focused on piety and fertility, as well as them being married, the festival of Cybele emphasizes the importance of chastity for Roman women.
To understand women in Roman religion, however, we first need to explore how this religion differs from others. Roman religion didn’t have one sacred text. The Romans worshiped many gods, sacrificed animals or dedicated votives such as statues or temples to these gods, and they were accepting of other gods from different pantheons by associating the other gods with their own. The Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, was very popular in ancient Rome and was associated with the Roman goddesses Ceres and Venus. Modern religions such as Christianity differ from Roman religion in many ways, such as in having one sacred text and worshiping one God. Some might assume that women are treated similarly in ancient and modern religions. True, both religions are patriarchal, but there are significant differences when it comes to gender. The Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to be a part of the higher ranks within the church, like becoming priests or the Pope. Ancient Roman religion, by contrast, had both male and female priests. Female priests in Rome show that some parts of their religion weren’t completely male dominated. There were many female priests in Roman religion (DiLuzio 2016: 79). A few among many in Rome would be the Vestal Virgins, as well as another priest named Alexandria who served the gods Bacchus and Isis, as recorded on her tombstone (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 302). Although Rome was a patriarchal society, the presence of female priestesses conveyed how women would show their piety to the gods.
Some modern religions try to control the lives of women, telling them what they can’t wear, or what they can’t do, because it goes against their sacred texts. In Roman religion, women weren’t being fully controlled in the same way as they are in some monotheistic religions. Monotheistic religions pray to one male god, while polytheistic religions, such as the Romans, pray to several female deities, such as Diana and Juno. These goddesses are both respected and feared in the same way as the male gods. This switch from multiple female goddesses to one male God could be seen as a lack of respect towards women in certain monotheistic religions.
In the Fasti Ovid reflects women’s concerns and tells them what they want to hear. Namely, if they want to have a good marriage, a good reputation, and kids, then they should pray to the gods. Additionally, women didn’t want to die in childbirth, which was more common before modern medicine, so he recommended that they pray to the goddess Lucina for an easy and safe delivery (2.449–452, 3.253–58). As scholar Elaine Fantham puts it, “…some of the most important aspects of religion in women’s lives in the books … [are] marriage, chastity, fertility, and childbirth” (Fantham 2002: 28).
One main goal in Ovid’s Fasti is explaining why they perform these rituals and festivals, and he adds the female perspectives to these festivals, especially the ones from February 15th (Lupercalia) and March 1st (Matronalia). He not only tells the audience what they do during those festivals, but he also explains the origins of the holidays. For the Lupercalia and Matronalia, these origins are especially important because Ovid is acknowledging the importance of these women’s needs by saying that they were there at the beginning of Rome itself, referring in both cases to the myth of the abduction of the Sabine women. An interpretation of this idea is that Ovid says nothing can get done without women, whether that is in the past or the present. In this way, he could be imagining this book being read to a female audience.
The Lupercalia was one of the important festivals for Roman women. During this festival, two men, chosen by priests, would run down the streets nude and they would strike women lightly with strips of the dead goat hide as they ran; since it was believed to give the women fertility, the woman would want to get hit by the goat hide (Shelton 1998: 381–82). The origin of the Lupercalia centers around the Sabine women who were taken from their home by Romulus, the son of Mars and Rhea Silvia, and the founder of Rome. He took these women by force because he needed to populate his new city, and since the Sabine men said no to having their women marry Roman men. After the woman had adjusted to their new homes and new husbands, they tried having children, but nothing worked. Both the men and the women prayed to Juno, the goddess of marriage, and for an answer. Juno came and told them that they had to let a goat “mount” the women (Fasti 2.441. “Let a sacred billy-goat mount Italian matrons,” as translated by Nagle 1995:69). A prophet understood what the goddess had meant. He killed a goat, and the women turned their backs so that they could be hit by the goat skin, and nine months later, the women had children (2.425–452). This myth also shows the importance of female fertility for Rome’s origins. According to Fantham, “fertility was even more vital to society and to the woman’s self‐respect than fidelity” (Fantham 2002: 29).
Although the women prayed to the gods for things that would help themselves, they would also pray for their household and community. As Fantham writes, “When the women supplicated, it was… for the whole community, not just for themselves, and … their private devotions [were] … made on behalf of their whole household, rather than just their personal needs” (Fantham 2002: 27).
Another important religious festival for women in Ovid’s Fasti is the Matronalia, which took place on March 1st. This festival honored the goddess Juno Lucina. During this festival, married women gave sacrifices and asked for help with childbirth. Men asked the goddess for their wives to continue having good health. There would also be gift giving between husband and wife, along with friends and special others (Dolansky 2011: 191–194). The origins of this holiday return to the Sabine women, since Ovid writes about how they were forcibly taken from their families, and about what happened after they had their kids. The Sabine men and Romans were going to war with each other because the Sabine men were still mad about their women being without their permission. The woman stopped the two sides, since they didn’t want to lose their fathers nor their husbands. They took their children and stood in between the two armies, and it worked (3.179–234). This festival relates back to the Lupercalia, since Roman women also prayed to the goddess Lucina for a fast and healthy delivery on both holidays (2.449–452, 3.253–58). During the Matronalia, the women dedicated flowers to Juno Lucina, put flowers in their hair, and prayed to the goddess saying the following, as recommended by Ovid: “ [Say] ‘Lucina, you have brought us all to light.’/ Say, ‘Come answer the prayers of a woman in labor.’/But if any of you is pregnant, let her loosen her hair and pray/ that the goddess gently ease her delivery” (3.255-58, trans. Nagle 1995: 87–88).
These prayers give us insight into what the women were asking the goddess for during the festival, which relates to their duties as mothers. With this origin myth, Ovid seems to focus on how these Sabine women brought unity to Rome, and the Matronalia celebrated that continued unity. The importance of motherhood is also shown in this story, since the women were able to stop the war by showing both sides their children, who were both Roman and Sabine. In addition, while referencing the role of women in Roman society from the Lupercalia, Fanny Dolansky points out the connection between childbirth and the state: “Childbirth was also … the vital service married women provided for the family, which ultimately benefited the state” (Dolansky 2011: 199). Women, however, weren’t only considered mothers in ancient Rome. They could be poets, gladiators, painters, actresses and singers, dressmakers, and doctors (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005: 1, 213–15, 216, 218, 219, 264–65).
From all of this, we could ask one question, “Why?” Why did Ovid choose to not only write about religious festivals, but also make a point of showing a representation of women, not just in some of the festivals, but also in the origins themselves? He may have wanted to recognize the significance of women within their religion, in which they would have their voices heard by others. Being a woman in ancient Rome was not easy. When Ovid acknowledges these women, from both the past and present, and in connection to their religion, one could interpret this as his way of saying to all these women, “Thank you.”
DiLuzio, Meghan J. 2016. “Salian Virgins, Sacerdotes, and Ministrae.” In A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome. Princeton University Press
Dolansky, Fanny. 2001. “Reconsidering the Matronalia and Women’s Rites,” Classical World (2011)
Fantham, Elaine. 2002. “The Fasti as a Source for Women’s Participation in Roman Cult.” In Geraldine Herbert-Brown, ed., Ovid’s Fasti: Historical Readings at its Bimillennium. Oxford University Press.
Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Maureen B. Fant. 2005. Women’s life in Greece and Rome: a source book in translation (Third edition). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Nagle, Betty Rose. 1995 Ovid’s Fasti: Roman Holidays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Shelton, Jo-Ann. 1998. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York: Oxford University Press.