"Ideally, among the upper classes, when a young woman married, she assumed an honored and respecter role and became partner as materfamilias in the core conjugal unit. But she was expected also to be obedient to her husband (and father), accommodating and respectful toward senior members of the family, a firm disciplinarian to her children, and mistress to her slaves. These expectations suggest that free women were socialized to negotiate domestic subservience and dominance simultaneously, to control and be controlled. Given the bivalent role, there was always the potential for them to be both recipients and dispensors of domestic violence, and in some households this meant that physical coercion was used both against women and by women.

[…] In the early second century BCE, the statesman and censor Cato the Elder explicitly condemned spousal assault; he reckoned a good husband worthy of more praise than a good senator and announced that a man who beat his wife or child laid violent hands on what was most sacred (Plutarch, Cato the Elder 20.2). Not surprisingly, allegations of violence against wives, often for “trivial” offences, were used in political invective and biographical defamation to demonstrate moral inadequacy (as were stories of excessive or inappropriate punishment of slaves).

[…] Visible domestic concordia was, at least for the respectable classes, a social necessity. The first century CE novelist Petronius, in his satirical portrait of Trimalchio, an obscenely wealthy ex-slave, presents scenes of marital vituperation and threats of violence as instances of extreme bad taste (Satyricon 74-5). In an after-dinner scene, Trimalchio throws a glass in his wife’s face and makes veiled threats that he will beat her: “otherwise you’ll feel my temper,” and “I’ll give you something to moan about in a minute” (75). His long harangue, punctuated by colorful insults, includes the forceful assertion that his wife Fortunata, a freed slave like himself, whom he takes full credit for having “elevated,” must be “tamed” (domata) (74). This scene of marital squabbling with its violent overtones underscores the unspeakable vulgarity with which Trimalchio conducts his household. Visible and habitual domestic discord, Petronius implies, is lower-class behavior and signals unmistakably the humble origins of Trimalchio and his wife.”

[…]

In the domestic realm the violence, which was integral to Roman daily life, both linked and divided free women and their female slaves. The social realities of slavery and of violence toward women are represented in the discourse we have examined as intersecting at several key points: in the representation of marriage as a relationship of domination and subservience, in the servile nature of the response prescribed for women subjected to violence, in the depictions of mistreatment of slaves by the uncontrolled and vicious domina, and the retaliatory measures, subversive or abusive, which could be anticipated on the part of slave women. Directed toward the vulnerable, domestic violence, or the potential for it could be used in several ways to buttress hierarchies of gender, status and age. Consolidation of the lines of power took place when violence met with the prescribed mollifying response, and this pattern appears to have held true between wives and husbands, junior and senior matronae, and slaves and mistresses."


Clark, Patricia. "The Family of St. Augustine.” Women and Slaves in Greco-Roman Culture. Ed. Sandra R. Joshel and Sheila Murnaghan. London: Routledge, 2001. pg. 118-126. Print.