Roman Matrons and Sexual Morality at the Convivium

Panel of a Roman convivium from Campania  

Roman Matrons and Sexual Morality at the Convivium

By Erin Schott


Scholarly uncertainty abounds concerning Roman banqueting practices, but one of the largest gray areas is the role of women at feasts (convivia). Katherine Dunbabin and William Slater devote a single paragraph to women in their nearly thirty-page overview of Roman dining, describing the evidence as “minimal.”1 The lack of evidence available to reconstruct essential aspects of women’s lives, such as how they ate, is deeply problematic. It suggests that scholars might at least delve into what minimal evidence is available. An extended description of women banqueting comes from the Satyricon, a Menippean satire probably written by Gaius Petronius, Nero’s arbiter of etiquette. Analyzing a text like the Satyricon to understand the role of women in Roman dining culture comes with risks. Satirists often exaggerate for laughs, and in the famous scene of Trimalchio’s dinner party, Petronius uses stock characters and social missteps to poke fun at the nouveau riche for his elite audience. On the other hand, as J. Duff explains in his book Roman Satire, the formulaic nature of the dinner gone awry and its stock characters makes it easier to identify where Petronius exaggerates, and satires require grains of truth in their social commentary for audiences to find them amusing.2 Given both the mystery of female dining practices and that Liz Gloyn has described the scholarship on the women at Trimalchio’s dinner as “dismal,” this paper is an attempt to fill voids in the academic discourse surrounding both dining and the Satyricon.3 It focuses primarily on the role that Fortunata, Trimalchio’s wife, plays at the feast, and I tend to couple generalizations of actual female dining practices with other historical evidence due to my wariness of using satire. Even f actoring in the lewdness inherent to its genre, the Satyricon suggests that the inclusion of wives at Roman banquets created a tension for attendees between sexual morality and feasting conventions.

For Roman matrons, sexual morality largely derived from pudicitia, a virtue involving the expression of modesty and avoidance of the male gaze. A key aspect of pudicitia was its performance in the public sphere, which raises the question: how important were sexual virtues at feasts which were held in the comfort of the home? In reality, the political pandering and client/patron dynamics of the convivium made it a rather public affair. For that reason, Dunbabin and Slater characterize the convivium as a “spectrum of public and semi-public banqueting.”4 When a woman’s pudicitia was violated in public, she often expressed her shame with outward signs, like drawing a veil across her face. In fact, shame was so integral to pudicitia that the root of the word, as Katheryn Joseph explains, “comes from pudor which is used to describe a feeling of shame.”5 Importantly, Fortunata sometimes expresses shame when she violates the social codes of feminine modesty. For example, after she and the stonemason’s wife (Scintilla) talk loudly about whose husband has more affairs, Petronius recounts that the stonemason (Habinnas) “got up stealthily… and, seizing Fortunata by the feet, he tipped her over backwards upon the couch. ‘Let go!’ she screeched, as her tunic slipped above her knees; then, after pulling down her clothing…hid with her handkerchief a face which was none the more beautiful for its blushes.”6 These “blushes” Petronius mentions are another sign that a woman has violated her pudicitia and thus convey Fortunata’s shame at the exposure of her knee.7 As a likely former prostitute, Fortunata is far from a paragon of sexual virtue, so the fact that even she experiences shame suggests the importance of modesty at the feast. Petronius constructs this situation with Habinnas, presumably because it would amuse his elite audience to see Fortunata embarrassed, and her embarrassment seems to derive from an expectation that the Roman matron would maintain a degree of sexual modesty in the partially public environment of the convivium.

The customary female garments at the convivium would present challenges for women to fulfill this expectation of sexual modesty. When venturing out into Rome, the proper matron traditionally wore the long-sleeved female equivalent of the toga (stola) and a mantle (palla) covering her head.8 As Fortunata joins the banquet, Petronius describes a remarkably different outfit: “She appeared, girded round with a sash of greenish yellow, below which a cherry-colored tunic could be seen, and she had on twisted anklets and sandals worked in gold.”9 Liz Gloyn uses the fact that Fortunata wears a tunic rather than a stola as evidence that Trimalchio has demoted his wife to a role akin to a slave within the household.10 However, it is worth noting that such an outfit choice was not exclusive to Fortunata; Roman funerary monuments frequently depict women wearing tunics without stolas at the convivium.11 In other words, Roman convention meant that women generally wore less formal clothing to feasts, distancing them from the sexual modesty associated with Roman matronly attire. Matthew Roller has noted the prevalence of tunics in Augustan-era artwork of women dining and, drawing a parallel to portrayals of Venus, asserts that the sagging tunic brought an “overt eroticism” to the convivium.12 Compared to the stola, which covers more of the female body, the shorter tunic exposes it, making it difficult for women to uphold their sexual modesty. Furthermore, Fortunata’s response to the exposure of her knee in the incident with Habinnas indicates that she lacks another key matronly garment: the palla. After all, had a veil been available to her, she presumably would have pulled that over her face out of shame rather than hiding behind the handkerchief. Sometimes, Roman artwork does depict women at the convivium with pallae, but these mantles are usually draped around the torso, not the head.13 All of this evidence suggests that female diners did not have veils to shield themselves from the male gaze and preserve their modesty.

That being said, Petronius exacerbates Fortunata’s sexual immodesty for satirical effect with outfit choices that do not reflect actual dining customs. For instance, based on what Roman sources say about appropriate colors for garments, it seems that the “cherry” hue of Fortunata’s tunic marks her as a former prostitute.14 Fortunata also enters the feast wearing anklets, a rarity in art of women dining, and Petronius draws significant attention to these anklets later on when he has Trimalchio weigh them to measure their gold content.15 In both instances, Petronius pokes fun at the nouveau riche for his audience’s amusement, with displays of Fortunata’s impudicitia, as excess jewelry was also a sign of immodesty.16For this reason, Pliny the Elder criticizes a wife of Caligula in his Natural History for wearing pearls worth 40 million sesterces to a dinner.17 While Roman women were not supposed to wear their best outfits to banquets, a male steward beats a slave in the Satyricon for ruining his best toga with a “Tyrian purple” border that he planned to wear to dinner.18 So it seems that male diners were free to wear their best outfits, but female diners could lose their sexual virtue due to their informal garb or the promiscuity of having lavish accessories. Roman dining attire, then, amplified the power imbalance between genders by making men better equipped to fulfill the virtues expected of them in a public setting.

At a Greek symposium, a man could kiss other attendees or courtesans without repercussion because his wife was typically absent. This was not the case at a Roman convivium since matrons could attend. With the presence of wives at the feast, Roman men had an obligation to maintain their sexual fidelity. The customarily sensual atmosphere of the convivium could present challenges to this expectation. Matthew Roller describes this atmosphere well when he writes, “Women reclining on couches below men, kissing them, getting drunk on wine, losing their tunics in a ‘Venus’-like way: Where does convivial ‘eroticism’ end and actual sex begin?”19 In the Satyricon, of course, the husbands cannot contain their desires with the environment’s many erotic tokens and, in the presence of their wives, lust after others on a level unlikely to occur at an actual feast. For instance, Trimalchio kisses a slave boy, and Petronius writes that in response, “Fortunata, asserting her rights in the house, began to rail at Trimalchio, styling him an abomination who set no limits to his lechery.”20 Curiously, Petronius claims Fortunata is within her “rights,” implying that she is entitled to express her rage because her husband has defied some social rule. The phrase, if not used ironically, indicates that husbands had a duty to remain faithful at convivia; otherwise, their wives were entitled to accuse them of lacking sexual morality, something that could not occur at a Greek symposium.

Correspondingly, the wife also must maintain her fidelity, and if she drank wine at the convivium, such an act could reflect poorly on her modesty. In the moments before Habinnas sneaks up behind Fortunata, not only has she gossiped with Scintilla about whose husband is more unchaste, but the women have also exchanged “drunken kisses.”21 The modifier “drunken” suggests that the alcohol contributed to the women kissing, and some male authors thought women should not drink wine because it could arouse them. Essentially, if a woman drank wine, one of the most basic customs of a feast, some Roman men would already accuse her of losing her sexual virtue. Describing the dangers of wine for women, Valerius Maximus writes, “Long ago the use of wine was unknown to Roman women, no doubt lest they lapse into some sort of disgrace, since from father Liber [i.e., wine], the next step of licentiousness was usually to impermissible Venus [i.e., illicit sex].”22 Here, Valerius Maximus displays a common narrative in Roman literature: namely, that the res publica has fallen into a state of depravity since the good old days (superioribus temporibus). By claiming that wine produces female licentiousness, he suggests that it has an arousing effect only on women. Such a contention is ludicrous. An aphrodisiac like wine would stir up sexual desires in both husbands and wives at the feast. Moreover, if a spouse transgressed, as Scintilla and Fortunata do in drunkenly kissing, wine likely amplified the angry responses of their spouses. Again, the average Roman feast would not have contained as many affairs as a satirical banquet, but the wine could amplify the licentiousness of all parties. With married women present at the convivium, adultery becomes an issue, and consuming wine would heighten the lure and rage surrounding spousal infidelity.

Married women at the Roman convivium heightened awareness around the sexual morals of all attendees as guests struggled to navigate the dining customs while maintaining their sexual morality. The presence of wives at Roman feasts prompted a series of problems that did not exist in ancient Greece. For example, if the Roman woman followed customs, taking a glass of wine, she could be labeled immoral for this simple act. Even the act of reclining at the feast might suggest a matron’s sexual transgression.23 Interestingly, Greek courtesans often reclined at the symposium, and these women could also drink wine, expose their bodies, and kiss multiple men.24 The Roman matron, despite being of higher social status than a courtesan, could perform fewer actions at the feast: her implicit pudicitia led to greater social ramifications for improper clothing and posture choices. The Roman convivium demonstrates that just because more people belong at an event does not necessarily make the event more inclusive if those people have less freedom in how they can act.


Erin Schott is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and English. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Discentes.



[1] Katherine Dunbabin and William Slater, “Roman Dining,” essay, in The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World ed. Michael Peachin (Oxford University Press, 2014), 448.

[2] J. Wight Duff, Roman Satire: Its Outlook on Social Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2023), 103.

[3] Liz Gloyn, “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: Freedwomen at Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” The Classical Quarterly 62, no. 1 (2012), 260.

[4] Dunbabin and Slater, “Roman Dining,” 456.

[5] Kathryn Joseph, “Pudicitia: The Construction and Application of Female Morality in the Roman Republic and Early Empire,” Master’s diss., (Brandeis University, 2018), 3.

[6] Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, trans. by W. C. Firebaugh, (Project Gutenberg, 2004), 68.

[7] Joseph, “Pudicitia,” 3.

[8] Jan Radicke, Roman Women’s Dress: Literary sources, Terminology, and Historical Development, (Boston: de Gruyter, 2023), 343.

[9] Petronius, Satyricon, 67.

[10] Gloyn, “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: Freedwomen at Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” 265.

[11] Matthew Roller, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 150.

[12] ibid, 142.

[13] See Roller 125, 127, and 132 for depictions of women at the convivium who do not wear veils.

[14] M. Grant, “Colourful characters: a note on the use of Colour in Petronius,” Hermes 132 (2004), 247.

[15] Petronius, Satyricon, 67.

[16] Joseph, “Pudicitia,” 3.

[17] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, trans. by John Bostock, (Perseus Digital Library, 1906), 9.58.

[18] Petronius, Satyricon, 30.

[19] Roller, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome, 143.

[20] Petronius, Satyricon, 74.

[21] ibid, 67.

[22] Roller, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome, 116.

[23] Roller, Dining Posture in Ancient Rome, 96.

[24] Allison Glazebrook, “hetairai,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, December 22, 2015.



Duff, J. Wight. Roman Satire: Its Outlook on Social Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2023.

Dunbabin, Katherine and William Slater. “Roman Dining.” Essay. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, edited by Michael Peachin, 438–66. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Glazebrook, Allison. “hetairai.” Oxford Classical Dictionary. December 22, 2015.

Gloyn, Liz. “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage: Freedwomen at Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.” The Classical Quarterly 62, no. 1 (2012): 260–80.

Grant, M. “Colourful characters: a note on the use of Colour in Petronius.” Hermes 132 (2004): 244–7.

Joseph, Kathryn. “Pudicitia: The Construction and Application of Female Morality in the Roman Republic and Early Empire.” Master’s dissertation. Brandeis University, 2018.

Petronius Arbiter, Gaius. Satyricon. Translated. by W. C. Firebaugh. Project Gutenberg, 2004.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by John Bostock. Perseus Digital Library, 1906.

Radicke, Jan. Roman Women’s Dress: Literary sources, Terminology, and Historical Development. Boston: de Gruyter, 2023.

Roller, Matthew. Dining Posture in Ancient Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.