Introduction to Late Antiquity

This section of the blog is dedicated to a wide range of general themes that would affect women of late antiquity. It is an ever-growing section where we will add periodically different topics as we research and learn more about each personality. The idea behind this section is to provide a reader with a general feel of what it was like to live in late antiquity as a woman and what kind of freedom and restrictions women encountered in their daily lives, which could be of social, economic, legal, cultural, religious, political, artistic, and geographic in nature.

We hope to pay special attention to distinguishing between the different social classes, as this will aid in a better understanding of each personality. For example, even though upper-class women had more freedom in comparison to lower-class women still there were constraints on the part of their gender however, often behind the scenes they used their power and influence to achieve their goals. On the other hand, we have personalities such as Empress Theodora and Helena Augusta who came from the lower social classes and both climbed the social ladder using their power and influence to become the two most important women of their time. It is also important to notice that these personalities shaped and formed society in their time and their influence continues to affect our world today. For instance, Empress Helena was a pioneer for pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is also credited for the legend of the discovery of the cross or pilgrim Egeria who wrote Itinerarium Egeriae recalling her travels to the Holy Land is considered the earliest written account of a Christian pilgrimage.

Term, Time Frame and Geography

The term ‘late antiquity’ (Spätantike) has been used in art history by German-speaking scholars such as Alois Riegl since the 1900’s however, in 1971 it was popularized for the English-speaking audience by Peter Brown in his work The World of Late Antiquity. Brown described the late antiquity period as a transition between classical antiquity and the start of the medieval period spanning from 200 to 700 CE. Other scholars such as Stephen Mitchell place the time frame from 400 – 800. Scholars still argue about the time frame however, this blog will follow Brown’s time frame in order to cover the maximum number of women who lived during the earlier period. The period of late antiquity also experienced substantial political, economic, and religious changes such as the gradual fall of the Roman Empire, the separation between the Western and the Eastern Empires, the subsequent rise of Byzantium, the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion, and the arrival of Islam. The period of late antiquity encompasses a vast geographical territory from Western Europe to Eastern Europe and the Near East, in a sense a region surrounding the heart of the Mediterranean basin (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Mediterranean basin map. ©CC BY-SA 4.0,


Suggested bibliography on the introduction to late antiquity:

Boin, Douglas. A Social and Cultural History of Late Antiquity. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

Clark, Gillian. Women in Late Antiquity : Pagan and Christian Lifestyles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fitzgerald Johnson, Scott, ed. “The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Lössl, Josef, and Nicholas J. Baker‐Brian, eds. “A Companion to Religion in Late Antiquity.” Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

Wilkinson, Kate. Women and Modesty in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Aristocratic Women in Late Antique Rome

Roman women had always been in a somewhat privileged position in relation to many of the women of in the world of antiquity. For example, compared to their Greek sisters, the Roman women were protected by patria potestas, the idea that the father of the family (or other senior male family members) protected his daughters even after marriage: women always belonged to the care of their birth families, which protected them from potential abuse (physical or financial) of their husband’s and their in-laws. During the imperial era (beginning from Emperor Augustine, who reigned from 27 B.C.E to 14 C.E), women who had given birth to three children were exempt from patria potestas, and were legally fully independent and in charge of their own finances and activities. This legal exemption was called ius liberorum, ‘the right of three children’. Gradually during the 4th century, beginning from the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337 C.E), ius liberorum was nullified. This meant that even unmarried and childless women were legally independent citizens. It seems that it is no coincidence that during the latter part of the 4th century more and more women opted to remain unmarried, a development which likely influenced the growing popularity of women’s monasticism and in general the trend (marginal, but existing) of women choosing to seek a life of philosophical or intellectual fulfilment instead of a life as a wife and mother. Direct political or ecclesiastical power remained beyond the reach of women, however: they were not allowed to serve at the Senate or in any other civic office, and women were denied from entering the clergy. Pagan women could still hold priesthoods in state and private cults as their fore-mothers had done.

Unofficial power in society was however very strong among the women of the late antique Roman aristocracy. Especially those born to senatorial families had great resources at their disposal: they stood on top of vast inherited wealth, accumulated by their families over generations of land ownership, and had personal contacts to political power through their senatorial relatives and friends. Ecclesiastical power was also exercised by aristocratic Christian women: as major donors and patrons of the Church and their local clergy, they could to an extent dictate the direction the Church and its doctrines took. When looking at the Roman churches of especially the 4th and early 5th centuries, one must always bear in mind that the institution of the Church and the episcopates were still relatively politically powerless and infinitely less wealthy than the rich senatorial women who provided much of their funding (in general, the Roman pre-requisite of power was always money). If a bishop wanted to achieve some goal, an alliance with a senatorial woman was a good way to get it done. In short, the matron was in control of the bishop (at least those ambitious enough to try and carve a position of power for themselves among Roman high society and the court). For example, when the Roman noble woman Marcella became enraged by the spread of Origenist ideas in the city of Rome in early 390s, she was able to shift local church politics to her opinion by pressuring the bishop of Rome to side with her and her social circle over the bishop’s colleagues.

Unfortunately, we have little to none sources from late antique women themselves. It is highly likely that this is simply due to later medieval unappreciation of sources coming from women, since we know women did write about themselves and their world. For example, some of the few remaining sources from the 4th century include a long travel account of an aristocratic woman on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Itinerarium Egeriae, and a Christian work of poetry about Christian Scripture written in the style of Vergil, the Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi, written by Faltonia Betitia Proba, mother of one of the most successful senators of the later 4th century, Sextus Petronius Probus. Many church fathers also seem to correspond and work together with aristocratic women – for example the great Jerome (347–420), who wrote extensively about the virtues of his female patrons. Many of these church fathers owe much of their careers to senatorial women: for example the famous bishops Ambrose of Milan (339–397) and Augustine of Hippo (354–430) were aided in their early careers by the women of one of the richest and politically most prominent families of Western Rome, the family of Anicius.

In conclusion, Roman women of late antiquity were legally independent and, in the case of aristocratic women, financial powerhouses in themselves. The unofficial power they had in society is undeniable, both as financial patrons to society (through normal civic building projects, church donations and patronage of different levels of clients) and as family members of the political elite (from whom they could ask for political favors and with whom they could form alliances with to drive their goals). This makes the study of late antique Roman women especially tantalizing from the point of view of power and influence – they had both in abundance, and both were so self-evident in late antique society that even the political and ecclesiastical men they exercised this influence through saw nothing strange about it.