Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial
Rome (4th-5th Centuries A.D.)
Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás
Universidad de Salamanca
En el presente trabajo los autores abordan un período fundamental para la comprensión de la
historia de los dos últimos siglos del Imperio romano occidental, a partir del estudio del papel
que la mujer de condición aristocrática juega en los intrincados laberintos de la política impe-
rial. En particular se hace hincapié en la gran semejanza existente entre los elementos justifi-
cativos del poder característicos del mundo pagano y del nuevo imperio cristiano, a pesar de
la obvia diferencia existente entre ellos. Lo que se plantea en este estudio es hasta qué punto podemos
establecer una cierta continuidad en el protagonismo que la mujer imperial desempeña en la legitima-
ción del poder en ambas mitades del imperio romano, que se observa en los aspectos relativos a la divi-
nización de los gobernantes en ambos períodos, pagano y cristiano, y nos pone en relación de nuevo con
el apasionante debate de concebir el cambio muchas veces como una superación de elementos propios
de la tradición que se integran y coadyuvan a la elaboración de una nueva visión del mundo y de las
teorías políticas justificativas del mismo. Se trata en todo caso de un proceso lento y que muchas veces
resulta difícil de percibir en la medida en que asistimos con cierta frecuencia a la indiferenciación de los
modelos utilizados en ambos contextos, a pesar de las afirmaciones en contra de las respectivas propa-
Dionisio Pérez Sánchez teaches at the University of Salamanca, where he has been pro-
fessor of Ancient History since 1982. He has worked particularly on Late Antiquity and
has published for the most part studies relating to the world of the Visigoths, such as El
ejército en la sociedad visigoda [The Army in Visigoth Society] (1989) and other contri-
butions concerning social and ideological aspects of the period.
Manuel J. Rodríguez Gervás is Professor of Ancient History of the University of Salamanca,
where he has taught for more than 15 years, while at the same time acting as a researcher
in Italian universities. He has published a reference work, Propaganda política y opinión
pública en los panegíricos latinos del Bajo Imperio [Political propaganda and public opin-
ion in the Latin panegyrics of the Late Empire] (1991) and he is now working on political
and ideological aspects of Late Antiquity.
The aim of this study is to look at the close relations and cer-
tain continuity existing between the pagan and Christian ide-
ologies concerning the role played by women of the aristocracy
and by the image of women associated with political power.
One might think that this symbiosis between Christianity and
paganism occurred mainly in the imperial sphere, and not in the rest of society. According
to some people, this would be caused by the need to adapt both religious trends syncreti-
cally, at the same time that the imperial domus, of which women formed an important part,
needed to establish a political-symbolic praxis based on both past models and the new
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 11
Christian formulas. In our view, however, it is not possible to establish any marked gender
differences (at least in the functional aspect; the programmatic aspect could be a different
story) between the Christian empire and what went before.
A pagan aristocrat at the end of the 4th century, Quintus Aurelius Simacus, expressed his
ideas on the role and function of women in a letter to his daughter. Through this letter he
shows us the double situation prevailing in a time of crisis of values and change such as this
was. A first reading leads us to believe that Simacus represents a way of life that is disap-
pearing, and his idea of women reflects an old-fashioned way of thinking; however, we
think that this proposal is somewhat reductionist. This noble Roman may symbolise a tra-
ditionalism in retreat, but it is also true that there are elements for considering him a liv-
ing example of the changes in progress in a context in which the image of women pre-
sented by Simacus was set. In other words, the idea of the past revived is related to “the
genetic heritage of a nobility which has uninterruptedly been transmitted from the ancient
times of the origins of Rome and of the nobility itself as a concept of dignity and virtus,
with its cultural, ethical and social superiority, together with the devotion and spirit of ser-
vice to the whole” that is unique to class.
In Simacus, as in other authors of different religions, the major role played by aristocratic
women in the society of the age is evident. However, the ultimate reason for all this must
be seen in the interest there was in establishing and maintaining certain matrimonial poli-
cies of Roman households, which through these equalizing mechanisms in matrimony
improved their exchange function in family agreements, preserving interests, increasing
benefits and in the last instance, exercising a clear solidarity of class. According to this,
the function assigned to women consisted of the reproduction of the family nucleus, but a
series of attributes was also conferred on them which were manifested in the possession of
a patrimony independent of their husbands and which they could have at their disposal in
certain circumstances and under certain conditions. Moreover, the wife was also the
depositary of the children’s inheritance, once the husband died. In short, women acted as
a basic element of cohesion and defence of family interests, and this gives us a precise
explanation of women’s power through belonging to these aristocratic families in which
they played important roles.
We insist that Simacus’ main purpose when situating women as depositaries of a series of
virtues is none other than to guarantee, together with other measures, the inter domus pact,
which a century later, when Christian ideology was at its peak, would be represented in the
title of honestissima filia that the Bishop Sidonius Apollinar granted the daughter of an out-
standing member of the order.
Thus we can see that in Simacus the union of the perfectio of the husband and the probitas
of the wife according to tradition constituted the paradigm of the ideal marriage, which in
turn guaranteed the desired stability, which, as we have seen, involved the virtuous and to
some extent necessarily immobile nature of women. Thus, the “immobility”, “passivity” or
in short, probity of women constituted the principal virtue that facilitated relations
between families. It was, however, an immobility operative according to the success of the
pact, since certain reasons could annul this and reactivate the series of competences that
the Roman matron had with respect to personal property and her children.
12 Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás
This immobility, as well as the neutralization of women desired by both parts, was high-
lighted in Aconia Paulina’s funeral farewell to her husband Vetius Agorius Pretextatus,
who died in 384 and was a close friend of Simacus’s. Paulina, a member of the highest class,
the same as the deceased, something to which she referred in first place, stressed the rela-
tionship of subordination of the wife to the husband through knowledge, the same as there
is between a master and a pupil, a relationship from which a set of virtues would emerge
that would make her a faithful, happy, modest, prestigious, pure, good wife, with her mar-
riage indeed being an example for Roman matrons “exemplum de me Romulae matres petunt”.
Based on the above, we would now like to approach the bond existing between the aristo-
cratic families and the imperial government. We start from the idea that the imperial
domus, with the characteristic elements that enhance and differentiate it, is just the reflec-
tion, in a series of aspects, of the set of aristocratic families to which it belongs, and there-
fore shares a compendium of values framed by the desire to maintain a dominant role in
society. Thus, in the first place, the function assigned to women consisted of reproducing
the family nucleus, but they were also conferred a set of powers based on the possession of
a patrimony independent of their husband’s and which was at their disposal in certain cir-
cumstances and under certain conditions. In short, the aristocratic wife acted as a basic
element of cohesion and defence of the interests of the family nucleus, and this explains
the power women held as a result of belonging to these renowned domus, in which they
played, directly or indirectly, important roles. This situation, which is clearly perceptible
throughout the history of the Roman Empire, with the characteristics proper to each spe-
cific moment of its evolution, was to continue in an autonomous and original form in the
history of the so-called barbarian kingdoms, although based on common elements inherit-
ed from the imperial model and adapted to the specific situations of each monarchy.
The women of the imperial domus in the Christian era also exerted and transmitted royal
power, thus expressing on the maximum level the potentia they had in their respective fam-
ily groups. They were to carry out this function by means of political-dynastic behaviour
that was very similar to that developed by the empresses in the Early Imperial epoch,
although now their sacred model would be the ideal of Christian sanctity constructed
throughout Late Antiquity. Here we again pose a passionate debate centred around the
apparent similarity or, on the contrary, the radical differences that can be found among the
justifying elements of both periods, and which again and again take as a point of reference
the terms used – in short, the vocabulary characteristic of that age. The result of this
process was the redefinition in a Christian key of the terminology used, as well as the
iconographic models. The elaboration of an alternative Christian model, based to a large
extent upon the political-ideological revolution that occurred starting with Constantine,
would continue nonetheless to evolve within the apparently immutable model of the clas-
sical world. It was therefore in accordance with the logic of the civic community, in spite
of the structural transformations that occurred. These, in the last instance and in con-
junction with Christianity, as P. Brown has pointed out, were to play a clear and unstop-
pable role in its undoing.
There are, however, some clearly innovative elements in the new language – in the
Christian language: the Virgin Mary and her relation to imperial women would be at the
base of the founding of Christian Constantinople. Starting with Constantine and his
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 13
mother Helena, the Virgin Mary became intentionally related to a set of female divinities
such as Rhea, Tyche, Hecate, Demeter, Persephone, and Athena, depositaries of a tradition
of wise goddesses who protected and saved the cities which they represented at a certain
moment in the development of the civic community. The set of defining values of ancient
Byzantium, now the new Christian Rome, was transferred to the Theotokos, to the Mother
of God. We can therefore see that the same political framework was consciously main-
tained, extolled in the same way as in the pagan era through the use of the panegyric as a
medium of propaganda and cohesion, although now sustained in the agglutinating role of
Christian ideology, at the same time innovative and enormously indebted to tradition.
The development of this process, slow and in many cases difficult to perceive, would be
characterised precisely by the lack of differentiation, in some situations, of the models used.
The most paradigmatic case was the extolling of the imperial female figure, expressed in
the qualities adorning her person, virtues that draw from a pattern already present in the
Antonine dynasty. Thus we shall see the most characteristic aspects that shape the image
of the late imperial Christian empress. The emperors in the Christian era continued to
grant the title of Augusta to the women most directly related to their person, assigning
them titles and virtues that had been developing throughout the evolution of the set of
aristocratic households succeeding one another in the history of the empire, and which had
demonstrated their effectiveness through the usual means of propaganda.
As we have mentioned before, the figure of Helena, the mother of Constantine, was the
first case in the construction of a model of a Christian Augusta. However, and despite the
fact that this was a very incipient model, it would subsequently appear consolidated in the
sources when these hailed 5th century Christian empresses such as Pulcheria with the title
of “new Helena”. Hence it was political and ideological-religious praxis itself that would
shape a model defining the Christian empress, a model which would prevail even in the
political history of the so-called barbarian kingdoms, mainly the Visigoths and Ostrogoths.
Constantine gradually integrated his relatives into the exercise of power in the course of
his imperial career. His mother, Helena, was his first and longest-lasting ally in a far-reach-
ing political project, as shown by her continuing presence in the different stages of his
14 Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás
political life. Constantine’s actions must be set within the change that the year 313
entailed; at that point a “new emperor” and consequently, a “new state” would emerge,
although it would have to have as its basis the traditional political-constitutional axes. The
victory over Maxentius and the defeat of Licinius in 324 clearly and irreversibly marked
the need to establish an alternative code of functioning, based, if you will, on former mod-
els, but at the same time on profoundly subversive criteria, which made it necessary to
count on a new imperial house, which, as a paradigm of the new image of the family and
family ties characteristic of Late Antiquity, would manage, in an original way, and with a
manifestly revolutionary result, to combine the unstoppable rise of the Christian religion
with the characteristic elements of respected tradition.
Thus, and by means of the construction of a specific model in accordance with
Christianity, which entailed a complete, and intentional metamorphosis of the image of
the emperor’s mother, which had its authentic ideologist in Eusebius, a true foundational
milestone was established with respect to the holiness of the Augusta, as well as her asso-
ciation with the Christian divinity. Eusebius, in the Life of Constantine, the only contem-
porary written source of the events, was the initiator of a model of Christian empress that
would gradually be outlined and specified in the centuries to follow. However, and as proof
that it was not a completely developed and consolidated archetype, in the narration we
find episodes such as that of the death of Helena, who is made to ascend to the heavens in
what might be defined as a Christian version of the pagan early imperial apotheosis, an
image halfway between two worlds which thus reflects the critical nature of the transfor-
mations then in motion.
In the 5th century, and for the eastern part of the Empire, the role played by the empress
Pulcheria, daughter of Arcadius and Eudoxia and sister of the emperor Theodosius II, was
of great importance. This princess epitomized in her person the former qualities of the par-
adigm of Christian empress, to which other, new elements were added. Besides continuing
the founding of churches initiated by Helena, Pulcheria adopted virginity and made it a
justifying political value when associating herself with the image of the Theotokos and
fighting against doctrines harmful to her interests.
Solidi of Pulcheria minted in Constantinopoli (420-2 and 414-20).
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 15
Translation of Relics, Ivory, Cathedral of
This development can also be associated, as has been said, with the role the empress played
as guardian of her brother the emperor and later, Saviour of the Peace in the ceremony of
the adventus, which entailed the receiving of, for example, the relics of St. Stephen and in
which the Augusta appeared invested with the royal attributes and brandishing a cross
which is the symbol of the maintaining of the order and harmony desired by the whole pop-
ulation of the city in question (Trier). All these values come under the empress as repre-
sentative of a set of virtues, such as harmony or concord, piety, mercy, etc., which ensured
a situation desired by the whole citizenry inasmuch as it was the status quo. In other words,
the celebration of the adventus implied, in Christian version, and under the tutelage of the
Augusta, the confirming of the triumphus after the victory of the cross obtained with clear
classical connotations, but which was now also strengthened by the cohesion that the
empress in her new political-ideological dimension guaranteed.
The construction of an image of Christian empress with traits differentiating it from the
early empire was therefore a gradual process with no qualms about integrating earlier ele-
ments already proved to have a clear ideological function. The characteristic sacredness
of the empresses – repeated with uncommon frequency in the sources – shows that the
transition from the imperial religion to Christian theological-political forms had been
effectively completed. The empresses, the same as their consorts or relatives, established
direct contact with the divinity, but in the women this was strengthened by the emer-
gence of the figure of the Mother of God, the real cornerstone of Byzantine Christian
religiosity, which even endowed the imperial women with holiness. The close relation of
the imperial domus to the divine was visibly shaped by a summa of virtues that would
adorn the person of the reigning emperors and empresses, in a process often similar to
that of previous eras, but which would now acquire greater singularity, becoming even
stronger than before.
Within a clear context of ideological battle, which we cannot avoid and which is the log-
ical result of the supplanting in the medium term of pagan values by other Christian ones,
as shown by historians as opposed and representative as Orosius and Zosimus, we must
highlight and try to understand the complementarity and association that occurred
between the characteristic ideas of the early imperial era understood as “classic and pagan”,
and its Christian successor. In this sense we cannot deny the huge capability of adaptation
that characterized the new religion, and which allows us to conceive of Christianity as an
effective replacement for the values of the previous legitimating elements that were pro-
16 Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás
gressively falling into disuse, which were at first assimilated and gradually integrated as an
effective way to deactivate them.
However, as we said at the beginning, the characteristics peculiar to and defining of the
history of aristocratic and imperial women did not end in the western part with the disap-
pearance of the prevailing political structure: we conclude this paper by highlighting the
continuity in the so-called barbarian kingdoms with respect to women’s role in the trans-
mission of power and in the perpetuation of the aristocratic households. This was expressed
in the establishment of female models that drew strongly from the Roman classic and late
imperial tradition, and which also represented the political and religious legitimisation
that then became dominant.
Arjava A., Women and Law in Late Antiquity, Oxford 1996.
Beaucamp J., Donne, patrimonio, Chiesa (Bisancio, IV-VII secolo), in Il Tardoantico alle soglie del duemila. Diritto, Religione,
Società, Pisa 2000, pp. 249-265.
Cameron A., Kurth A., Images of Women in Antiquity, London 1983.
M. Corbier, Les comportements familiaux de l’Aristocratie romaine, en J. Andreau, H. Bruhns (eds.), Parenté et stratégies
familiales dans l´antiquité romaine, Rome 1990, pp. 225-248.
G. Clark, Women in Late Antiquity. Pagan and Christian Lifestyles, Oxford 1993.
A. Giardina, Melania, la Santa, in A. Fraschetti, Roma al Femminile, Rome 1994.
K.G. Holum, Theodosian Empress. Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity, Berkeley 1982.
E.D. Hunt, Holy Land and Pilgrimage in the Late Roman Empire AD. 312-460, Oxford 1984.
V. Limberis, Divine Heiress. The Virgin Mary and the creation of Christian Constantinople, London - New York 1994.
P. Laurence, Helena, mere de Constantin. Metamorphoses d’une image, Augustinianum, 42, 2002, pp. 75-96.
G. Nathan, The Family in Late Antiquity. The Rise of Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition, London 2000.
E. Patlagean, L’Historie de la femme déguisée en moine et l’evolution de la sainteté féminine à Byzance, in “Studi Medievali”,
XVII, Spoleto, 1976, pp. 597-623.
D. Pérez Sánchez, La condición de la mujer y el poder real en la sociedad visigoda, in “Romanobarbarica”, 16, pp. 169-208,
D. Pérez Sánchez, M. Rodríguez Gervás, Imagen y realidad de la mujer en un aristócrata del siglo IV: Símaco, in “Studia
Historica Historia Antigua”, 18, 2000, pp. 315-330.
A.M. Talbot, Holy Women of Byzantium, Washington 1996.
R. Teja, Emperadores, obispos, monjes y mujeres. Protagonistas del cristianismo antiguo, Madrid 1999.
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 17
1. Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340-402), in a letter to his daughter dated after 394, says the
Ep., VI, 67:... Domina filia, honoratum me opimo lanificii tui monumento satis gaudeo; una
quippe et amor in parentem tuum et industria matronalis inclaruit. Sic priscae feminae vitam
coluisse traduntur... renuntias stagna verrentibus et residens aut obambulans inter pensa et for-
agines puellarum has solas arbitrarius sexus, tui esse delicias. Merito igitur te amo dignamque
viro tuo iudico..., quando aeque nobis laus et voluptas ex illius perfectione adventicia, ex tua
probitate genuina est.
Meanwhile, honourable daughter, I am pleased to have received the tribute of your splendid
work in wool: thus, at the same time the affection you feel for your father and the quality of
hard-working matron have shone resplendently. They say that women used to live in this way
in ancient times… and , resting or moving among the spinning and small children, you choose
these that are the pleasures of your sex. Rightly I love you and consider you worthy of your
husband, from the moment when honour and delight came to us in equal parts…, and from
your rectitude, typical of our family
Eusebius, Life of Constantine
18 Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás
Chapter XLIV: Of Helena’s Generosity and Beneficent Acts. For on the occasion of a circuit which
she made of the eastern provinces, in the splendour of imperial authority, she bestowed abun-
dant proofs of her liberality as well on the inhabitants of the several cities collectively, as on indi-
viduals who approached her, at the same time that she scattered largesse among the soldiery with
a liberal hand. But especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unpro-
tected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing: she liberated some
from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust
oppression, and others again, she restored from exile.
Chapter XLV: Helena’s Pious Conduct in the Churches.
While, however, her character derived lustre from such deeds as I have described, she was far
from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting his
Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not
overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen,
in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion
to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.
Chapter XLVI: How she made her will, and died at the age of eighty years.
And when at length at the close of a long life, she was called to inherit a happier lot, having
arrived at the eightieth year of her age, and being very near the time of her departure, she pre-
pared and executed her last will in favour of her only son, the emperor and sole monarch of the
world, and her grandchildren, the Caesars his sons, to whom severally she bequeathed whatev-
er property she possessed in any part of the world. Having thus made her will, this thrice blessed
woman died in the presence of her illustrious son, who was in attendance at her side, caring for
her and holding her hands: so that, to those who rightly discerned the truth, the thrice blessed
one seemed not to die, but to experience a real change and transition from an earthly to a heav-
enly existence, since her soul, remoulded as it were into an incorruptible and angelic essence,
was received up into her Saviour’s presence.
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 19
Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome Religion and States 21
22 Dionisio Pérez Sánchez, Manuel Rodríguez Gervás