The Status of Women in Late Antiquity: Examining the Sociopolitical Climate, Societal Values, and Gender Roles

By Taylor A. Marcusson
2019, Vol. 11 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

The status of women and their role in Late Antiquity has been a topic of inquiry among historians. It is a particularly challenging study to achieve a degree of certainty because of the biases present in historical evidence. This paper shall explore the position of women in Late Antiquity as defined by the 4th to late 6th centuries by examining how the complicated sociopolitical context, values of the Late Roman Empire as seen through written works, and roles in various spheres that women occupied worked together. This study does not seek to evaluate the prominence of women in Late Antiquity; that fact is rather complex to ascertain for certainty. Rather, this study seeks to evaluate how the sociopolitical order and values correlated to the various statuses held by women during the Late Roman Empire.

To fully understand the identities and status of women during Late Antiquity, it is imperative to first explore the socio-political context of Late Antiquity from which attitudes and behaviors developed. This is important to establish a good starting point to provide a guiding lens for the remainder of this study. Therefore, one must examine the important role of Constantine as both a leader and later figure in guiding the course of society. From here, comprehending the conflicting views of pagans with those of Christian emperors during Late Antiquity plays an imperative part in understanding the challenges of studying any social history during the late Roman Empire. While it is widely known that the political setting of the Late Roman Empire was rather complex and tumultuous; one must examine the realistic scope the effect of the fall of the Western empire had upon Romans.

The socio-political landscape of Late Antiquity could best be described as diverse. Beginning with the emperor Constantine in the 4th century, one observes a revival of the former stability of the Roman Empire along with a Christianization of the empire. Constantine’s administrative reforms such as returning to dynastic succession and economic crises temporarily one could argue is what kept the empire flourishing after a tumultuous 3rd century.1 Constantine’s Christianization of the empire will prove to be imperative in studying the values of the Late Roman Empire. The only surviving non-ecclesiastical material regarding the life of Constantine is found in the writings of pagan Praxagoras in Photius’ Bibliotheca, writing positively of Constantine despite noting the Christian emperor to be a “heathen.”2 However, Constantine’s portrayal in later primary sources is emblematic of the diversity and disarray of the era after his death following Julian the Apostate’s rule.

Julian’s reforms and return to paganism had little lasting impact, but his writings condemning Constantine’s rule and Christianity as a social institution could be argued to significantly affect the views of Christianity by citizens for years to come.3 His impact was sufficient to cast doubt on the validity of Christianity as an institution, and the conflict of paganism versus Christianity would arguably prove to be a point of contention throughout Late Antiquity. One can see the effects of Julian’s efforts first in Eunapius’ Chronicle, written in the early 5th century, as it is highly critical of Constantine, Photius notes; “He slanders and abuses in every way and without restraint all who have adorned the empire by their piety, especially Constantine the Great.”4 We then see the long lasting impact in the writings of Zosimus, who lived in the early 6th century after an assortment Christian emperors, yet still extensively scrutinizes the reigns of devout Christian leaders Constantine and Theodosius in his work, the New History. Zosimus depicts them each to blame heavily for the eventual fall of a unified Roman Empire; Constantine for his promotion of Christianity and Theodosius for “favoring” of barbarians.5 6 The conflict between paganism and Christianity appears to have been lasting as writers and may be the only lasting impact of the reign of Julian. It is important to understand this recurring conflict as although Julian was only succeeded by Christian emperors, Christianity cannot be definitively stated to be characteristic of the empire as a whole. This is important regarding the status of women, as many Christian values concerning women aligned with traditional roman values, but some did not. The prevailing divide arguably could additionally provide context for the slow and inconsistent incorporation of Christian values into both women’s rights and societal attitudes.

While the cause of the fall of the Western Empire in totality in 476 CE until Justinian’s reign is a highly complex topic with limited relevance here, the disunity between the East and West cannot go unrecognized. Yet the question then becomes, how relevant was the fall of the Western empire to society? It is challenging to know for sure, as it could be argued that any relevant cultural developments were destroyed through the array of military upheavals. During the 5th century, centralized authority collapsed in the Western portion, with local bishops and landlords holding power.7 It is likely that because the empire had already been so culturally divided, many people living in the countryside simply continued to live as they did before. This divide also lends itself to the question of how to study the societal aspects of an extremely divided empire and further in terms of women’s rights. The answer is underwhelming, and is that it simply must be recognized that there was a great lack in coordination between the laws administered not only with regards to each half but also with what occurred in the East versus the West for a large portion of Late Antiquity.

Next, it is important to examine the attitudes towards women before divulging into the roles in which they existed. While the overall religious and societal context of late antiquity has been discussed, the societal perception of the concept of womanhood or femininity ought to be discussed in its own right. One ought to look for sentiments regarding women held throughout the empire by investigating their portrayal in various historian accounts as well as ecclesiastical writings. All the same, one can look to legal documents to directly illustrate both the values of the time the tension between the traditional and Christian beliefs all the same.

As demonstrated, there was an arguable disunity present between the writings of pagan historians and ecclesiastical accounts. The validity of either could be argued, but one can speculate that because of the prevailing Christian sentiment in the modern Western world over that of paganism, historians over time have tended to value the judgements in ecclesiastical writings as slightly more credible for portraying general attitudes. It is important to point out that it has been argued that the church and its actors realistically held more social power as an institution than Christianity did by ideological by the nature of Roman society’s contractual relationship structure thus, these will be considered societal values all the same.8 A historian writing his own works simply did not possess the same sort of power with his writing in itself, though the work may still be reflective of the attitudes of the times. It is imperative to continue to examine whether or not accounts are truly reflective of the perceptions of women and their roles and additionally remember that most if not all primary accounts were created by men for an audience of men.

Revisiting Zosimus’ New History: Book II, one would find a rather erroneous omission in his account of Constantine’s rule. It is a widely known fact that Constantine’s mother Helena wielded great power and played an important role during Constantine’s reign, as this will be reviewed later. Zosimus, however, includes Helena’s name only one time in his entire account of Constantine’s rule when discussing Constantine ordering the death of his first-born: “And when his own mother Helena expressed much sorrow for this atrocity, lamenting the young man's death with great bitterness, Constantine under pretence of comforting her, applied a remedy worse than the disease.”9 While Zosimus’ treatment of Constantine may not be the fondest, this passage is important for understanding how women were viewed. One ought to question whether Zosimus’ omission of Helena from his writings was intentional. To dispel the argument that Zosimus was unaware of Helena’s power, it holds strong that during Zosimus’ lifetime, the title of “New Helena” was an honor bestowed upon Augusta Pulcheria.10 Therefore, it would be highly improbable that Zosimus was unaware of Helena’s significance. It could alternatively be argued that Helena was not relevant to Zosimus’ account, but this would be a speculatory claim at best. As a former advocate for the imperial treasury in Constantinople, one of his critiques of Constantine involved his monetary policy.11 Now, it is important to recognize that one of Helena’s main sources of power came from the fact she was of in charge of the treasury for the Eastern provinces.12 It would be erroneous to argue that Zosimus was unaware of Helena’s position due to his own relation to the treasury and that her power was not relevant to his criticism of monetary policy. Therefore, it ought to follow that Zosimus actively omitted Helena from his account to be sympathetic towards Helena. It would not make sense for Zosimus to somewhat viciously scrutinize the rule of Constantine only to make another figure of significant power in his regime a positive character. Thus, it follows Zosimus likely omitted Helena’s role in power to treat her somewhat sympathetically.

Now that it has been established Zosimus was relatively sympathetic towards Helena, how she is portrayed should be examined. Helena is seen as an emotionally weak and gullible figure. Having established that Zosimus was, more likely than not, fully aware of Helena’s powerful role gives this passage greater correlation to notions about women as well as potential provide reasoning for why Zosimus gave Helena a more sympathetic treatment. Keeping in mind the audience to be men, his portrayal of Helena is likely reflective of a more widely held view of women to be both emotional and inferior compared to men. Moreover, Helena’s status as a woman alone could explain Zosimus’ treatment. As they were believed to be weaker than men, it followed that women required protection as another way for men the assert their superiority. It could logically be argued that Zosimus had chosen to protect Helena and her honor rather than demonize her as he does Constantine as a reflection of the value of the protection of women.

Yet still, it is interesting to compare Zosimus’ treatment of Helena to that of Precopius and Theodora in his Secret History. Originally presented as a true history when discovered, Precopius portrays Theodora as a vindictive adulteress, going so far to say “[the nation] had become a community of slaves with Theodora as the slave driver.”13 Here, Precopius illustrates how pertinent virginity and chastity or lack thereof was to the identity of a woman. While the accuracy of his portrayal of Theodora in his Secret History has been heavily debated, it is still an important work nonetheless to illustrate Late Roman attitudes towards the relationship between femininity and power. Precopius uses the lack of chastity possessed by Theodora as a justification for vindictive actions, showing that Romans likely equated a lack of chastity with poor character. As Precopius’ Secret History was not published during his lifetime nor does it appear to intend to have been, this also could explain Zosimus’ portrayal of Helena. Perhaps it was better to leave her out entirely than accurately include her powerful role as it may have inherently lent itself to her negative portrayal. This too highlights traditional value of the need to protect women as no matter the justification, Zosimus evidently felt some need to be sympathetic towards Helena, necessitating he portray her as less powerful so as not to criticize her.

One can likewise see these notions of inferiority presented in ecclesiastical writings. This is present as 4th century bishop Ambrose uses the term woman in contrast with that of virgin while interpreting a parable, he writes: “Woman, they said. It is not a question of identifying her sex, but of reproving her for her hesitation. The term, ‘woman’ is used here to contrast her doubt with the faith of the virgin who had already believed.”14 Ambrose continues to use the word woman as an insult throughout the work, reinforcing the notion of inferiority. To call someone a woman, per Ambrose’s logic, would be to the equivalent of saying they are not faithful believers in God regardless of the sex. He completely removes any notion of gender to simply make the term “woman” into an insult. Ambrose goes on to dispel critics of his sermons advocating asceticism and arguably, advocates for further independence of women in contrast with the need to be protected; “Why can a maiden, who may choose a husband, not be allowed to choose God instead? In fact, it has always been the privilege of bishops to sow the seeds of celibacy, to encourage a desire for virginity.”15 Here one begins to see where the Christian church stray from traditional Roman values. While virginity and chastity were certainly a part of expectations for Roman women, Ambrose is dissenting by advocating for women to choose the ascetic lifestyle, stating prior that pagans often forced young women into virginity. His writing goes on to describe his critics and illustrates the widely-held view that women were primarily valuable for the sole purpose of marriage and producing children.16 This sort of independence he advocates for goes against the traditional notion that women are feeble and incapable of making valid choices for themselves. Ambrose also compares the honor of the ascetic lifestyle choice for women to that of bishops, high ranking and powerful members of Roman society. It follows they ought to be respected all the same. The Christian church arguing for equality in piety likewise occurs in equality for disobeying the church’s teachings. Originally in the context of Roman values and law, adultery was only wrong if committed by the wife. We look to Ambrose of Milan again to find ecclesiastical doctrine stating that both adultery, divorce, and remarriage were equally morally wrong on behalf of both parties in the eyes of God.17

The long standing traditional values and those of the Christian church come to head through the legal texts of Late Antiquity. When evaluating laws in relation to women during the Late Roman Empire, it is imperative to understand that the status of women in society was not a primary concern of lawmakers. Although, laws governing sexual behavior, inheritance, and family law were arguably deemed to be of long term necessity.18 One must remember that men exerted total control over women in the legal realm. One can see the perceived weakness of women present throughout law in Late Antiquity in terms of their perceived ability to understand laws; “We have decided that if through ignorance of the law [women] should suffer some loss about the law or their property, aid is to be given to them only in those cases, in which the authority of the laws that they neglected favors them.”19 Despite this law in Justinian’s Code not necessarily harming the rights of women, it elucidates and reinforces the viewpoint that women were unable to comprehend laws and were likely to behave negligently. While this viewpoint could be agreed upon to a certain extent by the Church, other arenas of Roman law and its trends illustrate tension between traditional values and Church influence. This is highlighted in an edict by emperor Majorian in 458 on widowhood; “We are deeply disturbed by the obstinacy of widows who have borne no offspring… they do not choose a solitary life in order that they may cherish their chastity out of love for religion but, seeking after the courtship of power by the fortunes of their childlessness and widowhood, they choose a lascivious freedom of living.”20 The increase in widows choosing to not remarry and have children evidently concerned lawmakers despite being a practice encouraged by the Church. This goes back to Ambrose arguing for giving the woman the freedom to choose the ascetic lifestyle while also touching on the Church’s negative position on remarriage by either party. Regarding divorce and the Church’s strictly disapproving stance, legislation varied widely over the course of Late Antiquity. Divorce had been free in totality until Constantine enacted a ban on divorce that penalized women harsher than men. One could view Constantine’s restrictive law also through the lens of feeling a need to exert further power over women. Despite Constantine’s ban being repealed by Julian, Justinian passed a more equitable penalty divorce in 449 CE.21 It is difficult to ignore the role of Christian values and ensuing conflict with tradition based on the inconsistent legislation. Similar to written historical accounts, it is important to remember that all laws enacted were done so by men typically without any input from women. Further, one must remember the lack of unification throughout the vast empire and continue question to an extent how much of an effect formal divorce laws had upon actual behavior.

With the societal context and attitudes towards women as seen through portrayals explored sufficiently, one can delve into the roles held by women in Late Antiquity. A discussion of legal rights lends itself naturally to the rather uniquely prominent role of women and the nature of the Late Roman household itself in the context of the larger Late Roman society and economy. The only sphere in which the women occupied almost completely separate to this realm is that which pertains to religion. It can also be argued that even empresses in Late Antiquity were further confined by attitudes intertwined with the political status and legal rights of women.

It is first important to recognize that for all intents and purposes, women were seen as equal to men under Roman law in Late Antiquity.22 Despite this, women had a highly-restricted life in the public sphere as they could not participate in hierarchal activities involving the state, church, or military yet one can assume they retained relative autonomy over their private life in the home. They could both inherit and pass on property, possess and control a dowry, and held authority over their sons as illustrated by law. One can see the role of women in raising children to be imperative, and with this came a certain level of respect.23 Once again, it is important to note here that many if not all texts and evidence pertaining to women in the domestic sphere were written by men. Though overwhelmingly it has been observed that women served as the managers of the home. Additionally, one ought to note that the nature of the household could often be characterized as a “unit of production” in the countryside.24 This illustrates that women’s domestic life was in contrast with what is considered domestic life as it served to produce economic output, causing women to hold an important role in the economy of Late Antiquity. Laws protecting the economic autonomy of women can help support this. By the Late Roman Empire, there was no formally established paternal power over only married women, the almost omnipresent authority of the patriarch applied to his children equally. If a father wanted to exercise control, he would need to do so through denying inheritance, but laws even existed to prohibit fathers from curbing a daughter’s inheritance by less than 25 percent. Further, guardianship of married women by their husband was also not present by the time of Justinian.25 All these signs point to an elevated status regarding autonomic control of property. Yet it is interesting to consider laws aforementioned which had maintained the view that women were too incompetent and negligent to understand legal dealings as one might ask why they were permitted economic freedom. One could say that as the domestic sphere became increasingly important in the economy as the empire shifted to a more agrarian economy, from which women naturally gained more power in society. Rather than a newly developed increasingly positive view towards women, it could be argued that an increased dependence on the household unit after the fall of the Western Empire necessitated that women possess economic autonomy and take on a larger role. This would account for laws present near the end of Late Antiquity regarding women’s weakness and incompetence that necessitate protection in other arenas.

Outside of domestic life, the only realistic alternative was that of asceticism. The ascetic lifestyle was often presented by Church leaders as a choice that favors independence and autonomy compared to that of marriage. It cannot be denied that the rise of Christianity and asceticism would provide women an honorable and more independent lifestyle alternative to that of domesticity. Objectively, bishop Ambrose makes celibacy sound far more appealing than marriage; “Has anyone been killed because of a virgin? No, these are things that arise from marriages… But no one has ever been condemned because of a consecrated virgin. Where chastity dwells such griefs disappear because there religion will flourish and fidelity be safeguarded.”26 Asceticism provided a freedom previously unheard of for women thus many woman embraced the ascetic lifestyle as a result, but men sought to reign it in. Further, many family’s vehicle for preserving their wealth through inheritance was now at risk should their daughter choose asceticism. As already mentioned, emperor Majorian put policy in place specifically to curb the ascetic lifestyle likely out of protection due to their perceived feebleness.27 Nonetheless, the development of asceticism during Late Antiquity is important as it provided a religious context for woman to exist in as well as an alternative to binding marriage.

We see women being active in the socioeconomic and religious spheres also in the context of women in the role of empresses. As already mentioned, Constantine’s mother Helena was an imperative asset to his regime. One may see this as contradictory considering the lack of civic rights possessed by women. However, Constantine bestows upon Helena the most influence in the spheres regarding economic and religious activity – consistent with the accepted involvement of women of lesser status in domestic and ascetic duties. Helena oversaw managing the finances of the Eastern empire arguably similar to how an average woman might oversee her own home’s economic output.28 Still, many scholars of the time chose to emphasis her religious piety and devotion, touching on her donations and building projects pertaining to the Church, but arguably glossing over her secular building projects. Eusebius describes her charity as such, “especially abundant were the gifts [Helena] bestowed on the naked and unprotected 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.”29 It is interesting to note here that Eusebius uses religious pretext to essentially describe Helena granting amnesty. This may speak to the view we’ve discussed at length regarding women’s capabilities, so perhaps by including this ability under mentions of religious and charitable acts, a woman possessing the power of amnesty is not seen as threatening in the eyes of the public. Moreover, in Eusebius’ next line he emphasizes Helena’s piety again, potentially to dispel the widely-held view of a women in power to be dangerous.

The portrayal and elevation of Helena by Constantine arguably set a longstanding precedent regarding the scope of Empresses’ power. Returning to Theodora, Precopius’ depiction of her is relevant once again. While certainly slanderous in its own right, Precopius’ Secret History can speak volumes about the status of a woman wielding power. Theodora undisputedly held power during her husband Justinian’s reign, which at the time of Late Antiquity, power was a masculine concept.30 It has been argued by modern scholars that Precopius’ secret history treats Theodora in such a way because she blurred the lines of between her identity as a ruler and that of a woman by invading traditionally male spaces.31 This further supports the theory that the general notion during Late Antiquity was that was a woman, even an empress, was to have little authority in political dealings while authority in religious and economic dealings was accepted similar to women not in positions of imperial authority were able to exercise control over those spheres all the same.

It is challenging to definitively arrive at a normative evaluation of women’s status in Late Antiquity. As discussed, the socio-political context of the Late Roman Empire complicates certainty significantly. Using Christianization of the empire as a starting point, one can arguably observe the gradual decline of unity within any given portion of the empire over time and in terms of ethnic and geographical landscapes. This makes any definitive conclusion about social values challenging to arrive at with certainty. It has been observed that views towards leaders revered by scholars such as Constantine even have prominent dissenters from the now widely held opinion, thus how can one arrive at any conclusion? From solely a political standpoint, it is nearly impossible, thus we turn to the values and attitudes to explain the status of women. Overwhelmingly, one thing that remains consistent is the view of male superiority over women. This could potentially be explained by the military turmoil characteristic of the empire, as women were non-essential in this aspect. This lends itself to the view that women should not be involved in civic activities and gives way to enacting laws specifically for the purpose of preventing this, often under the guise of protection. Through these contexts, the women were permitted economic and religious autonomy and status women held can be explained. With the longstanding tradition of women heading the domestic affairs in the household, it follows logically that with increased reliance on the household for economic output during the agrarian Late Roman Empire provided women further economic rights. Although Christian asceticism provided unheard of autonomy, under the guise of protecting a woman’s virtue that had been revered traditionally, it was considered an honourable alternative lifestyle nonetheless. Lastly, in the lives of empresses we see these two socially acceptable arenas which a woman is permitted to exercise some independence intertwine as it has been observed that an empress who is active in economic and religious life is honored, while an empress who engages in civic activities is viewed negatively. This distinction is hard to account for, but arguably emblematizes that women were not necessarily provided more economic and religious freedom because of a shift in values, but rather the necessity for women to exercise economic authority and the power of the Church demanded that these realms of autonomy be deemed acceptable.


Ambrose of Milan. On Abraham. Translated by Theodora Tomkinson. Etna, California: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2000.

Ambrose of Milan. On Virginity 2nd ed. Translated by Daniel Callam. Toronto, Canada: Peregrina Publishers, 1987.

Angelova, Diliana.Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Translated by Averil Cameron and Stuart Gregory Hall. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Arjava, Antti.Women and Law in Late Antiquity. New York, NY: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Haldon, John F.The Social History of Byzantium. Oxford, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Herrin, Judith.Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Photius I. The Library of Photius.

Precopius. The Secret History. Translated by Richard Atwater. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1961.

Watson, Alan.The Digest of Justinian. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Who’s Who in the Classical World. edited by Simon Hornblower, and Tony Spawforth. Oxford, U.K: Oxford University Press, 2003. 9780192801074

Zosimus. New History. London, U.K.: Green and Chaplin, 1814.


1.) Raymond David, "Constantine I," in Who's Who in the Classical World, ed. Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth (Oxford, 2003),

2.) Photius I, The Library of Photius, 62.

3.) Rowland B.E. Smith, "Julian I," in Who's Who in the Classical World, ed. Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth (Oxford, 2003),

4.) Photius I, 77.

5.) Zosimus, New History: Book II. (London: Green and Chaplin, 1814).

6.) Zosimus, New History: Book IV. (London: Green and Chaplin, 1814).

7.) Antti Arjava, Women and Law in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 6.

8.) John Haldon, “Towards a Social History of Byzantium” in Social History of Byzantium, ed. John Haldon (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 14.

9.) Zosimus, New History: Book II, 52.

10.) Diliana Angelova, Sacred Founders: Women, Men, and Gods in the Discourse of Imperial Founding, Rome through Early Byzantium (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 135.

11.) Zosimus, New History: Book II, 56.

12.) Angelova, 120.

13.) Procopius, The Secret History of Byzantium, trans. Richard Atwater (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 115.

14.) Ambrose, On Virginity 2nd ed., trans. by Daniel Callam (Toronto: Peregrina Publishers, 1987) 4.17.

15.) Ibid., 5.26.

16.) Herrin, Judith, Alexander Kazhdan, and Anthony Cutler, s.v. “Women,” The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

17.) Ambrose, On Abraham, trans. Theodora Thomkinson (Etna: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2000) 5.

18.) Arjava, 14.

19.) Cod. Just. 1.18.13, 1 July, 472.

20.) Arjava, 161.

21.) Ibid, 183-186.

22.) Herrin, s.v. “Women,” Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.

23.) Liz James, “Women, Men, Eunuchs: Gender, Sex, and Power” in Social History of Byzantium, ed. John Haldon (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 35.

24.) Ibid., 52.

25.) Arjava, 71-112.

26.) Ambrose, On Virginity, 7.35.

27.) Arjava, 161.

28.) Angelova, 145.

29.) Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart Gregory Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

30.) Angelova, 44.

31.) Judith Herrin, Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 183.

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