When I was writing Dinah of Seneca, one of the reasons I decided to use the Romans, Vikings and Northeastern Native Americans in the same universe was to compare and contrast their societies.
The Native Americans of the Northeast were built on a matriarchal base. The women choose the war leaders, they arranged the marriages between their different clans and their word was basically the final say. It’s a fascinating dynamic because it wasn’t a dictatorship either. Most of the time, the women consulted each other and the rest of their tribe on important decisions. For example, caucus is a Native American word.
The Vikings were led my men but the women had more of an equal role than is generally thought. I had my Viking colonists intermarry with a Lenape clan, so I was able to set up a village that was more or less equally run by men and women.
Rome, of course, had a very patriarchal society. Men were in charge. Women had some rights but they were clearly in second-place.
And while Spartacus has some issues with historical accuracy (heh), they did get this right. In fact, they had all sorts of wonderful moments that showcase just how little power women had and I’m not talking about just the slaves.
Major SPOILERS below the cut!
Let’s take Iliythia. She’s our bad girl, our Joan Collins, our bitch on wheels. But she has no real power, save her ability to manipulate.
When we first meet Iliythia, she’s seducing her husband. Not because she loves him but because she wants him to do something and figures this is the best way to get him to do it. For his part, Glabor loves the sex but he’s very wary of doing what she wants outside the bedroom. Iliythia has no real power over him save through sex. Look at the final episode with Glabor. After dumping her in Capua so he can go off and be a senator, he comes back to pick her up.
He doesn’t want to bother with Batiatus’ gladiators at all. Iliythia has to seduce him to get him to consider it and, then, when he’s happily sated with sex, she gets him to agree. When Glabor finds out what his wife has been hiding, however, he not only dumps her ass in Capua, he assigns guards to watch her and the gladiators—and presumably Batiatus, who’s blackmailing him.
I wondered why Glabor didn’t just murder Batiatus at that point but he may have figured imprisoning and exiling his wife at the ludus was enough. Plus, being a politician and all, maybe he just didn’t want the scandal of murder attached to his name. Or maybe it didn’t occur to him to be that ruthless. It does, however, occur to Iliythia. Because she’ll do anything to get out of being held powerless in such humiliating circumstances.
One wonders that if she’d always been able to rule her own destiny if she would still behave this way. Hard to tell, given she’s such a thoroughly selfish individual. OTOH, if she were a man, she might have found a socially approved outlet for her selfishness, like leading armies and becoming a Senator. You know she’d be better at it than Glabor, who is not nearly as smart as his wife.
Iliythia uses sex another time, to manipulate 15-year-old Numerius into setting up Varro’s murder. The kid doesn’t know what hit him. But it must gall Iliytha that a 15-year-old boy has MORE real power than she will ever have.
The other free Roman woman that we get to know well in the series is Lucretia, wife of Batiatus. It appears initially that they have an equal marriage. They scheme together, they plan the future together. He takes her thoughts into account before making final decisions. She tries to sell her jewelry to help them out financially. He’s touched but insists she keeps her fine things.
But it soon becomes clear that they’re never on equal footing at all.
Batiatus hides so much from his wife. Not because he thinks she might object but because, dammit, he’s in charge and she doesn’t need to know. He runs off to the pits to remake his fortune. Lucretia only finds out by accident. He murders the family of the man who tried to kill him. He doesn’t explain or ask permission for this beforehand. He sets up the murder of Spartacus’ wife without telling Lucretia. Batiatus tells Lucretia about that one but not because he needs her permission. He’s just so insufferably pleased with himself that he can’t help it.
Then we have the treatment of the slaves. There’s absolutely no objection to Batiatus screwing around with all the slave girls. It could be said that Lucretia enjoys this–she certainly seems to like watching. But even if she didn’t approve, it wouldn’t matter. In fact, Batiatus takes her favorite handmaiden without her permission and hands the slave off to Asher to thank him for his service.
At the end, Batiatus cuts off Lucretia’s relationship with Crixus. He says he looked the other way because it made her happy but no more. And while it sounds understanding, what he’s really saying it “yeah, I know, I had the power to stop it and now I am.” Lucretia has no power at all to stop Batiatus from screwing the slaves. But he has her sexual behavior completely under his control. (It is to his credit that he knows the baby Lucretia’s carrying was fathered by Crixus and doesn’t care but Romans were notoriously uncaring about actual blood connections. Adoption was common. So long as the child was raised by you, it was seen as yours.)
It will be interesting next season if Lucretia is able to pull some power together of her own if there’s a second season. She’ll have no money (I assume) and little male protection from the rest of Roman society. It would be cool to actually see a women with some real power but I suspect we will see her working through men.
Iliythia, naturally, is going to continue her manipulative sexual ways. It works for her. Why should she stop? 🙂