Josephine Carroll-Walden: More Than Just Rome's Fashion Police

The Empress Julia Soaemias, the mother of the Emperor Elagabalus, held leadership of the senaculum (‘the little Senate’), an assembly of elite Roman women, during her son’s reign. The Historia Augusta claims that Rome’s matrons were corrupted by Soaemias, who used this council for discussing and regulating women’s fashion. Consequently, modern scholars have dismissed the senaculum as a trivial and ineffective organisation.

This paper will challenge this long-standing view. The hostility towards the senaculum in both ancient and modern scholarship, stems from a lack of understanding that women’s fashion served numerous important social and political functions in ancient Rome. The Roman moralising tradition is responsible for perpetuating a misogynistic discourse against luxuries, as wasteful, morally corrupting, and emasculating items from the effeminate East. Despite the extent to which this ideology permeated the Roman social conscience, the ancient sources reveal that women’s adornment was highly valued for its ability to advertise personal and familial status, wealth, and political influence. Therefore, by examining the multiple social and political roles that women’s fashion performed in Rome, this paper will demonstrate that the senaculum held a high degree of power over Roman public life through its regulation of adornment and luxury items.


Michie Building (09) Room 536
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