The Matres Familiae: The Glamorous Matriarchs

The Ostentatious Wives:

In Ancient Rome, gems and precious metals were rare and expensive. Thus, only the wealthy could afford such extravagances. Matres familiae was the Latin term given to the wives of wealthy patriarchs in Rome; this group of mothers was comprised of elite females known for their lavish adornment (Kunst, 129). The matres were a key group of Romans to examine when looking at the role jewelry played within society.

“No offices, no priesthoods, no triumphs, no decorations, no spoils of war can come to them; elegance of appearance, adornment, refinement and apparel—these are women’s badges of honor”-Livius (Kunst, 134).

 

The “Ornate Femina”:

Pliny, a distinguished Roman author, referred to the upper class matrons (matres familiae) as ‘ornamenta femina’ (Kunst, 131). The word ornamenata, in Latin, describes jewelry, finieries, and cosmetics as a whole. The matres feminae could be distinguished by their “tutulus” hairstyles. This hairstyle was created by tying “white woolen fillets” into the hair. Typically, matrons hired special ladies’ maids called ornatrixes to decorate their hair (Kunst, 129).

Purposes Behind the Adornment:

A woman signified more than just her personal status through her decoration and appearance. A matron’s jewelry technically “showed a man’s position. In a wealthy family, the woman was expected to be decorated to show off the rank of her entire household as well as her own” (Kunst, 133). Typically, a matre’s husband would provide her with luxurious gifts, ensuring that she would wear them prominently in public to “commensurate with his position” (Kunst, 135).

“Through the jewelry of their women, families communicated their own economic power” ( Kunst, 135).

At the end of a matron’s life, her accomplishments were normally judged on “her performance of wifely duty, by her loving husband, producing children, and attending carefully to the management of the household, her beauty, grace, and her charm (Kleiner, 116). Essentially, a woman’s role was to reflect well upon her family and advertise their position within society.

The Caveat:

Though the husband’s of the matrons wanted their wives to dress ostentatiously to showcase their families’ positions within society, the matres lavishness was a double-edged sword. “By turning women’s occupation with their jewelry into ‘female obsession,’ it became possible to highlight male superiority, despite the fact that men had vital interest in their wives’ demonstration of wealth and power” (Kunst, 136).

 

To view the types of jewelry donned by the matrons, click here.

 

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Suggested Readings:

Kunst, Christiane. 2005. Ornamenta Uxoria. Badges of Rank or Jewellery of Roman Wives? The Medieval History Journal 8 (1): 127-42.

Welch, K. 2000, Diana E.E. Kleiner & Susan B. Matheson, edd., “I Claudia. Women in Ancient Rome” (Book Review), Classical Association of the Middle West and South, etc, Gainsville, Fla., etc.