Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome (4th-5th century A.D.)

Religion, Women and Politics in Imperial Rome (4th-5th century A.D.) 

By Dionisio Pérez Sánchez and Manuel Rodríguez Gervás

Religion and Political Change in Europe: Past and Present, edited by Ausma Cimdina (University of Pisa, 2003)

Introduction: The aim of this study is to look at the close relations and certain continuity existing between the pagan and Christian ideologies 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 syncretically, 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 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 disappearing, 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 traditionalism in retreat, but it is also true that there are elements for considering him a living example of the changes in progress in a context in which the image of women presented 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 service to the whole” that is unique to class.

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