This paper examines the role of the use and display of ritual implements in the construction of identity by and for Roman women. It draws together current strands of scholarship on Roman women’s religious activity (DiLuzio 2016, Takács 2008, Schultz 2006) and the importance of dress and visual insignia in communicating gender and status (Harlow 2012, Olson 2008, Edmondson and Keith 2008). Using a combination of literary sources (Polybius, Cicero, Livy, Pliny, and Plutarch) and material evidence (honorific statues, wall paintings, coins), I analyze women’s use of specialized ritual objects in Republican and early imperial Rome, in the hopes of contributing to our understanding both of Roman women as participants in religious activity, and of the relationship between objects and identity.
Of particular interest are instances when this relationship is not straightforward. For example, in religious festivals during the 2nd to 1st c. BC, elite Roman matronae used gold and silver religious paraphernalia that were then passed down as family heirlooms to female descendants (e.g., Pol. 31.26-8). These objects signaled the women’s religious roles as matronae, their elevated position even within this elite network, and continuity of female religious participation across generations. Yet there are indications that these rich implements were also sometimes spoils of war, brought back by victorious Roman generals or awarded to individual soldiers for exemplary virtus (“manliness”). Some were even plundered from non-Roman women who had previously used them in their own religious rituals (e.g., Cic. 2 Verr. 4.47). The objects retained associations with their origins even as they were deployed in a new context by the generals’ and soldiers’ female relatives, implicating the Roman matrons in the “male” world of warfare while also asserting their own female religious agency. In exploring this case and others like it, I demonstrate the complex relationship between ritual objects and constructions of gender, status, and ethnicity.