When we visited Pompeii, the overwhelming impression was how similar life there was to life in a medium sized town today. Pompeii had around 25,000 people, and was an important port town for the southern Mediterranean Sea, with a lively trading life, as well as manufacturing for the nearby area.
Eumachia of Pompeii was the daughter of a rich manufacturer – a brickmaker. She then married up, to a banker, which gave her more influence again. And the way in which to launder your social status in Roman times was religion – available to women as well as men. She became a priestess of the god of Venus, the patron of the Fullers (the Fullers laundered clothes using a set of processes starting with urine, and ending with fresh water), and thus the patron of this powerful guild also.
After an earthquake destroyed part of Pompeii in 62 AD (seventeen years before the eruption that buried it) she built a new building in the main square of Pompeii, probably the guild headquarters of the Fullers. The Fullers in turn, built a statue of her, with a complimentary inscription. Part of the motivation for the new headquarters was to help her son’s election campaign to the local council.
Sadly, along with a large proportion of the population of Pompeii, she was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and never got to use the fabulous family tomb that she had prepared for herself (another way of showing off her wealth and power).
Generalising about women’s lives from the experience of one well off, influential woman would be a mistake. The overall impression, though, is that women in the Roman empire, particularly the upper classes, had a degree of freedom that they lost in the Dark and Middle Ages, and didn’t regain until the 20th century. Although overt representative political power was barred to them (they couldn’t be Senators) most other forms of economic and political activity were available, and somewhat accessible.
Eumachia availed herself of all these opportunities, and when she died, was an important part of the life of the Pompeii town. She exercised power both on her own behalf, and also on behalf of her son.